Catching Up with the ISC Sheroes

Last summer, ISC introduced its latest Stories for Change youth initiative, an intensive two-week day camp for 10- to 13-year-old girls. The innovative program immersed its young participants in a blend of storytelling and storytelling-adjacent art forms like dance, poetry, and photography, empowering them to think and dream about their place in the world.

Earlier this week, a team led by ISC staffer Rachel Stiltner was among the winners of East Tennessee State University’s ETSU Elevates service grants, a Shark Tank-style competition that chooses worthy projects in the community to get a cash-based boost. The format required a pitch in front of a live audience of community members who voted on which projects to support.

The Shero program is unique in how its participants combine elements of folk tales, fairy tales, and fables to explore their identities, their family histories, and the problems that they see in the world. At the end of the program, the girls staged a live recital where they unveiled fictional characters they had imagined and developed, using the power of creativity to deal with disappointments and anxieties of everyday life. (You can check out a highlight video of last year’s performance event, shot by a young SHEro and filmmaker, here.)

Consider the gentle fantasy of one participant’s character, the Fairy God Baker:

Once upon a time, there was a little girl named Ella. Ella was six years old and lived in Glitter Land. She was very excited because today was her birthday! She looked most forward to having a birthday cake. She loved thinking about how beautiful and colorful it would be. This year, she hoped for a unicorn cake.

As Ella got ready for the day, her mother came into the room and said, “I am very sorry, but you will not be able to have a cake today. There is not enough money for a cake this year.” Ella started to get sad. Very Sad. Her smile went all the way upside down. Her mother tried to tell her not to be so upset, but it was no use.

Suddenly, Ella heard a noise from above and the ceiling started to shake. Glitter began to fall. Ella thought this was very strange! Suddenly, a figure in a beautiful dress, with an apron, and a whisk for a wand descended. “Who are YOU?” asked Ella. “I am the Fairy God Baker.” “WOW,” said Ella. But inside, she still felt very sad.

“Do not fret! Oh, sweetheart, I am here to help you solve your problems. Close your eyes and repeat with me: I whisk I may, I whisk I might, bake a cake that tastes just right!” The Fairy God Baker flicked her whisk and suddenly they were inside a big kitchen, with lots of gadgets and decorating supplies. I will teach you how to make a fabulous cake. And she did—a gift that Ella would use forever.

And in the blink of an eye, the Fairy God Baker was gone. Ella heard a whisper that said, “Go look in the dining room.” On the table, there was a beautiful unicorn cake, just like Ella wanted. Her smile flipped right side up again. Her birthday was a huge success!

After her birthday party, she wrote a note thanking the Fairy God Baker and sprinkled it with glitter so she would see it. She thanked her for the birthday cake and for teaching her something new. Ella promised to make another person’s birthday special every chance she could.

One thing you’ll notice is that the Fairy God Baker isn’t really the shero in this story. Instead, she empowers six-year-old Ella to solve her own problem. If you don’t have enough money to buy a birthday cake from the store, Ella learns, a good solution is to bake one yourself—and the final product is even more magical.

For several participants, anxiety about the future of global warming was palpable. Consider Alex’s story, which describes a girl who is the moon:

My name is Luna. I am the moon. My best friend is the ocean. Since the beginning of time, we have played together.

Now, she is in trouble. She doesn’t feel like playing anymore. She is angry much of the time. She is hurting and people are ruining her. I want to get down there and help her, but I can’t move. I look down on the ocean and I see her suffering. Do you know what it is that is so tragic? It is trash and plastic. It is dying coral reefs. Do you know what’s causing it? You. There are billions of people on the planet and everyone thinks that their trash or waste doesn’t add up. But it all makes its way to the ocean eventually. My friend can’t hold much more.

It is my job to shine light on the problems to try to get people to help my friend the ocean. Now that you have seen my light, it is your responsibility to help, too. If we all work together, you can fix this. Just like one person’s trash adds up, so do their efforts. Will you help us save my friend?

Notice how the participant describes and works through her emotions in the story. Playing the character, Luna, in the story created a safe space in which to deal with difficult emotions like anger, sadness, and worry. Instead of giving in to her own hopelessness, Luna reaches out and asks for help. She knows she can’t fix the problem on her own, but she can try.

Walking the line between fact and fiction, these simple stories contain rich emotional worlds. One participant dealt with a scary episode in her family’s life by casting herself as a detective, working to “solve the case” of her own confusion. Another participant dealt with her anxiety about pollution by imagining herself as a character who discovered she could talk to animals, and went to live with wolves.

In a post-program survey, all of our participants mentioned how the Shero program helped them better understand the value of their own stories, even when those stories were difficult. ISC will launch its second annual Shero program later this year, and is grateful for the grant support from ETSU Elevates as well as support from the Youth Endowment Fund of the East Tennessee Foundation

ISC thanks photographer Whitney Williams for her incredible portraits of our 2019 Shero participants, Faces by Ren for the amazing make-up, Jonesborough Repertory Theater for costuming, as well as the Storytelling Resource Place and  Jonesborough’s McKinney Center for their collaborative efforts.