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Stitching Together the Stories of StoryCenter's First 20 Years – by Joe Lambert


We are pleased to present posts by StoryCenter staff, storytellers, colleagues from partnering organizations, and thought leaders in Storywork and related fields.

Stitching Together the Stories of StoryCenter's First 20 Years – by Joe Lambert

Root Barrett

This weekend I found myself writing a quasi-academic article about the 20 years of the work of the Center for Digital Storytelling. The argument was more or less that we have watched four significant phases in the growth of our work, each with a slightly different emphasis in our work, and in each phase an arc of expansion, a wave of interest, that surged and receded. It was an interesting way to understand what an organization, and a movement, can accomplish over two decades. 

The four phases I describe are the Creative Phase (1994-97), the Literacy Phase (1998-2001), the Methodological Phase (2002-2004) and the Ethos Phase (2005-2013). As simply as possible we went from being a community-based organization with ideas that people liked and were inspired by, to an education-focussed organization beginning to develop curriculum for communities and schools, to an international movement built around a shared point of view on methods and product, to a segment of that movement more focused on using the tools and methods to assist individuals and communities in developing resilience through the process of story making and sharing.  

This became a useful reduction for me, because these periods also corresponded to the ups and downs of our organization. We re-define, we evolve a new plateau of stability, we begin to decline, we start a new definitional process. As we get ready for our 20th Anniversary, we are about to do this again. Re-define, re-think, and tell a new story about who we are and where we are going.

In my new book, Seven Stages: Story and the Human Experience, I make the argument:

Storywork for me is not about improving writing, although that might happen. It is not about passing on stories so that they are not lost, although one would hope the stories do find an archive. The work is not about reverence and ritual, really. I feel there is something sacred in any service; washing dishes or composing a symphony. I no longer feel that it promises any specific mechanism of recovery; I have more faith in the appropriate mix of counseling, physical health, pharmaceuticals if useful, and plain old love and acceptance by the folks you need to love and accept you. Mystical prayer and sacred soul work of myriad kinds might do more to lift one out of suffering than storywork.

I see storywork as the gifting of a process that has a particular set of features at the intersection of creativity and mindfulness. It is built on a belief that we have, even if the facts as presented only loosely cohere with actual events, a deep need to re-collect in the form of a story as an artifact. Not just to re-tell, but to form and finish, a considered text.

When we think about the next two decades of our work, the stories I want to help me re-define our work in this way are the ones about the ways in which this intersection of mind and creativity have made a difference. The stories captured in processes led by the incredible staff at StoryCenter, and all our friends and students who are out leading workshops of their own, are testaments to change. The kind of change that we all recognize is that Sunday morning wakefulness, or late night reverie, where we finally say, "You know, I get it....this is what that story is about." We can tell the stories of our mothers, our relationships, our children's lives, our communities, the events and challenges that have defined us, in ways that suggest a new insight, a new way of making sense, that helps us to put the story in perspective. We tell the story, so the story is no longer telling us. 

I believe that when we are lucky enough to be with someone who is poised to come to an important new insight, and they produce a story out of that new sense of power over the story, we can change hearts and minds with that story. That does not happen at every workshop, but almost. And even if we have a story that you know captures the sense of change, it does not mean we know exactly where in the world the story might make a difference. Increasingly, working with the wonderful partners we have in education, public health, healthcare, environmental activism, on and on, we help the story find the right audience. This is the challenge of our future work. To continue to help people make powerful stories, but to go the next step in our process to imagine more fully how each story can help to change some part of the world. 

We have been privileged to work with thousands and thousands of individuals, in nearly every context that might define a section of human activity. We have had stories about ways to celebrate, ways to memorialize, ways to confront demons, ways to find support and overcome. We have had pieces about the silly, the ironic, the ridiculous. Three or four stories that were proposals for marriage, a few that were admissions of the end of a relationship. We have had stories of ways that people got lost, and perhaps the majority of stories that come through our center are about people finding their way back. We have gone to small villages in distant continents, worked in the center of densely urban America, worked with photojournalists and janitors, teenage mothers and fathers trying to re-connect to the children, renowned scientists and high school students working to make it to college. The problem for this work is that it is hard to remember each individual, until you go back and listen to the story. Taken as a whole, the stories for me, and I am sure that this is true for my colleagues, become a forest of narratives. At a distance the shape of each story, how each story ascends, is a bit dim; the connections between the stories become more and more clear. The forest itself shows a dignity about humans that inspires and informs how we keep moving forward with our work.  

When you do this work, people really do end up being people, the labels we attach to folks mean less and less, and the ways that all humans suffer, all humans strive, is more deeply similar than national origin, class, race and gender. Safety comes from being with people who know your story, for sure, who share your relationship to these big definitional differences. The unconscious ways we express power and privilege, as well as anger at our historic oppression, makes a group of heterogenous people at risk of easily stepping on each other's toes. But beneath the ways we are different, we are so much the same, and there is no better process than story to remind us how profoundly useless it is for us to judge others as different, as less than, as our enemy. Story bridges difference. I honestly believe that were we to listen hard enough to each other's stories, we would never be in conflict. War would end, violence would end, there would be a lasting and universal peace. Imagine.

We say at StoryCenter that we have an enormously wonderful job – to be listeners and midwives of story. I hope the next twenty years allows us to meet the challenge of becoming increasingly relevant to the changes our societies need to sustain and thrive. We will certainly not stop working hard to make that be so.  

We hope to hear your story soon!

Joe Lambert
For the staff and Board of StoryCenter