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Story Bridge: From Alienation to Community Action

Story Bridge: From Alienation to Community Action by Richard Geer, Jules Corriere, Nancy Sylvia, Melissa Block, Juanita Brown and David Isaacs

Here are some of my favourite excerpts…

During our twenty years of practicing Community Performance, the structure of this bridge to community has become ever more clear.  Once upon a time, we thought exchanging and performing stories was enough.  The act of sharing our own stories and witnessing those of others did begin a shift.  But there was not enough supporting that shift, and, gradually, the positive changes reverted to the status quo.  But year after year, working in communities from Colorado to Chicago to Rio, new practices evolved.  With the incorporation of World Café conversation, the bridge stood firm.  The story-to-change process, spanned the chasm from strangers to change makers.

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A central aspect of any organism is self-regulation.  One of the ways a community self-regulates is through its stories.  Stories surface issues that need to be aired.  Stories move important material into the realm of its citizens’ discourse where it can be considered and acted on.  Of key importance to the understanding of any community are the stories that surface at a given moment.  The stories that simply “come up” reveal hidden insights.  The Story Bridge operates on this truth: community is constantly in conversation with itself through its stories.

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The community voice speaks through the peoples’ stories.  Stories that rise through individuals into the shared space carry power to heal teller and community.  Two kinds of stories bring about this healing.  Proleptic stories come from the past but point to the future—if it has happened before, then it can happen again.  Proleptic stories bring hope to a community that whatever they are struggling with now can be met, because it has been met before.    A Holographic story carries the community’s circumstance in its narrative, as the shard of a broken holographic plate carries the entire image.  We discovered one such story in Colquitt, Georgia, between a young African American man and the town’s white fire chief.  Their story pointed to the place that energy was frozen in the community, and where the thawing, healing, change might begin.

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To reach into the mind and heart of a community, asking it to reveal itself, we often begin individual interviews or story circles with a neutral prompt, “Tell about a time when your life changed…”  With a neutral prompt the storyteller can go anywhere story beckons.

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After listening to hundreds of life stories, an image rose up of what transpires in the sacred space of telling and listening. Imagine story itself, made visible as it is told.  Out of the teller’s heart floats a silken cord the shape and color of her story.  As she concludes, one end anchors in her heart, the other in heart of the witness.  Then roles reverse.  The witness becomes the teller, soon his story lies beside, paralleling, overlapping, entwined with, hers, the similar shapes and colors of the stories touching, shining together.  Anchored in each other’s hearts, the story cords become the bridge over which each travels in understanding to the other.  This is the beginning of change.

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Twenty years ago, we thought these threads might be the bridge entire.  But a few threads are not strong enough to support sustained change.  Nevertheless, this vision of heart sharing carries a lot of truth: Story is the basic building material and the way onto the bridge.  Story creates the relationships and connections necessary to sustain and support growth.

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For story to come forth, a hospitable and safe place must be made where all can sit in equality.  Later, as folks grow in the process, they realize they are bound by their common humanity, the recognition that all people hope and all suffer.  But in the beginning, small things, like a well-formed circle of chairs, friendly faces, presence, vulnerability, and authentic facilitation, set the stage.  Something larger than you or me does the rest.  It is something with which we participate but over which we do not have control.  Within it, we are not individuals, but parts of its larger self.  The community we define by our presence begins, one heart at a time, to re-define us.

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We witnessed Sonia’s story, that’s all.  Story sharing is healing, but it is not therapy.  This is important.  No one is out to fix anyone.  We are only to accompany, reverently listening, as one person journeys into her story in our presence.  In that act, marvels are discovered by all, and the result is relationship.

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When our urge to tell our own story begins to build, we must continue fully to attend to the story being told by the other.  The magic of story sharing collapses if the room fills up with people who are no longer listening, but simply biding time until they can speak.  To return yourself to the place of listening with reverence, jot a reminder note, and then turn your full attention back to listening.

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In our definition of performance, a listener can do more than passively receive.  When we listen with our full attention, the story comes alive inside us.  The little boy feels the monster’s claws.  Or the long-dead wife, living again through her old husband’s words, appears as a young bride in the listener’s mind, as the listener performs the story.  When stories go to places of emotion, teller and witness step out of themselves to follow.  This is how a listener is also a performer.  As listeners are moved by story, they step out and into other times, places, events, and characters.  When people share stories with one another, they also step into each other.  There is mystery in this.  Teller and listener merge.

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There are two listeners, your friend with the coffee and you.  You are a listener to your own story.  The story is in you, is you, yet some part of you listens as if for the first time to be sure your story impacts and makes sense.  This strange dislocation from self grants perspective, one of the gifts of story and performance.

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It’s strange to think that an aesthetic act has the power to move a mountain, but it does.  The emotional act of shifting between Teller, Witness, and Subject sets in motion human action.  These shifts in perspective change the way we see the world and provide us with the energy to change the world we see.  That is the power of story and performance.  The full, unfettered act of sharing a story sets in motion shifts in perspective which liberate energy to change the world.

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Bill did not leave his NIMBY organization.  And Joe did not stop his political action.  But things changed at a personal level.  Joe was able to see Bill other than as the enemy.  They would even meet and have lunch.  Bill saw Joe, Stephan, and Barbara, not as subsidized housing residents, but as people.  He recognized Barbara’s skills and referred her to a better paying job, and this allowed her to keep the home she was about to lose.  The individual connections allowed change to happen—person by person.  It was not a revolution, but it was life changing for those individuals, as they moved from “I” to “We.”

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David Blumenkrantz, our friend, colleague, and the father of the modern rites of passage movement, says:   “We’ve gotten all tangled up in careers, houses, and commercialism, and forgotten the core purpose of community.  Our job is to raise the children.” That’s why we must move from “I” to “We.”  We can only do that together.  It takes the whole village.

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At the Institute, one of the story prompts we used is called “Beautiful River.”  The Beautiful River arose in the Beautiful Mountains and flowed to the Beautiful Sea.  When the Beautiful River came to the Terrible Desert it looked around in despair, “How will I get across?”  The Beautiful Clouds heard this cry and came to the rescue.  “Don’t worry, Beautiful River,” they said, “We’ll take you up and carry you to the Beautiful Sea.”  “But what will become of me, my remarkable length, my sparkling depths?”  “Why you’ll evaporate, of course,” the Clouds said.  Beautiful River didn’t like this at all, Beautiful River was terrified.  The Beautiful Clouds said, “You have two choices, Beautiful River.  You can pour yourself into the Terrible Desert and disappear forever, or we will lift you up and carry you transformed to the Beautiful Sea.” This story prompt helps the listener move intuitively to the story she will tell.  All of us have lived the archetypal passages of the Beautiful River story.  We’ve danced along our way, been threatened by obstacles, and accepted or refused the call to transformation.

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We realize that the place in which community (successful teams, loving congregations, creative ensembles, etc.) is made possible isn’t a reason-able place, but a place beyond words.  There we realize our care for one another, our interdependence, our reciprocal creation of each other.

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People who care about one another, who have shared deeply in each other’s stories, and plumbed together deep questions about their shared experience, are already taking committed action for their community.  Their shift in attitude is transformational; seeing more in each other and the community around us is community change, isn’t it.

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The divergent conversation process feels like the gradual build-up of electrical charge in a cloud.  The cloud doesn’t have to worry about making lightning.  That will happen by itself.  Convergent thinking often strikes lightning out of a broad field of divergent observations.

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Why go through this two-step process with story?  Why not move immediately to action?  For the same reason that astronauts, athletes, and armies practice.  Practice, in the disciplines of story, performance and relationship, takes place in an as-if world where consequences are less but in which relationships grow strong.  Actions can be rehearsed and perfected.  The practice period also raises the energy of the whole system in preparation for action. Before entering the practice field of story-performance-relationship, there may be insufficient energy in the system to accomplish group change.

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The last pier in the bridge comes when conversations provide questions that lead to committed action: What key learning, insight, or discoveries am I taking with me?  How are they relevant to my own life at home or work? What is possible now that wasn’t possible before?  What specific seeds of possibility am I taking? Where will I plant these seeds? What specific action steps will I take to plant these seeds and how will I nurture them?

 

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