iBbY Ireland got a chance to meet James Lawlor, regional director for Narrative 4 Ireland, a new not-for-profit organisation dedicated to promoting social change through storytelling.
Can you tell us what Narrative 4 is? How it works and a bit of its history?
Narrative 4 (N4) is a not-for-profit organisation promoting social change through storytelling. Narrative 4 aims to foster empathy by breaking down barriers and shattering stereotypes through the exchange of stories across the globe. Narrative 4 was established in the United States in 2012 by some of the world’s leading authors and artists, including the Irish novelist Colum McCann.
The core methodology behind Narrative 4 is the story exchange, an exercise in which individuals are paired off and each shares a story that in some way defines them. Afterwards, each participant takes on the persona of their partner and telling their partner’s story in the first person.The story exchange is based on the simple idea that by knowing the story of another, we are able to better understand one another.
The Narrative 4 program is designed to build a mutual trust that strips away the typical narratives of cynicism and despair. By bringing people together through storytelling, we will build a new narrative for immigration, for the environment, for peace. Our narrative is for change, for fearless hope, and for radical empathy.
It's a simple idea on paper. Have you found it easy to gather support to implement it in Ireland? Or was there any resistance?
The power of the story exchange is its simplicity. Storytelling is the oldest thing in the world and Ireland has a historical relationship with storytelling. We have received incredible support in Ireland since we established.
In 2015, Narrative 4 decided to expand outside of the United States by setting up a European Centre in Limerick City Ireland. We had previously run programmes as pilots in Limerick which were overseen by the global office in New York. The community in Limerick were very supportive of our initiative. I guess on a macro scale, Limerick knows the damage a stereotype can do and has successfully been trying to re-story itself. Limerick City and County Council, the J. P McManus Benovolent Fund and the University of Limerick Foundation have been incredibly supportive in getting us established in the heart of the city. We feel at home here and are part of the start-up culture that has been growing in the city for the last number of years. Our N4 Centre opened in October 2016 and since then we are bringing students to the city centre in order to conduct workshops in storytelling, art, creative writing, active citizenship and of course story exchanges. We are also working within the community and collaborating with groups such as Men’s Sheds and working with asylum seekers.
Can you tell us about the specific projects you have run so far? Which one made the strongest impression on you and why?
Some of the best N4 projects I have taken part in are projects where the two groups taking part are very diverse. For example this year we worked with teenage students and elderly residents of Sue Ryder estate next to their school in Dublin. The youngest participant was 14 and the oldest was 104! Or in the UK, we collaborated with author Ruth Gillian and the University of Birmingham working with mostly Caucasian schools and schools with a Muslim majority. It is incredibly special to see communities of people finding their common ground and step into the world of the other and seeing the world through a new perspective.
After a project has run its course, how does it affect or change the participants?
The programme is designed to instil empathy, confidence, creativity, collaboration and communication in our participants. These 21st-century skills are vital for their successful futures. There is on-going research project through the Yale Centre for emotional intelligence and the University of Chicago on the emotional benefits of Narrative 4 and the Born This Way Foundation. We try and stay engaged with our network. This year we have formed a N4 Leaders Committee who meet regularly in Limerick. The leaders are young people who have gone through the programme through their schools and want to make positive social change in their communities. We provide workshops and facilitate some of the discussions but the real powerful part of the process is the peer to peer learning. It is an ongoing process of up-skilling and learning but our young people have done incredible projects in their own communities already, from issues around bullying to homelessness.
Every summer, the annual Narrative 4 Global Summit takes place. In 2016, Senator George Mitchell opened our summit in Queen’s University Belfast and spoke about the role of culture in peacemaking. We then travelled to Dublin to the Department of Foreign Affairs and then onto Limerick. Educators, artists and students from all across the world attend the summit. In 2017, the summit will take place again in Ireland. The most powerful aspect of the summit is the peer to peer network the students create. Students from South Africa who have made a stand against the inequalities of their education system meet students from Belfast or from Mexico. They work together on issues. They also meet community leaders and activists from across the world who have walked their path before them.
In your experience has it ever *not* worked or has something positive and interesting always come out of the pairing?
Like any other programme good facilitation is key. A good facilitator can address issues before they become a bigger issue by talking with the teacher, and maybe spending some extra time addressing certain parts on the programme. No student is made do the story exchange, it is not part of their core school work, but if they do sign up for it, there is a responsibility to take part. We aim to build confidence and skills in the participant sbefore the story exchange. We also have built in safety features in the programmemso the participants are comfortable with the story they choose to tell. In our N4 Centre we have a value charter created by our N4 Leaders which says ‘In this place a story is a gift’. Which translates to taking care with someone else's story. Treat people in the same manner in which you yourself would like to be treated. These are good values to put a focus on.
What's next for Narrative 4 in Ireland?
We are just in our first few weeks of operation, so we want to grow the programme at a sustainable rate and work with communities all over Ireland and further afield . We have lots of exciting plans for the future. We want to start using state-of-the-art technology through our technology partners to globally connect kids.
How can people (schools, writers, storytellers, artists...) get involved?
We would love to hear from interested schools, writers, storytellers, artists. At the moment we are accepting expression of interests at : firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com with Ireland' in Subject line.
Thanks, James! Find out more at narrative4.com and check out this video:
Photos (c) Diarmaid Greene - One True Media