“I am in the last quarter of my life and I have always loved stories,” Naomi began. “I was born and raised in the South Side of Chicago, which is a very rough part, and went to a school that was half African American. It was mid-century of the 1900s so you can imagine how different life was then, obviously. That was the beginning. That’s how I knew that my comfort zone was already with people who were marginalized.”

Throughout Naomi’s life, she sought out opportunities to connect with people on the margins. In her mid fifties after a divorce upended her life, Naomi decided to go through training to become a nurse. But when she graduated, she realized this type of nursing wasn’t right for her. “I was hanging an IV bag on a dying person and their family was all there. I remember walking out of the room and thinking, ‘no, I’m not going to be nursing like this. This is not what I’m called to do.’ And I realized that I wanted to be face-to-face and hand-to-hand with people. I wanted to help the man who was dying, but I also wanted to be with his family who were grieving and going through this horrendous process. That was the beginning.”

In the years that followed, Naomi worked for four years with a doctor in the Mississippi Delta serving communities in poverty. Once he reached retirement, she moved on to work in the inner city in Washington DC for another 10 years. “I loved it. I just loved it. I was able to serve in many different kinds of ways. You know, I did some teaching, I did a lot of walking besides, I did volunteering. I did everything just to be with the people.”

When Naomi returned to Boulder, CO to be near her daughter, she started volunteering at The Refuge in Broomfield, an organization that provides support for the unhoused community. “When you’re in a volunteering capacity, you really most often make your own pathway, some people want to do dishes and other people want to do painting and that kind of thing. I’ve always just kind of inserted myself alongside certain people, and then started asking questions and listening to their stories.”

Last year, Naomi found out about The Certificate in Community Storytelling when Mark came to speak at The Refuge on his book tour. “I got the book and started to read it, and I just felt like I knew him. Stories began to make a lot more sense. That’s when I signed up.”

Before completing the training, Naomi started volunteering at The Recovery Cafe which is where her story project took place. The Recovery Cafe is for those struggling with addiction or in recovery. Every week there are open meetings for folks to share and support one another. After learning about the story circle technique in the training, Naomi knew she wanted to conduct a series of story circles during these meetings, culminating in a story night where a few folks from the cafe would share their stories at an open mic night. “I knew that I needed to start very simply with very noninvasive questions so people could get more comfortable. It was really interesting because we held our story circles over a period of three months. So by the end people were getting used to us.” After a few months they gathered ten people willing to share their story in public for an open mic night. We promoted it, we had refreshments, we hung a big banner with our theme ‘Everyone’s Recovering from Something.’”

Twenty people attended their first gathering. The evening was relaxed, cozy, and connecting. On the following Friday they held their second story event. “It was crowded! We had way over fifty and the word was getting out. It was a wonderful and touching night.”

From that point on The Recovery Cafe has continued to use story questions in their meetings to create connection. In the past people came and went to meetings without really knowing the other attendees. Now with story questions, people began to deepen relationships. Even the board is using story questions in their meetings, often taking a list of ten questions and having folks ask one to their neighbors around the circle before the meeting starts.

Naomi has collected about 1000 different story prompts and continues to experiment with matching the right question to the setting and person she encounters. She has learned techniques for story sharing, but most importantly is the power of listening. “What does it really mean to listen–not in order to accomplish something, but just to be present to your neighbor? If you encounter somebody on the street, someone you would have judged previously, how do we help ourselves learn to ask and listen?”