2017 People’s State of the Union: “Stories Need to Be Told”

by Arlene Goldbard, Chief Policy Wonk

“Torhala, a senior at Roosevelt High School who is Muslim, spoke about a time during the presidential campaign when she and her mother were driving in the metro. A car pulled up and its passengers yelled ‘Make America Great Again,’ she said, and then told them to ‘go back to where we came from.’”

“’I was fearful that people would spit on me again, that people would laugh at me when I speak English, and that people would tell me to leave again on a boat,’ Nguyen said. ‘But deep in my heart I know that we are a great country and we are inclusive.’”

            Rizan Torhala and Vinh Nguyen, quoted in the Des Moines Register

For this year’s People’s State of the Union (PSOTU), most Story Circles took place between 27 January and 5 February. There were hundreds of events around the nation, from a few friends sharing stories across a kitchen table to dozens gathered in a public setting, perhaps meeting for the first time. In this third iteration of the USDAC’s annual civic ritual, tellers were invited to share first-person stories in response to three main prompts:

  • Share a story about something you have experienced that gave you insight into the state of our union.
  • Share a story about a time you felt a sense of belonging—or the opposite—to this nation.
  • Share a story about a time you broke through a barrier to connect with someone different from yourself or with whom you disagreed.

Anyone who wished was invited to upload a story to the PSOTU 2017 Story Portal. Check it out: you will find hundreds of stories from people of many ages, races, locations, genders and orientations throughout the U.S.

In Des Moines, Iowa, the event happened on February 20th. USDAC Cultural Agent writer, and musician Emmett Phillips and allies gathered folks in a club space called Noce, offered for community use on a Monday, its dark night. Organizing started when Emmett met with Carmen Lampe Zeitler, the long-serving former director of Children and Family Urban Movement (CFUM), where he works with youth as Program Coordinator. 

Carmen’s “love and passion for community building and youth empowerment and giving a space for voices to be heard is very evident,” Emmett told me, “so I’ve always had a lot of respect for her. She called me to meet one morning around election season, sensing all the things happening around that time and wanting to do something about it, but not knowing what. She reached out to Don Martinez, the executive director of an organization called Al Exito which works with Hispanic high school youth. And they also reached out to Larry Christianson who is retired and was more than willing to help us plan things out. This is around the time the USDAC was planning PSOTU. By the next meeting we decided that we wanted to do a Story Circle. After everyone knew exactly what it was, they jumped right onboard with it.”

 Photo: Kelly McGowan/The Register

Photo: Kelly McGowan/The Register

The Des Moines Story Circles began with Emmett emceeing, young people performing poems, and a handful of individual stories presented onstage before sharing began at small tables all around the room. I asked Emmett why they chose to start out this way. “One, to break the ice for everyone, since it’s kind of a new experience just sharing stories. And two, to make sure that the groups that really needed to be included in the conversation got their perspective out first and foremost. We thought it would empower everyone else to be open with what they’ve been through.”

And the poetry? “I work with an organization called Run DSM that has a program called Movement 515 about the urban arts: poetry, graffiti, hip-hop, photography. I’ve done a hip-hop camp and currently do poetry workshops in the middle school with them. They have a lot of young people that are brought up and empowered and trained and rehearsed with poetry. They understand the power in it, and always do a great job. So I reached out to a couple of their poets to come and bless us. We had three different poetic performances, one for the opening and two to close the show.”

I asked Emmett about success factors. “We had great support from the venue. They were courteous. They were there to help us set things up. So the environment definitely played its part. A lot of the people were there off of respect of the people that invited them. It really helps to have like a team where people would follow them wherever they go because they know it’s going to be something good. Starting with poetry was good: a poem from a young high schooler that was very awake and very appropriate, that hit people in their feelings, the emotional investment that says why we’re even here. And the stories had people in tears. A note we took on ways to make the event better is to have more Kleenex handy.”

This year as in previous years, we’ve heard from many participants that Story Circles offer a powerful and simple way to connect people, even those who seem to have little in common. In a Story Circle everyone gets equal uninterrupted time to share a first-person story, usually two or three minutes apiece. Listeners give each teller undivided attention, allowing a breath after each story for it to settle. Those factors often have a large impact in equalizing participation; contrast this to a free-for-all where the loudest or most powerful person hogs the space. After everyone has shared a story, the members of each Circle reflect on what has been revealed by the body of stories.

In Des Moines, once folks in Story Circles started reflecting, it was hard to stop. “Our intention was to have people break into their groups for a little while, then hear from everyone and then do closing poetry. But people were having too much good topical conversation. I just couldn’t stop that. So we let them continue pretty much until we had to leave. People felt really, really open and connected. The event was two hours—it’s crazy that that wasn’t long enough, you know?”

Emmett and his collaborators sent a follow-up question to everyone who took part. A large portion of the participants responded. Forty-two indicated that they’d like to participate in future Story Circles. No one replied to that question with a “no.” The typical response was what we’ve come to expect from PSOTU participants: “Great start. Loved the conversations. Stories need to be told.”

Why is the simple invitation to sit in circles, share stories, and listen fully so powerful? Based on the hundreds of Story Circles I’ve observed and facilitated, two main answers come to mind. First, it can be a sadly rare and remarkably delicious experience to receive full attention, to inhabit the space to tell a story without fearing interruption or contradiction. Too often, people are texting while you talk, or waiting for your mouth to stop moving so their turn can start, or looking over your shoulder for someone they’d rather engage. But the attention and permission of a Story Circle are an antidote to that.

Second, as we say when each PSOTU launches, “Democracy is a conversation, not a monologue.” Too much ordinary public discourse is left to those deemed experts. Too much is conducted in a way that privileges certain types of knowledge—official findings, numbers, the jargon of a particular sphere. What tends to emerge is opinion, and opinion can always be contested. In a polarized moment, many people are made anxious or fatigued by the prospect of a shouting-match fueled by conflicting opinions that fail to persuade. But stories are different. When someone’s first words are, “I want to tell you a story about something that happened to me,” when the sentences that follow tell an actual story, with a beginning, middle, and end, surprisingly few even try to contradict another’s actual experience. Each storyteller’s truth emerges to stand alongside the rest, and when the group reflects on what has been learned, the richness is often unexpectedly powerful.

You don’t have to wait till PSOTU 2018 to try it out. The USDAC’s next National Action, #RevolutionOfValues, is a day of creative action taking place on April, the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s groundbreaking Riverside speech. There are many ways for individuals and groups to take part. Download the free Toolkit and you’ll have access to all kinds of resource, including detailed Story Circle instructions.