By Kiran Singh Sirah, a 2011-13 Rotary Peace Fellow and president of the International Storytelling Center in Jonesborough, Tennessee, USA.
I recently had a chance to reconnect with my fellow Rotary Peace Fellows at a Rotary Peace Symposium in São Paulo. I was in the company of many talented friends and colleagues, including representatives from organizations like the World Bank and the United Nations, as well as global peace consultants and specialists in health, government, peace, security, and education. It was an incredible group of some 80 interdisciplinary peace advocates and Rotary members from all over the world.
Of course, I approached our conversations through the lens of story. I was there not just as a Rotary Peace Fellow but also as a representative of storytelling and the International Storytelling Center (ISC). (I even led a workshop on using storytelling as a tool in collaborations.) As I moved around the conference, talking with other Rotary members, I shared ISC’s vision of building a better world through storytelling. But as a folklorist, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to collect stories, too. What I found was that everyone had a story to tell about what originally inspired them to work for peace.
In the World Cafe that was part of the symposium, I spoke to people who, like me, have felt called to serve in places far from home. Juliana, a Ugandan peace fellow who’s now located in Sudan, told me about the very moment she became committed to working for peace. She was in Kampala, Uganda’s capital, enjoying a quiet moment that she realized was marked by the lack of a familiar sound: gunfire. She wanted everyone to be able to experience that feeling.
I also learned about the experiences of Jewish and Muslim fellows who had worked on interfaith projects in war-torn Sierra Leone. I heard from people working with Syrian refugees, people studying the aftermath of Ebola in Liberia, and people working to build peace in Myanmar, Somalia, and Cambodia. I spoke to two friends based in the Amazon rainforest who are establishing a peace center that supports indigenous cultures and communities. Through tears, a fellow Brit told me about the reason he works for peace: his two granddaughters. I also listened to a Brazilian Rotarian, a shy man who shared a powerful personal story of growing up in extreme poverty and losing his father at a young age. That hardship had inspired him to build a better world for others.
Building a better world
Taking in these stories, I was struck by how these different regions around the world share a deep connection through story. As Rotary Peace Fellows, we are all people who have dedicated our lives to building a better world in the best way we know how. While there is no one strategy that will accomplish this, I saw how important it is to share best practices across locations and disciplines to inspire innovation and promote creativity. Sharing our personal narratives strengthened our fellowship and will no doubt influence our work.
Human rights and global peace are huge — and even intimidating — topics, but they are not larger than life. This work starts at the local level. As Gandhi once said, to achieve peace in the world, we must start with ourselves. By sharing stories at home or at conferences, we establish the connections we need to work for larger change. To share a story is a gift of love. Listening to my fellow Rotary members, I understood it is a gift that is changing the world.
Adapted with permission from Sirah’s post on the International Storytelling Center’s blog