By Lynn J. Richardson
Kiran Singh Sirah, executive director of the International Storytelling Center in Jonesborough, is passionate about storytelling and its potential to be used in
But when he talks about plans to use storytelling to help at-risk students, one only has to watch his face to see that it is a project he is taking very personally.
Sirah is hoping that the ISC’s newest projects — Stories of Change workshop series and the Leveraging the Power of Storytelling Youth Conference — will help at-risk youth overcome some of the challenges he himself
Self-admittedly an at-risk youth, Sirah tells of his early years growing up in a home with a mother who struggled with mental illness. He speaks openly of his brushes with the law and his constant fear of bullying by racist groups.
But he also tells of how being able to “articulate,” — to tell one’s own story — can transform one from a
victim to victor.
“All of us have an internal dialogue,” he said. “You start thinking of the bad things that have happened and you say to yourself, ‘I’m not good enough.’ Someone needs to reach out an arm and say ‘you are good enough.’ For me, that was my dad.”
Faced with adversity both at home and at school, Sirah, an immigrant growing up in southern England, knows what it means to be “at-risk.”
“I got into a lot of trouble as a kid,” Sirah said. “I stole cars when I was 15. My mom was in the hospital, suffering from mental health problems, schizophrenia. There was a time when I was six years old, I witnessed my mom overdose. I had to fight against Neo-Nazi groups and was once attacked. I had to deal with all that as a kid.”
So Sirah learned how to fight — not with his fists, but with his words. Once he learned how to “articulate” and share his own stories, things started to change for the better. He was soon able to talk himself out of bad situations and into believing in himself.
Sirah says he hopes to teach other young people how to empower themselves through an upcoming series of workshops called Stories of Change. The ISC will work with at-risk youth from six counties, helping them develop critical interpersonal skills. Participants will receive storyteller training on ways to transform their own lives, envision a better place for themselves, and become the story of change in a world where their stories matter.
The work is being financed by a two-year grant through the East Tennessee Foundation’s Youth Endowment.
The ISC will also launch its first Leveraging the Power of Storytelling Youth Conference this year. The annual leadership conference, funded by a 3-year $100,000 Humanities Access Grant awarded to ISC from the National Endowment for Humanities, (NEH), will bring youth from East Tennessee, western North Carolina, Virginia, and Kentucky to Jonesborough. They will explore their own narratives, as well as those of Appalachia, and how to apply those narratives to the Appalachia they want to create.
Sirah says he believes both projects can bring about positive change for many of these young people.
“My memory (of my own youth) stays with me, and helps me be a better teacher,” he said. “It’s my empathy bubble. When I see a kid sitting in the corner, I know what that kid’s going though. And I also know that kid has a voice and story to tell. That’s why we have started this program.
“We want young people to learn techniques to help them rewire the stories they tell themselves. We’ll be saying to them, ‘don’t let someone else put a label on you before you have a chance to speak out.’
“It’s the Dolly Parton story, in a sense,” Sirah added. “What if she had followed her story? ‘I’m poor, from Appalachia and I don’t deserve to be anything bigger than this.’ If she had stopped there, she would never have moved forward. But she didn’t. She followed her dream, she moved forward and she told her own story.
“We want to show them how to use storytelling to help them think about change in the bigger picture,” he said. “When young people realize their voices can change society, they do change society. When they can envision a world where their voice matters, they can change the trajectory of their own lives as well as the lives of others.”
More information on International Storytelling Center is available at storytellingcenter.net.