Stories That Are Changing the World: A Report from Brazil

For the past ten days I’ve been reconnecting with my fellow Rotary Peace Fellows at a world peace symposium in São Paulo, Brazil. I was in the company of many talented friends and colleagues, including representatives from organizations like the World Bank and the United Nations, as well as global peace consultants and specialists in health, government, peace, security, and education. It was an incredible group of some 80 interdisciplinary peace advocates and 10,000 Rotarians from all over the world.

Of course, I approached our conversations through the lens of story. I was there not just as a Rotary Peace Fellow, but also as a representative of storytelling and ISC. (I even led a workshop on using storytelling as a tool in collaborations.) As I moved around the conference talking with other Rotarians, I shared ISC’s vision of building a better world through storytelling. But as a folklorist, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to collect stories, too. What I found was that everyone had a story to tell about what originally inspired them to work for peace.

As I write this blog in a café in São Paulo, it’s interesting to think about my own journey from the United Kingdom to Tennessee, where I live and work. I spoke to people who, like me, have felt called to serve in places far from home. Take, for instance, Juliana, a Ugandan peace fellow who’s now located in Sudan. She told me about the very moment she became committed to working for peace. She was in Kampala, Uganda’s capital, enjoying a quiet moment that she realized was marked by the lack of a familiar sound: gunfire. She wanted everyone to be able to experience that feeling.

I also learned about the experiences of Jewish and Muslim fellows who had worked on interfaith projects in war-torn Sierra Leone. I heard from people working with Syrian refugees, people studying the aftermath of Ebola in Liberia, and people working to build peace in Myanmar, Somalia, and Cambodia. I spoke to two friends based in the Amazon rainforest who are establishing a peace center that supports indigenous cultures and communities. Through tears, a fellow Brit told me about the reason he works for peace: his two granddaughters. I also listened to a Brazilian Rotarian, a shy man who shared a powerful personal story of growing up in extreme poverty and losing his father at a young age. That hardship had inspired him to build a better world for others.

In formal sessions, too, speakers took turns sharing their stories. Steve Killelea, an Australian entrepreneur, talked about how his travels sparked his desire to contribute to something larger. He went on to found the Global Peace Index, an incredible tool that has been praised by the Dalai Lama. Keynote speaker and Nobel Prize laureate Dr. Óscar Arias, who is the former President of Costa Rica, spoke to us about how peace is not just a process, but also an art. Later, in private conversation, upon seeing that my nametag said “Johnson City,” he shared a remarkable coincidence—he happens to be an alumnus of ETSU, a college located within walking distance of my current home.

Taking in these stories, I was struck by how these different regions around the world share a deep connection through story. As Rotary Peace Fellows, we are all people who have dedicated our lives to building a better world in the best way we know how. While there is no one strategy that will accomplish this, I saw how important it is to share best practices across locations and disciplines to inspire innovation and promote creativity. Sharing our personal narratives strengthened our fellowship and will no doubt influence our work.

At the International Storytelling Center, I have the privilege of working with storytellers who are masters of the craft. They have shown me how storytelling is an art form that requires great skill and artistry. But at the same time, they’ve helped me see storytelling as a tool that belongs to all of us. Stories help us forge unlikely connections and understand traditions, beliefs, and experiences from places that might have otherwise remained unfamiliar. Sharing stories also helps remind us of why, as artists and peace builders and citizens, we do what we do.

Human rights and global peace are huge (and even intimidating) topics, but they are not larger than life. This work starts at the local level. As Gandhi once said, to achieve peace in the world, we must start with ourselves. By sharing stories at home or at conferences, we establish the connections we need to work for larger change. To share a story is a gift of love. Listening to my fellow Rotarians, I understood it is a gift that is changing the world.