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THE JOURNEY OF A STORY ACTIVIST

Written by Mary-Alice Arthur      Oct 3, 2017

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Over the past 10 years I’ve lived my life as an “intentional nomad”, allowing the call of people, place and work to create both the travel plan and the learning journey. Often people would ask me where I lived and would looked puzzled – or even shocked – when I said I didn’t live anywhere except where my suitcase was at that moment. I could see the worry in some people’s eyes – “How do you keep body and soul together? Where is your home?” and other eyes I saw the terrifying and stimulating glimpse of freedom, the call to let go old habits and follow their hearts into the world.

 

In truth, this lifestyle has been both a challenge and a gift. Every day I am taken to my learning edges. Sometimes travelling continuously can overwhelm you, sometimes it takes so much energy to care for the necessary things of life, sometimes it gets lonely or hard. On the other hand, there is the gift of being the witness to the sacred, of being welcomed into new learning with different people in different situations, sometimes what is beneath the surface reveals itself in new ways simply because I have not learned to avoid seeing it through the lens of place or culture.

 

And everywhere there are stories. This travelling life has made me into a StoryCatcher, collecting and experiencing stories which journey with me until they are needed in the next place, by different people. I guess I’m doing my part to weave the world together. But it was through this natural giving and receiving that I realised I was a Story Activist.

 

Any animal can follow the tracks of another. What makes us different is following that track and then wondering “what happened then?”. Our minds naturally make up stories to help us make sense of and deal with the world. They colour our experiences, we use them to hold on to what we’ve learned, they mould our characters and shape our actions. We almost cannot live without them. Stories are what make us human.

 

And they are so natural to us that they become invisible.

 

I fell in love with stories when I was very young, reading under the covers at night after I was supposed to be asleep. But I wasn’t aware of their power until I woke up to them at a storytelling festival in New Zealand in 1992. I saw the immediate effect of a good story on the audience and that set me on a pathway of discovery.

 

I became a storyteller by haunting the library and devouring all the stories I could find. I performed as a storyteller. I made hundreds of presentations in my work. Then in 2003 I discovered how storytelling was becoming a leadership tool and met others in the field all over the world. I wove storytelling into my facilitation work and brought it with me into the participatory leadership practice I was working with through the international Art of Hosting community.

 

It seemed that storytelling was a natural way I did my work, but I began to wonder how that work would unfold. What is my dance with story?

 

After hearing about Wade Davis’ work (www.daviswade.com) on endangered cultures and the ethnosphere in 2009 I spent a long time thinking about StoryFields. Each of us is a StoryField – the intersection of all the stories others hold about us and we hold about ourselves, as well as the stories of our culture, family line, tribe, ethnicity, beliefs, place and experience. I began to ponder the power of place and geography, and how stories can “co-opt” you – just like my birth accent helps people assume something about me even though I haven’t lived in that country for over half my lifetime now.

 

I began to realise that stories have an incredible power – sometimes so subtle we can’t see it – like a fish in water takes the water for granted – and sometimes given power because we feed it. It might be true that there are no true stories at all – we only tell the story from our own perspective and there are many perspectives on the same space/time event, no one truth – and it might also hold that all stories are true.

 

In 2011 I heard a Danish colleague of mine tell a story about the Danish education system that started with Denmark going bankrupt in 1813. It wasn’t the first time he’d told this little story, but with the backdrop of looming financial collapse in Europe, my ears pricked up. I simply knew this was a story that was important, not only for Denmark, but for the whole world. It wasn’t a story from a country I lived in, from a culture I knew well or in a language I understood, but I knew that it was my responsibility to put a stake in the ground. It was time for this story to live again.

 

Over the next years we worked with the story, regularly inviting people to hear it, to help harvest learnings from it, to work with it in different situations. We discovered it was a period of time most Danes knew nothing about, but also a time when some of the fundamental values of who they are today were being shaped. The story also held the keys of how to make the most of a crisis, how to work as a connected network – sometimes called “Trojan mice” instead of the more well known Trojan horse – and how to stay in conversation for long enough for transformation to become reality.

 

Working with this story made me realise that I am a Story Activist. I’m someone who listens for the stories that need to be reawakened, worked with in new ways or transmuted. And I’m someone who stands for using the power of stories for positive systemic shift. How can our stories help us to discover our potential and our possibilities together? What stories do we need to start telling? What stories do we need to look at a new way? What stories do we need to keep telling? And what no longer serves us? What stories do we need to stop telling? How can we – as individuals, groups and collectives – take back the power of our stories and use them for good?

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In the second half of 2014 I was handed one of my “edgiest” assignments to date. The brief arrived in my inbox labelled “storytelling train-the-trainers”, but like most stories, the simple beginning masked the challenges that lay ahead.

 

The seven day training was intended to support the Afghani Civil Service Institute, and was arranged by a large development agency. Immediately the complexity of the development world and the challenges of different organisational and human cultures working together, arose. And in addition, in order to give the participants a rest from the inherent stress of living in a war-torn country, the training was taking place in a completely different culture – with the city of Bangkok as a backdrop.

 

So imagine this – we meet our participants in the opening round for the first time, most of them don’t know each other either. We are not sure why they have been selected, but we quickly learn they are not trainers. There is a big diversity in their language skills and their capacities. Some of them have never travelled outside of their home places before.

 

At the same time, our participants remain intimately connected to everything that’s happening back home through their mobile devices. We never know exactly who will be in the room. Everything in the set-up is challenging us all to move past distraction and lean in. But can we build enough of a container for learning?

 

To add to the complexity, we were presenting concepts of leadership and story that are at times incomprehensible to our participants. We intuitively knew that we needed to use leadership as the doorway into storytelling, but there is simply no word in Dari that conveys what I am trying to tell them about story. I’m not talking about telling stories to children. I’m not speaking about fairytales or fables or even sitting around the fire. I’m talking about the human mind structured with and through stories and how we use them at every moment to make sense and meaning of the world.

 

I want them to experience how storytelling can make them better leaders and how it is shaping how they see the world now. I want them to become aware that they are living in a narrative and they can change it. But how can you help someone see that the “normal” they live in could be totally different?

 

On day 3 we notice half the group is not doing the exercise we had just briefed. It turns out that a suicide bomber had just blown themself up in Kabul and they are watching the footage on a smart phone. The trauma in the room becomes evident and no one can pay attention to the workshop. Nothing really seems to have worked to this point – is anything getting in?

 

By the end of Day 3, as our participants go off for an away day, our little team was in the depths of crisis. Can we sit in this fire until something opens? Can we trust what we have prepared? Can we trust each other? We are holding participants and ourselves in the struggle of coming to peace with the not knowing.

 

Finally I reach the place of knowing I have to surrender. I had to give up the expectation that anything I do will land with the participants. I had to give up that I know what I’m doing or that I’m even good at what I do. I told my colleagues “I don’t have to like them, but I have to love them enough to be in this work with them” – I have to find the ground of who I want to be in this work, rather than what I want to do. I have to trust – myself and us all – that the story will emerge and the magic in the middle will arise.

 

From that moment it is like following a trail of breadcrumbs out of the forest. They build models of the current reality and what the future could look like and this releases creativity and conversation on a new level. I ask them to tell the story of the future. I follow their creativity with the story “The Golden City” — a story I found more than 10 years ago and haven’t seen since, but which arrived in my mind like a blessing — and I see them lean in like everyone who is hearing a good story that lands in the heart. We talk about the role of leadership being one of invitation and how important their own leadership story is. The doorway is opened.

 

In the closing round we pass around a stone – a piece of deep blue lapis lazuli, a part of the land of Afghanistan itself – and we begin to hear just how much our time together has impacted them. Story and relationship are the common thread. Their voices are soft, their faces have changed, the circle is charged with emotion. Although there is a long road to come, we sense some seeds have been planted.

 

I came away from that work with both questions and a commitment. There are so many ways that we exercise violence on each other and so many possibilities to practice a different way of being. What would it take to shift the narrative of violence in so many parts of the world? How can we help each other to express ourselves in a different way? How may story serve? What is it that I need to learn, develop or foster that can enable me to be helpful at this time in the world?

 

How could Story Activism be a beginning for change? I think I found one of the keys to my own work with the group in Thailand: we live in a narrative, and that means we can change it. I am committed to staying in practice and discovering how.

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