From Isolation to Integration and Advocacy: Healing and Empowerment through Storytelling

By Lani Peterson, Psy.D.

Chapter 21 in Routledge International Handbook of Therapeutic Stories and Storytelling, Edited by Clive Holmwood, Sue Jennings, and Sharon Jacksties, 2022


Tall and lean with a fountain of dreads cascading from a red bandana on the top of his head, 19-year-old Martin exuded a nervous energy that permeated the room. Barely able to contain himself in his seat, he seemed to be struggling with whether to stay in the room or to flee.  That winter evening, Martin was attending a performance sponsored by City Mission Boston’s Public Voice Project (PVP).  After just six sessions of working with a facilitator, a group of eight storytellers between the ages of twenty-five and eighty were daring to bring their stories of racism, violence, poverty, and homelessness to the stage.  When all the presentations were done, the audience was invited to share their appreciations and ask questions of the tellers.  Martin jumped to his feet and asked, “How can I get to tell MY story?  Because it is killing me.”  He was not speaking in metaphor. 

Before the evening was over, Martin had filled out the application to attend the next story workshop scheduled for March. With exuberance, he convinced the woman who had given him a ride that evening, his best friend’s mother, Beverly, to sign up to take the workshop with him. When asked about his commitment to join the program, Martin made assurances that he would attend. Beverly said she would see to it that they both made it.  For Beverly, it was a promise as best as she was able, to keep him alive until then. 

The first Public Voice Project (PVP) was launched in November of 2004 by City Mission Boston to build a speaker’s bureau for formerly incarcerated men to raise public awareness about social justice issues related to incarceration, rehabilitation, and re-entry. The overall intent was to create a process that would be as helpful to the speakers as the content would be to the public forums where they were invited to tell their stories. Through telling the stories of their journeys through the penal system and beyond, these men could impact policy reform while gaining increased self-awareness, confidence, and ability to positively present themselves to prospective employers, landlords, and future colleagues.  The PVP expanded over time to offer storytelling workshops to formerly incarcerated women, youth at risk, homeless men and women, as well as young women trying to escape a history of street-trafficking.

The workshop Martin and Beverly attended in the spring of 2013 was offered for free (subsidized by a generous grant from the Roxbury Foundation) to any resident of Roxbury, Massachusetts. The goals of the storytelling program had evolved to encompass personal development through insight into stories of self and other, public education around important social issues, and community building through shared stories.  By that time, many rounds of previous observation and experimental application of theory had influenced the evolving curriculum of the storytelling workshop. As each round of the PVP evolved, facilitators became increasingly aware of the power of the story sharing process to positively impact the tellers as much as the audience.

The following chapter speaks to some of these observations and learning, integrated with various narrative theories about healing. I am tremendously grateful to participants like Martin and Beverly (names changed), who through their presence, courage, and trust helped me to better understand what happens when people come together to discover, reclaim and share their stories.  As a white, female facilitator in her late 50’s leading multi-race, multi-age groups coming together to share their stories, I am continually working to be aware of my own story lens and its limited perspective. My goal is to support the emergence of the story that is wanting to be told with the goal of eliciting a “thicker story” for the sake of the participant as well as their audiences. Through this work of being witness to these stories of perseverance, courage, and growth, I am grateful for the myriad ways my own storied lens has expanded.

Overview of theoretical models that contribute to narrative healing approaches: 

There are many theoretical models that address narrative approaches to storytelling and its intersection with healing. There is both overlap and important information within each of these theoretical frameworks which have influenced the evolution of PVP’s healing storytelling workshops.

In her book, Trauma and Recovery; The Aftermath of Violence – From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror, Judith Herman presents the narrative stages of healing from trauma as:  

1. Establishing safety 

2. Reconstructing the traumatic story 

3. Restoring the connection between the survivor and his/her community. 

Shearer-Cremean and Winkelman, authors of Survivor Rhetoric: Negotiations and Narrativity in Abused Women’s Language, describe a related process of narrative healing. Individuals are encouraged to tell their story to move from: 

  1. Silence and isolation, to 
  2. Agency, to 
  3. Integration, a final stage that opens the door to advocacy and social organizing.

Finally, within the traditional story arc, there is movement from a 

  1. Beginning (what things were like before something happened) to a  
  2. Middle (what happened) to an  
  3. End (what things are like now because of what happened.)  

Each of these models has a common progression through three main stages. There is an evolution that begins in an initial place of silence, isolation and/or losing equilibrium. The middle stage involves using agency to work and rework a relationship to a given situation. Ultimately, the end results in a return to some form of equilibrium but changed by a renewed perspective or insight.  In an ideal outcome, the change involves empowerment to engage and sustain a healthier connection to one’s self, relationships, and larger community.

Many things can happen through a story exploration process. As tellers intentionally focus on developing a story to tell others, they are also hearing themselves. Walking around a story from multiple perspectives opens that story to deeper inspection and an opportunity to challenge previously held assumptions.  Through sharing the story with others and feeling heard through active listening and appreciation, tellers gain deeper insight into the parts of their story that previously may have been blind spots. They have a chance to tease out places in the story where they did or didn’t have control, where they relied on personal strengths or resources to meet difficult challenges, to see more clearly the ways that they coped and survived. They have the potential to move from being the victim to the hero of their story.

Doing story work within a safe and supportive community enables tellers to witness and be witnessed, to listen and feel heard. Hearing others’ stories helps to normalize each teller’s experience while building active listening skills and encouraging compassionate and empathic responses. Group members build respect for and responsibility towards self and other in balance through an increased focus on presence and awareness of self in relation to others.

In this way storytelling and story listening are built on emotional intelligence: knowing and sharing oneself while also getting to know and understand others. Through evolving insights and growing perspective, both are enabled to move to a stronger place.

Within our PVP workshop structure, we focus on creating safety, trust, and connection in the first stage (Beginning). Participants are supported to emerge out oftheir silence (story isolation) to join a group of fellow tellers who are also ready to share storytelling and listening in a safe space.

In the second stage (Middle) participants are invited to remember; to find the story that needs to be told. Exploring a story through exercises that involve multiple tellings, storytellers challenge the meaning they make of their story and their role in it. In hero’s journey terms, it is facing the dragons within their story, be they external or internal. This is a process of increasing agency, moving from a passive retelling of a stuck or painful story, to an active re-working/owning of that story. The facts of the story have not changed, but a new relationship to the meaning of the story can lead to increased confidence and empowered choice to move differently into the future.

The narrative healing journey, however, is not complete until stage three (End), when the storytellerbrings the renewed and empowering story back to his or her old life and steps into it in a new way. This often involves a public telling to begin the process of both integration and sustainability of the new and empowered story into the storyteller’s life, family and/or community. 

Stage 1 BEGINNING: Emerging out of isolation and silence 

Many Public Voice workshops are formed around homogenous groupings with a specific focus on a related issue: formerly incarcerated, homelessness, youth at risk, women escaping the street-trafficking industry.  The group depicted in this writing was generated in response to a generic flyer posted by local non-profit organizations, churches, and community centres. Participants were invited to learn storytelling and public speaking skills with the option to share their stories though PVP’s social justice advocacy speaker’s bureau. This outreach resulted in a group with diverse backgrounds and agenda attending this storytelling and advocacy program. For purposes of brevity, this chapter focuses on the experiences of Martin and Beverly, who are Black. There were six other participants in the group: three White women, one other Black young adult man, and one man of Black/Hispanic/European heritage. Their racial backgrounds are important in considering the complexity of the social context of their lived experience and the courage they displayed in openly sharing their vulnerable stories first with each other and ultimately with public audiences.

Pre-Interview Process:

Potential participants are interviewed prior to the first meeting to give them more of a sense of what the workshop will entail and to help facilitators learn more about their interest in taking it. The pre-interview questions are themselves an intervention, guiding participants to think about who they are in their story and what they hope to accomplish in exploring it and telling it to others. The pre-group interview questions explore whether the potential group member is ready, willing, able, and stable to do story work in a group format.  (We asked the same questions of ourselves as group leaders before beginning this work in leading others.)

  • Ready (Clarity of purpose): Why are you interested in taking this workshop? Is this the right time in your life to do this work? What do you hope to gain from your involvement? What do you plan to contribute?
  • Willing (Openness to self-exploration and sharing with others): Are you willing to explore and perhaps share personal stories? Can you be thoroughly present for both yourself and others through this process of self-discovery, vulnerability, and disclosure? 
  • Able: (Commitment and perseverance) Are you able to physically commit to this process, including the time and resources, as well as transportation to get to meetings? Does this program conflict with other responsibilities in your life right now? Can you make the commitment to attend all the sessions?
  • Stable: (Emotional stability) How will you manage your emotional journey if things get stirred up for you through this story sharing process? Who or what are your supports external to this group (e.g.: family, friends, mentors, therapist, clergy)? What do you see as your strongest inner resources (self-discipline, resiliency, conflict resolution skills, experience with similar challenges in the past)? What is your experience of working with people who are different from you (people whose struggles may have seemed to you to be less important or heavier than your own?) What would need to have in place to be comfortable in this workshop experience?

The pre-interview process is designed to ensure that participants are clear about the expectations and potential demands of the group. Although they have chosen to come knowing they will be sharing personal stories, few realize what that means in terms of self-honesty, emotional vulnerability and courage as well as possibly also awakening fear, shame, and anxiety. Similarly, they also have little idea of the potential benefits (increased self-confidence, clarity, deeper connection to self and other, pride, agency, power, freedom) that might arise should they see this process through to the end.   

For this round of PVP, we interviewed ten candidates. Eight chose to participate in the group. For the purposes of this chapter, it is mostly important to know about Beverly and Martin.

Beverly is a single mother of three sons in her early forties. She works as an administrative assistant and is active in her church. Her oldest son, seventeen-year-old William, had been murdered the previous year when he resisted a peer trying to steal the new gold necklace he had just bought with his first legitimate earnings.  Over the previous year, William had been working hard to turn his life around; attending school more regularly, getting an after-school job, and trying to stay away from old friends who were putting pressure on him to follow them into gang activity.

Through a similar path of getting into trouble and out again, Martin and William had become close friends.  Since William’s death, Martin had been wracked with guilt that he had not been with William on the night he died, to either save him or die with him. Since William’s death, Martin now spent more time in Beverly’s home than in his own.  Beverly had heard about the Public Voice Project and brought Martin to the open telling in their neighbourhood, hoping it might help him to hear stories of how others had struggled with adversity and survived. She had been pleased to see his interest to be part of a future training as well as his earnestness to tell his own story in a public forum. She was here for him, but after the interview process, she realized she also had a story that needed to be told.

The first night of our storytelling group, Beverly arrived a few minutes early. Martin was not with her. She said that they had talked earlier in the afternoon and he promised to meet her at the church where the workshop was being held. Throughout the evening, we kept the door open for him. 

Getting Comfortable:

In the first few sessions of the storytelling workshop, most of the focus is on building trust and connection between group members and with staff. Gathering for the first time, participants may be feeling vulnerable or self-conscious about the stories they bring with them. The first phase, therefore, is about establishing comfort while also gently encouraging participants to take small risks in emerging out of isolation and silence.  To encourage connection with others in meaningful ways through their stories, introductory exercises are built upon seemingly simple prompts.  Examples include, “Tell me the story of your name,” or “Tell me a story about your shoes”. Although ‘seemingly simple’, any prompt can lead to flooding or a triggered reaction, especially for those who have a history of trauma. At this early juncture, it is important to let participants know that they are in control of their story and can share as little or as much as they choose.

Establishing Safety

When a group gathers for the first time, it is essential to establish a culture of safety and trust in the form of a group safety agreement. The initial introductory storytelling prompt of telling about their name or their shoes gives everyone an idea of what it feels like to share in the group. Now it would be easier to think about what they might need to have in place to feel safe enough to go deeper.  As participants wrestle individually and collectively through brainstorming about what safety means to them, essential components begin to emerge. Examples from previous groups include:  

  • Speak only for yourself 
  • What is said in the room stays in the room. 
  • Speak with honesty 
  • Respect one another 
  • No criticizing others 
  • One person talks at a time 
  • Tolerate all ideas and all feelings (your own and others) 
  • It is okay to cry (This was raised in a group of formerly incarcerated men who had never given themselves this permission before.) 
  • No violence of any kind—physical, verbal, emotional 
  • Each person sets personal boundaries and limits – seek permission to ask questions or make comments on another’s story 
  • Judgement – own it and convey it respectfully 
  • Make room for everyone to share; step up to participate, step back to let others have a chance to talk as well. 
  • Keep a focus on gratitude 
  • Bring a sense of humour, have fun 

Some past participants have stated that creating a safety agreement together was one of the most empowering parts of the group for them. They had not previously reflected on their needs and/or felt empowered to state their wishes directly to others. Taking ownership and responsibility in both creating and maintaining a safe space to speak openly and honestly with others was the beginning of establishing enough agency to emerge from their silence or the isolated perspective that their voice is not important. 

As the safety agreement is collaboratively created, we also talk about how such an agreement may still not prevent people from feeling unsafe. Two ideas have emerged over the years from these discussions: 

  1. There is a difference between being unsafe and being uncomfortable. We have coined the term: ‘Safely Uncomfortable’ to describe the place we go when we challenge ourselves to step outside of our comfort zone in order to grow. Only we know when we are being too safe to grow. Likewise, only we know when we are pushing ourselves too far into a danger zone where we may get triggered. Everyone is encouraged to both challenge their old boundaries of comfort while simultaneously listening to and respecting their internal cues when a story is too much or moving too fast. This can happen not only while telling one’s own story but when listening to another. Together we created signals to use to let others know when we need to pause in the telling or listening to re-centre or step out for a moment. 
  2. Safety is not only taking preventative measures but knowing how to respond when one no longer feels safe. If someone becomes flooded or triggered, how can we care for ourselves and/or each other? In this opening session we talked about what people might do to self-calm. It can be helpful to introduce breathing and centring exercises at this early point in the workshop, that may become skills for a lifetime. Guided visualizations and mindfulness techniques have become a regular part of these workshops. A colleague once introduced me to the exercise of finding an anchor word that represents one’s safe place within. Using indelible markers, participants write their anchor word on a small stone. Everyone is invited to keep their stone in their pocket to “ground” themselves when needed. I have run into participants years later who, after greeting me, pull their stone from their pocket to let me know they are still using it to bring themselves back to their calm place. 

Through the first few meetings, both the participants and the workshop are in a beginning phase. Establishing a holding environment with consistency, repetition and ritual further helps to strengthen the sense of safety and trust as members learn what to anticipate within the group structure as well as from each other. For that reason, we designed each session to unfold in the same way: 

  • Opening check-in 
  • Meditation or inner reflection to get centred
  • Pause to review the previous session for thoughts or questions
  • Introduce the theme or focus for this meeting
  • Story work through exercises or prompts 
  • Debrief session with focus on new learning and questions 
  • Closing ritual 


Through opening each session with a quick but storied check-in, participants are encouraged to reflect on what new experiences they have had since last meeting as well as what excites them about what might be ahead. The weekly discipline establishes the habit of looking within to reflect on the connection between experiences and emotions. Many participants have said that personal check-in has evolved into a mindfulness practice they use in between sessions. Checking in with themselves to get a reading on highs and lows has helped them to monitor habitual reactions and behaviours, and the underlying emotions that may be fuelling them.  Ritual check-in also gives the message that everyone’s experience is important, and the group is not started until every voice is heard. 

We have found it helpful to use a metaphor structure to share highs and lows. Two different metaphors we have found work well are:

  • Share a “peak” (high point), a “pit” (low point) and a “vista” (something you are looking forward to out ahead). It could be about what has happened since the last meeting, or a more general overview of what you are carrying in your mind, heart, or body as you enter the room for this session. The forward-looking part of the prompt (vista) is a gentle reminder that the current emotional state will most likely change with future events.
  • Share a “rose petal” (something sweet), “thorn” (something challenging or painful) and “bud” (something you are looking forward to blooming). 

 Each participant gets a timed minute to share. Although people preliminarily tend to separate out their highs and lows, by the end of the workshop many people begin to see how interrelated are their highs, lows and hoped for changes. We have also found that in the early weeks, check-ins can be superficial and protected. As the group builds trust and interest in each other, check-ins become more meaningful. It is important to time each person as they can become involved and time-consuming otherwise.

Martin never showed up for that first session. Beverly appeared to be disappointed but not surprised. Upon leaving, she affirmed that Martin genuinely wanted to be a part of this program, and she hoped that he might make it for the second session. If he came, would he still be welcome? It was agreed that he could participate as long as he could be there for week number two. 

Stage 2 MIDDLE: Building agency through re-storying: listening to self and others 

We are meaning-making creatures, and our human minds are involved in a constant process of rewriting our stories to fit our current reality. As new experiences occur, we respond by working to integrate the remembered self of the past with the perceived self of the present and the desired self of the future. Suffering happens when we get stuck in a thin story of cause and effect that keeps us smaller or less than we want to be. Story change work involves pausing the replay of an old story to explore it from multiple angles and perspectives. Insights, understanding and wider possibilities for future action emerge through challenging and expanding the current meaning.

There are many ways that story change can occur. Speaking a story out loud allows the teller to hear herself as the content moves out of the frontal lobe and re-enters through the temporal lobe. As outside listeners respond to the story with deepening responses through active listening or reflective question asking, new possibilities open for insight and understanding. Listening to others’ storied answers to the same prompt allows one to normalize their experience of human suffering and/or see different ways of responding to a challenging situation or making sense of it afterwards. Exploring a story from different angles raises possibilities for meaning that may not previously have been seen.  Perhaps most importantly, the very act of being in community and sharing part of yourself opens tellers and listeners alike to move out of silence and isolation. Engaging in active listening and meaningful connection is in itself a practice of agency.

Doing the Work

After the first week, each session unfolds in the same manner, supporting participants to engage, build trust and connect with each other through an expected sequence of rituals and exercises. Following check ins and a meditative pause to help people centre and be present, the meeting moves to review the previous session and thoughts or questions that may have emerged over the course of the week. When all are settled, the current week’s focus or theme is introduced and story sharing exercises begin.

On the second night of our workshop, Martin was not there again. Beverly was confused as she had spoken with him just an hour before and he said he was on his way. She appeared concerned, but it seemed that was a familiar feeling for her.  An hour into the session, Martin appeared in the doorway. After an initial pause to assess the room, he planted himself in a seat in the furthest corner. When invited to participate in the current activity, he replied that he would rather just watch for a while.

The initial weeks of the workshop involve storytellers playing with multiple prompts to discover stories that may be wanting to be told. Similar to the first week, prompts begin simply and then evolve to probe more deeply. Storytellers are assured that they are always in charge of their story and free to choose how much to delve into details with any given listener.  

Story exercises begin with prompts that leave room for tellers to take them in any direction or depth that they choose. Examples of early prompts include:

  • Firsts: first day of school, first date, learning to drive a bike or car, attempting something new…
  • A time when: I was cold, safe, angry, relieved, scared, challenged, successful, proud…
  • Describe a favorite place and then tell about something that happened there
  • Tell about person who has been a mentor/teacher who helped you through something

The possibilities are endless to get people sharing stories in easy and fun ways.

Stories are shared between participants as they carefully monitor their personal boundaries and safety, testing the waters of how much to share with each new partner. This process of opening to another through story sharing is new to them and they are still vulnerable in their telling. Later there will be time for expanding dyads into triads and eventually everyone will stand in front of the whole group to tell a story.

When participants form into new dyads for the next exercise, Martin jumps up and stands next to Rodrigo, another young man of colour in his late twenties. The prompt was a simple one. Martin began by sharing a story with Rodrigo.  Rodrigo leaned in to listen intently. When Martin was finished, Rodrigo quietly shared some appreciations for what he had heard.

Following a story telling, listeners are instructed to share back what they heard, responding with both their head and their hearts. From their head: the most important message I heard in the story you just shared.  From their heart: how that story moved or touched me. 

When the round is over, partners are invited to thank each other for both the telling and the listening in any way that feels mutually comfortable. Rodrigo gave Martin a long hug. Then everyone changes partners, and the exercise is repeated with either the same prompt or a new one. Martin does not return to his corner chair but stays in the next exercise to be the listener for another. This time, with a huge smile across his face, Martin initiates the hug afterwards to his storyteller. It is the end of week two, and Martin has finally engaged. 

As participants get comfortable with story techniques and feel safer in the company of each other, the prompts can get more serious. Some examples include:

  • Tell about a challenge you faced and how you met it.
  • Tell about a time when it felt like everything changed (it all changed when…) 
  • A moment when you saw things differently.
  • “I used to be, but now I am…”

In the last few sessions, storytellers focus on one story that they want to develop to share with a public audience at the end of the program. It is an opportunity to explore one story deeply to see what they can learn about the story and its meaning for them. Exercises turn towards uncovering and exploring underlying messages buried within a story. Working in multiple different dyad combinations, each group member gets the opportunity to tell his or her story multiple times to different partners to hear the impact of the story on differing listeners/audiences.

Playing the role of story listener for each other, everyone in the group now has developed skills of appreciation and active listening to reflect what they heard as most important messages within each other’s stories. Appreciations are different from feedback. They involve listeners owning their perspective and speaking to what they appreciated about what they heard; what they were moved by or will most remember from hearing the story. It gives the storyteller insight into what is memorable, meaningful, and impactful in their stories.  Through this process of mutual story sharing, all participants are normalizing their own experiences of struggle and growth as well as developing connection and empathy to others.

One of the empowering ideas conveyed within these sessions is that we cannot change the facts of our stories, but we do create our own meanings and those meanings can change as we grow. Is the meaning you now hold one that sustains you and helps you in your journey forward? Or is it a meaning that constrains you, keeping you stuck or feeling like less than you are or want to be? Through challenging the meaning that one is making of a story and playing with different possibilities and outcomes, a thin story has a chance not to change but to grow. A thin story with one conclusion expands into a thicker story that holds more room for the complexities of a larger truth.

Through the last few sessions, group members’ stories began to evolve. They worked together telling and listening to each other to find the parts of their story that fit together to deliver the message they want this audience to hear. 

Each week, Beverly had courageously opened herself towards revisiting the story of her son’s death. Although poignant in the recounting of the facts, she told her story with a stoicism that revealed none of the underlying emotion that she was carrying or the larger message of meaning it held for her. When asked if she would be willing to work on her story at a deeper level, she hesitated but agreed.

Beverly was surprised when asked to describe William. As she drew a verbal picture of him with her words, her face began to soften. When asked about the way he talked, her voice deepened as she repeated “Love you, Ma, but give me some space”. As she spoke his words, she was both laughing and weeping. When asked about how he walked or moved through space, she shared with the group that he loved to dance. As she moved her matronly body as if she were a teenage boy, William was in the room with us.

This opened Beverly to tell a story focused on more than William’s death. She related with a humour tinted with frustration that he was a charmer, a big personality; someone well-liked by his peers, but sometimes attracting the wrong kind of attention.  She knew that he often felt angry and confused by the cultural messages he received about who he was and what he was capable of.  He had come to believe that school was a waste of time and he stopped caring about his academics. His increasing truancy led authorities to become involved, but to her relief, William slowly responded to the guidance he received from them. He had been directed to a part time after school job which had given him an honest income and direction.  His first purchase was a gold necklace that he wore with symbolic pride of how he now saw and held himself.  The irony of William dying by defending his necklace was not lost on Beverly.

As part of the story transformation process, tellers may be prompted to think about how they want their story to unfold in the future.  What might a positive next chapter look or feel like? What skills, resources or supports do they have internally or externally to make that happen? An example of this method is extending the prompt from “I used to be, but now I am” to include “and someday I plan to be.”

Beverly’s story no longer ended with the night that William died. She related that she knew how much her son’s friends were struggling, lost, and hurting. After the funeral, she opened her door to them. Anyone was welcome to come for a meal, or even spend the night if they needed a safe refuge. “And I mean, anyone,” she stated firmly. “I suspect that William’s murderer may be among the young men who have sought safety and comfort at my kitchen table. God forgive them. They are all wounded. They are all caught in a system not of their making. I will offer salves wherever I can, no questions asked.” 

The senselessness of William’s death would have been a devastating message for Beverly to end on. Instead, Beverly introduced the audience to her charismatic and treasured son, helping them to also feel the devastating tragedy of his death.  The central message in her story became how she transformed her loss and anger into a mission to support other young Black men to have a different outcome.  Her story had grown from one of a grieving mother, paralyzed by anger and fear, to a champion of young Black lives and advocate for change in her neighbourhood.

Stage 3 END: Social Integration, Advocacy and Sustainability 

The healing process begins through re-authoring a thin story of shame or suffering into a thicker story with a wider perspective.  Healing is solidified when a person can both maintain and gain strength from that thicker story even when returning to previous settings where the original story began. The transition to living in the thicker story begins with speaking those new truths in an open and honest way to those who may hold either a different story or different meaning to the facts of a same story.

Social integration, therefore, begins with challenging oneself to own and tell the thicker story beyond the safe circle of the group. That is the reasoning behind ending the workshop with a public storytelling event where members of family and community are invited to hear tellers share the story that they are ready to tell. 

In the last week of the workshop, participants rehearse the latest version of their story as it now stands. Everyone is aware that a story is an evolving entity. The story that emerges in the dress rehearsal will resemble what they will share the following week to the public but will not be exactly the same. Memorization is a theatre performance. Storytelling is alive and shifts with each audience and telling. Our stories continue to change through our lifetime as we understand them more clearly or deeply through each new experience we have. That is where change lies and hope lives. The story we feel and know today will be different tomorrow, depending on the life we live in the interim, and the knowledge and perspective we accrue from living it. When we are open to exploring its evolving meaning for us, we allow ourselves to change and be changed by it. We are in a continual process of cocreation. As our life experiences impact us, we change ourselves as we thicken the stories of what we understand to be true in response to it.

In the last session of this workshop, one of the group members, Melody, a White woman in her early thirties, experienced a seizure while telling her story. Everyone rushed to her care and someone initiated a 911 call.  At the sound of sirens, Martin raced from the room, down the stairwell and out to the curb to meet the ambulance. Through the open window we could hear Martin cursing at the medics. “Why did you take so long?”  “You don’t care about anyone in this neighbourhood.” “You’re okay to just let people here die.”

Carrying a stretcher, the medics quickly and silently climbed the stairs as Martin raged beside them. Entering the room, one medic turned to Martin, telling him he had to leave the room for them to do their work safely. Martin refused but slunk into the chair in the far corner of the room. Within minutes, the paramedics stabilized Melody on a stretcher and left with sirens blazing. The rest of the group stood in shock in the now quiet room. Martin sat with his head in his hands quietly sobbing in the corner chair. 

Everyone came together in a circle. With arms around each other, we did a check in with how everyone was feeling in response to what happened. Martin had joined the circle but remained stiff and silent. By his side, Beverly spoke soothingly to him, encouraging him to share. When he remained silent, Beverly took us deeper into the story of William’s death. She and Martin had later learned that William had not died immediately after being stabbed at the party. Although paramedics had arrived quickly to the crime scene, they were not allowed to enter the building until police arrived. In the five-minute interim that they waited outside, William bled to death.

As Beverly finished her last sentence, Martin’s words poured out in rage. “None of this sh-t matters. Our stories don’t matter. No one will ever listen anyway. This is all so fu–ed up. I’m done with this.” I expected him to run from the room, but he stood still in the circle of his fellow tellers, now listeners, who continued to hold him and his words. And then group members began to respond with their heads and hearts to let him know he had been heard. “You’ve been through hell, man.”   “I feel your anger in my body.” “I get why you responded tonight the way you did.”  “I feel your fear.”  As we had practiced through all our sessions, they did not try to soften his feelings, change his story, or advise him of next steps. They simply held him in his story and reflected what they heard, what touched them.

The meaning we make of any experience is impacted by all we have been through before and will unconsciously shape how we step into what is ahead. Remaining in silence or isolation while holding a painful story allows it to continue to wound us. Should we choose to tell our story to another, we have the opportunity to gain perspective. When we are held by another in our story or give ourselves a pause to reflect on the meaning we are making, we can question whether it is helpful (sustaining) or harmful (constraining) to us. Rather than react, we have the power to choose a response that leads us closer to our intentions and the future story we want to experience. Choosing our response is the foundation of agency and empowerment, both of which are at the heart of healing. Shifting our relationship to our story doesn’t change the story but can change us.

The date for our community storytelling event arrived the following week.  Before doors opened to the public, the group warmed up within a check-in circle to hear each other’s feelings of excitement and dread as they anticipated telling their stories in a public venue. We spoke of Melody and the update that she was home and recovering. She wished everyone well.  Martin was not present. Beverly had not seen him since the night of our last class.

Audience members began to arrive and fill the seats. Beverly’s two younger sons, dressed in coat and tie, were already stealing the attention of the audience with their exuberant excitement. It was time to begin and Martin still was not there. As the evening’s host opened the event, Martin entered through a side door, with a friend on either side.  Beverly caught his eye and motioned for him to join the other storytellers up front. He hesitated, then stood and came down the aisle to take a seat next to Beverly.

One by one each storyteller stood in the front of the room to share the story that in that moment felt right to tell. They read the audience and matched their words and message to the gathered group. Beverly took her turn with a picture of William in her hands as her two little boys stood by her side. She began, “I want you to know my son, William. He was unique and beautiful and there are thousands of other vulnerable young men in danger of dying just like him.”

Martin watched and waited. It was a moment of trust in himself, in us, in this process, when he finally rose to tell his story.

Martin began by talking about what had happened in class the week before and his reluctance to come tonight. He was tired and felt like nothing he could do would ever change the way things were. He felt like he had nothing left but his anger and his story and they were too intertwined to separate. But tonight, he was going to try to tell it in a way that people could hear it and get him.  He went on to talk about his deep friendship with William and the grief and guilt he has lived with every day since William’s death. He talked about the rage that runs just under his surface as people make assumptions about him based on his skin colour, his dress, his speech. He explained how hard it is to talk when all you want to do is explode. He talked about how much he wants to be seen and known but too often feels like no one really wants to know. He talked about how much he wants people to care.

A further transition from healing to empowerment occurs when tellers realize that their story matters to more than themselves. To enable social change to happen, others need to hear your story. This transition from discovering a story’s personal meaning to seeing its relationship to larger social issues, can strengthen a teller’s resolve to keep both their voice and message being heard.

Moreover, we can speak with blame or rage which distances others, or we can speak with confidence, clarity and honest emotion that draw others into the depth, passion, or heartbreak that we are feeling.  Through our stories we can deepen divisions with words that wound, or we can build allies who gain insight and compassion for our experiences and become inspired to join us in action.  The way we tell our stories can lead to healing for ourselves, each other, and the communities that we share.

When the audience rose out of their seats to applaud Martin at the end of his story, he stood still and took it in.  Later in the evening I looked over to see him talking animatedly to a local politician who had come to learn about his neighbourhood. Martin was no longer holding his story inside like an explosive device ready to detonate. He had found his voice and realized there was power and release in telling his story. I think many minds and lives changed that night.

We are all storytellers capable of healing and being healed through telling a story that needs to be heard. Simultaneously, we are all listeners capable of healing and being healed through opening ourselves to receive and be changed by the powerful stories within and around us. We can change ourselves and our world through the stories we choose to focus on, the meaning we make of those stories and finally finding the courage to tell them to the people who need to hear them the most.

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