by ISC President Kiran Singh Sirah
When the pandemic pressed pause on our in-person events for almost three years, ISC moved most of our events online. Last October, when our live Festival resumed, the occasion was a huge celebration and a homecoming—and it was also a logistical challenge. Anyone who produces live events can tell you that pivoting back to in-person staging was almost as difficult as pivoting to virtual events had been in the first place. The world changed. Supplies and labor had become more expensive; some businesses had closed; and professionals had changed jobs, or quit, or retired.
It seems funny to say that the storytelling industry was hit by supply chain problems, but it’s true! There were a lot of hiccups, variables, and unknowns that we had to consider. But our core purpose as an organization and as an event had not changed. We knew that people needed storytelling more than ever to heal, to commune, and to laugh. With that in mind, we worked hard to adjust the logistics and establish new relationships, and generally did what it took to move the work forward. The show went on.
We have all learned that a pandemic doesn’t neatly break down into a “before” and “after.” As we return to the world (and the world returns to us), we find ourselves here, changed, in a liminal space. For me personally, last year’s Festival was a chance to introduce my new wife and stepdaughter to the inner circles of storytelling. Six-year-old Mirabel instantly became a superfan, and she gave me the opportunity to see the event through a young person’s eyes. I talked with my wife Marie about what she found meaningful. The way a story sounds and lodges in your head and heart can vary depending on who’s sitting next to you. Perhaps a tale you’ve heard many times before lands in an entirely different way. Perhaps you’re a different person than when you last heard it.
One of my favorite sessions at the Festival was when storytellers Elizabeth Ellis and Peter Chand shared the stage. As many of you know, Elizabeth has been a featured teller at our Festival for decades. Peter was a new voice, a British storyteller with Punjabi heritage. His idea was that he and Elizabeth should explore a folk tale, sharing the story and the history of the story—how it’s changed across cultures and traditions and time. As a folklorist, I live for this kind of thing, but I know that other people enjoyed it, too. The performance explored some of the core truths of storytelling: that stories belong to all of us, that they take many forms, and that the similarities and differences reveal important details and information and insights about our collective past.
Stories also inform our shared future. If you joined us in Jonesborough for the Festival, you may have seen the Wish Tree in the lobby of our Center. It was an interactive exhibit where we asked people to write a wish, dream, prayer, reflection, or hope on a white paper tag that was then tied to the branches of the tree.
“Release your wish into the world,” the sign said, “and have faith that, together, we can work to make these intentions real.”
Hundreds of people participated, and the wishes ranged from very specific (to find a lost wedding ring, to get a family pet) to more reflective goals for society. Some people wrote just one word (“forgiveness,” “pax”), like they were establishing a theme for the year. Many wishes were for health and happiness, underlining that, whatever our differences may be, most of us want the same things from life.
Years ago, when I worked for a museum of religion in Glasgow, Scotland, we had a “talk back board” where visitors could respond to our exhibits. It generated feedback to our work, but also prayers, ideas, and tributes. In turn, we workers would read and reflect on these comments on our own time. This silent conversation had an almost sacred quality that came to feel like part of the overall experience of the museum.
ISC’s Wish Tree and the museum’s talk back board were concrete representations of the hopes and intentions that, collectively, we send out into the world. These thoughts and wishes might be unspoken. But they still help shape the character and environment of a place – in this case, our world. They help shape the future.
I want to keep that in mind as our ISC community expands and grows. At the 2022 Festival, we began celebrating our 50th year. That celebration carried through from Jonesborough to our virtual Festival, a hybrid event where people from all over the world watched top-quality video footage from the live event. We’re part of the fabric of community here in our geographic location in Jonesborough, which is, in turn, part of a much larger tapestry.
Like everything else—like me and you, and the world around us—ISC has changed and grown. Last year, for instance, I worked closely with many new partners, including the National Center for Dispute Resolution at a conference on special education. I feel a close affinity with their work, which is informed by my past experience at a program founded by Helen Keller, as well as the fact that I recently became the caregiver of a small child. Last year I also worked with Yo-Yo Ma for a convening at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. These relationships are new manifestations of the work that ISC has long been committed to, using storytelling to build more healthy and peaceful communities. And we all share a similar intention, which is working together to support and empower people from different walks of life.
We change the world and the world changes us. I’ve been reflecting on that theme in my discussions with the ISC board and staff, as we center the importance of responding to society’s needs. It’s our responsibility to ensure that ISC and storytelling aren’t siloed from the world, but responsive and reflective to it. We are always in conversation. Our experience with our families, our traditions, and our personal identities all feed into who we are as an institution. And they help us craft better, more impactful, responses to real-world challenges in our small town, in our region, across the South, across the nation, and all over the world.
Storytelling is a gift of hope because it gives us the agency to speak as well as the mandate to listen. It is, by definition, a peaceful dialogue of give and take. Our collective wish for a better world isn’t imposed by an authority; it’s generated and harnessed from within. This organic nature gives storytelling incredible power to make sustainable positive change, shaping a better future for ourselves and for many more generations.
My word—my wish, my theme—for this year, then, is hope. I invite you to meditate on the concept with me, as we think about how we can show one another more compassion and embed the culture of deep listening into our daily lives. We all have the potential to be changemakers through the humble act of having respectful conversations in which we honor and celebrate our differences. As we search for common ground, to make it real, we have to have faith that it exists.