What we learned from our storytelling workshops in Cambridge

Story teller and workshop facilitator Glenys Newton shares her reflections on a series of storytelling workshops in Cambridge as part of the ‘True Tales for Change‘ project.

I have always been passionate about people’s stories and that everyone should have a chance to tell their story, whatever it may be.

I am passionate about listening and believe that in order to be a storyteller, you must first be a story listener. There is not enough listening goes on in our world, as everyone vies to be heard and shouts louder and louder over their fellow humans, ignoring what is actually happening around their ears.

I heard a saying once; ‘When you speak you are saying what you already know. If you listen, you might learn something new.’ In this world where there are so many different forms of communication, it feels as though the disconnect gets wider and wider. It is through listening to one another’s stories that I believe we can heal that disconnect and truly learn.

Through the stoic and very organised help of The Cambridge Commons within the project True Tales for Change – A Project for a Fairer Future, we held storytelling workshops with people who had, and continue to, experience inequality in our fair city, that has been crowned with the title of being the city with the greatest disparity of wealth in the UK.

During the workshops, people learned the basics of how to tell their stories but really, as always, it was the people teaching us and teaching each other. Telling our stories makes us vulnerable and we need to dig deep into our courage to be able to do so. Telling our stories can also be deeply healing and validating and to be able to create a space where people felt safe to do so was a great privilege indeed.

There was one person in the group who was from a more privileged background and also of a demographic who may not have experienced the same inequality as the rest of the group. He spoke over the top of others. He made people feel uncomfortable and exposed. He cut people short when they viewed their thoughts. He spoke of wanting to do things differently from the rest of the group and wasted no time in telling us where we were doing it all wrong.

I make him sound like someone you want to slap but, in reality, he was only behaving in a way that society had told him to. Society had told him that his voice was the most important, that his views, and himself, were superior to others. Society had put him in a bullet proof vest and provided him with all the verbal ammunition to fire at the rest of us who are used to being put down and told that our views count for nothing. He was only playing out the script that he had been given and providing a mirror to the world.

People told their stories regardless. We are used to fighting for a space to do that, albeit we are also very very tired of having to fight for that space. On Saturday 11th January, artists gathered in the Escape Community Space in the Grafton Centre with their works depicting inequality.

People gathered to come and see the works and speak with the artists and, in the background, the people who were going to tell their stories hovered nervously. With words of encouragement, huge cheering on and more than a little bit of courage on their part, the storytellers got up in front of a large audience and told their stories. Stories of being unheard, of being out of place, of being homeless and abuse.

From a buzzing throng of people, within minutes you could have heard a pin drop. I watched those women grow ten feet tall, their confidence soar as people listened and then applauded. Two of the women said that this was the beginning of the rest of their lives and it felt as though the impossible had become possible.

The man from the workshop had come along and I approached him with caution. He had been adamant that he was going to tell his story but he wouldn’t tell any of us what that story was.

He then said that he had come to listen to the stories and not to tell. From the workshop he had learned that he must listen more. He had learned that he comes from a place of privilege and to be aware of that. He had learned to choose his words carefully.

That was the real triumph.

One more person in the world who will listen and that will change everything. It is easy to get angry and paint others as the enemy but if we listen, if we give people the space to learn without shouting back our own anger at them, then the world changes into a better place.

In the storytelling world we say that ‘An enemy is simply someone whose story you have not yet heard.’

Get out there and tell your stories but, most of all, listen to the stories of others. You never know what you might learn.

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