Stories of our Graduates:
Ken Crocker – 2020 Graduate of the Certificate in Community Storytelling Training
“It’s a fundamental need we have as humans, to have our goodness mirrored back at us.”
Often, Ken Crocker will tell a story for an audience of just one person. They might be someone on a vision fast, trying to understand the intense experience they just endured, or a youth who has been convicted of a crime and is seeking to restore and heal both their community and themselves through a restorative justice program. The circumstances may be different, but the soul of the process is the same – to open the heart, to truly listen, and then to weave and mirror back their story.
Ken’s skill as a storyteller is evident in the way that he speaks, confidently and clearly but without bias or judgement, and in the open curiosity with which he regards whoever he is listening to. It comes as a slight surprise to find out he didn’t always think of himself as a storyteller, that in fact in his early days of exploring the potential of storytelling work, he “felt like a fraud.”
As the Board chair for the Geos Institute, Ken became increasingly aware of the need for the organization to tell its own story as a way to connect to donors, supporters, and the broader community. The Geos Institute helps communities build resilience in the face of climate change, and supports an equitable planning process that involves people from all walks of life and diverse communities to prepare for climate change impacts.
As a way to build connections that would support the Geos Institute’s mission and work, Ken pushed for storytelling to become part of the process. To better guide this initiative, he signed up for a workshop at The Hearth. And from there, he only wanted to dive deeper into this new world of opportunities.
“I took on storytelling,” he said.
For Ken, storytelling let him connect with others, building bridges across cultures and communities to come together on a larger scale—a skill that would become essential later on, when the summer of 2020 brought wildfires that devastated his community. Story was also a way to know his own heart, to connect with himself and to process experiences.
Ken also acts as a guide for people who undergo a vision fast. As a rite of passage or a spiritual journey, a vision fast typically involves days spent alone in the wild without food, and usually results in profound, even life-changing experiences. When they return from their experience in the wild, Ken sits with them and listens as they share the events of their journey. Then he returns that story to the seeker, weaving for them a narrative of their own experiences which acts as a mirror for self- discovery.
“It’s an important part of internalizing the experience,” he said.
This method of story as a mirror to better connect to the self has deep potential for healing and restoration, and is a technique Ken has developed for use in his work with restorative justice-involved youth. Along with two or three other men, Ken sits in a circle with a boy or young man who has become involved in the justice system and listens, sometimes for hours, as that youth tells the story of his life and the circumstances and beliefs that shape his core self. Then Ken takes the gift of self the youth has shared with the circle and reflects it back to him in the form of a story.
Sometimes Ken’s stories are literal retellings of a narrative. Sometimes they’re archetypal, calling on legends and myths that become intimately relevant in the telling. The goal is not to parrot back the exact facts, but to help people uncover their gifts and see their own goodness, reflected.
In the youth he works with, Ken sees creativity as a common strength and value. He works with youth who draw and youth who write songs, and has found that even their tattoos are a creative outlet for self- expression. He works with youth who are fiercely loyal to their friends, who create their own community and family when they can’t find that support at home. Ken’s role, and the role of the other men who he works with, is to make those youth feel seen, and then to reflect back their strengths, gifts, and potential.
To act as that essential mirror, Ken often weaves stories meant for a single person. But he also tells stories that are created for an entire community, and he’s part of a core team at the Hearth working together to find a way for story to heal and restore in a region still coming to terms with a recent natural disaster.
More than half of the students who attend Talent Middle School in Southern Oregon lost their homes in the fires that raged in the summer of 2020, and throughout the crisis and after, they have been isolated due to a pandemic. Ken speaks of the “constant visual reminder” of the devastation this region is still experiencing, and of the unequal effect it has on the communities that call the Rogue Valley home.
“I never realized the impact of collective trauma before the fire,” Ken said. “Just living here in the Valley, there’s a collective trauma that happened.”
As part of the Hearth’s diverse core team, Ken is part of a new initiative, working together to bring storytelling into local schools. They started with Talent Middle School and Phoenix High School, where they used story circles with 7th and 8th graders and high school seniors. Through story, they’re helping youth connect, feel seen, and process their experiences.
There’s truly no place like the Hearth, even in the age of social distancing. Through monthly Zoom gatherings, Ken and the Hearth team bring together people from all walks of life to join in storytelling. These gatherings always have a theme that is broad enough to draw a story from those who attend. Participants are invited to share a story in breakout rooms, then return and discuss their experience of both telling and witnessing.
“My work with the Hearth helps tie me to the larger community,” Ken said.
For Ken, storytelling is about connections—to the self, to the individual, and to the community. It’s about healing and restoration, healing from a collective trauma and creating a narrative that serves restorative, not punitive, justice. He’s a keen listener and a clear-eyed witness, and as he speaks it’s easy to imagine him in a circle with three or four other men and a youth who—perhaps for the first time in his life—feels seen, a youth whose essential and wonderful qualities are mirrored back to him in story.
For his audience of one, Ken is a witness and a mirror. For his community, he’s a facilitator of gatherings, a convener of story. Starting with a single workshop at the Hearth, Ken took on story and made it his path, his service, and his gift to all who listen.
Note: Ken’s work with Restorative Justice-involved youth is made possible by Resolve (https://resolvecenter.org/) and Alliance of Generations (https://allianceofgenerations.org/)
You can learn more about the Geos Institute and support their work here (https://www.geosinstitute.org/)
Learn more about The Hearth’s Certificate in Community Storytelling Program here.
Learn more about The Hearth’s one day Art and Craft of Personal Storytelling Workshop here.