I was recently asked to deliver the keynote address at Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library plenary conference, a three-day event in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. The event occurs every two years with the mission of bringing together all the organization’s affiliates and chapters. I met teachers, librarians, educators, donors, and many other kinds of people who made the initiative a success. The idea was to come together, share ideas, plan, and network—and hopefully be inspired.
The Imagination Library is part of Dolly’s nonprofit work, grown from an initiative she started back in 1995. It provides free books to kids all over the world. At the opening dinner, I spoke on the lawn of the DreamMore Resort. During the meal, I sat next to a member of the board, an attorney who had helped Dolly go through the logistics to set up her nonprofit more than 20 years ago. Next to him was a teacher—one of the first advisors and promoters who had worked on the project. And on the screen, beamed to us in the form of a video message, was Dolly herself, who thanked us for our work.
That night, when I returned to my hotel room (at the DreamMore Resort, of course) someone came to my door with a lovely bunch of flowers. When I looked closer, I saw that it had a personal letter that had been signed by Dolly. She was thanking me for speaking and for working with her affiliates. She mentioned that she often tells stories in music, and thanked me for taking time out to talk about the art of storytelling.
My talk had gone down very well that evening, I think. I had spoken simply about the things that matter to me, as well as some of the people who have inspired or influenced me. (That included Dolly Parton!) I spoke about how stories connect us to people we might not normally get to meet in person. A story is more than just a narrative on its face—it’s also a tool that can build connections between people, whether that’s author and reader, parent and child, or storyteller and listener. These partnerships are hugely important to our development as individuals, but they’re also one of tools we can use to build a better world.
Our work at ISC and Dolly’s work with the Imagination share much in common. I sometimes think about how ISC was founded before I was born. Yet here was a cause that I felt I could contribute to and even help lead. Taking this role not only made sense on a logical level; it also felt right in my heart. It’s a huge privilege to advocate for people who don’t normally have a voice in arts circles, lead projects and programs, and oversee ISC’s huge raft of programming. I love watching my team grow, nurturing their abilities and talents and potential to see themselves as leaders. I love the beautiful connections we’re strengthening with our community, the region, and other places in the world. I love promoting diversity and guiding people in the project of sharing their own stories and collecting new stories from other people. This work feels like the antidote to some of the darker things that are currently happening in our world.
We all have something very important to contribute, because we each have a story.
During the Imagination Library conference, I led a workshop and enjoyed many one-on-one conversations. It’s always nice to be present after giving a talk, since there are usually people who want to process it with you but are maybe a little too shy to ask questions out loud. That’s absolutely okay. (I’m an extrovert that loves introverts, too!) The process is nice because I always learn something from it as well. I think that’s one of the most important pieces of the stories about ourselves and that we have to share—what brought us to the causes we care about. It’s a great starting place.
One of the most interesting things about the Imagination Library is that it’s not a place; it’s a program, or more poetically an idea. A place is somewhere you have to go, whereas an idea is something that easily flits back and forth across borders. Each month, kids who are enrolled in the Imagination Library receive a free book in the mail—a gift that shows them new possibilities and hopefully sparks a lifelong love of reading. In storytelling, we don’t really have a product we can send in the mail. But the idea is similar: a storyteller transmits a story with the ability to change its listeners, to in turn to change the world. And once the gift has been received, it can be carried.
Stories of all kinds can transport you from one place to another, even if that journey is only in imagination. They can help lift people out of difficult circumstances, or show you what it’s like to be someone else. Stories encourage us to get outside our own point of view.
During the conference, as I spoke to Imagination Library affiliates from across the US, Canada, and even the UK, I thought about how ISC has had ambassadors and champions to help spread the word about our work. We didn’t become a world-class institution on our own. One of the best ways to get involved with our work at ISC is to come to Jonesborough, to the National Storytelling Festival or one of our Storytelling Live! performances. But it’s not necessary to make the physical trip. Stories will come and meet you wherever you are. Our website has tons of resources (and will soon have more) for people who want to become more involved with storytelling.
In the time before I came to ISC, I worked in so many different capacities, as an artist, a teacher, a museum curator, and a peace activist. One thing that has been interesting across those roles is they were all terrific preparation for a career in storytelling.
Dolly Parton is many things of course, but I often think of her as a storyteller. I don’t just mean her incredible power as a lyricist. Her own life’s story as a little girl who grew up in poverty, but refused to accept the narrative that had been imposed on her, is powerful. She overcame obstacles and went out into the world, and she worked hard to share glimpses of that world with others back in her own tiny community in the mountains of Tennessee. She’s always looked for ways to give back to her community. And even initiatives like the Imagination Library, which have spread far and wide, began with her at home.
I often think of Dolly’s unofficial motto, “Dream more, learn more, care more, be more.” My advice to you is the same message I delivered during my keynote presentation: Channel your inner Dolly! Together, we can harness the power of stories to change the world.