I’m looking forward to helping a new friend work on a grant application for his nonprofit. He does critically important work inspiring disadvantaged teenagers to recognize their greatness and stay in school. He uses his own story to show how a bad choice can affect your life forever.

I was moved to help because I heard him share his story. I now carry it in my heart, thanks to an event last weekend that turned thirty “I” stories into “We” Stories.

A diverse, multi-racial, intergenerational group gathered as strangers and friends for a “Story Bridge” event. Within thirty minutes of following the artful facilitation of Richard Geer and Qinghong Wei, we began to become a community.

Tell me about a moment when your life changed

One exercise in particular shifted the space for me.

We paired up and Richard asked the question: “Tell about a moment when your life changed.”

Soon I was sharing a two minute, improvised, unpolished recounting of an episode from my life. While I spoke, my partner listened–deeply.

An instruction was then given to him: “Tell your partner back the story you just heard.” My partner captured its essence as he recounted my story. Even though he missed a few details, I felt truly heard. He then shared his story and I spoke it back to him.

Within this short period of story-sharing, you could sense a new spirit entering the room, one that would buoy us through a long day. I don’t use the word love lightly, but that’s the word I heard as people described their experiences.

Meeting a big challenge

Then Richard gave the group a big assignment: to select eight stories from those that had been told, and arrange them in an order, a narrative arc, so that they could be performed as a play. With an audience arriving at 7 pm, we had to make decisions and start practicing immediately.

The heat was on. I’ve done story-to-stage work before using processes like Tanya Taylor Rubinstein’s Story Healers work. With her process, we used four days to prepare individuals to create a story and read it on stage. Richard and Qinghong gave us little more than four hours.

From I to We

With Tanya’s work, participants performed as individuals. With Story Bridge, the work is about community. While the stories started out as the creations of individuals, once the group negotiated the final selection of pieces, and each of us took on roles, either as actors or musicians, the stories belonged to us all.

Our “I” stories had morphed into a “We” performance. Former gang members, refugees, Native Americans, Mexican-Americans, Caucasians, teenagers and elders stood in front of a small, caring audience at seven o’clock. I didn’t fret that my story wasn’t performed because I was so enmeshed in the stories of others, watching them be woven into my heart.

I’ve never known what it was like to lose a buddy in a drive-by shooting, leave my tribe, or be beat up in high school. Yet my soul heard, under all of the differences, some deeply human commonalities. We had found the magic of community.

I loved Story Bridge. It’s the kind of process that lets “We” emerge in communities with big divides. Even though our event occurred in “blue” Washington State, Story Bridge has strong roots in some of the South’s most disadvantaged small towns. It has helped distressed, rural communities find their pride and get back on their feet.

Richard Geer says that Story Bridge succeeds because it taps a deeply seated human instinct to come together and share, especially in times of crisis.

Qinghong Wei documented some of the elements that make Story Bridge succeed in her doctoral work, noting that it:

  1. opens up a space that is welcoming and safe enough to encourage risk taking;
  2. fosters the collective creation of beauty in a way that also validates individuals;
  3. engages great diversity;
  4. offers participants a big challenge that requires them to pull together.

Richard’s background is in theatre, but experience has taught him that Story Bridge thrives when the direction for a show comes from the community, not from the director.

Experiment for yourself

You can learn more about the theory and practice of Story Bridge by reading Open Circle: Story Arts and the Reinvention of Community and  Story Bridge: From Alienation to Community Action.

As Richard writes, the processes of Story Bridge aren’t proprietary but reflective of what humans do when they band together to support each other. They can be adapted. So why not use story to experiment in your own way:

  • As people who are different from you tell their stories, listen deeply to what has meaning to them.
  • Dare to share your own story with people you don’t know.
  • Create spaces where people feel safe to come together and talk about their experiences.
  • Trust the collective wisdom that can emerge in a group that is diverse yet connected in spirit.
  • Make art, theatre, music, or creative stuff together, as an antidote to the growing, collective discouragement experienced by many today.

And test whether the arts, and story, can help heal our divided world.

I’d love to hear what emerges for you. And, special favor, would you throw some good thoughts and fairy dust on a deserving grant application!!!