It’s been just over a year since I took up post as Executive Director of the International Storytelling Center. I will never forget driving from Chapel Hill to Jonesborough, crossing over the mountain to begin a new life. My Subaru was packed with all my worldly possessions—I had only just completed my two-year Rotary fellowship, so I was traveling light—and I felt ready for adventure.
From those first days, I recognized that I had been dropped into an amazing story. I recall having breakfast with my predecessor Jimmy Neil Smith. It was such a privilege to connect with our founder, and that great meeting has since turned into a special friendship. Soon after that I attended my first ever Festival, where I had a chance to meet many of our wonderful seasonal staff members, as well as 500-some volunteers and the master tellers that share their craft with us. People told me about their memories of the tellers that have performed here since 1973, and it was clear that greats like Ray Hicks, Kathryn Windham, and Jackie Torrence are still remembered in the hearts of listeners today. I saw how embedded storytelling is in this community and beyond.
Over the past year, I have visited storytelling conferences, projects, and festivals from Alabama to Singapore. I’ve had the honor of representing ISC and our work at the UN headquarters in New York City and participating in a digital peace conference in Washington, D.C. As I travel, I continue to learn about the impact of the storytelling movement on diverse traditions all over the world—those who are, like me, passionately committed to storytelling. While those trips have been inspirational, I’m always glad to return to Jonesborough, which is not just home to the world’s longest running storytelling festival—it’s also a spiritual home for storytelling itself.
In my role at ISC, I’ve enjoyed some great opportunities to forge and deepen relationships and partnerships with people and organizations that are exploring the power of storytelling in different ways, and from different perspectives. From my own background as an advocate for community building, I strongly believe in the power of storytelling to change lives, particularly in marginalized communities. I’ve seen firsthand the power of storytelling to bring people together. Through participation and active listening, storytelling plays such a crucial role in shaping culture and helping people gain a sense of who they are and how they want to tell their story to the world.
I may have arrived with just a car full of possessions, but one year on I have gained so much: new friends, new neighbors, and a vibrant network of storytelling connections to help ISC build a better world through the power and artistry of storytelling. I’m so encouraged by the support we’ve had this year, both for the organization and for me in my new role.
Thank you for making my first year so memorable and productive. I hope to see you in Jonesborough October 3-5 so we can experience the 42nd National Storytelling festival together!
By Kiran Singh Sirah