Telling Stories for Peace

Last week, Kiran Singh Sirah, ISC’s executive director, headed out to San Diego to give the keynote address for the Rotary International World Assembly. He was honored to share some of the thoughts and ideas borne from his training in social justice, folklore, and the arts in front of an audience that included representatives from all world nations and leaders representing Rotary’s 1.2 million-member family. A little California sunshine in the middle of winter was an added perk.

Kiran will be meeting the Rotary World Peace Fellows at a 10,000-strong global peace and conflict symposium in Brazil later this year. Meanwhile, here’s a condensed version of his talk, “Telling Stories for Peace.”

My name is Kiran Singh Sirah and I am a Rotary Peace Fellow.


There is a saying: The world is like a book, and those who do not travel will have only ever read the first page. For me, storytelling is a way to travel the world. Today I am here to tell you my story.

As you can tell from my accent, I’m not actually from Tennessee. While I now live and work in the United States, I was born and raised in England and Scotland. My mother was born in Kenya. My father was born in India. My brother was born in Uganda. I like to think of my own family as a sort of mini United Nations. It was a good starting point for seeing the world as one family with diverse stories to tell.

Human beings tell stories. It’s part of our DNA. Stories enrich us and help us build communities.  They have the power to touch hearts, excite our minds, make us laugh, and bring us to tears. They let us experience the world by giving us the power to transcend borders, time, and space.

But our world is troubled. In 1972, my family fled our home in Uganda at gunpoint. Expelled by the dictator Idi Amin, we were among around 50,000 who were forced to settle in new countries. My family went to Britain. We couldn’t take our homes, our places of worship, or our personal possessions, but we had our traditions and beliefs. They were placed with care in stories that were passed to me and to others. As first-generation British Asians, we used these stories to form a sense of our own dual identity and our place in the world. I told the same stories on the school playground, and later used them to fight off the slurs of racism. They became my greatest tool.

In 2001, on a whim, I moved to Scotland. I was changing, and so was the world. On TV, we watched twin towers collapse. I started to think beyond my own personal comfort zone. My life was redefined not only as a New Scot but also as a global citizen, where every moment and every connection meant something. I was determined to make a difference.

It was around that time I met two Rotarians that listened to my story. They went on to tell me the inspiring story of Rotary’s founder, Paul Harris. Fast-forward to 2013, when I completed my Rotary Peace fellowship here in the U.S. Soon after, I was appointed Executive Director of the International Storytelling Center in Jonesborough, Tennessee. Now I lead the world’s premiere storytelling institution, harnessing the power of story to change lives and build a better world.

While I was still studying as a Fellow, I had to leave the U.S. for a short time. Upon my return, I went through customs. As a single brown man, I’m not unfamiliar with special questioning from airport officials! But on this occasion, when the customs officer asked me why I was here, I told him I was a Rotary Peace Fellow. I told him a bit about the program, and how it’s become the most prestigious educational program of its kind. He handed back my passport, looked me in the eye, and smiled. He thanked me for helping to make our world a better place. He said, “We need people like you in our world.”

But I am just one of 800 Rotary Peace Fellows across the world. As a Rotary Peace Fellow, I can say with my hand on my heart: Rotarians, we need people like you in our world! You’re the reason that people like me can make a difference in the world—empowering us to negotiate the complex conflict-resolution programs and build the legacy of our Rotary Family, which is more than 1.2 million members strong.

To achieve peace in our world, we must continue to tell our stories. So as I close here, I would like to invite you all to repeat after me.

We are all storytellers.

We are all peacemakers.

Our stories enrich.

Our stories build community and peace in our world.

My name is Kiran Singh Sirah and I am a Rotary Peace Fellow.

Thank you for being part of my story.