In the 1990s, I was a guest artist at a summer camp in a deeply troubled neighborhood in Philadelphia. The brick row-house that housed the Neighborhood Center was across the street from Norris Square, a small, scruffy, city park. Each morning, abandoned drug paraphernalia had to be removed before our campers sat down for their opening circle on the park’s dusty ground. Along with some great community building activities I learned from the camp director Kathleen Luchtan and the wonderful … and educational interactions… I had with the residents of that “Empowerment Zone” neighborhood, I experienced the power of storytelling to validate and empower the listeners.
Upon arrival one sunny morning, I found myself in the midst of an intense drama. One of the teen-age assistants, hired under a city program called Phila-Job, had disappeared. She had not come home the night before, and her mother had waited till that morning to call the police. When I arrived, the Center was abuzz with Philadelphia police officers questioning her friends while other teens talked to each other trying to figure out where she was or who might have kidnapped her. Members of the neighborhood were out looking for her and there was a constant flow of people checking in and out of the Center. There were two local women, working with us through Ameri-Corps, spearheading the community response. This was a parallel search (and no doubt a more invested and informed one) to the official police investigation. There was great fear for the missing girl’s wellbeing.
I stayed with the younger children, doing storytelling and visual art projects as the staff, the “Phila-Job” teen assistants, the two Ameri-Corps women, and the police officers were all engaged in trying to find her. This went on for most of the morning. And then they found her, the two local women and her friends, not the police. We all breathed a sigh of relief.
Late that morning, our camp-community gathered together to re-set the day in the back yard “safe-space” of that old row house. After we all settled down on our folding chairs, Kathleen asked me to tell a story. Without thinking about it, I began to tell the Haitian folktale, “Tipingee,” the story of a young girl who is saved by her community. Its participatory chant allows everyone in the circle to help save the girl. I can still see us sitting in the fenced-in yard and the two Ameri-Corps women sitting there nodding at each other as the story unfolded, their, postures changing from an exhausted slump to alert, knowing pride. I can see their smiles and the smiles of so many in that circle as they realized that I was telling them their story, that they, that very morning, had taken action to save one of their own. For me, It was a moment of deep understanding of the power of storytelling to touch us, to validate us, and to heal.
I have since that day used Tipingee’s story, along with other stories, in times when events unfolding in the “real” world were impact us and my listeners. For instance, two days after the horrendous shooting at Sandy Hook elementary school, I was scheduled to give “warm-fuzzy” holiday program for adults and children in a coffee-house/art gallery. I found myself not changing the program, but definitely shifting how I framed it and told it. The children had a great time. The adults, hearing the same stories, heard deeper resonances that touched on, but did not name, the tragedy that was on all of our minds. They, too, enjoyed the program, but for different reasons.
I facilitate a workshop called On the Moment: Storytelling in Times of Crisis. I first led the workshop at the Sharing the Fire storytelling conference in 2002, principally as a response to 9/11. Unfortunately we now seem to be in a time of ongoing crisis. There have been a series of natural disasters and, as a rescue worker who came to NYC described the 9/11 attack, to me, “non-natural disasters” as well. One of the great gifts of storytelling is its flexible immediacy as well as its ability to address difficult topics indirectly through metaphor. As storytellers, our ability to respond to what is happening, both in the world and in the listeners who have gathered to hear story, presents us with the opportunity to not only entertain, but to ease minds and hearts, strengthen individuals and create community. What kinds of stories, what themes, what images can we bring when asked to show up for our listeners when the world is falling down? Storytellers know!
(for information on the workshop, contact me: firstname.lastname@example.org) The story referenced is: “I’m Tipingee, She’s Tipingee, We’re Tipingee Too,” a story from The Magic Orange Tree by Diane Wolkstein)