The Power of Storytelling with Kiran Singh Sirah
How can stories help us envision and create a more just and peaceful society? Kiran Singh Sirah, President of the International Storytelling Center, shares from his years of experience and study of power of storytelling in this keynote address at Rural Assembly Everywhere: Road to Repair.
Sirah shares how stories can help us understand ourselves, connect with other people, build stronger communities — and build a more peaceful society for everyone.
Throughout his career, Sirah has developed a number of award-winning arts, cultural and human rights programs in cultural centers across the UK and Ireland. Widely recognized for advancing storytelling as a tool for building social empathy and intercultural understanding, he has spoken and led programming at the Library of Congress, the Kennedy Center, the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, U.S. State Department, and the Pentagon.
Related: Hear Kiran on Everywhere Radio podcast with Whitney Kimball Coe
Whitney: … together, the Road to Repair looks a lot like welcome and sitting on your neighbor’s porch for a spell. And our first main stage speaker knows all about porch sitting. It’s my pleasure to introduce you to our keynote, Kiran Singh Sirah. He’s the President of the International Storytelling Center, a mighty institution that’s located in the small town of Jonesborough, Tennessee, which is just up the road from me, and it’s dedicated to enriching the lives of people around the world through storytelling. The center organizes the world’s premier storytelling event, the National Storytelling Festival, and supports applied storytelling initiatives across a wide variety of industries. Kiran is widely recognized for advancing storytelling as a tool for building social empathy and intercultural understanding, and he’s given talks and led programming at the Library of Congress, the Kennedy Center, the US Senate, the US State Department, the Pentagon, and now at Rural Assembly Everywhere.
Kiran champions his beliefs in the power of human creativity, arts, storytelling, and social justice through his advisory role on UNESCO Scotland and through his service as a Rotary Peace fellow. And Kiran firmly believes storytelling not only has the power to enrich lives but it also holds the key to building a conflict free society. So there are two more notable things about Kiran that I want to share with you before he takes the Zoom stage, one is that he is a tremendous fan of Dolly Parton, and two, he loves biscuits. In 2015, he won the title of Southern Mister Biscuit King by performing a biscuit poem whilst balancing a biscuit on his head. So with that, I’m really pleased to welcome Kiran Singh Sirah to the Everywhere stage.
Kiran: Thank you, Whitney. Can you hear me okay?
Whitney: I can hear you. We can hear you.
Kiran: Okay. I have to remember that you are in charge.
Anyway, it’s wonderful to be here with you all. Thank you again to the Rural Assembly and all of you for being here as participants, and it’s a pleasure to share this space with you all. I want to actually begin with some thoughts, and I think it’s fair to say that we’ve all been through quite a lot over the last few years. When we think about the catastrophic weather, and the global pandemic, and how climate change has transformed from a vague future into something that we feel deeply in our day-to-day lives. Political divisions here in the US have become even more extreme and violent, and racism and other forms of bigotry are still a sad and enduring part of our world. As we face even more of these larger than life challenges in the future, the project of building a better world start to sound impossible, or at least a little daunting. I think it’s important to remember that hope isn’t necessarily a feeling, it’s a practice. And what I want to suggest here today is that envisioning a better future is something that we can all do together one story at a time.
Now, as President of the International Storytelling Center, I had a lot of opportunities to witness the power of storytelling first hand. I want to tell you about how stories can help us to understand ourselves, how they can help us to connect with other people, and to build stronger communities. And finally, how they can help us to envision and create a more just and peaceful society for everyone. Now, I know that sounds like a lot. When we talk about world peace or saving the planet, the issues can feel daunting, and big, and beyond our reach, but the truth is each and every one of us has the power to envision a better world. And those [inaudible 00:03:57] imagination are an important part of the process. Whether we are policy makers, grassroots artists, or activists, perhaps nonprofit leaders or world practitioners, we can accomplish any goal when we take things one story at a time.
So let’s start by talking about what a story is. I think a lot of times when people think of storytelling, we might think of performance on a stage, perhaps librarians sharing stories with a group of kids, and certainly storytelling is all those things. My organization produces the National Storytelling Festival, which is a big, live storytelling event here in Tennessee. And every year, there are thousands of people in our audience. It’s a wonderful long weekend with incredible performers who are considered masters of their craft. We all have a terrific time. But events like that are only part of the work that we do as an organization, because storytelling isn’t just a performance art, it’s also a means of exploration and self expression, and also a practical strategy for building peace, justice, and better community relations. A story doesn’t have to be a finished work of art that an entertainer performs on stage, we should also think of stories as tools that can help us do real, important work in our everyday lives.
Let me give you an example. This is an example of the benefits that we can take from stories just as individuals. Stories help us understand who we are as a people. We can use a story to help tell someone as simple as what happened at work that day, or to share something more sweeping and profound about your life. Articulating our experiences in the world in this way is a form of empowerment. The understanding of our own identity becomes the basis for how we understand the people around us and the people who are further away, and even people who lived a long time before we were ever born. It becomes the basis of empathy. And when we understand why our own story matters, it’s a natural leap to appreciating why other people’s stories matter too. I think it’s also important to keep in mind that stories take many forms. Now, I’m a trained folklorist, and in our field we see every cultural expression, every ritual, every tradition as a kind of story. That includes everything from the way that we decorate our front porches to the stickers that we place in the back of our cars.
We’re always, in so many interesting and subtle ways, expressing to other people who we are and where we come from, [inaudible 00:06:36] them into our beliefs and our values. My first lesson in using story as a tool for self discovery was at a very young age. Before I was born, in 1972, my parents fled Uganda under the threat of death from a genocidal dictator. My family stood out in this very, very white English town that they landed in, and that was where I was born and raised. Many of the people there were incredibly warm and they were welcoming, but there were some people that weren’t. As a kid, I struggled to understand, much less deal with, the racism from other kids, but dealing with racism from adults was even worse. Sometimes it came from people who I’d been taught to respect, police officers, teachers, and elders in my town. As refugees, my parents brought a lot of firsts to our little town. They were the first refugees to arrive, and a few years after that, I was the first person of color born there. We stood out.
I have the intellectual tools to understand that better now, but as a kid, all I knew was that home felt safe, familiar, and good, and in other places I felt guarded and anxious or afraid and angry. Identity is a complex subject for anyone, especially people who have been marginalized, and identity can be especially complicated for people of color. My late mother was born in Kenya and my father’s family was from India. My older brother was a baby when my parents fled Uganda. When I was a kid in England, Uganda was a story. It was a story I’d heard in a little seaside English town eating ice cream and fish sticks, a picturesque scene that would be made ugly whenever another kid called me smelly immigrant or curry boy. In my own home, and of course in the family kitchen, curry was not a dirty word. My family used cooking and stories to connect us to our family and to our people, and to the past that had been so brutally torn away from them.
In our kitchen, my mother was my teacher, and with every dish I learned a little bit more about myself and my family roots. In the Sikh tradition, serving others is hugely valued. We consider sitting down to share a meal with someone one of the highest forms of prayer. And to my mom, food was also an essential expression of who she was, where she grew up, what she valued, and how she cared for others. So my mom would invite me to join her as she prepared all the meals in our kitchen, and these lessons were always accompanied by family stories as we chopped onions and tomatoes to make the masala base. She told me about what it was like growing up in East Africa, watching her father build a well with his own hands so passers-bys could drink fresh, clean water in the scorching sun. She told me about the little hut that serviced as her school in a tiny border town between Kenya and Uganda, and also about the dusty road that she would walk down every day to get there.
She told me about the freedom fighters from the rural villages of Punjab in India, where her parents came from. They were farmers and they were carpenters, and they took on the world’s largest empire, and they won. These were the stories of places I wouldn’t see in person until I was older, but it taught me about resilience, resistance, strength, courage, and love. Hearing these stories over and over again, I pieced together what these places I’d never seen looked like, like an imaginary map, and decades later, when I got to see those places for real, they were actually very similar to the one I had imagined. My mother knew about the trouble I got in from other kids, so she would tell me these stories and then she would say, “Go back into that playground and go tell them who we really are.” Sharing those pieces of myself or my family history with the other kids helped me feel more confident in myself, and it also became the basis for which I was able to build better relationships.
Back then, I hadn’t been to graduate school to study fancy subjects like old ways of the power of the oral tradition, I just knew it felt good to tell people about who I was instead of letting them define that for me. And you may recognize that this is a topic that comes up a lot these days as we talk about representation and who gets to tell certain stories, and these are really important conversations to have. The truth is that sometimes your story can sound different or wrong when it comes out of someone else’s mouth. Telling other people about who you are is a powerful and clarifying act. It’s the basis for empathy of relationships, of fellowship, and shared community. It’s informed my work not just at the International Storytelling Center, but also early in my career as an art teacher, as a volunteer in a soup kitchen, as a peace activist, and as a scholar. And even when I worked at a museum in Glasgow, you never want to explain to someone else who they are, you want to give them the tools and the opportunity to tell you.
Now, one problem we’ve run into is when people impose a story on others by making assumptions or indulging stereotypes. Sometimes they impose those stories on purpose, but other times they do it out of ignorance. In countries where legacies of imperialism or slavery, stories from the dominant culture inevitably get privileged. The cure or fix is listening and paying attention as we let people articulate their own stories. Self articulation leads to a much more meaningful and productive dialogue. It’s all about engaging people instead of talking over them. This technique is especially effective when you’re dealing with anyone who may feel hostile or suspicious. Early in my career, I worked at that big museum in Glasgow, in Scotland, and we were always looking for ways to help people feel connected with our exhibits. For one project, I approached local police officers about working with teenagers who were first-time offenders. Usually the police would make these kids do community service chores, like picking up trash, or painting a train station or mall. I suggested that they assign the kids to me instead.
We developed a program where the kids could use their graffiti tagging skills to develop an artwork with a textile artist. This was a elevated and also a legal version of something that these kids have been doing on the street for many years, marking a space and letting the world know that they exist. The difference was the context of the museum, where we invited the kids to be part of our [inaudible 00:13:21] instead of existing in opposition to it. The stroke of genius with that program was where we displayed the final works. Usually community exhibits get displayed in the corridors of the museum cafe, set apart from the real art. In our museum, we placed the kids work next to the most famous painting in Scotland, Salvador Dalí’s Christ of Saint John of the Cross, one of the most famous and iconic religious paintings in the world. And in many ways, the museum itself is built around that piece, but suddenly these sulking, dangerous teens were now bonafide artists, and had began to see themselves as artists. They had been validated and told that their stories matter. The program was a success.
Later in my career, I was studying folklore at a graduate program in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and I spent a lot of time at a men’s homeless shelter doing immersive research. I was studying the aesthetics of home, that idea of home, and I was interested in what that meant to someone who didn’t have one. I talked about it frequently with one of the men at the shelter named Johnny. Johnny was an older gentleman who was white, with a scraggly beard. In our initial conversations, I knowingly made a lot of assumptions about what home meant to Johnny, and when we discussed life in the shelter, Johnny mostly focused on his struggles, his dislikes. He talked about the challenges he faced every day. He had to reach for the words as he explained his difficult and complex emotions, and there was a distance in those words.What he was describing was not who he was, not part of his core identity. It didn’t define who he was as a person.
What I didn’t realize was that we were talking about my notion of his home, which I assumed was the shelter. And after all, that’s where he was living at the time. But as we talked more, I found that Johnny would answer my questions in ways that often surprised me. For him, home was very much rooted in his past, and it wasn’t necessarily a physical place so much as connections he shared with people. As it turned out, Johnny had once been a baker and after we sat on a bench and finished an official interview, I’d turn off my recorder and he’d wax on about the biscuits and pies that he used to make. The words he used and the content of the conversation became different, more vivid and poetic. When he talked about baking, everything changed, the conversation became fluid and eloquent. This was something he could talk about with presence and authority, it helped Johnny tell me who he is in a way that his circumstances at the time were unable to convey.
At the same time I was learning something new, I also found something familiar because I always saw myself in Johnny’s stories. Like him, I constantly use cooking as a way to connect with friends and the broader community where I now live in East Tennessee. I still love curries and I’m always figuring out a way to work in the local produce into my [inaudible 00:16:27] masalas, which combine Indian spices and recipes with traditional Appalachian ingredients. Blending cultures and traditions in my cooking is another skill I inherited from my mother. She was a great enthusiast of the traditions of her adopted country, but she always added a little twist. I grew up eating fish and chips with lashings of malt vinegar and salt, but she liked to add the little garam masala and tandoori spices to them. It’s kind of a habit I picked up. My mother was particularly fond of English tea time, and of course in England, it’s always tea time. There’s a kettle in every home and every office.
When I was a kid, there were many mornings where I would find myself find 10 burly men in our kitchen drinking strong English tea out of my mother’s finest cups. These were the neighborhood dustbin men, or garbage. And sometimes there so many of them that they would spill out into the garden, leaving their trucks parked four deep in our cul-de-sac street, and sit, and they’d share a laugh and a story or two. And I have to imagine that the Sirah household was their favorite stop. My mom taught me a lot about building community. I mentioned before that I’m a Sikh, and the Sikh tradition puts a lot of emphasis on serving others. Sikh temples are built around a community kitchen called a langar that offers free meal to any visitors, and one of the most famous langars in the world is at the Golden Temple in India, which is known the serving 50,000 people a day. It’s like the world’s largest soup kitchen, with delicious handmade vegetarian meals.
The first time I went was with my mother, when I was six years old, and I remember being so impressed by how everyone sits on the floor together. You have to consider the political context of sharing a meal as equals in India, which still has a caste system. By putting everyone on an even playing field, the langar creates the perfect conditions for sharing a story. In Britain, my mom adapted the tradition to address the less formal but still very real classism with her own tea service for the dustbin men. Now, as you probably notice, I like to talk about food a lot, and that’s partly my way of telling you about who I am, and it’s partly because making and eating food is something that we all have in common. It’s a huge part of our lives and our identities, and it’s my professional opinion that it’s actually the best place to share a story over a meal, but food isn’t the point. What I’m talking about is fellowship, which is inherent to what a story is.
A story requires at least two people, a teller and a listener. Maybe it’s an audience of one, or maybe it’s a classroom, or a concert hall, or a theater. Maybe it’s a church congregation or tent full of people, like we have at the National Storytelling Festival. Maybe it’s your community, where your institution resides. We use stories to build relationships all the time, even when we don’t realize it. Sometimes the event of our lives become a big story that we can tell at parties, perhaps about a trip, or a love story, or an accident, but I think the bulk of the storytelling we do is more about the small day-to-day happenings that may seem mundane on the surface. We engage with family, and friends, and strangers, and colleagues by sharing a beer, or a cup of tea, hot or sweet, and we talk about the little things that happened over the course of the day. These experiences help build our capacity for empathy, which is the basis on which we can promote and create positive change.
Other people’s stories touch us in small and profound ways, and in doing so affect the very fabric and substance of who we are. No-one’s story stands the same. No-one’s story stands alone. We are all, in some ways, products of our environment, constantly receiving new input. Our identities are flexible, always changing depending on context. In England, where I was born, I was called India. In Scotland, I was English. And here in the US, I’m British or sometimes European. All these identities reflect the truth in a different way, and what I realize is that none of us is just a citizen of one place, we are all citizens of the world, but the stories we hear about the world often come from broken filters. Every day, we are inundated with negative news stories and messages written by people who want to sell us something or otherwise have an agenda. I believe it’s our duty as citizens of the world to seek out the truth for ourselves.
Sometimes we can find this truth by looking within, but other times we find it by looking around us and looking for opportunities for fellowship, where we can open doors and even break down walls. In 2016, I happened to be in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, when Alton Sterling was shot and killed by the police. The shooting occurred just one mile from where I was staying, but I didn’t hear about it until the next morning. I learned about the tragedy from one of those big TV screens mounted on the hotel cafe wall, which is one of those 24 hour news channels. There was a lot of activity around town, and the newscasters were treating it as a riot. The thing was, I was right there in downtown Baton Rouge. I could look around and see with my own eyes that there was no evidence of a riot. People gathered, but it was to pay their respects and not an act of unrest. What I was seeing was a vigil, not a riot.
Later that same afternoon, I saw a young black woman with a sign that said, “We are all Alton Sterling.” I stopped to talk to her. Her name was Tam Williams and she was a 24-year-old documentary filmmaker, and she had grown up in the area. I got her permission to take a photo, which I posted on Facebook that evening, and I thought it was so brave of her to be standing there alone, and I learned a lot from our short conversation. In folklore studies, we talk about digging where you stand to understand the places where we live better. When we hear lots of different stories this way, we can better grasp the character of a place and its people. We can understand their accomplishments, and their dreams, and their mistakes. But often these are stories that lie beneath the surface, making a place what it is, even when the stories haven’t yet been unearthed.
Since I moved to the US and to Appalachia, I’ve gotten into digging quite literally, at my home and at two plots in a community garden. Some years ago, I had no idea what mulching was. When I was first thinking about what to plant, a friend gave me the idea to wait to see what grows naturally. Now, this is a technique from permaculture, which is a holistic approach to gardening. The permaculture movement used to be obscure, but it’s pretty much been bubbling up towards a mainstream in recent years. I believe it’s all about sustainability and working with instead of against nature. The idea behind my friend’s suggestion was that the best thing to grow are whatever nature thinks should be there, instead of imposing your own will on this land. And this obviously requires patience as well as a bit of surrender. And what I found is that it’s a lot like the process of writing and storytelling, you wait to harness the stories that already exist inside. You see what emerges, and sometimes it’s better to wait to let an experience become compost for something else later.
What I have found in my garden was that the slow process of waiting to see what would grow to be surprisingly exciting, an experience in its own right. In the morning, I’d sit back in the garden and listen to the mockingbirds and the blue jays sing. One day, I noticed some tulips growing, and another day, a small batch of bluebells had emerged from the ground. Eventually, a batch of irises sprang up [inaudible 00:24:31]. I think every form of community building is a bit like permaculture in that you’re cultivating what’s there to the best that it can be instead of imposing your will. You’re helping people to grow. As I mentioned, we have a lot of community building programs at the International Storytelling Center, and not just the big events that we’re known for. In one youth empowerment program we’ve developed called Sheros, we use a day plan format to give young girls the tools to express themselves. We use storytelling and storytelling adjacent arts, like dance and theater, to help 10 to 13-year-old girls better understand themselves, and also dream about their futures and their world.
The Sheros program combines elements of folk tales, and fairy tales, and fables to help the girls to explore their identities, their family histories, and the problems that they see around them. At the end of the two week intensive camp, the girls stage a live recital where they can unveil fictional characters that they have imagined and developed. Using the power of creativity, they learn to deal with the disappointments and anxieties of everyday life. For several participants, anxiety about the future of climate change was palpable. Another participant dealt with a scary episode in her family life by casting herself as a detective working to solve the case of her own confusion. These simple stories contain rich emotional worlds, helping the girls connect with their families and the wider community, and even to process trauma. By writing their own script, so to speak, these kids felt empowered to share and grow from experiences that can be often difficult to talk about.
In Jonesborough, Tennessee, where our organization is based, we’ve seen firsthand the power of storytelling to transform a community over the past 50 years as a movement and as a force for social change. Our National Storytelling Festival was conceived as an event to help revive a dying main street town, and the plan worked. As a tradition, an important part of storytelling is preserving and honoring the past, but the other side of that is that storytelling doesn’t just preserve culture, it invigorates it. Now, Jonesborough is widely known as the storytelling capital of the world, and we’ve worked with many people that can use storytelling in their jobs, in their professional development as they craft pitches, build partnerships, and secure funding for important causes. In our work at ISC, we’ve used storytelling to work with black scholars who are helping people understand the full history of the region, with healthcare workers, who have been traumatized by the challenges of COVID-19, and with communities dealing with difficult violence and tragedy.
One thing we often talk about is how even though events from the past have already happened, our understanding of them is not fixed in time, it can change, and flex, and grow. Sometimes we have to undo what we think we know about the past to work together to build a more equitable story of the future. We have to do justice to the whole story and not just a part of it. Just to give you a quick example, an ISC initiative called freedom stories has sought to center the stories of black Appalachians. These are tales of perspective that have historically been hidden, buried, or pushed aside. Every freedom story is [inaudible 00:28:00] is on the ISC website and they’re all worth digging into when you get a chance, but I think I can best illustrate the concept behind the program using a story.
When I first came to the US as a grad student, 10 years ago, I visited a historic plantation near Durham, North Carolina. The guided tour started at the big house where the white overseers once had lived. We walked through these carefully preserved spaces, attending to the details of the architecture, the dining room set made of wood and [inaudible 00:28:32]. We spent most of our time on the tour in that big house. As we moved through across the property, we heard fewer stories and examined fewer details. We made our way to a big barn where tobacco had been stored. Adjacent to it was a small structure that had probably been a slave dwelling. As I examined the cement and the brick work, I could see a thumbprint and I wondered who it belonged to. Was it someone who had lived there? And what was their story? I think the tour would have been much more interesting if we had started with that anonymous thumbprint instead of putting so much focus on the big house.
I think it’s part of our job as Americans and as world citizens to examine the thumbprint, so to speak, and put them at the center of our narratives instead of in the margins. Now, as I bring this talk to a close, I want to discuss the thing that’s on our minds these days. We’ve all been through a trauma with the effects of the pandemic, and beyond that, we live in a country and a world where political divisions have grown more and more heated and difficult. I want to suggest to you today that crisis can be a launchpad for better things. Our collective task is to come together to envision a world in which hope, progress, and positive change are back on the table. Stories are a hugely important part of this process because they help us understand the past even as we envision and shape the future.
Working towards this goal is what gives our lives meaning, and it will become a legacy that we can pass on to our children, and our children’s children, and on and on to generations long past our lifetimes. Our stories aren’t static, they’re a part of [inaudible 00:30:16] movements. Stories in progress are still being written as part of our collective history. Throughout time, stories have been essential to our survival. We’ve used them to meet the challenge of the war, famine, conflict, and other pandemics. We’ve learned how to collect, document, and pass on wisdom. We’ve developed systems of resilience, preserving tradition that others have tried to erase or suppress. I’ll conclude with a story that helped bring these points home to me. I was in my office in Jonesborough late one night leading a video conference training with public health workers and volunteers in Australia.
This was the summer of 2020, and the height of the political protests in the US following the murder of George Floyd. We were talking about the Black Lives Matter movement. I learned that there had been a candlelit vigil in Australia spelling out I can’t breathe with 433 candles. On that call, we talked about how 432 of those candles were for the indigenous Australians who had reportedly died in police custody since 1991. The 433rd candle was for George Floyd. Soon after that, we took a break. I happened to look out my window and see a Black Lives Matter vigil taking place across the street. By candlelit, maybe 100 or so members of my community were reading out aloud the names of victims of violence and police brutality. Black, white, and brown people lining the streets spaced six feet apart. It was truly a sight to see. It was as though that discussion from my computer screen had spilled out onto the street and into the night. It was part of a story that spanned continents and is still unfolding right in front of me.
Often we think of stories as linear, with a beginning, middle, and end, but I think it’s more useful for us to think about a story as a tapestry or a map. Our personal story is just one thread that comes together in the bigger picture, and it’s best to find the spirit as part of the whole. The personal experience shaped the collective experience and vice versa. They can’t be separated, and the story’s always expanding, just like the universe itself. We got a lot of work to do, and that works starts with the act of harnessing your own story, sharing it with others and listening to what they have to say in turn. It requires patience, and a willingness to hear and share the stories that make us uncomfortable or upset. It requires the wisdom to cultivate the good that’s already there instead of imposing our will and our beliefs on what’s good onto the people around us. The causes, the issues, the ideas of the people we care about are worth fighting for. The world needs your stories, and it needs all our stories, the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Multiculturalism has always been an American value, and immigration has always been very important in this country’s history, but human nature and the people who write the history books have a tendency to gloss over the parts that are difficult, from the displacement of Native Americans to the horrors of slavery. The story of the United States in many ways is a series of traumas. Different people have experienced those traumas in different ways. Our experiences during this pandemic have been a brutal reminder of the glaring inequities that have never really gone away. We need the tools of storytelling now more than ever to harvest and to grapple with these experiences. We need a better understanding of all the stories that inform our present in order to move towards a better future together, and as a very easy way that we could start to make things better. Let’s start with an act that’s very simple. I want you to remember what my mother said to me when I was a kid facing those bullies in the playground. In her words, “I want you to go out there and go tell them who we really are.” Thank you for listening.