The Power of Storytelling
Posted by kate fialkowski on May 20, 2012
On Friday, we had a convention for The Arc Maryland. I’ve been to, hosted, and created so many conferences that I can’t even count them. I was prepared for this to be another one — a lot of work and generally fatigue ensues from the sheer physical output required to manage the work leading up to it and also managing through the day. What really happened was nothing that I was prepared for.
They key to The Arc is that it connects real lives to public policy so that policy is influenced by real needs and policy makers clearly see the connection between their work and the humans that are impacted on the other side. What this means is that the most powerful thing we, collectively, can do is tell our stories. It takes a LOT of courage to tell your story. Most of us are private people and the heart of our personal story is a very private matter. It includes hopes and fears and beliefs – intimate things that we don’t typically tell to general population let ‘lone in a very public setting: like in front of hundreds of people!
I remember the first time I told mine, as a sibling. I was at Temple University many years ago as a panelist at an adult Sib Shop hosted by Don Meyer (http://www.siblingsupport.org/). On the panel I was way to emotional and broke down in tears. It was the first time I spoke out loud about intimate things like my mothers death, the feeling of lifelong responsibility that I have for my brother, fears that I would not be able to manage, that something would go wrong “on my watch” and the things that I have given up in my life so that I could manage some of the caregiving responsibilities for my parents, for my brothers. It was overwhelming and I felt it was inappropriate to be crying in front of strangers and I felt ashamed, actually.
But at the same time the story resonated with people and I realized that some of us have to share our stories and I honed it and got more comfortable “living out loud.” To be honest, I’m not perfectly comfortable. It’s still scary – telling things out loud that are your secret thoughts. Recently I shared the “R-word” story. That particular memory, I can tell you is one I would rather forget. It was hard to relive it and harder still to share it: Kate’s R-Word Story
Each and every time I tell a vignette or give a speech, I can’t help but reflect on my mother. When I was a small child, I attended Town Halls in the basement of St Valentine’s Church. I went to City Hall. I went to school board meetings. All of these tugging at my mother’s shirt tails (literally) and sitting patiently in the back of the room while she stood at the podium and gave a heart wrenching account of real life. I was 4, 5, 6 years old. It really was our life she was talking about and I sat there watching how other people were reacting. People without children with disabilities had their mouths hanging open. Was our story unique?
I watched my mother as she wrote out her story little bits here and there on scrap paper around the house — after getting down on her knees and scrubbing the tile floors. Or after dinner. So tired she would nod off after a few lines. Now I understand that it wasn’t just the time involved that made her take this a scrap at a time. It was the effort. Exposing herself a little bit at a time, all around the house on these scraps. My mother would go around later and collect these notes and sit down at our old Corona typewriter and painstakingly type up the speech. As we drove to the grocery store on Saturday morning her lips would move as she would rehearse her speech and I was there when she finally delivered it. Our story actually was unique. There weren’t many people, back in the day, admitting to having 11 children and two with disabilities? But my mother stood in front of the room and told the story out loud. To strangers. And she did it in a way that everyone related to her. Everyone understood the common humanity in the story. The common sense. Politicians and family members alike and I can tell you something — not one person that met my mother or saw her speak forgot her. They didnt all agree with her but she impacted every single one of them. She “contaminated” them with emotional discomfort and once someone has it –that feeling in their belly– they are propelled to action.
On Friday, at our state convention, people shared their stories over and over. Sometimes it was people telling a story on behalf of someone else in recognition for the work they did. Sometimes it was a “coalition” where each party told the back-story to what happened behind the scenes. Sometimes it was individuals standing up and telling their own story. Or sitting down, quietly and sharing their story in a quiet corner for our video camera — a testimony captured.
To tell your story, you do not have to be eloquent. You do not have to be articulate. You do not have to, necessarily, be calm and composed. You have to do something even harder — you have to be genuine and vulnerable and exposed. Our state convention went far beyond a professional conference. It was all about personal empowerment. Empowers yourself, celebrating your strength, and inspiring others.
I have traveled around the world, been to famous art galleries, seen opera in Rome, famous jewels in the London Tower, models on the runway in Milan, and breathtaking vistas in the Swiss Alps or on top of the Great Wall of China. But in all my travels I have seen nothing so beautiful as Joyce giving her acceptance speech for lifetime achievement, Kathleen talking about her steps to employment, Vicki celebrating her work as an interviewer, Carol sharing her story meeting the governor, and Steve quietly sharing for the video camera in the story booth. The most beautiful and unique thing in the world is each person’s life as it unfolds and the beauty is disarming. I felt honored to have been a witness to such beauty.
I’d like to share two powerful examples of storytelling and I hope you take the time to watch them…