'Magical': Storytelling Festival offers opportunity for peace building, understanding

Jonathan Roberts • Oct 6, 2019 at 9:00 AM

Ask any storyteller at the National Storytelling Festival what they feel their stories are doing, and most will give you the same answer: They’re peacebuilding.

“I look at storytelling as bridge-building, peacebuilding, understanding — it’s just like what I said on stage, ‘storytelling begets understanding, understanding begets respect, respect begets justice, justice begets peace,’ ” said Antonio Rocha, a Brazil native who shared his stories of being an immigrant, and celebrating his three decades in America.

If Rocha’s view of storytelling sounds familiar, that’s because International Storytelling Center Director Kiran Singh Sirah has a similar, albeit slightly different saying.

“Storytelling brings us to a space of shared identity, and it’s in that space that we (start) peacebuilding,” Singh Sirah told the Press in September. “Storytelling leads to connection, connection leads to understanding, understanding leads to peace.”

And it’s that sense of peacebuilding that’s central to the National Storytelling Festival’s identity — and has been for the past half-century.

“Storytelling is connecting us to something that’s so much more important than the division we see in the news, and that’s land that we stand on,” Singh Sirah said. “We’re just custodians for something that’s so much bigger than us.”

And no matter who steps onto one of the festival’s five stages, and no matter what story they tell, their stories give anyone who listens to them an opportunity to understand, not just the storyteller, but anyone they speak to.

“In order to treat people justly, you have to respect them,” Rocha said. “You can only respect them if you listen to their stories — that’s where the understanding comes in.”

The Rev. Robert B. Jones, who shared stories of his family’s relationship with their home state of Alabama, sees things similarly to Rocha and Singh Sirah.

“If you know another person’s story, it’s harder to hate them, and you also understand that their story has commonality with your story,” Rev. Jones said. “Once we develop that rapport, it breaks down all kinds of barriers.”

And for many tellers sharing stories of injustice, triumph and challenges, seeing a tent full of hundreds of people relate, and listen to a teller’s story, is the pinnacle of storytelling — moments Jones calls “magical.”

“I feel that’s when the bridge is being built, and that’s when I’m doing my job,” Rocha said of those moments. “I feel that’s what the power of storytelling is all about.”