Connecting local responses around the world
Day four at the Global Learning Festival bore testimony to the transformative and catalytic power of stories. Sanghamitra, who facilitated the opening session, asked us all to reflect on the day before and share one extraordinary insight that we might have found. Prabakar expressed his generous appreciation for the stall that Eric Ngabala and team (from Kinshasa) ran the previous day. He commented on how well-thought out the presentation was, and how Eric was able to switch seamlessly between a free-flowing explanation, the charts, and a video documentary running on a computer screen. To Prabakar, this showed a certain thoroughness with their work, which, we all will agree, is nothing short of impressive.
The most moving moment of the day was when one of the participants shared an instance of personal transformation. Not having ever met an Islamic woman wearing head scarf before, and an Asian at that, she confessed that she experienced quite a culture shock when she had to share a room with one such person. It really put her out of her comfort zone, and she even contemplated changing the room. But she decided to push her own boundaries of comfort and knowledge, and kept up her interaction. After a little over three days of relating, consciously, as a human being to another, she said that she was ashamed of her earlier thinking and that she had come to like her new friend so much that the idea of parting ways soon was heartbreaking. It was the most human moment of the event. How courageous of her to make herself so willingly vulnerable in front of so many people. There is a poignant lesson in there about how trust and vulnerability are much closer to strength and courage than we care to admit.
After this session, Jean-Louis took us straight into a brilliant assignment, where he focused on the techniques of storytelling. We started with the premise that we only have five minutes to share a story of transformation, either a personal one or one that happened in our communities. We should be able to give the setting of the story, tell the story itself, and end with a clear enunciation of what we derived from that experience. We arranged ourselves in groups of four and took turns telling our stories. At the end of it, we gave each other feedback about how to improve our storytelling skills. It was quite a lovely exercise. Without ending it there, Jean Louis pushed us to go the extra mile and tell the stories again in a different group, but now with the feedback from our earlier team members incorporated. Needless to say, all of this took quite a bit of time! Time very well spent!
The way I saw it, this exercise served some important purposes: Sharing of stories is useful at various levels. For one, just the opportunity to be able to share something and to be heard is very empowering. We are not always heard. We don’t always listen. When we experience others’ focused listening to our sharing, it makes us realize how much it could mean to the other person when we actually listen. What else do we have but stories? And when we decide to share a positive and empowering one, it sort of goes out in ripples. I do admit that I have also seen the flip side of it where storytelling can become a navel-gazing activity, with the teller caught up in his or her own narrative, and the listener deriving a kind of aesthetic or voyeuristic pleasure and nothing more. But here we were working with an intent, which was to hear how others had worked, what challenges they’d faced and overcome. Also, while we were focused on specific stories, we didn’t lose sight of larger pictures, because we were also working with a necessary selfishness: “How does this enrich me and my work?”
After this exercise, we got together with our SALT visit teams and pushed ourselves to work further. The goal of this exercise was: Based on our learnings from our own stories that we shared in the previous session, can we extract certain pithy and common pearls of wisdom? While we had all offered our individual stories in the previous session, now we were carrying them gently – ours and others’ – and grouping them together in terms of the precious wisdom they had to offer. For example, while the main lesson from my story was “Be the change, be an example,” someone else also had a story that shared the same spirit. While Cyril from Singapore found that her story taught her not to have assumptions and not to judge, Lalitha from Tamil Nadu felt that her key learning was to be always ready to be surprised. So it was amazing to see patterns and commonalities and to spell them out, write them down, and put them up on the walls.
At the end of these sessions, one of the participants exclaimed that she suddenly felt rich now that she had so many stories, that she knew so many people. What a way to understand abundance!