ISC President Kiran Singh Sirah was invited to Nashville to give a talk, “Storytelling: A Peaceful Power,” for TEDx. Says Sirah: “In May, I traveled to Nashville to give a first TEDx talk about storytelling. I’m a man of many ideas, so whittling down my thoughts for the TED format, which is concise, was the first challenge. I had to think a lot about what exactly it was that I wanted to say. My TEDx talk mentor told me to think of it as ‘an idea wrapped in a story.’ I liked that—it reminded me a bit of a burrito.
I’ve done a lot of public speaking, and I rarely get nervous, but this was a little different. The format is much more of a performance than most speaking engagements: no podium, no script, and a wide open stage. It helped me appreciate more than ever the preparation and skill that goes into storytelling as a performative art.
You can find the full video of my talk here. Have a look when you have a spare 15 minutes, or read the transcript below.”
I want to start with a quick show of hands. How many of you think of yourselves as storytellers?
My name is Kiran Singh Sirah, and I’m president of a nonprofit called the International Storytelling Center in Jonesborough, Tennessee. In my line of work, I’m inundated with stories all day, every day, and I love it. I believe passionately in the power that stories and storytelling have to bring peace, tolerance, and understanding to our world. Plus they’re a pretty great way to pass an evening.
By the way, in my professional opinion, I’d say you’re all storytellers. Why do I say this? I overheard you all over the lunch break.
I’ve been with the International Storytelling Center since 2013. But my organization’s work began just over 40 years ago, when a local high school teacher named Jimmy Neil Smith decided to save a dying mountain town by creating an annual storytelling event that he boldly called the National Storytelling Festival. That was a pretty fancy name for something that was literally 60 people gathered around a wagon. The stages were hay bales, if you can even believe it. But there was enough magic there to spark a movement—something my predecessor likes to call a storytelling revolution.
“Storytelling revolution.” It has a ring to it. Right?
Around the same time there were less quaint revolutions happening in other parts of the world. One of them involved my own family, who lived in Uganda at the time. In the summer of 1972—one year before the first storytelling festival in Jonesborough and four years before I was born—there was an announcement on Ugandan public radio from the then dictator, Idi Amin. He declared that all Ugandan Asians had three months to leave the country or they would all be executed.
That meant around 50,000 people, including my family, had three months to flee the country. Many fled the borders; my family left for Britain. They couldn’t carry much, and what they did have was taken by robbers on their way to the airport. Having left behind all their possessions and the tropical heat of East Africa, they arrived in a small English town called Eastbourne in the middle of a British winter. This is where I was born.
As Ugandan refugees, my parents stood out in my small hometown. My father wore a bright red turban and a colorful African shirt, and my mother an even brighter red sari. Later, my dad told me about overhearing a kid tell her mom, after seeing my dad: “Look mom aliens!”—meaning aliens outer space. My dad still loves telling that story.
For the most part, the vast majority of people were incredibly kind and welcoming to my family. But there were some that were not so welcoming. There was racism in our small community, but as a kid, that’s not how you think of it. I just knew it was hard to understand why I felt so different.
Home was always safe and familiar, but whenever I had to leave I felt like I had to be constantly on guard. It was hard to concentrate at school, and sometimes I ended up causing trouble instead.
Things started to change for me when my head teacher, in our weekly school assemblies started to tell stories. Mr. George was an older gentleman. He was white, like pretty much everyone else in my town. He wore a tweed jacket and a kind face. He told us folk tales and traditional stories from all over the world. One of them really spoke to me. It was about a prince who gave up all his worldly riches, and went out to explore the world. He took two objects with him: a cup and a toothbrush. One day he looked out to see a man breaking a twig from a tree and chewing it to release juices that would clean his teeth. And he realized he didn’t need his toothbrush, so he threw it away. Another day he saw someone bent down over a river, and cupping their hands together like a bowl in order to drink the water. So he threw away his cup, realizing he did not need that either.
Listening to that story, I began to observe the world in a different way. Not only did that story paint a picture of a world beyond what I already knew or understood around me, but it connected me to the idea that perhaps the world provides all the things we need to live in it. That story turned my fear to hope. It made me see possibilities where before I’d seen challenges. And it helped me see my own family’s difficult situation—my parents showing up in an unfamiliar country with nothing but the clothes on their backs—in a new way. They didn’t need material things to connect the new people and have new experiences…or to remember the old ones. I began to understand myself, the world, and my place in that world. I started to see the outlines of the story I wanted to see in the world, and how I could help make it happen.
Hearing that folk tale, it felt like Mr. George was speaking directly to me…and I expect that other students in totally different situations felt the same way. That’s part of the magic of a good story.
Fast forward many years, and I found myself thinking about Mr. George’s prince again when I left my job in Scotland to become a Rotary Peace Fellow at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. I more or less gave away all my possessions and packed what I could into two small suitcases. (I did pack a toothbrush, though.) I reflected back on my parents’ arrival in the UK all those years ago. They couldn’t take their personal possessions with them, but they took their memories and traditions, and kept them alive through the stories they passed onto me. Now I was doing the same thing.
At the University of North Carolina, my focus was on social justice, folklore, and storytelling. After I graduated I accepted my position at the International Storytelling Center. When I was about to move to Jonesborough, a friend said to me to be careful, that’s the Bible Belt—they’ll try to make you a Baptist. I myself am a Sikh. Of course my friend was joking, but I understood what he meant.
During my first week in Tennessee, a man–an older gentleman–called out to me from across the street. “Mr. Singh!” As he came closer, I could see him wearing a badge that read “son of Confederate veterans.” I wasn’t sure that was a good sign. But I had completely misjudged him: to my surprise, the first thing he said to me as he clasped his hands together was “Namaste, Mr. Singh. Welcome to Jonesborough.” He went on to speak some words in Hindi to me, and told me how I must join him when he next goes to the Hindu temple. And still to this day, he is trying to get me to go to the temple!
Just a few weeks after that, I was helping to host the 41st National Storytelling Festival. It’s not a 60 people and some hay bales type of event these days, by the way. The Festival has grown so much that we draw 11,000 from across the country and around the world, who all converge in Jonesborough for a long weekend of live storytelling.
I heard some amazing stories that first weekend, and I’ve heard many more since. One of them still stands out to me. It was evening, and I had joined the crowd in one of our circus-style big top tents to hear a master storyteller named Elizabeth Ellis. She closed her program with a story about a difficult and divisive time in this nation’s history: the Civil War.
Her story was about a group of Confederate mothers who were laying flowered wreaths at the gravestones of their fallen sons. When they saw that the gravestones of fallen Union soldiers were bare, in a powerful act of empathy, they decided to lay wreaths on those graves as well. In a sense, they were able to see the story behind the story. They could look past the day-to-day conflicts of war to recognize those Union soldiers were the sons of women that lived far away. They felt a strong connection to the grieving mothers on the other side of the conflict.
I remember looking around that evening and seeing people from all spectrums of this country and abroad–people of different races, religions, young and old–sitting together and experiencing that moment. And what this story did was remind me that no matter what is going on in the world, what truly matters is our humanity and the things that help us connect with another. I could clearly see what I already knew in my heart to be true: stories help us understand one another on a human level.
Harnessing the power of storytelling to build a better world is not easy, but I believe it’s an idea worth cultivating. We want to empower people all over the world to tell their stories—and to hear other people’s stories. To really listen. Because when we think about it, it’s an art for which you don’t need special equipment, or costumes, or anything, really. You don’t even need a toothbrush or a cup: the world provides you with everything you need.
In my work and in my life, I am incredibly fortunate at the local level to go into schools and help classrooms truly understand this country’s remarkable cultural heritage, and to work with health care providers to use story to connect with their patients and foster healing.
And on a global level, I get to work with key partners and collaborators to help spread the storytelling revolution. Places like the Smithsonian Institution, NASA, the National Endowment for the Arts, Google Cultural Institute, the United Nations, the Desmond Tutu Peace Foundation USA, and many others. We’re connecting the work of preserving storytelling as a traditional folk art and furthering it as a contemporary practice, doing things like digitizing years’ worth of our archives with the Library of Congress. And, through our connection with the network of Rotary World Peace Fellows, we get to support groups and communities around the globe, such as the indigenous communities in the Amazon, and help empower marginalized people to share their stories with the world.
Because stories matter. They matter a lot.
I’ll give you one small example. A few months back I was asked to lead a workshop for a group of high school students as part of a series of events in Charleston aimed at fostering dialogue, healing and community following the tragic events that took place last year when nine people’s lives were taken at Mother Emmanuel church.
I started off that workshop with the same question I asked all of you: “How many of you think of yourselves as storytellers?” Only a few hands went up. Then, I asked them to think about what home meant for them – to describe their city, their lives, and what matters to them. By the end of a three-hour workshop, all of them had a story to tell.
One soft-spoken student, Chanquaisha Drayton, decided to tell her story at a local storytelling event a few weeks later. She did so, she explained, as a sort of response to the way she sees black people portrayed on the news. She wanted to tell her story so other people would understand her through her own words, instead of somebody else’s.
I think, that’s huge, The process of owning your own story—and telling it in a way that makes sense to you—rather than letting other people tell that story. It was powerful for me as a listener to hear that story. I think that peace on a larger scale works according to the same set of principles: finding empathy and a sense of belonging.
That’s part of why I wanted to share my own story with you.
I was born in England. My mother was born in Kenya. My father was born in India. My brother was born in Uganda. My own family is a mini United Nations, and we’re all storytellers, keeping the old traditions alive, and finding new ones. Stories are always crossing borders. I spent the first part of my career in Scotland, and now I’m here in the U.S.—with my own stories, and the stories I’ve inherited from my family. And there are so many ways to do that, through personal stories, folk tales, pieces of history, and other forms that we haven’t even thought of yet.
A lot of people have helped me get to where I am today, but I give a lot of credit to the teacher who first showed me the power of story, Mr. George. There’s a way in which I feel like I’m carrying on his work now, hopefully on a larger scale.
I reconnected with Mr. George recently, by the way. Last year I googled my old elementary school and wrote to ask about the great Mr. George. I wanted to thank him for what he had taught me. Six months ago, I received a letter in the mail, and it was from him. Mr. Len George. As a kid, I had never known his first name. He’s 85 now, and has long since retired, but he remembers me. He remembered the house I lived in, and my mother. He told me how proud he was of me, and that he was still telling stories. He said if I was ever back home, to come and visit him.
Last November I did just that. He greeted me at the door of his home in Bexhill-on-sea, a little tiny seaside town near where I grew up. He was somewhat shorter then I remember, but then again, I was about nine years old when I last saw him. But he was still wearing the beautiful kind face that I remembered. We spent that entire afternoon and into the evening in typical English style, drinking copious cups of tea, eating cake and telling each other our favorite stories.
I showed him Jonesborough on a map. I explained how I got there.
I’m here today with an important message: each and every one of us is a storyteller.
We all have the opportunity to use our stories in big and small ways that are important. We can use them to connect with our families, our friends, our coworkers, and our communities. We can use stories as a binding force wherever there is conflict in our world.
I believe that we ALL can be the stories that we want to see in the world, and we can help others do that, too, just by listening.
Because, the power of the story will be with you wherever you go.
To quote my new friend in Jonesborough: Namaste.