Anyone who has ever been spellbound when listening to a story understands their power. Kiran Singh Sirah, president of the International Storytelling Center in Jonesborough, Tennessee is working to harness that power.
“Stories tell us who we are and where we come from.But we can also use stories as tools to solve real-world problems, build social movements, change lives and change the world. When we think about it, in some form or another, stories do that every day.Stories aren’t just a source of entertainment — they are the best source of entertainment — but they are also powerful analytical tools that help us understand the past and build empathy with people who may seem different, unfamiliar or threatening. Hence, why I’ve made it my life’s work to help people use stories to not only build peace in our communities but envision the potential of a better world.
“As my colleague once suggested to me, the most powerful force in the universe is the power of thought, but stories are the most powerful means to communicate that thought. Humans have been using this tool and art, ever since we looked up into the sky, saw the stars and began to use our imaginations. We then asked questions ‘What if?’ ‘Why?’ ‘How?’ And as a species we haven’t stopped asking these essential questions.
“In today’s society, I valuestorytelling because it truly is a democratic art form in that it requires no wealth, status or formal education to access, making it readily available to the people who need it most. And it can be such a binding force to understand one another and connect with others, our neighbors, and to people we have yet to meet on the other side the world.
“I believe every story is worthy. When sharing a story, one is making a mark and asking others to listen. It can be a healing process, a way to find connections and build community, and it connects us beyond the labels of politics and religion or background. It is a social force for peace and connections that connects to the core of our humanity, our pain, sorrow, struggle, joy and sense of belonging, hopes and aspirations. It transcends social, cultural, geographical constructs, as essentially, it’s embedded in our DNA and part of our soul of existence,” Sirah says.
The power of storytelling in this region is centered at the International Storytelling Center, originally founded by Jimmy Neil Smith. Sirah sees his role as building on what Smith started.
“When I came on board, I got asked a question by someone from New England, they asked ‘How do you plan to turn the center around?’ And I thought, my intention isn’t to turn anything around that is already working. I like to think what we have done is layer in more. We’ve expanded the potential, we’ve grown our audiences and partners, and we’ve established a number of new donors and supporters, which in turn has provided us additional opportunities to do more things. But at the same time, I wholeheartedly value what my predecessor did to lay the foundation for such work. He founded the center, the festival and laid the ground work for our relationship to the Smithsonian, NASA JPL, The U.S. State Department, UNESCO and even in the early ‘70s, was already making the festival a national festival, thinking about diversity and multicultural as integral to our work, and not an added-on afterthought. Jimmy Neil is a friend, and someone I admire a lot.
“I think if there’s some added stuff, it’s that we have taken many of these relationships and turned them into tangible projects, from training U.S. state department’s foreign services personnel, pentagon teamsand others to use storytelling to build friendships with their colleagues around the world. I think we’ve definitely expanded our footprint, but also harnessed projects in East Africa, Latin America, Australia, the far East, Europe and many other places. In a sense - we’ve built on what my predecessor laid the foundation for. Even our stories as medicinedigital training initiative we did during the pandemic was actually built on health care partnerships that Jimmy Neil established. I think what we did was perhaps just learn to adapt and apply it in new ways,” he says.
Another way that storytelling benefits the region is economically. Its impact measures nearly $8 million. Most of the region’s hotels and motels and many of the restaurants are full because of the audiences that fly in or travel from all 50 states and several other nations, especially during the Storytelling Festival.
“But there is also the empowerment aspect when an at-risk youth gets to hear a story that reminds them there is also beauty in despair and that their story matters. That can be the biggest lift they need to gain a sense of agency. ISC works with around 3,000 youth across our region and beyond each year, and many more through our online learning resources for schools, teachers and educators. Even if people don’t attend themselves, I think in some way, our region stills benefits.
“But it’s been my goal to help people in our region know that the center is also for them, as our role includes cultivating the stories of our region and sharing them with the world. It’s about empowerment, innovation via our training initiatives, it’s a source of pride and belonging, and I want more young people across the region, regardless of who they are or what their background is, know that they have a resource. Ultimately, when a young person, or an older person or an intergenerational family come to experience a storytelling event in their own backyard, then what I hope it does is help them realize that they have stories they can cultivate too. This can be a tremendous source of pride.
“Of course, we work across the arts and have many partnerships across our region, from health care, education, trauma-informed story initiatives and more. But ultimately when people get the chance to rewrite their story, or envision or see beauty and affirmation, and belonging in their own story, then anything is possible,” Singh says.
Those partnerships are important for Sirah’s plans for the future of the center.
“We’re building numerous stories for peace initiatives. We want to use our center more as a place for discourse and dialogue. We’ve building partners from across the South and beyond in research and developing methodology, so that more people in distressed communities around the nation and the world can harness stories for peace and dialogue. I’m very passionate about this. We’re going to be adding artist-led programs, special outreach educational projects to help kids in more counties, especially that might be in in lower income circumstances or struggling with aspects of life. We’re also developing more stories and doing some commission work so that diverse stories from across Appalachia and the South can be heard and appreciated. There is actually a lot in the works,” he says.
Before Sirah came to the ISC, he was doing a two-year fellowship at UNC-Chapel Hill focusing on social justice folklore, storytelling and peace and conflict prevention. His fellowship was part of a fully funded scholarship from Rotary International. He is part of an alumni of around 1,600 Rotary Peace fellows based in over 100 different countries, working in different sectors and fields, including United Nations agencies, non-governmental organizations, non-profits, education, medicine or on the frontlines of peace negotiations. He provides training and tools to use storytelling to advance human rights initiatives and causes.
“ISC’s vision is to help build a better world through the power of storytelling, but the only way we can do that is by building relationships with peace minded folks that can use these tools to make a difference in their own communities. Occasionally, like in 2020 when there was intense fighting and bombing in the Middle East, I hosted an online Stories for Healing Session where Rotary Peace Fellow colleagues from Palestine, Israel, Colombia, India, U.K., USA, and Brazil, could come together to hear one another, but also work together in ways that could prevent further violence from occurring. What I really value about this fellowship, is that even if some of our own respected nations might be at war with one another, we are able to work across political lines, to do what we can to prevent conflict and foster peace.
“When I was in Scotland, I also did advisory work for UNESCO, and in particular intangible heritage, cultural diplomacy. Did you know that the UNESCO 2001 statement on cultural diversity says that intangible heritage (i.e. storytelling) is now considered on par with other human rights? I really value the work of UNESCO, and so I am always open to supporting their work. This is another connection to Jimmy Neil as he once many years ago, visited UNESCO headquarters in Paris.
“I have a hope and dream that every kid and every person in our region can participate in a storytelling event, whether that is during the festival, part of ghost stories, in one of our seasonal concerts or in a special educational project or workshop. My goal is for our region to be empowered by stories and help people use story as a catalyst for their lives, to envision not just the story of better world, but how they can be part of the story to make that a reality.
“Another thing a lot of folks don’t know about me, something I’m really proud of, is I became the Mr. Biscuit King of 2014, at Knoxville’s biscuit festival. I have a gingham sash and a biscuit trophy, all because I wore a balanced biscuit on my head, read some poetry and apparently, I fit the part of this Southern specialty.
“I also got married recently and gained a beautiful 6-year-old daughter. My wife, Marie Porterfield, is from our region, born and raised, and is the new arts professor at Virginia Highlands.I may not have been born in Appalachia, but it’s a place that I love to call home. Getting married to a deep-rooted Appalachian who equally cares about making a difference, has made us want to do what we can for the region and place wecall home, and where we’ll live for the rest of our lives,” he says.