In the US, sharing our personal stories is part of who we are. Most of us see it as a way to bring people along with us to share and celebrate the good times and to get us through the bad. There are support groups for everything and therapists of all stripes. Yes, we can go to extremes (The Kardashians, radio therapists), but on balance we love a good story and appreciate really getting to know the people around us through their stories. As a society, we’re an open book, we’re accustomed to living out loud.
Over my career I’ve learned that story telling is a powerful tool in helping people along any change journey. It’s not enough to talk about the technical aspects of the change, you need to explain the “why” behind it in a way that makes a personal connection.
“Story telling is the oldest form of education.” Terry Tempest Williams
One of my PULSE projects is to bring a formal process of employee career development to the IMB team. Implementing this program would mean a huge change for most leaders and definitely employees. So when I set out to train the leadership, the first thing that came to mind was to ask them to think of a story they could share with their employees to explain why we are implementing this program. I encouraged them to think about the experiences they had, the advice they received and the decisions they made in their careers that lead to their success
“We cannot create a world we can’t imagine and stories are the engines of our imaginations.” Anonymous
Dr. Alex Coutinho, Executive Director, kicked off the day by telling us about his own career journey, from childhood (yes, he worked as a rather young boy) to today, including his successes, struggles and the choices he made. He set the tone. I had only planned to ask a couple of volunteers to share their stories with the group.
Not only did I get a couple of volunteers, but they decided, as a team, that they would all tell their stories. I knew this was an important moment so I scrapped my agenda and let the morning flow.
While the greater IMB leadership team is diverse and includes expats, on this particular day, it turned out that only Africans (mostly Rwandans) were in attendance. As their stories unfolded, Dr. Alex started to gather threads from each story and weave a tapestry of themes. The team continued to recognize more themes throughout the morning. Everyone listened with rapt attention. They engaged, empathized, sympathized, joked, and laughed. They surprised each other with their stories, the similarities, the differences, they were so moved, they didn’t want to take a break for fear of ruining the moment.
The team told stories that included genocide, poverty and the refugee experience; strong family love and support; ingenuity and creativity. They emerged from these experiences as leaders amongst their families and/or communities. Theirs was a collective story of immense strength, grace and dignity, often in the face of tragedy or near impossible odds.
I immediately understood how poignant, powerful and unusual these stories were. What didn’t surface until later, was that the actual telling of the stories was in itself very unusual. My colleagues at IMB told me that they had never participated in an exercise like this before and they were, to a person, surprised by the willingness of their peers to share and grateful that they did. They shared that while, warm, kind and generous, Rwandans are very careful about letting others in and telling their stories. I imagine that this is tied to their history. Rwandans are as private as we westerners are open.
I have to admit that when I came up with this training “activity”, I had no idea what I was asking in the context of Rwanda. I thought people would share a story about a decision point in their career journey. — I didn’t expect whole stories and the depth of feeling. I delivered the invitation, but they took it to a completely different level! Later we brought this training to a wider audience and we were pleased to see similar connections being made.
Not long after this experience, my sister came to visit. Tahira (T) is a recently retired elementary school teacher from the Boston area, with a specialty in reading and literacy. Prior to arriving in Rwanda, she reached out to the Rwinkwavu Library and Learning Center and offered to help out for a couple of days while visiting. Little did I know, she was planning a book making/writing and story telling workshop!! T had about 20-25 children each day, ages 2 1/2 to 15 with different skill and English language levels. She was warmed by the welcome and support she received from the staff and awed by the focus and enthusiasm the children brought to writing their books. T invited them to share their stories with each other and made a bulletin board display to showcase their work.
“It was really a good opportunity . . . to discover that they can write their own books and its importance . . . as the session brought some children to dream of reading their own stories in the future . . .”
Jean-Marie, Ready to Read Center
We both went into our workshops to share specific but different skills and capabilities, yet we emerged with similar experiences. Where our journeys took us was more about building deeper connections. I heard stories steeped in the past, T heard stories from today just beginning to unfold. As Rwanda continues its own journey of fast change and development, I can’t help but wonder what stories will be written for and in the future.