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Affordable Housing and the Power of Storytelling: Amplifying Community Narratives

Community Development
Affordable Housing and the Power of Storytelling: Amplifying Community Narratives

The Healing Power of Storytelling

As I sit here, listening to yet another advertisement about the effectiveness of anti-anxiety pills, I can’t help but notice the inherent worldview within our culture. The message is clear – you are fundamentally alone, and any suffering you’re experiencing is abnormal, the fault of a biological dysfunction within your body. While there certainly can be a biological basis for anxiety, never do I hear it suggested that anxiety, depression, bouts of despair, and lethargy might be normal, even healthy responses to a culture that has become superficial, overstimulating, and dehumanizing.

In his book Lost Connections, journalist Johann Hari writes, “Every one of the social and psychological causes of depression and anxiety they have discovered has something in common. They are all forms of disconnection. They are all ways in which we have been cut off from something we innately need, but seem to have lost along the way.” The result of living within a culture of lost connections is unprecedented rates of despair, mental illness, and suicide. So, it’s no surprise that Surgeon General Vivek Murthy recently released a government advisory declaring loneliness a public health epidemic – as dangerous as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

Add the trauma of climate change disasters, economic injustice, political chaos, lack of affordable housing, and more, and the emotional heaviness so many of us feel these days makes perfect sense. So, what do we do? A friend of mine who leads a search and rescue operation once told me that when lost in the wilderness, children have higher survival rates than adults. Why? Because children stop and wait to be found. Children trust. Adults, on the other hand, anxiously try to save themselves, often walking in circles, burning energy reserves while becoming more difficult to locate.

Reclaiming Our Collective Humanity

We are in a time when our families, our neighbors, the earth, our souls need us to stop, be still, and recover trust. Only then can we face the present suffering. Only then can we come to our senses and discover a deeper reservoir of faith, connection, and hope.

Go back into the ancient cultures and communities from which we all emerged, and we find the ties that bind – meaningful work, extended families, intimacy with Mother Nature, rituals and practices that foster community. We find practical, accessible, communal medicines that cultivate trust and wellbeing: song, story, silence, ritual, prayer, feasting, service to the greater good. These and other folk practices soothe individual anxieties and isolation by enfolding people within a larger reality, a greater whole, a felt experience of the interconnectedness of life.

Since 2010, The Hearth, the nonprofit I serve, has provided healing spaces where story, compassionate listening, and service to the greater good is practiced as soul medicine. But as we suffer increasing disconnection and despair, particularly since the pandemic, we’ve felt called to focus our efforts on community builders – those organizations and individuals who act as glue within local communities.

The Hearth’s Care for Community Builder programs provide rest, renewal, and restoration to those who work on the frontlines. In collaboration with other healing agencies, we offer creative spaces where people can recover hope, engaging in several folk medicines – silence, story, song, play, movement, solitude in nature, and other connecting practices.

This fall, we will offer a number of online and in-person workshops, many of them free, on the practice of story, as well as intensive trainings in community-based storytelling. In all my work, I am seeking to draw forth the accessible, healing, connecting power of love – love for the earth, love for others, love for ourselves, love for the sacredness of life.

Storytelling as a Pathway to Empathy and Connection

Of course, I’m not the only one to recognize that this critical time requires a deeper commitment to love. Surgeon General Murthy now regularly ends his public presentations with a love meditation, which you can experience here.

I hope you will participate in one of The Hearth’s gatherings, retreats, or trainings. Even if you can’t join us, I still hope you find the space and permission to stop, rest, and return to love.

Each year, I lead an online and in-person intensive certification program in community storytelling for those interested in the transformational power of stories. This training is personally renewing and professionally practical, ideal for community builders of all kinds – educators, faith leaders, nonprofit staff, healthcare workers, activists, social workers, and more. The Certificate in Community Storytelling offers a variety of experiential exercises, individual skill-building, practical teaching, online discussion groups, and written and online resources. Individuals who complete the certification course will find out more about these offerings here.

I am also excited to announce the release of my new book, Between the Listening and the Telling: How Stories Can Save Us, with a foreword by New York Times bestselling author Anne Lamott. This book is a labor of love that seeks to distill the essential insights I’ve learned from over two decades of working with story and community – story and healing, story and the struggle for meaning.

It’s a deeply personal work that shares images from my own life, as well as the lived experiences of so many people I have encountered over the years – from farmers in North Wales to refugees in Calais to climate scientists in Colorado to local folks from here in Southern Oregon. It’s a book rooted in the community-building work of The Hearth, and one that I believe will give you greater empathy and hope for humanity.

To celebrate the new book and the work it represents, The Hearth is sponsoring an event where I’ll be meeting with national book award recipient Colum McCann to discuss the medicinal qualities of stories. A couple of weeks ago, we began by piling up anxieties – political divisiveness, catastrophic climate change, wealth inequality, systemic racial violence. “We’ve become morally homeless,” Colum lamented. “Our lack of affection for others is at dangerous levels.”

I shared his concern, but then remembered all the ways I have watched walls fall, prejudices dissipate, enemies grow in respect and understanding for one another. I thought of the recent workshop I led with participants from sixteen states and three countries, where I remembered heads nodding among this diverse gathering as one participant confessed with emotion, “You all have given me hope for humanity.”

Story can save us, I realized, because when we step into the reality of another person’s existence, instead of judgment, we feel a kinship. This happens in Hearth workshops and groups every time we meet. Someone gives testimony to their struggle, and those gathered nod their heads, saying, “Yes, I feel you. I know what you mean. I’m no different than you.”

Story can save us because exchanging experiences is the most accessible, effective, democratic practice for fostering genuine, empathic connection. When I say, “Tell me your story,” what I’m really asking is, “Can I re-live your experience with you? Can I try and see as you have seen, feel as you have felt, know the world as you have known it?”

Stories can save us because the honest listening and telling of personal experiences naturally endears us to one another. The illusion of separateness dissipates. I see myself in your story and am no longer able to demonize, ridicule, oppress, or neglect. What’s so wonderful is that this is an instinctive, hardwired human activity that anyone can engage to heal our families, our world, ourselves.

The Hearth’s Community Storytelling Certification

My work at The Hearth is to increase empathy and compassion in order to heal a troubled world. Despite the climate catastrophes, pandemic, increased political divisions – all is not lost. There is medicine for what ails us. It begins with cultivating trust. It begins with the listening and the telling.

How do you strengthen, heal, and bridge relationships? Story can be an accessible, creative, built-in practice for helping families, colleagues, and communities become more connected. Each year, The Hearth produces a five-month certification training in community storytelling. The program includes two three-day intensives, individual coaching, and monthly webinars led by yours truly. There are both online and in-person tracks, and we offer special early bird reduced pricing through December 31, 2021. For more information, go here.

In the meantime, I invite you to join us for a little silence, some heartfelt stories, reflective exercises, and real conversation about young people. It’s free, it’s online, and you can find out more here.

For the past ten years, The Hearth, founded by yours truly in 2010, has hosted public gatherings here in Ashland, Oregon, in which local folks have shared stories and songs to build community. During the pandemic, we thought this would be a great time to go through the archives and harvest the stories and songs we need to hear in order to help us connect to one another. Home Bound Oregon is a podcast to help us stay connected in a disconnected time, featuring stories, songs, and conversations to help us remember what matters most.

So, whether you join us for one of our workshops, retreats, or online gatherings, or simply find the time and space to stop, rest, and return to love, I hope you will discover the healing power of story. Because in an age of disconnection and despair, story can be the bridge that reconnects us to our shared humanity, restoring our faith in one another and in the possibility of a more just, equitable, and compassionate world.

After all, as the Hearth Community Housing organization knows, a safe, affordable home is just the beginning – the foundation upon which individuals, families, and communities can truly thrive.

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