In her evocative 2018 essay Why Do We Turn to Stories in the Midst of a Disaster? writer/researcher Madeleine Wattenbarger penned these universal words while sharing her own experience in the 2017 Mexico City earthquake:
“…after surviving a natural disaster, storytelling becomes a way to situate one’s self in time and space. It allows communities to locate themselves in relationship to devastation outside of immediate human control, and it can provide a powerful counter to media narratives that obscure their lived reality.”
PHOTO: REBECCA BLACKWELL / AP
Personal storytelling is gaining recognition as a powerful healing pathway for communities reeling from natural disaster, episodes of violence, or other grievous situations. In certain settings, the approach has demonstrated the ability to foster healing via a potent blend of compassion, connection, creativity, and the immeasurable human capacity for love and hope.
The Umpqua Story Project: 10,000 Acts of Love
On October 1, 2015, a mass shooting incident at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon (population just under 25,000), took the lives of nine people. In its wake, the Umpqua Story Project was born — supported by The Ford Family Foundation and the Douglas County (OR) Museum, and conducted by staff of Ashland-based nonprofit The Hearth.
Since The Hearth’s founding by now-Director Mark Yaconelli in early 2010, the organization has worked with traumatized communities to encourage healing, small towns to foster connection, and marginalized populations to increase awareness and respect. Along the way, they have trained myriad community leaders, nonprofits, pastors, teachers, and professional groups in the art of community storytelling.
The mission of The Hearth is straightforward: Transformational Storytelling - Healing Communities One Story At A Time. As per their website,( thehearthcommunity.com ), the group “has developed a variety of tested, transformative, accessible storytelling methods inviting people to write down, audio record, sing, photograph, upload, gather in circles, or stand in front of a microphone to share what they have lived. By providing safe and welcoming spaces, The Hearth transforms residents into neighbors, enemies into friends, and towns into communities.”
PHOTO: UMPQUA STORY PROJECT
By providing safe and welcoming spaces, The Hearth transforms residents into neighbors, enemies into friends, and towns into communities.
The Umpqua Story Project was created “…to help facilitate healing through personal storytelling…with the purpose of providing compassionate settings where people across the Umpqua Valley could share their experiences of kindness and generosity…”
Volunteers were trained in compassionate listening, and tables were set up in coffee shops, libraries, schools and other public spaces across the county. Locals were invited to share their experiences around the shooting via writing, audio, video, photos, or other creative avenues.
The project website paints a vivid picture of the healing process.
“For a small moment, there was only the pain, and the loss, and the empty silence. And then people began to act. A welder made some signs. Two women began to bake cookies. Restaurants brought food…a high school student set up a car wash. A harp player went down to the hospital. Businesses posted signs of prayer and encouragement…Churches and counseling centers and places of care were opened all hours. Little by little, the healing began. In response to one person’s act of violence, a community offered ten thousand acts of love.”
In response to one person’s act of violence, a community offered ten thousand acts of love.
For a closer look at the continuing Umpqua Story Project:
Read personal writings from local students and community members here.
Listen to audio recordings of community members voicing their experiences here.
View photos of Acts of Kindness and Local Support here.
Thousand Oaks Remembers: ‘The Way We Truly Connect’
On November 8, 2019, a deeply moving event was created to mark the one-year anniversary of the 2018 back-to-back tragedies in the southern California city of Thousand Oaks (population 130,000). First, the community lost 12 people in a shooting at the Borderline Bar & Grill. The next day, weary first responders moved from a massacre scene to firefighting duty as the Hill and Woolsey fires swept through the area, bringing forced evacuations and the ultimate destruction of more than 1,000 homes.
Guided in part by advisory support by ICTG and assistance from a facilitator trained by The Hearth, the community marked the anniversary by gathering for a night of storytelling from within.
“This is not a performance,” declared one of the emcees in opening remarks. “We are gathered here as a community. We are here to share some stories. Story connects us. Story brings us to the root of our humanity…takes us back to who we truly are and the way we truly connect.”
Carpenters from a Thousand Oaks local union built seven writing posts to facilitate sharing of stories by community residents.
PHOTO: TO REMEMBERS
Personal stories poured out through songs sweetly sung and memories shared with trembling voices, and ethereal dances danced on a bare stage. A woman recounted the chaos of evacuation against the smoke and ash above her house. When the crush of media left, “we were the old story,” she said. “We’re safe, but safe in a completely different way.”
A burly firefighter among the first responders called to the shooting location, voiced his full story for the first time, barely holding back tears. “Our job was to look for life. To save people. We looked for life but didn’t find any…”
One brave teller shared words he had heard the Sheriff’s Department chaplain speak in a prayer service. “We can never replace those we lost…we must never stop telling their stories.”
We can never replace those we lost…we must never stop telling their stories.
An Assistant Police Chief ended his story with timeless, inspiring words. “No matter the duty, always tell everybody you love them. Go home, hug your loved ones and tell them, ‘I Love you and I will always be there to support you.’”
Courage, vulnerability and compassion hung in the air throughout the event. In closing, the emcee noted, “We longed for hope and then we saw hope work itself out.”
He spoke of listening groups all over town, led by 25 trained facilitators where anyone can share a piece of their story and hear another’s story and find the human connection they share.
“This will go on,” he gently reassured the gathered. “We all want to end with hope.”
Learn more at “Thousand Oaks Remembers/A Storytelling Project”.
Storytelling is not a “One Size Fits All” proposition.
Not everyone relishes speaking in front of others or behind a microphone. Storytelling can encompass the written or spoken word, the song that rises up from the depths of loss, the home-baked pie, the T-shirts, the scrawled note from a child, the dance, the sculpture honoring the fallen, the comment on a website or window, or the commemorative event.
More Art Than Science
Like many restorative efforts, storytelling cannot be scheduled in advance. Some community members may need weeks, months, or years before they feel the desire or ability to speak of what they have lived. Some may never wish to take this step in this way. The Phases of Disaster Response, along with the wisdom of community leadership, can serve as general guidelines.
Reach Out For Support
In advance, before you need them, explore how The Hearth and other nonprofit organizations may be able to support and assist your community in facilitating a storytelling-based project. Training and certification are available as well.
Learn more about The Hearth, including their trainings leading to The Certificate in Community Storytelling as well as their consulting, facilitation, and story-based program services.
Expanding understanding and best practices for leadership and whole-community care.