Fifty years of brain research have proven what fifty thousand years of history already demonstrated: Storytelling, the world's oldest performance art, has a powerful impact on our minds. Following is a proposal to harness that power for the goal of building empathy and breaking through barriers in a society which has become increasingly divided and hostile. Members of a multicultural youth storytelling troupe would be dedicated to telling tales that represent their differing ethnic, religious and international affiliations, nurturing understanding and appreciation among themselves and in the world around them. This initiative offers multiple benefits for its youth participants, our community and our country, which has never seen a greater need than today.
Resurgence of hate and prejudice
As we all know, our country has seen a dramatic increase in recent years of intolerance against all kinds of minorities. We have witnessed a frightening upsurge of violent words and actions against Muslims and Jews; immigrants, refugees, and their descendents; people of color; and those who are gay, lesbian and transgender. Virtually every group that is not straight, White and Christian has felt the brunt of this prejudice.
As we also know, this prejudice (literally pre-judgement) is generated and passed on through negative stereotypes that de-humanize the targeted groups and individuals – and that de-sensitize perceivers from empathizing with the others’ suffering. This process not only takes place on the scale of overt bigotry that may lead to active agression in word or deed. It also occurs on a smaller, often unintended scale that may dissuade us from helping those in need or simply appreciating the value of others’ culture and humanity.
The role of ignorance
Although the emotional bile of prejudice can sometimes overcome knowledge or experience that should lead people to “know better,” prejudice most often takes root in ignorance. That being the case, the most powerful antidote is knowledge. It is important to know that all “races” share an ancestry of dark skinned Africans; that most Central American refugees applying for US asylum are truly fleeing to save their lives; that the custom of women wearing a veil did not come from Islam, but from the culture of neighboring countries absorbed by it; and that sexual orientation and gender expression do not arise from personal choice, but rather from innate biological and psychological traits.
Information is powerful! A principal driver of the upsurge in ignorance and hate is the compartmentalized way that most of us now get information. Social media and many commercial sources often present fabricated factoids to a like-minded audience, which is insulated from concrete evidence and alternative viewpoints. Doubling the damage, a protective shield surrounds the disinformation, labeling (ironically) any inconvenient truth that might intrude as “fake news.” Once people have become accustomed to this upside down Orwellian world of disinformation, it is very difficult to get through to them with true information that could break down their acquired prejudice.
Storytelling – an Alternative Means of Countering Ignorance & Intolerance
Prejudice draws its strength from the emotional power of fear and hate. Where the intellectual tools of information and statistics may not cut through this, touching people emotionally can often succeed. We know that music often moves us deeply. Another art form that can have a powerful transformative effect is STORYTELLING. Most of us can think of one or more times when a story – whether it was read, heard or acted out – touched us deeply, affecting the way we see ourselves and the world.
Over the last five decades that powerful process that we have sensed intuitively has been confirmed and explained by extensive research into the effect of story and storytelling on our brain. In her book, Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence (Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2012) Lisa Crohn tells us:
A recent brain-imaging study reported in Psychological Science reveals that the regions of the brain that process sights, sounds, tastes, and movements of real life are activated when we’re engrossed in a compelling narrative. That’s what accounts for the vivid mental images and the visceral reactions we feel when we can’t stop reading, even though it’s past midnight and we have to be up at dawn. When a story enthralls us, we are inside of it, feeling what the protagonist feels, experiencing it as if it were indeed happening to us.
In fact, the story is indeed happening to us in a real, physical sense because “mirror neurons” in our head are activated by an engaging story – especially when it is dramatically told – just as the actual experience would activate them. “’Vicarious’ is not a strong enough word to describe the effect of these mirror neurons,” says Jonathan Gottschal in The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human. (New York: Mariner Books, 2012. Pg. 60-61) Furthermore, Several research studies have compared the impact of different story media – reading silently or aloud vs watching a movie vs observing a story dramatically told. Of those four means, storytelling was found to have the greatest impact. ("The Effects of Storytelling versus Story Reading on Comprehension and Vocabulary Knowledge of British Primary School Children.” Reading Improvement; v35 n3 p127-36 Fall 1998, by Susan Trostle and Sandy Jean Hicks; “Storytelling and Story Reading: A Comparison of Effects on Children’s Memory and Story Comprehension”: thesis, East Tennessee State University by Matthew P. Gallets, May, 2005; Haven, Kendall. Story Proof: The Science Behind the Startling Power of Story. Libraries Unlimited, Westport CT, 2007 )
Stories Build Empathy
It is easy to see how the powerful effect of storytelling can be applied to the task of breaking down prejudice. In fact, a number of research studies have explored and confirmed that very connection. Perry Firth, project coordinator of Seattle University's Project on Family Homelessness and a school psychology graduate student, examines these studies in his article, "Wired for Empathy: How and Why Stories Cultivate Emotions." (Firesteel.org) A compelling narrative with a well constructed story arc can transport us into the world of the characters, evoking an emotional response through the release of the "love chemical" oxytocin. Two studies in the 1960's and 1970's demonstrated how listening to stories with black protagonists caused white children to have a more favorable attitude toward them.(Gray, Peter. "One More Really Big Reason to Read Stories to Children." Psychology Today, Oct. 11, 2014.)
Another study, (cited by Dr Jaless Rehman, "Does Literary Fiction Challenge Racial Stereotypes,") observed the impact of reading a passage from "Saffron Dreams” by Pakistani-American author Shaila Abdullah about a Muslim pregnant woman experiencing racist harassment. When shown pictures of racially ambiguous male faces and asked to classify each as white, Arab, or mixed, the participants who read the story were more likely to label them mixed than the control group. And in a related experiment asking them to rate varying levels of anger in the photos they were shown they showed no bias, whereas the control group was much more likely to identify those as Arab.
The Power of Youth
Considering the dramatic neurological effect that stories can produce, it is easy to see how telling stories about people from diverse backgrounds can lead others to understand and appreciate them on a deeper level, and thereby break down prejudice. Obviously, storytellers of any age can take advantageof this opportunity, and some do. But this proposal is about one age group that has a special potential – in what they can offer and also what they can gain. I am speaking about young people.
In the past few years we have seen some exemplary youth stand out in their advocacy of social causes: Students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida inspiring and leading new movements for gun control; the brave human rights advocacy of Nobel Peace Prize recipient, Malala Yousafzai; the outspoken persistence of Greta Thornberg in calling us to reverse the perilous path of environmental destruction. These young people have not only impacted others of their age, but of all ages. Perhaps it is because their youth lends them such passion and urgency. Perhaps because it embues them with a sense of honesty and directness – and thus credibility. Whatever the reasons, the voices of youth can be extraordinarily compelling.
Benefits for Youth Participants
Learning and telling stories, particularly through working together in an ongoing group process, has tremendous benefits for young participants themselves. It would be hard to find a better means of developing 21st century learning skills of creativity, critical thinking, collaboration and communication. In addition, storytelling greatly improves core literacy skills of vocabulary and reading comprehension, instilling a visceral grasp of how setting, plot, character and theme interact to create a compelling narrative. Furthermore, the collaborative group process of sharing and honing story presentation provides a powerful means of developing the 21st century life skills of flexibility, initiative, leadership, and social skills.
Similarly to other successful youth troupes, as our students assist each other in learning and telling their narratives, they will emphasize appreciation of tellers’ strong points, minimizing critiques and suggestions and presenting them only with the tellers' permission. This approach maximizes the social emotional development potential of this powerful process. It helps young people feel a sense of acceptance and belonging. It supports them in learning to take healthy risks, and it teaches them how to support others. Students develop confidence during a critical formative period – confidence in general, and more specifically in expressing themselves in a forthright and authentic manner. It enables them to “find their voice.” And of course, since our group will be composed of youth from varied backgrounds, it will broaden their awareness and appreciation of people and cultures different from themselves and their own.
Precedent-setting Youth Storytellers and Leaders
These stated benefits of youth storytelling are not merely hypothetical. They have been demonstrated in a variety of projects around the country, and indeed around the world. Here are a few of the most outstanding:
- Marth Hamilton and Mitch Weiss, known collectively as the Beauty and the Beast Storytellers, have conducted school storytelling workshops in their hometown of Ithaca, New York and other nearby locations for over three decades. Their frequently consulted book, Children Tell Stories: Teaching and Using Storytelling in the Classroom, whose second edition was published in 2005, forms a clear and comprehensive guide to their proven techniques. In addition, August House, the premier publisher of folktales, has produced six collections of folktales that the storytelling team has adapted for children to read and tell.
- LINK to a four minute documentary video excerpt of children learning to tell stories. After clicking on this link, scroll down to Children Tell Stories: Teaching and Using Storytelling in the Classroom, by Martha Hamilton and Mitch Weiss, then click on on 2nd link in book's description.
- In 2006, Children at the Well was formed, creating a youth storytelling group where participants from different religious and cultural traditions could listen to each others’ stories of faith, life family and heritage and subsequently present them to a wider audience. Published in 2018 their book, Our Stories Connect: Creating Youth Storytelling Programs to Raise Confident, Compassionate and Capable Leaders – A Children At the Well Guidebook combines coaching exercises with a variety of principals and practices for forming and guiding a youth storytelling group with the purpose of building inter-cultural understanding. In an introductory explanation, the book describes the C@W experience as follows: “These neophyte tellers, guided by professional coaches, learned to identify, craft and tell compelling stories. Through the process of discovering their voice they found confidence in themselves and a compassion, understanding and acceptance of those who were, at first, different.”
- C@W website - Sample stories by students were done at home and are not representative of the participants' peformance abilities. shttps://childrenatthewell.org/
- Video from FLY (Folk Tales, Life Tales, & Youth), a similar project co-created by C@W's director, Paula Weiss https://drive.google.com/file/d/1EQUNg8GS5Axbi7mOY2DGSAIce3PHEvtl/view?usp=sharing
- Judy Sima, storyteller, author and media coordinator, led the middle school “Chatterton Talespinners” for many years, enriching not only the students’ lives and literacy, but those of many other children and adults in local day care centers, retirement homes and other community settings. Kevin Cordi, storyteller, high school and college teacher, and frequent conference speaker across the US and abroad, coached the award winning youth storytelling troupe, “Voices of Illusion” for several years, performing over fifty times each year, including at the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesboro, Tennessee. Ms Sima and Mr Cordi’s book, Raising Voices: Creating Youth Storytelling Groups and Troupes, grew out of the many articles and workshops they have created and led over the years. It presents a clear guide to forming a group and structuring meetings, along with excellent exercises for developing skills and group spirit, learning and practicing stories, coaching and performing.
- Karen Chase, author of Story by Story: Creating a Student Storytelling Troupe & Making the Common Core Exciting, has led a student storytelling club called The Story Explorers for nearly twenty years, and she has taught over 500 children to tell stories in a variety of residencies and workshops. In addition to providing a great selection of storytelling games and exercises, organizational details and story resources, Story by Story guides us in how to use these tools in such a way as to provide a nurturing, positive social - emotional experience for the participating kids. Storyteller Meg Gilman has this to say about the book and Karen’s work in general: “Karen’s methods address all learning styles, and provide a safe, fun atmosphere for developing written and oral skills, while building self-esteem and confidence in even the shyest of speakers, as well as empathy and teamwork with their storytelling club peers.”
Troupe makeup: 11 to 19 years old, 10 to 20 participants. From diverse religious (or non-religious) backgrounds, ethnicities, countries of ancestry, and gender preference and expression.
Recruitment: Over a 3-6 month period the troupe director would meet with representatives of organizations serving diverse constituencies, explaining the concept and purpose of the troupe and asking for assistance in promoting the project. The list of organizations would tentatively include, but is not limited to: Winston-Salem Forsyth County Schools ESL and bilingual teachers; Forsyth County Public Library Hispanic Services, Children’s Outreach and teen departments; YMCA & YWCA; Interfaith Winston-Salem; Temple Emmanuel; Community Mosque of Winston-Salem; Anoor Islamic Center; Ministers Conference of Winston-Salem & Vicinity; Neighbors for Better Neighborhoods; North Carolina Black Repertory Theatre Company; Hispanic League of the Piedmont Triad; Latino Community Services; Indo-US Cultural Association. Interested youth could submit an application explaining their interest, background and qualifications. Their would also be some general promotion through social media and traditional print and news channels. After all groups had been contacted members would be selected with an eye toward creating a diverse troupe. If there were too many appropriate applicants, consideration could be given to having a second group, possibly separating on the basis of age.
Leadership would be carried out by a paid director, supported by adult volunteers with background in storytelling, drama, librarianship, education, youth ministry and/ or counselling. Oganizations mentioned above would be invited to co-sponsor the troupe by assisting in promotion & recruitment, financial support, providing a volunteer coach or steering committee representative. Parents would also be welcome to assist in whatever way possible. Coaches without prior experience in storytelling would receive training beforehand. The steering committee would include a few remote members with extensive experience in developing and leading youth storytelling troupes - possibly drawn from people in the section above.
Meetings: Weekly for 1 ½ or 2 hours; Depending on start date of meetings they might initially be done virtually. After live meetings begin, alternate weeks could still be conducted via Zoom.
Performances would be conducted at least three times a year, beginning with gatherings of family and friends. After an initial period of about a year, more frequent opportunities – up to about 12 per year – would be accepted at sites such as congregations, libraries, festivals, summer camps and other community organizations. Each troupe member of 6 months or more would have the opportunity to perform at the very least twice a year.
Repertoire: During the first year group members would all learn and tell traditional folktales from their background. After that they would learn to create and perform personal stories as well, and eventually , historical stories. Our group’s performances would generally include a mixture of story types and cultural backgrounds represented.
The Youth Storytelling Group will seek affiliation with a non-profit organization, such as ones mentioned in the recruitment section or the North Carolina Storytellers Guild. This should help in the process of obtaining funding, as well as in recruitment. An initial idea of the annual budget includes:
Director’s salary: $18,000 for the first year, $12,000 - $15,000 for succeeding years.
Liability insurance: $400
Books and story resources: $2,000
Copying and permission fees: $500
Sound equipment : donated by leader
Hall rental: donated by organizations
Travel fees: $300 for performances first year, $600 thereafter
Funds could be obtained through budgeted salary from the hosting agency; grants; church, corporate and individual donations; and/ or fees for performances and membership on a sliding scale.
If the group’s support is able to grow sufficiently to have a second paid coach, that could possibly add another $3,000-$4,000.
Profile of Jon Sundell, project leader
Jon Sundell has performed as a professional storyteller, folk singer (playing guitar, banjo, autoharp and mountan dulcimer), and square dance caller across the United States, Europe and Latin America for over fifty years, with audiences of all ages and backgrounds, in both English and Spanish. Overlapping with his performance experience are 36 years as a high school teacher and children’s/ youth librarian in elementary and middle schools and public libraries. Jon holds Masters Degrees in both Education and Librarianship. Bringing together these two streams of experience in a multimedia program that moves briskly between songs, tales, and historical background, incorporating color slides, four musical instruments, and an occasional balloon figure or puppet, Jon’s warm, dynamics presentations create a “perfect storm of edu-tainment.”
A third element which underpins Jon’s passion and his qualifications for carrying out this project is his commitment to cultural diversity, cultivated by experiences such as: a Bachelor of Arts minor in Asian Studies (1960’s); community work with Southern Appalachian musicians, gathering traditional songs and organizing local festivals for them to share their talents with neighbors (1970’s); a year’s residence in Southern France (1966-67) and Japan (1970); multiple visits throughout Mexico, Central and South America (1985 – 2005); advocating for Hispanic populations at home and abroad through leadership in the Hispanic League, Hispanic Arts Initiative and the Carolina Interfaith Task Force on Central America.
Jon’s advocacy for multicultural understanding has often taken creative form through projects of his own inititiative, such as:
- Creation and coordination of Forsyth County Public Library’s longest running event, “Lanterns of Hope Ceremony for Multicultural Peace and Understanding,” based on a Japanese custom of making and floating lanterns to remember the spirits of ancestors and victims of Hiroshima;
- Innovative leadership of FCPL’s new Hispanic Services Department, prompting his selection as at-large representative of unaffiliated states on the board of directors of REFORMA: The National Association to Promote Library and Information Services to Latinos and the Spanish Speaking, and as author of the outreach services section in Library Service to Latinos, edited by Salvador Guereña, MacFarland Press, 2000;
- Organizing six annual Guatemala Craft Festivals to raise money for Guatemalan artisans; organizing “Lives in the Balance,” a music festival to raise money for an ambulance for the Civil War in Nicaragua; and coordinating a nationwide raffle of his father’s painting of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico to raise money for a community library in Segundo Montes, El Salvador.
- Co-creation and leadership of the Hispanic Arts Initiative, offering Latin arts classes taught in Spanish by local Hispanic artists. Immigrant children could take low cost classes in folk and modern dance, puppetry, painting, and music, helping them maintain a cultural connection to their Latin roots. HAI also organized professional music concerts and art exhibitions to educate the wider population on the positive contributions of Hispanic immigrants.
- Creation, editing and publication of two student written books:
- Stay With Us: Visiting with Old Time Singers and Storytellers in the Southern Mountains (1979) - a collection of songs, tales and personal portraits collected, photographed and written by Jon’s folklore students at Atlanta’s Paideia School, as the culmination of a three week field trip through the Tennessee and Virginia mountains;
- Many Voices, One World: a Multicultural Anthology/ Muchas voces, un mundo: una antología multicultural (2001 & 2002) – through collaboration of Forsyth County Public Library writing clubs and mini-libraries with ESL programs in eight elementary, middle and high schools, students created personal and family oriented poetry, prose, drawings and photos inspired by visiting authors of African American, Hispanic and Asian background.
Since the late 1980’s Jon has conducted a number of multi-session storytelling workshops with young people. In forming a youth storytelling troupe he will build on those experiences, as well as extensive study of resources such as those mentioned in the section on Precedent-setting youth storytellers and leaders.