Saving Lives Through Story

Last month I traveled to the Pentagon for a project led by the Collaborative and Adaptive Security Initiative (CASI), which is part of a Department of Defense organization called the Center for Civil-Military relations. Its goal was to bring together a diverse group of people from across the wildly different sectors of military and training, academia, think tanks, peacebuilding and faith-based organizations, and nongovernmental organizations like ISC. There were members of the State Department, the Navy, Army, and Marines milling around with the likes of me and Melanie Greenberg (an ISC board member), a global specialist in peacebuilding—a very unusual group!

We gathered offsite at George Washington University for the invitation-only event, which was called “Engaging Narratives.” The event was part of ISC’s ongoing dialogue about storytelling with the Pentagon, which started last year.

One of the first people to speak was the project’s sponsor, Frank DiGiovanni, who is the Director of Training Readiness and Strategy at the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness. (Quite a title!) He started with a powerful demonstration, asking everyone in the room to raise our hands if we wanted to go to war. No one did, obviously, underlining a basic lesson that’s easy to forget in times of conflict: no one ever really wants a war.

The two-day conference included discussions from experts in cyber warfare, anthropology, artificial intelligence, and peacebuilding, among others. As a storytelling expert, I was invited to open the event with an address on the power of storytelling, both as an art form and a tool for peace. I shared some of my professional experience working in Northern Ireland, Scotland, Colombia, and the Middle East, as well my family’s personal experience as refugees. I also talked about a story-based communications training session that I led as a Rotary Peace Fellow in Fort Benning, Georgia, where I trained commanders to use their personal stories about faith and family heritage to build connections with tribal leaders in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as with their own troops.

On the table were topics like humanitarianism, building peace, preventing conflict, fostering direct engagement in areas of conflict, and using culture in other ways to build understanding all around the world. We also looked at some of the factors that lead to conflict, such as poverty and instability. It was a very interactive event—around 70 participants altogether. I’m told this was the first time that such a diverse group of specialists and disciplines were gathered in this way. I talked to many people who are interested in coming to Jonesborough to experience our Festival firsthand!

It was a powerful thing, to have the opportunity to talk about the ways in which storytelling can not only enrich lives, but also literally save lives. It furthered my thinking on storytelling as a tool for building peace and understanding in our troubled world even as we advance our own mission as an organization. Theses strategic partnerships are just one aspect of ISC’s efforts to build a better world through the power of storytelling.

Reflecting on the event and the conversations I’ve had with many of the participants in the time since, I’m reminded of a quote from the cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.” It was a series of excellent and encouraging discussions that helped me think further about the challenges—and opportunities—we face as a global community.  I’m excited to continue building smart partnerships that will help shift our world’s narrative more towards peace and understanding.

Kiran Sirah