Storytelling and listening are two critical components to bridge-building dialogue, and several interviewees lifted up their importance. Some offered anecdotes and resources for learning how to tell a compelling story or listen with intention:

Teaching Tolerance encourages storytelling to build relationships among students of diverse backgrounds in K-12 classrooms. When interviewing teachers about their practices, they learned that some were using in-depth heritage stories to create a shared history. They encouraged students to ask their parents about hardships their families had endured and how they ended up where they are today. This approach, explains Teaching Tolerance Director Maureen Costello, “Becomes much more than a cultural exchange about dress/food/etc and more about values, hardships, joys, finding commonalities that make us all human. It’s a testament to the power of story and narratives that connect us to find our commonalities.”

The United Congress of Community and Religious Organizations (UCCRO) organized a series of gatherings called Lived Experiences, in which community leaders shared the stories of their communities with one another. The presentation of stories was organized by racial/ethnic group, and the leaders of each group collaborated in advance to create their presentations. Jenny Arwade from the Albany Park Neighborhood Council reflects,

It was everything from a Korean organization staffer that spoke about the model minority myth and breaking down some of the stereotypes of the Asian American community … [to an] undocumented Latino mother who spoke about …the fears she has about being deported and fear of leaving behind her U.S. citizen children… [to] young people from the Philippines who spoke about family separation and the …visa backlogs that separate families. …These were all powerful stories, [and] …out of that specific dialogue came the focus around family separation as the uniting theme across races and religions. …We tried to strategically build on these broader dialogues into more strategic and focused issue dialogues that set into specific policy campaigns that we were working on.

Fellow collaborator, Rev. Patricia Watkins of the TARGET Area Development Corporation, says, “This made people realize that we’re connected in many more ways than we think. Ultimately our goal was to move policy together. And to bring new ideas to the table about people’s experiences, breaking down those barriers to build a strong coalition to push policy that benefits all of us.”

The organizers of Lived Experiences believe that having specific communities develop their own presentations served as a leadership development tool because “it wasn’t just staff people developing a curriculum for others to use over and over; it was the leaders/community members who were presenting were grappling with how they tell the story of their own people.” Moreover, they believe the combination of large-scale events, which provided a feeling of momentum and movement-building, and smaller group discussions that enabled people to reflect and engage at a deeper level, were crucial to the program’s success.

Luz Zambrano and Trina Jackson, representing the Center to Support Immigrant Organizing’s Network of Immigrants & African Americans in Solidarity, note that they started off their first session by asking participants to bring something that would help them tell others who they are and where they come from.  “We give space to that,” they say.  “We use people’s own knowledge and history.  We don’t rush, because it’s very important that we get to know each other.  The time we spend on this is time well spent, because that’s ultimately how we’re going to build relationships.”

Initiatives of Change facilitates community dialogue and often starts by asking participants “Can you tell us about your grandparents’ neighborhoods and where you live now? How are they alike or not?” Cricket White, National Director of Training and Program Development, explains that this type of storytelling not only helps participants recognize similarities and differences they may have with one another, but also lets them begin to see one another as individuals, and not an expression of an entire group. Another storytelling activity she shares involves a string of 3-4 feet in length, with a knot in the middle, with one end tied to a chair. Each individual took a turn, starting by holding the end of the rope and sharing when they were born, then moving to the knot in the rope and explaining what has changed in the lives, ultimately sitting in the chair and explaining why they chose to attend this dialogue. This began to offer a more nuanced picture of each person in the room.

The South by Southwest Experiment, an initiative of Southern Echo in Mississippi, the Southwest Organizing Project (SWOP) in New Mexico, and the Southwest Workers Union (SWU) in Texas, involved a series of regional convenings that brought the groups’ membership into dialogue. At one convening they created life roadmaps, organizational roadmaps, and community roadmaps. Leroy Johnson, Executive Director of Southern Echo, explained, “These maps, when taken in their totality created a three-dimensional picture that led to eye opening experiences around oppression while being holistic by including all three areas (individual, organizational, and community).”

Resources on fishbowls

Another pedagogical tool used to encourage both storytelling and listening is the fishbowl. This technique can be used when time is more limited, because the majority of participants are active listeners, with a smaller group (inside the “fishbowl”) doing the talking. Below are some relevant resources for learning to conduct fishbowls:

Training for Change trains activists in strategic nonviolence as a means to stand up for justice, peace, and the environment.  The organization’s diversity and anti-oppression tools include a webpage on three listening exercises: fishbowls, panels, and speak-outs.

Connecticut Assets Network  in collaboration with Healthy Community / Healthy Children of West Hartford produced “Fishbowl Forums: A Guide to Developing Effective Dialogue Meetings” that covers all aspects of holding a fishbowl dialogue, from initial advertising to follow-ups.

Resources using storytelling

A Call to Community Dialogue Guide I
All Different, All Equal
Common Ground
Crossing Borders
Dialogue for Affinity Groups
Facing Racism in a Diverse Nation
Let’s Talk Immigration!
One America Dialogue Guide
One Nation, Many Beliefs
Toward a More Perfect Union in an Age of Diversity
Uniting Communities

 Image: Seeds_of_Peace,