Stories That Create Change
Are you finding the stories that need to be told in your organization?
By Bobby Harris
As a storyteller, I am always on the hunt for a good story to tell. Two years ago I was speaking with my friend Lenny Silberman former Director of Emma Kaufmann Camp in Morgantown, West Virginia. Lenny was telling me about the time that he donated a Torah to the camp. Knowing that the purchase could be rather expensive, I asked him how he was able to do it. He told me that he had owned a bat that baseball great Roberto Clemente had used in a game and sold that bat for cash to procure the Torah. This story was unusual to me in that I had never heard of a person selling a baseball bat for a Torah. Though I loved this story, it seemed incomplete. Lenny told me that he never shared with others how he obtained the Torah. I suggested to him that we needed to tell this story and we ought to invite Roberto Clemente Jr. to come to camp to hold the Torah that his father’s bat was used to purchase. After 2 years of trying to make contact, we finally reached Roberto Jr. and he came to Emma Kaufmann Camp this past July and riveted the community by sharing stories about being son of a legend and the joy he feels knowing that, even 44 years after his death, his father is still inspiring good deeds. Now, instead of seeing their camp’s Torah as just another Torah, the campers will associate it with an act of tzedakah and the Pittsburgh Pirate legend. This story might easily have never been told and the campers would never have known the interesting story of how their Torah came to them.
Are you finding the stories that need to be told in your organization? Which are the stories that can and should be told to help you and your organization to learn, grow, transform, adapt, or do whatever it needs to do? Below are 4 strategies that can help you find stories, work with them, and tell them so that you can move your organization forward.
Be a tourist at your own place
When we go on a vacation to a country where we have never been, we want to learn more about the country we are visiting so we approach the experience with wide-eyed curiosity. Why don’t we have that same approach at home? I have “people watched” in cafes all over the world looking to find that one photo or individual, or hear a certain discussion that will reveal to me the essence of the place where I am visiting. However, in my hometown, I am more focused on completing my task list and being on time for my appointment. A tourist “state of mind” is different than a state of mind immersed in day-to-day living. By not taking the time to step back and observe what is happening all around us, we will likely miss seeing what we need to see and the stories we need to tell. Can you clear some time weekly in your Outlook calendar to become a tourist in your own place? I have a friend who googles photos and listens to native songs from countries he would one day like to visit. After this online immersion, he then takes a walk through his workplace feeling what he calls “brand new.”
Be a Scriptwriter
In the story “From a Bat to a Torah,” Lenny suggested that I write the story as he told it to me. As I began to write, I remember thinking that it had a premature ending. To me, it felt that it would only be complete if the campers knew the creativity and generosity involved in acquiring the Torah. For Roberto Clemente’s son (bearing his same name) to return 44 years later and hold the Torah that was only there based on his father’s stature, would be a powerful way, I thought, to teach the children powerful lessons. In telling the stories that you need to tell, have you imagined creating different endings to stories unfolding right now? Have you looked at a situation from a different vantage point such as a donor who is unsure if her gift is having the impact that she desires? Is there someone in your world whose story has never been told but needs to be told? Has there recently been something that your organization was trying to resolve and progress was made due to a person taking meaningful action? It is crucial to remember that our audiences best connect to a story when we focus on the specific actions of one person or group.
One + One = Three
Creativity emerges out of tension and conflict. One can usually find or create a story in forcing two different worlds to come together. Curiosity and interest pique when we make this happen. When a Clemente bat led to a Torah, we created interest by merging worlds of sport and Judaism. Think of the movie The Frisco Kid which transplants a traditional Eastern European 19th century Rabbi into the American Wild West – do you remember the Indian Chief asking the Rabbi (played so well by Gene Wilder) if he would die for “Torah” or Wilder refusing to mount his horse prior to sunset on Shabbos even though his life is in danger? When we consciously seek out opportunities to push two disparate worlds together, an abundance of creative energy can unleash outcomes that had previously not been imagined. How frequently are you going out of your way to bring two worlds together?
Embrace the Importance of a Story
Silence jeopardizes the loss of an important truth or memory. There are times that a story must be told.
Ankie Spitzer lost her husband Andrei when Black September terrorist group killed 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. Just a few hours after these bloody murders occurred, Ankie entered the apartment where it happened. At that place and in that moment she pledged that she would tell this story to the world – and, all these years, she has kept her promise. In 1995, to assure that future generations would hear the story, the JCC Maccabi games resolved to incorporate telling this story as part of their annual Opening Ceremonies.
For 44 years, despite incredible advocacy efforts, the International Olympic Committee refused to officially hold a moment of silence or recognize these 11 athletes as part of official Olympic activity. Finally, this past summer the 11 Israeli athletes were remembered by the International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach in a ceremony inside the Olympic Village in Rio. After the ceremony Ankie Spitzer said
“Everyone stood for a minute’s silence inside the village. It was everything we always wanted – it finally felt like closure.”
There are some stories that we have to keep telling and, as we do, we continue to chip away and move closer to accomplishing what we set out to do. As we keep telling this story, perhaps one day soon, there will be a moment of silence at the Opening Ceremonies for the 11 Israeli athletes.
Margaret Mead once wrote that we should “never underestimate that a few thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world – indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.” I would build upon her insight – “Never underestimate that a meaningful, powerful story can change the world – Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” Before a group of “thoughtful, committed citizens” organize to change the world, they need to be inspired. When we find the right stories and tell them well, we inspire them.
Bobby Harris is a storyteller and Director of URJ Camp Coleman in Atlanta, GA. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org