Dozens settled into pea-green plastic chairs as Elizabeth Nearing, a red-headed Long Wharf Theatre professional, began her story: “When I was about 2 years old, I stabbed my sister in the ankle with a fork.”
Nearing was one of two New Haven residents to take the stage on Feb. 5 at “Storytellers New Haven,” a monthly gathering in the Connecticut Center for Arts and Technology’s Orchid Cafe.
Nearing spoke candidly about how personal mental health issues had distanced her from her sister and how the declining physical health of their aging parents brought them back together. Each sentence was met with murmurs of agreement and nods from the audience. Nearing concluded by describing herself and her 30-year-old sister curled up in a pillow fort in their parents’ Ohio living room.
When the applause ended, several audience members asked Nearing questions. Karen DuBois-Walton ’89, who launched Storytellers New Haven with her husband Kevin Walton last fall, champions this post-presentation dialogue. “We want to encourage curiosity. I think it’s part of that expanding awareness of each other,” she said.
New Haven and Yale can feel similarly divided as perception-based judgments impede connections across lines of difference. Advocates in both circles have proposed a common solution: storytelling. Performative or organic, storytelling can dissolve bias and inspire activism. Storytelling can be a valuable tool both in knitting communities together internally and in connecting them to other communities.
DuBois-Walton is the executive director of the New Haven Housing Authority. Her husband is a youth mentor and basketball coach. Through their community work, the pair has observed New Haven’s fragmentation firsthand. To cultivate community empathy, they created a platform for sharing some of New Haven’s 130,000 life stories.
“When we lump [people] by gender, race and ethnicity, by economic standing, by town and gown, we automatically put a whole set of assumptions on people, some of which may be true but a lot of which are not, and that’s the nuance of finding somebody’s story,” DuBois-Walton said.
DuBois-Walton and Walton are alumni of the Community Leadership Program, a workshop where they first witnessed how stories bring people together. The program, founded in 2002 by Bill Graustein, a former researcher in Yale’s Geology and Geophysics Department, aims to inspire and motivate Greater New Haven’s community leaders by providing a space for collaboration and connection across boundaries of difference.
Through monthly discussion-based meetings, Graustein’s curriculum encourages participating leaders to practice “deep listening.” Instead of concentrating on the similarities that lead to related follow-up stories, as in cocktail party conversations, Graustein hopes listeners will focus on differences and turn those differences into questions, fundamentally shifting the dialogue and building collective trust. DuBois-Walton, Walton and Nearing are three of the 430 community leaders who have completed the leadership workshop program.
In the Community Leadership Program’s opening exercise, participants are given 90 seconds to describe what they do and why they do it. Listeners are then encouraged to share what they want to know more about. The curriculum culminates in a final exercise of “deep listening,” when several participants wrestling with big professional or personal decisions share their stories with the cohort. Listeners are prohibited from giving advice or telling their own stories. All they can do is ask questions.
“It’s about setting up a structure where there is equality of voice, and that is something we are really conscious of in a community where access to resources or privilege is not uniformly distributed,” Graustein said.
In an article he wrote for the The Museletter of the League of Advancement of New England Storytelling, Graustein explained that narratives dispel fear, guilt and anger and welcome respect, curiosity and hope. In order to fully benefit from the power of the narrative, he said, it must be shared equally.
“My strong sense is that the power of story to change our vision grows as the diversity of experience of those in the story circle increases,” Graustein wrote.
Graustein hopes working with story will allow a form of communication to develop organically in New Haven and lend equality of voice to the residents of a structurally inequitable city. Storytellers New Haven expands the story circle beyond the community’s leaders to its everyday people. Thanks to grassroots work with the New Haven community, DuBois-Walton and Walton can extend invitations in ways that Graustein cannot.
Catherine Conant, a regular at Storytellers New Haven events, helps storytellers to prepare for their performances. After a long and varied career as a real estate agent, florist, event planner, mother and antiques dealer, Conant found her calling when she attended the Connecticut Storytelling Center’s annual festival. Over the past 25 years, she has “never for a nanosecond considered doing anything else.” She coached Graustein through his first public performance at a 1995 festival in Chester.
Conant believes that stories are not made but found, and she helps others dig into their inventory of personal experience to extract what needs to be shared. At the end of the event, in an effort to expand the story circle, Conant offered her services to anyone in the room interested in performing at a future event.
Lee Cruz, a community activist at the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven, took the stage at the Connecticut Center for Arts and Technology after Nearing.
Amid colorful anecdotes about Star Trek, diamond-cutting and an intensive summer of Spanish schooling via the New Testament, Cruz told a poignant story of perseverance. When Cruz was 9, his family moved from Brooklyn, New York, to Puerto Rico. When his family later returned to the States, federal policy prevented him from re-entering the general education classrooms, despite his status as a native English speaker.
Today, Cruz works closely with the New Haven Hurricane Response Committee. In his work, Cruz looks to connect with people through story. He tells the story of his own childhood to the displaced Puerto Rican families whose children are now entering the New Haven public school system.
“I have found that stories, much more than statistics, inspire us and tell us about what role we can play — how we can give our time or our money and make these human connections,” he said later on the phone.
The Storytellers New Haven narratives span a wide variety of topics: growing up as an undocumented immigrant, raising a special-needs child and navigating the vicious cycle of incarceration and re-entry are just a few. DuBois-Walton hopes Storytellers New Haven will broaden the audience’s understanding of the human experience and open up their hearts. Eventually, she hopes stories will inspire concrete action and improve the New Haven community.
Like Graustein, DuBois-Walton sees value in expanding the circle and understands the limits of her project. In order for communities to fully benefit from the power of narrative, they must keep in mind who is speaking and, more importantly, who is not speaking. The stories that most need to be heard are often the hardest to tell, and many New Haven residents lack the time, resources and fluency to perform at the Orchid Cafe.
DuBois-Walton and Walton are working to make the event as accessible as possible by considering alternative venues and reaching out to a greater variety of tellers. She hopes to demystify the performative aspect by creating more informal story sharing spaces. Still, delivering a personal narrative can be heavy emotional labor. Though DuBois-Walton and Walton can nudge, storytellers must be internally motivated to share their stories. That’s true across the board.
Digitally and in dining halls, students open themselves up to stories everyday. Still, because similarity and simplicity are far easier to grasp than difference, they often don’t apply Graustein’s “deep listening” techniques. Particularly on social media, people create and consume narratives without fully processing or reflecting. Carefully constructed online highlight reels become the only story.
While structured storytelling may not be a common feature of day-to-day interactions on campus, some of Yale’s closest-knit microcosms revolve around swapping stories. For those who do orientation trips and join societies with “biography” components, the college experience is framed by personal narrative.
First years and seniors welcome spaces of emotional vulnerability as an opportunity to catch up on the nearly two decades of life they led without each other. They tell not to impress but to reflect and inform, and they listen not to be impressed but to gain insight and find commonality.
In the fall of 2014, a group of Yale undergraduates started Telltale as a platform for sharing true personal narratives and bringing the Yale–New Haven community together. Each semester, Telltale hosts shows ranging from formal events to open mic nights. As its audition sign-up sheets read, its goal is to “promote sharing of experiences and narratives across Yale’s campus and beyond to foster understanding and expression in our community.”
“I walk around Yale and see all these brilliant, interesting people I will never meet,” Matt Thekkethala ’19, a member of the Telltale board, said. “Telltale is a platform for otherwise faceless people to present their lives and share parts of themselves with everyone. It’s a cathartic, humanizing experience for everyone who participates. It makes people relate — a beautiful, necessary thing for campuses.”
This year, Telltale has transformed into a space for activism. Last December, the group put on a show called “Stories of Migration.” In addition to storytellers from the Yale community, two New Haven public school students from Puerto Rico, assisted by Spanish translators, shared their experiences arriving in the United States after Hurricane Maria. Thekkethala is excited by the critical conversations Telltale shows can spark. Audience members often linger long after performances to talk to speakers about their stories.
Through Storytellers New Haven, the Community Leadership Project, first-year orientation programs, secret societies and Telltale, diverse groups of loosely acquainted individuals connect by means of performative and spontaneous acts of storytelling and listening. “It is utterly unpredictable what connections are going to occur, but it is almost absolutely predictable that some very profound and unexpected connections will develop. Because they are unexpected, they are all the more powerful. They disrupt one’s sense of expectation for what is normal,” Graustein said.
On Feb. 5, Arnie Pritchard GRD ’76 was among the dozens seated in the Orchid Cafe’s pea-green plastic chairs, listening to Nearing and Cruz. At the end of the meeting, Pritchard distributed flyers for his monthly story sharing workshop at the Institute Library.
On the third Thursday of each month, Pritchard and an ever-evolving group of roughly eight to 12 New Haven residents gather around a wooden table and a loaf of banana nut bread. For two hours, storytellers of all levels and experience share personal narratives and the occasional folktale.
Over the years, Pritchard has collected feedback from his story circle. Participants value giving and receiving feedback. “They feel welcome and affirmed, even when they’re getting suggestions for improvement. They feel like it makes connections,” Pritchard said of the group.
DuBois-Walton, Pritchard and Graustein, three major proponents of storytelling in New Haven, all have close ties to Yale University. Sara deBeer ’81, a studied teller of international folktales who performs at elementary schools and assisted-living homes through the Connecticut Storytelling Center, is yet another Yale alumna working with storytelling in and around New Haven.
Whether performing for 5-year-olds or 95-year-olds, deBeer marvels at the binding power of co-creation. “There is an intimacy and directness when telling to people who are listening without a book in the way. My words are reaching out, and their minds are reaching out, and together we are creating a story,” she said.
Thekkethala, still an undergraduate, ventured down Chapel Street on Feb. 15 to join Pritchard’s story-sharing group at the Institute Library. Officially called the Young Men’s Institute, the 192-year-old library is one of the last remaining membership libraries in North America. Surrounded by leather-spined books, framed taxidermy butterflies and bronze busts, Thekkethala and Pritchard each told a story, and the two offered each other feedback.
Pritchard invited Thekkethala to the Connecticut Storytelling Festival, and Thekkethala invited Pritchard to Telltale’s upcoming show. The Yale and New Haven story circles are slowly shifting closer together.