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Introducing Stories for Change, ISC’s Youth Empowerment Initiative

One of the most exciting things about our work at the International Storytelling Center is helping regular folks see how stories can enrich their everyday lives. We produce hundreds of hours of world-class programming every year with performers who tell stories for a living, but the flip side of our work (the side that people often aren’t aware of) is exploring how stories can solve real-world problems, heal painful divides, and bring people closer together. Our philosophy is very simple: We believe in the power of storytelling to change the world. It all sounds grand (and it is!), but it’s also important to remember that changing the world often unfolds in small, practical steps—one story at a time, so to speak.

To back up for a minute, ISC began as a preservation effort to celebrate and protect an endangered oral tradition. It’s important work and a huge part of our mission, but over time we have realized how important it is to remember that storytelling is always flowing, flexing, and emerging in different forms. Years ago, we began Stories in Motion as a series of digital features to take a look at the way storytelling intersects with other art forms, as well as how it unfolds organically in the real world. ISC’s commitment to exploring storytelling in its many guises has led to many new, rewarding partnerships in recent years, such as the our collaboration with Poetry Out Loud, which brings a young national champion to perform poetry at the Festival each year, and the Gee’s Bend quilters, a community of incredible artists who we were very lucky to host at the Festival in 2017.

At ISC we often talk about how to bring the power of storytelling to people around the world. But we’re also mindful of our responsibility to the people here at home in the East Tennessee region. This past summer, we launched a youth empowerment initiative called Stories for Change. The idea was to create a series of educational and motivational—and fun!—workshops to help local kids tap into the power of storytelling. We used storytelling and storytelling-adjacent arts like dance and photography to work with these young people so they can break down barriers and brighten our communities.

To put it another way: Much of our audience knows us for ISC’s work in performance, including live events like the National Storytelling Festival, and preservation, as we partner with institutions like the Library of Congress to protect oral traditions from around the world. With Stories for Change, we’re flexing storytelling practice to address real-world challenges and promote positive change. In 2018, our dynamic group of kids worked with master storytellers, working artists, and other guest teachers to examine different ways to share their personal stories, as well as the stories that are unfolding around them.

One of our brilliant workshop leaders was Whitney S. Williams, a professional photographer. Whitney challenged our group to capture stories from their everyday lives through the lens of a disposable camera. To celebrate the end of the program, ISC hosted a gallery exhibit, “No Filter,” that showcased their work.

All things must come to an end (at least for this year), and our kids had to get back to school, but we’re so grateful that the first season of Stories for Change was a success. We knew that working with this bright group of young people would impart the skills they need to change the world, but we didn’t anticipate how much we’d learn from the process. See you next summer!

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Stories in Motion is a regular feature in which ISC examines the fresh ways we see the power of storytelling at work in the world.