Saturday, January 22, 2005

Story as a force for social change has such a nice, quaint sound, doesn't it? Images of kids cuddled under the covers, Mom or Dad holding their rapt attention, or the local librarian, children gathered in a half-circle at her feet as she shares fairy tales.

Storytelling can indeed be those things. While the warm images create a kind of Norman Rockwell feel, there are other images that can be brought up as well. Children sharing a story with a social worker, telling about the abuse they've suffered through the "safe" metaphor of story. Families in a shelter, enjoying a respite from their uncertainty as a storyteller volunteers her time to tell here. Inmates in a prison, most often young men, held rapt as another volunteer shares stories of the hero's journey, so that they might later tell their own hero's journey tale, perhaps reframing their concept of what it means to be a hero.

All of these are examples I've encountered, with the common goal of using the gift of story, and the teller's gifts, for something beyond simple story sharing. Though at first glance, it might sound trite...telling stories in prison? some of these cases, it may very well be the first time these young men have experienced the power of archetypes told in direct fashion. There are some who will even go so far as to suggest that some of the violence of youth seen in society today has been a reaching for story, stories not heard at those points in development needed to help build a moral conscience.

I'll leave that theory to the social scientists to debate. For my own experience, I've seen first hand the value of story as a force for social change. As a member of the Bluff Country Talespinners, I've been privileged to tell stories at Place of Grace, a food ministry in the LaCrosse area. This is a unique ministry, which aims to create a space to build community. As a volunteer, I might be serving food, but next to me is another volunteer who is also a "regular." Located in a big old American Foursquare house, there is no separation from the servants and the served. We joke, we eat together, and after the meal is served--the Talespinners tell stories.
Some nights, the crowd is large, everyone piled into the various overstuffed couches and chairs in the living area, others sitting at the table in the next room. No one leaves. When we finish, one of the regulars comments "Lots of people came, because they were hungry for stories."

I'm drawn to this place and hopeful that maybe I can provide stories more often than the annual event the Talespinners provide. No one should have to wait a whole year to have their story plate served. For now, story is working in service of the world community, raising money for those people affected by the tsunami of December 26. StoryTsunami is a worldwide effort that is the brain child of storyteller Lee-Ellen Marvin. Story guilds and other groups are organizing story events that will be benefit programs to raise funds for relief efforts in that part of the world. I'm hopeful that efforts here in LaCrosse will soon be added to the list of events growing every day. Stories from the areas affected will be shared in a local coffeehouse, warming the hearts of listeners in exchange for donations for the relief effort. In these times of divisiveness, efforts such as this are a ray of hope for the human race.


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