Stories as Living Political Movements

Photo by Elliott Childress

As part of the new Stories as Medicine training sessions we’ve been developing at ISC, I’ve been working closely with colleagues in Australia via Zoom videoconferencing. This requires some creative scheduling on my end, due to the time zones. (Technically, it’s already tomorrow in Australia!) Some of the workshops I’ve led have started after dinnertime and run late into the evening. If you’ve been to Jonesborough for the National Storytelling Festival, you may know that our ISC headquarters are housed in a historic site called the Chester Inn. It’s a very old building (established in 1797), and as with many old buildings, a few ghost stories come attached to it. Years ago, a visitor to Jonesborough told one of our staff members about a man who was looking out of a window, waving. I’m the only man who works at ISC—but I hadn’t waved at anyone from the window. Spooky! Since we heard that story we’ve all felt a bit different about working alone in the office after dark. I’ll admit that when I’ve been completely alone there, I’ve checked over my shoulder a few times.

Yet the feeling in Jonesborough late at night can also be quite magical, especially during the summer. It reminds me of the Festival, when I’ve walked the grounds in the wee hours of the morning. It’s eerie, because most of the town is asleep, but also cool. My office is old, with wooden floors and one of those old-fashioned fireplaces. Outside it has a spacious porch. That night, it was very hot, so I opened the door leading out onto the porch and on to the street. It’s very nice sometimes to take a break on that porch and breathe the night air. I can look out onto Main Street, across the plaza, to the court house, and imagine all the people that have passed through the town over its long history.

One night a few weeks ago I was videoconferencing with a wide group of people involved in public health in Australia: essential health care workers, community health groups, social workers, and more, including people of the Australian First Nations. I began the workshop with a traditional welcome, a custom for starting meetings or more formal events. It’s to honor aboriginal people as the traditional custodians of the land. I was leading the acknowledgment for the first time, so I had to make sure I had the details right and knew how to pronounce all the words correctly. But I had also been asked to personalize it in some way, to share my own perspective. Jonesborough has its own complicated history as Cherokee land and the home of Andrew Jackson, who was unkind to Native American populations. I think it’s very likely he stayed here at the Chester Inn, perhaps in the area that now serves as my office.

As the workshop progressed, I talked about the Black Lives Matter movement in the U.S. I quoted my friend Adam Dickson, a black man who is an alderman in Jonesborough. Soon after that, while we were all taking a break, I happened to look out and see a Black Lives Matter vigil taking place across Main Street. By candlelight, maybe 100 or so members of the Jonesborough community were reading aloud the names of victims of violence and police brutality. I recognized some people, but not everyone. Black, white, and brown people were lining the street, wearing masks, spaced out six feet from one another, and it was truly something to see. A beautiful sight. Occasionally a car drove by, slowing down as a sign of respect.

Sometime before this a friend shared with me an image from a Melbourne paper that showed another candlelight vigil, in Australia, spelling out “I can’t breathe” in 433 candles. On the call, we talked about how there were 432 for the indigenous Australians who have reportedly died in police custody there since 1991—and how the 433rd candle was for George Floyd. You can see how these events are connected on a very deep level that even resonated across this video training session, spilling out from my computer screen and onto the Jonesborough street in real life. That night we discussed how stories aren’t static; they’re part of living movements—stories in progress that are still being developed as part of our collective history. Our shared global narrative. Connecting with one another through story is such a sacred and politically important act.

Later I wondered if anyone saw me looking out my office window that night. Or perhaps if they saw someone else. I found myself wondering what Andrew Jackson would think—or if I even cared.

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