Victoria spent last Friday at Stories that heal, stories that harm, a the event was a collaboration between St Ethelburga’s, The Forgiveness Project, the London Inter Faith Centre and the International School of Storytelling. Here are some of her fieldnotes.
We met at the Interfaith Centre in Queens Park. Eighty or so of us, crammed into a rotunda and upstairs space with light on four sides. In the morning the windows opened onto the sounds of children in the playground and there was an unspoken tension between whether this was a welcome background noise or an intrusion, with occasional failed attempts to close windows that were abandoned quickly. Authors, and clinical psychologists who work with narrative approaches, people making films about prison, telling stories through puppets, performance storytellers, charity workers, educationalists. A sense of familiarity either with the Interfaith Centre or with the reconciliation work of St Ethelberg’s more generally. More women than men. More white than other colours. Tending to middle age for the most part. At least those were my partial impressions.
There was a purple sticky cloth at the back of the upstairs room, on which we were to post Burning Questions, and an odd disjunct: very few questions appeared to burn, if they were to be written on small pieces of paper, but everything ran late and the whole space buzzed with urgent and warm enquiry into the practices of others. So maybe there were fewer Burning Questions and more Buzzing Questions and Answers.
Thumbnails of our speakers and workshop leaders:
Eamon Baker, was born in 1951 and reared in Creggan Estate (Derry) an area once frequently referred to as a Nationalist/Republican ghetto. He coordinates training with Towards Understanding and Healing in his native city; encouraging “deep listening “ to the diverse stories arising from the conflict in Northern Ireland.
Kelly Connor, author and biographical storyteller. In 1971 Kelly Connor, then aged 17, was responsible for the death of a 77-year-old woman. She has since moved to England and written a memoir about her experience.
Sue Hollingsworth works at the International School of Storytelling, based in Sussex and has widespread experience with the teaching and telling of true life tales all over the world. She leads wilderness and pilgrimage storywalks and runs storytelling retreats for women.
Edward Mackay is the Director of Common Ground in Tower Hamlets, a community mediation service which has adopted narrative mediation as their central approach.
Professor Renos K. Papadopoulos has worked with refugees and other survivors of political violence and disasters as well as in conflict resolution projects in many countries. Founder/director of the Masters and PhD programmes in Refugee Care, offered jointly by the University of Essex and the Tavistock Clinic.
Teya Sepinuck is the founder and director of Theatre of Witness, a model of performance that gives voice to those who have been marginalized, forgotten or are ‘invisible’ in society. For the past 25 years, she has been creating and producing Theatre of Witness projects with prisoners and their families, survivors and perpetrators of abuse, refugees, immigrants, elders and those who have lived through war.
Here is some of what lodged with me during the day, although it’s worth noting I’ve steered away from the more healing aspects of what was shared and concentrated on those parts that I think give clues to those of us working in organizational story systems. So what you read here is heavily skewed, a selection from my notes. Also, an emphasis on custodianship, from the outset and repeated during workshops:
“Think about confidentiality, consider this during the day. Take care of the space.”
In response to the question ‘what’s most alive in narrative work today’
I should say that this is my approximation of their words. My verbatim scribing wasn’t at its best on Friday so take care to hold in mind that I’ve threaded words I noted down and recall with the thrust of what was being said.
There are stories that sometimes want to be told to a small group. If you are telling stories to large groups, how do you minimise the harm, the risk to yourself, and increase the possibility for understanding. People think it’s a technique. It’s not. It’s to do with individual consciousness and awareness. Take the biggest possible view of your story and if you do, the telling of it serves the highest possible values. Free yourselves from preconceived ideas by telling stories you have imagined to be tragic as funny, and vice versa. By finding and shaping the story, you liberate yourself from it: freed, you can look critically at it and work with it. I try not to convince anybody to tell their story. Invitation is the key word. Be very respectful of when people are ready. Some of the most effective stories are full of silence. (Sue Hollingsworth)
Derry? Londonderry? The naming itself holds the clue to the conflict. Always in telling a story, you are thinking to yourself ‘will I be safe enough to take a risk?’ It’s a delicate balance. Will I be safe enough to hear this guy and for him to hear me. The telling of difficult stories is an awakening, telling renders me more human. Deep listening is vital, deep listening acknowledges the story of the other. That’s not the same as listening while rehearsing what you will say, but really listening. (Eamon Baker)
Stories of the people you don’t see, refugees, homeless, life sentence prisoners, runaway girls. A methodological process of talking to a small set of individuals, each with a very different story, long individual interviews, noted in detail (‘I take incredible notes’) that then become the raw materials that are transformed into a performance that can be performed by the same people. ‘My job is to become a vessel for something else to come through’. Bringing people together collectively to bear witness to stories that are difficult to bear. (Teya Sepinuk) Over lunch Teya and I also spoke of how her process moves through facing in different directions, first forging something polyphonic together with those who have experienced it at first hand, and then shaping this into something that can be experienced by different and new audiences. With different subject matter, this is often what Sparknow seeks to do.
Working with communities to move from existing forms of conflict resolution to narrative mediation, based on the work of Winslade and Monk working with the cultural and social aspects of conflict, looking at identities as a series of narratives with the intention of moving away from the stuckness of monolithic stories (us, the others), looking for areas of possibility and co-authoring new stories. The paradox of narrative mediation is that is sees the self as an empty vessel. Serving your story well, shifting attention rom you to the listeners, making contact through speaking. (Ed Mackay)
Story: a noun or a verb?
Jottings from our small group discussion after Kelly had performed/narrated her story.
Two people in our group worked with refugees and we spoke at length about making stories more permeable, accessible, making sure the big story is fluid and made up of many other stories. In carrying their story with them refugees, to take one example, have The Story of The Journey, which is very different from the constant storying of journeys. A fixed story is a product, a noun, and sees everything from a single perspective, holds people inside a single point of view.
Prizing the dramatic over the quotidien.The bigger, more dramatic stories are the ones that get the attention, they are the stories refugees might be cornered into repeating in order to get the support they need. They are the stories that get noticed in organizations, at the expense of the banal, ordinary, but equally important small narratives that get shared over the photocopier. We are in danger of skewing our interest into story towards nouns, rather than seeing story as a verb, a dynamic process.
Renos Papadopoulos on re-storing.
'If something appears unclear, we will bestow meaning on it”
Re-storing an experience of adversity, so that with a new audience there is a new perpective and a new story.
Event: father loses daughter in interethnic violence
STORY A: it’s terrible there is so much conflict, I must do what I can to seek peace.
STORY B: this is proof they are all thugs. I must do what I can to get my revenge.
Events are not traumatic. Experiences are traumatic. The event is the same, the meaning we attribute to them can be multiple. There’s a sequence that runs
Exposure to an event
Experience of the event
Impact of the experience
Expression of the experience
Renos told the story of ostracized, raped women in a refugee camp. By working with them fully to acknowledge and hear their stories, he moved with them through to re-imagining themselves as a resource to others. Instead of ‘poor them’ , the pathologizing of a stuck story that condemns people into a fixed position, he encouraged them through the expression of their experience to view themselves as having something to offer others.
When is it safe enough for you to take a risk?
Finally, in the workshop I went to we circled back round to the idea of safety: what is it that makes it safe enough for you to take a risk, or for someone to take a risk with you? We ended in wordless conditions - a visceral feeling, a gut reaction, a feral sense of sniffing it out.
Destory = destroy
As I left and hopped off the overground to wander back via Hampstead Heath, my private meanderings travelled to the end of a paper that Steph Colton and I delivered at the Golden Fleece years ago .
Leaders, by not listening have the power to de-story their employees and their organizations, to dissolve the power behind each person’s voice by choosing not to hear it. On the other hand, if they choose to listen well, they can re-story their organizations. To do this, they must be willing to touch and be touched with stories, to be vulnerable, to be resilient to criticism and hear and play those voices back in a way that liberates others.
We end with this, from ‘Dangerous Angels’ by Francesca Lia Block:
"Think about the word destroy’ the man said. "Do you know what it is? De-story. Destroy. Destory. You see. And restore…that’s restory. Do you know that only two things have been proven to help survivors of the Holocaust? Massage is one. Telling their story is another. Being touched and touching. Telling your story is touching. It sets you free."
Listen or thy tongue will make thee deaf | Victoria Ward and Stephanie Colton, April 2006