Saul Kaplan

Written by Saul Kaplan @skap5

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Why do we only do story sharing circles in workshops? What if we shared our real selves and stories with each other every day?

Over the last 14 years, the Business Innovation Factory (BIF), has focused on how to make social system transformation safer and easier to manage. During that time, working on over 70 projects, one consistent learning is that storytelling and engagement are central to transforming any human system. Let’s face it, if we want to transform education, healthcare and public services we must imagine and design new systems with a deep understanding of customer experience and personal and emotional connections to students, patients and citizens. It starts with a simple step, sharing stories. Shared stories build empathy, align purpose, and give us the opportunity to engage in change together. Stories can change the world.

Since our inception, BIF has been collaborating with Trinity Repertory Company here in our hometown of Providence, RI. Our two organizations share DNA, with the same deep belief in storytelling and performance art as an ideal platform for community engagement and self-organized community action. This year to inform BIF’s Personalized Medicine by Design (#PMxD) project and our PMxD Maternal Health Program we’re partnering with Trinity Rep and Joe Wilson Jr., an amazing actor (and friend) and the theatre’s Coordinator of Activism through Performance, on America Too: It’s Our Health.

“Our ability to be well ties into everything about who we are and how we show up in the world.” Joe Wilson Jr.

Five years ago, Joe launched America Too to engage the local community in staging a performance created in direct response to the shooting of Michael Brown Jr. in Ferguson, Missouri. Our local community engaged and reacted viscerally and powerfully and has continued to engage in America Too each year since, with a different community generated challenge each year (policing, DACA, housing) as its focus.

America Too: It’s Our Health is a deep community exploration of health and wellbeing. Joe asked four incredible artists and storytellers (Sokeo Ros, Dominic D’Andrea, Meg Sullivan and Valerie Tutson) to start the process by leading story sharing workshops to engage our local community and uncover the joys, hardships, and imagined the future state of wellbeing. The threads, moments and stories that emerged from the workshops, which took place over one weekend on August 24th – 25th, will be curated and developed into a 90 minute performance of America Too: It’s Our Health at Trinity Rep on October 21st and 22nd. The performances are free and open to the public.

As someone who frequently facilitates workshops, I’m not as open and receptive as I should be when my turn comes to participate. I also find it frustrating that workshop experiences are too quickly forgotten, the promise of change put aside, when the reality of the real world creeps back into our lives. This time, I made an exception and committed myself to go all-in as an engaged participant in all four of the weekend’s story sharing workshops. I’m totally exhausted, but, beyond inspired from the experience. There’s hope for this stoic wonk after all! Over two days, I shared deeply personal stories, more than I have ever shared over the last 62 years. While it’s fresh and raw in my heart and mind, here’s a few reflections from my story sharing experience.

Hip-hop movement artist Sokeo Ros was born in a Thailand refugee camp after his family escaped the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. He came to Rhode Island when he was three. In our first workshop at the YMCA in Cranston, Sokeo quickly inspired us with his extraordinary and gut wrenching personal story told through dance and narrative. Wow. As his personal story settled over us Sokeo encouraged and patiently helped us uncover and express our own health and wellbeing stories, integrating movement as our stories unfolded. The experience was unforgettable and authentic. Wellbeing is a team sport, and creating the conditions that foster trust, honesty, and disclosure matters deeply.

One-Minute Play Festival founder and national community engagement leader Dominic D’Andrea believes we can all be playwrights. He also believes the most powerful plays, and the performances that change communities, are those written and performed by the community members themselves. Dominic’s ability to engage participants in a generative, inclusive, and inspiring story sharing process, was a beautiful experience to behold.

At the YMCA in Pawtucket, RI, Dominic expertly led us through a head-spinning iterative grouping and regrouping of reaction statements, sharing and building on ideas and personal stories. We listened more than we spoke, we mapped and explored emerging wellbeing themes and patterns from our stories. We granted each other the freedom to imagine a new and improved wellbeing future, for ourselves and our community. Our community lens was a source of optimism and hope, it instilled a sense of agency that together we could enable our community’s collective wellbeing. We began to see the personal threads and moments that might be woven into a performance worthy of the Trinity Rep stage in October. It’s Our Health was emerging organically.

Meg Sullivan is Creative Director of The Manton Avenue Project, a crazy cool community program enabling youth, from one of Providence’s lowest-income neighborhoods, to write and perform their own plays. Meg lives and works in the intersection between art, community, and wellbeing to unleash personal agency and confidence among our neighborhood’s youth. She hosted our third workshop of the weekend at the Wilbury Theatre in Olneyville, right around the corner from BIF.

Meg immediately made us comfortable sharing our personal stories with rapid fire prompts about our own wellbeing including;

I feel healthiest when I……

I feel healthiest when I’m with……

The place I feel the least healthy is…..

The place I feel the most healthy is…..

Wellbeing feels like………

Wellbeing sounds like…….

No time to think, just complete the sentence with the first thought that entered our heads, write it down and share with the group — if we’re comfortable. Meg was sneaky, she expertly enabled us to deepen and expand our writing from short quips to longer personal narratives, and to add gestures and movement to our emerging stories without over-thinking. Believe me, if this klutz can learn to embody ideas, we all can!

You would expect workshop fatigue to set in by the fourth successive workshop over a weekend. Far from it, as award winning storyteller Valerie Tutson hosted our final session at the Southside Cultural Center in Providence. Valerie entranced and inspired us at hello. We learned a beautiful Malawi song that we chanted with hand gestures throughout the workshop together in the native Chichewa language.

Da Ku Oh Na ………..I see you with my eyes

Da Ku Oh Na ………..I see you with my heart

Da Ku Oh Na……….. I see you in front of me

Moni …………………I respect you

We shared and mapped our personal health and wellbeing journeys. We laughed, we cried, we created a safe space to imagine a healthier future for ourselves, and for our community. By the end of our three hours together, when we looked warmly in each other’s eyes, and chanted Da Ku Oh Na one last time, the words of the song were personally meaningful and true.

All four of the weekend’s workshops were mesmerizing, and together they were beyond inspiring. There were so many threads, moments, and connections to be further explored. I can’t wait to see how this amazing weekend of genuine story sharing comes together on stage. And, I can’t help but wonder why we only do story sharing circles in workshops. What if we shared our real selves and stories with each other every day, because stories heal.

America Too: It’s Our Health will be performed on the Trinity Rep stage in Providence, RI on October 21 & 22. Performances are free and open to the public.

Click here to see the inspiration for America Too: It’s Our Health here