Katie Jensen

Storytelling and the Movement Towards Radical Empathy


 Lee Keylock, Director of Programs for Narrative 4

Lee Keylock, Director of Programs for Narrative 4.

Lee Keylock is a storyteller — quite possibly, the most interesting job one can have. However, it doesn’t necessarily entail what you would expect. Although Lee has a few stories he likes to tell of his own, it’s listening to other’s that he’s most interested in.

Lee has worked as an English teacher in Newtown High School and a creative writing professor at SCSU. Now, he is mainly focused on being the director of programs at Narrative 4, a global organization that promotes the use of radical empathy to solve hostile relations in the world.

Walking into the interview with Lee, I’d thought I had a basic understanding of what he does. Thinking he was an expert on coaching storytelling, I asked him what kind of advice he gives to his students. He quickly extinguished my assumption and told me, “I get people to find their story… once they discover what they’re passionate about, it’s less coaching.” As a creative writing Professor, he finds that it’s best to let his students find their own voice, and to not dictate style or delivery. He teaches the components of writing and composition so their message remains clear and crisp, but still attains its original meaning.

Recently, Lee has worked with Carolyn Tuft, a victim in the 2007 Trolley Square Mall Massacre in Salt Lake City. Countless times she has publicly shared her tragic story, reflecting back to the day she lost her daughter and how she dealt with the chronic physical pain afterwards. By retelling the day’s events through her own eyes, the story takes on new meaning that people wouldn’t understand from just hearing it on the news. However, after nine years of speaking publicly, she admits to Lee that people aren’t asking her the hard questions. There are other parts of the story not being told, most likely because people are too afraid to ask. Lee helped Carolyn by asking her the sensitive questions that most didn’t venture into, and constructed her story to convey new meaning. Carolyn was free to be more personal, so she divulged into the difficulties she has in developing new relationships and becoming close to people.

I asked Lee how he reacts when people tell him such personal stories, and he said most of the time he acts as an echo to demonstrate how attentive he is. “Deep listening causes people to be organically present.” He mentions that truly great writers have the ability to write from so many perspectives because they listen deeply to others’ experiences. The intimate details of another’s life comes from a genuine understanding.

A close friends of Lee’s and President of Narrative 4, Colum McCann, has written many books that take on the lives of completely different people. Born and raised in Dublin, Ireland, McCann has written books through the eyes of a Russian dancer, a Gypsy woman, a Catholic monk, an Irish teenage girl, and many others. He and his wife have traveled extensively around the world, allowing him the opportunity to experience life in different cultures and meet new people. His book, “Let the Great World Spin”, speaks to those that have experienced tremendous grief and relays to them a more positive outlook on life. Like Carolyn Tuft, McCann changes the nuance of the story by shedding light on an optimist’s perspective of the world.

Together, Lee and McCann have done a lot traveling for their non-profit organization, Narrative 4, led by artists, authors, educators, and community activists, to promote radical empathy. They visit schools and contentious areas where there is a hostile divide between the people. Voluntarily, the community comes together to participate in story-exchanges. Individuals are randomly paired off with one another to share a single story that defines him or her. People tend to dive deep and venture into the darkest parts of their lives, exposing themselves when they were most vulnerable. After exchanging stories, they take turns reiterating each other’s story aloud, taking on the persona of their partner when he or she told it. Once people start to open up, they develop a deeper understanding of one another.

I find that it’s actually a basic psychological concept, in which stereotypes can be broken down through individualization. For example, when police officers and black/Hispanic teens go through the story exchange, officers are asked not to show up in uniform. People are encouraged to act as themselves as much as possible.
I asked Lee, using air quotes, “What is ‘radical empathy’?” He responded, “Well, I think my friend, McCann, would say that empathy itself is considered a theory among other people.” Most choose to think cynically, and he admits, frankly, that cynicism is a cop-out. “It takes muscle to empathize with people. It’s the muscle behind understanding and empathy that is a radical step.” Often times, people are stepping into a room with other people they do not like and they have to establish trust with them. It takes effort and bravery to overcome years of pent up aggression and stereotyping.

Although I do believe in Narrative 4’s mission, I was compelled to know if there were any incidents in which the story exchange hadn’t worked. Lee responded, “I would say it has worked 99.9% of the time, except for this one awful experience in a South Africa.” He went on to explain that they had just one day to visit this middle school in South Africa, and there wasn’t enough time to establish a trustful relationship. At the middle school, corporal punishment was permitted, so kids were often beaten by their teachers. Even after the teachers were told to leave the room, there was still a lack of trust among students. This prevented the kids from being completely open and hindered them from acting empathetic.

South Africa is also considered the Rape Capital of the World, comparable to North Africa. According to SAPS crime stats, 170 cases of rape are reported each day. “It was horrifying, every fourth person had another rape story to tell. They were only in middle school, and for them it was a typical problem they had to deal with.” Even though the stories were horrific, kids were misbehaving, giggling, and acting disruptive. Lee thought perhaps since their society doesn’t deem them as adults until they’re 18, most act as immature children. Nevertheless, this failure taught them that it’s mandatory to spend more time preparing a trusting environment, especially in such a diverse culture. In places such as South Africa, where there is little freedom and social justice, kids are reluctant let down their guard; without opening up, there is no way to bridge the gap between them.

Evidently, Lee has had to deal with tragedy in his own life. He taught as an English teacher at Newtown high school for years, and when the 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting happened in Newtown, kids were struck with grief and fear. He had his class read “Let the Great World Spin” by author and friend, McCann. Afterwards, he was invited to speak to the class and answer questions. Although McCann acknowledged that they were in a place of despair, he urged them to push beyond that. He taught the class, in a broader sense, that cynicism is a battle people have to deal with throughout their lives — they need to counter the negative thoughts in their heads and challenge the negative attitudes of people around them.

Lee recollected his thoughts from that day and asserted, “Cynicism is knowing, and there is no place to go from there.” He goes on that it leaves no room for hope or empathy, and with that, there is no way to bridge the divide between people. Lee implied that there is always hope to be found and optimism worth working towards.

Narrative 4 does conduct research to prove it’s effectiveness, through empirical evidence, but is not all publicly available yet. The organization has people working to see the lasting effect of their empathy exercises and whether or not people are being truthful when they share their stories. A recent discovery reveals what topics people gravitate towards when they have free license to speak. Lee shared with me that, so far, research has shown adults tend to talk about the darkest times of their lives, while kids share humorous, lighthearted stories. They talk about more serious things as the activity goes on, but are more apt to think about the lighter events in their lives. Even kids who live in the worst neighborhoods “It seems like their demographic doesn’t affect them,” Lee explains. Their cheerful nature is the same as those who come from privileged backgrounds.

Narrative 4 has worked in so many different communities, dealing with conflicts between police officers and teens, citizens and their government, kids and teachers, etc..etc. They are driven by their altruistic principles to achieve fearless hope through spreading radical empathy. It’s a new movement that unites the people of a younger generation and challenges them to work towards a better future.

Like Lee says, “Social change is the highest aim of storytelling.”



If you want to Narrative 4 to come to your community, contact them by clicking the link HERE.


“You have created something truly transformative.” – Anonymous Newtown High School student

“Storytelling is a mirror into our shared humanity.” -Terry Tempest Williams, N4 Advisor

“The whole idea behind it is that the one true democracy we have is storytelling. It goes beyond borders, boundaries, genders, rich, poor — everything has a story to tell.” — Colum McCann, N4 President

“The children almost broken by the world become the adults most likely to change it.” – Frank Warren, Founder of PostSecret

New Haven’s Social Justice Symposium


Every year seniors get to design the side of their school with graffiti.

Every year seniors get to design the side of their school with graffiti.

On June 1st, New Haven’s High School in the Community hosted their annual Social Justice Symposium. Students were given free license to discuss social issues that are relevant to their lives, and make proposals that inspire change in the community.

Members of The Grove along with other neighborhood projects were welcomed to attend the event, and give feedback to these kids on their projects and argumentative proposals.


A project on the Black Lives Matter movement. New Haven high school student to the right.



It’s no surprise that in a city where the public schools are majority black and Hispanic, racial disparity would be a popular topic. Where most people feel comfortable skirting around the issue, these kids are fearless. In bringing up their own experiences, whether it be discrimination, gun violence, or childhood exposure to violence and abuse, they become more passionate about the cause and more confident in their call to action.

Riana Nhem, a junior at New Haven’s High School in the Community, stood by her impressive poster board that neatly displayed profiled cases of people who have been discriminated against in the workplace. She outlined and highlighted parts of Title Viii of the EEOC, under Discrimination Type: National Origin, which includes the act of intolerance/harassment due to language proficiency, physicality, or cultural traits. She pointed out a picture of Alejandra Cabrera, a woman who was debarred from running for office by the city counsel of San Louis, a predominantly Hispanic population, due to her lack of fluency in English. She also cited Bassil Masih’s case. An Iraqi hotel worker in Phoenix, Arizona, who complained to his management that his co-workers were continuously harassing him for his ethnicity. However, when management neglected to take action, Bassil filed a lawsuit and won a 5000,000 dollar settlement. Unlike Bassil Masih, Riana says, many immigrants aren’t aware or might be discouraged from taking action against their workplace.

When asked about her personal experience with language discrimination, Riana explained that her family migrated from Cambodia. “My uncles worked at Mohegan Sun for a while. They were constantly harassed for their accents and called derogatory names.” She went onto explain that many immigrants are not fully aware of the actions they can take to defend themselves, but by spreading awareness and educating one another, we are freeing people to seek justice.

Jeremy Cajijas's project on racial profiling.

Jeremy Cajigas’s project on racial profiling.

Jeremy Cajigas, another junior, did his presentation on  racial profiling. He shared his experience participating in school-held conferences, where he’d be on the panel discussing tensions between New Haven police officers and teenagers within the community. Most of his argument centered around the recent lawsuit being brought against the NYPD to reform an alleged stop-and-frisk quota. He said this policy consequently targets innocent minorities due to their communities’ reputation of criminal activity. His concern stems from the fact that many New Haven residents are black and Hispanic, so a policy such as this may heighten hostile relations between black teens and officers.

However, when I pointed out to Jeremy that most projects at this symposium regarded racism and police brutality, he admitted that many teens do tend to victimize themselves. “The best way for an individual to protect themselves is through respect,” he said, “and respect is a two-way street.” At the conferences he attends, local working police officers are invited, and while most kids behave, some do spout insults under their breath. “It’s a dangerous mentality that people have to get over.”

Jeremy also shared the strife he faces with his family and friends after telling them he wants to join the police force. “Mainly, I’m doing it to make a difference,” he says. A couple of years ago, a member of Jeremy’s family was fatally shot by a police officer due to a case of mistaken identity. Since then, his family has held contempt for the police force and Jeremy’s career choice. However, despite the opposition he faces, Jeremy is determined to pursue his dream and insists that he is doing the right thing.

Laurel Cubellotti's project: Early Childhood Violence = Delayed Development.

Laurel Cubellotti’s project: Early Childhood Violence = Delayed Development.

Overall, the composure and dignity that these kids held themselves to while debating and presenting their arguments, was impressive. While many of their projects presented similar issues, their solutions were exceptionally diverse and unique. By opening up free, informal discussion, it allows students and people from the community to battle intellectually and inspire collaborative solutions.

At The Grove, it’s our mission statement to foster a community that inspires collaboration and innovative thinking. In a way, the Social Justice Symposium aspires to do the same thing. Students are thinking for themselves and applying their problem-solving skills to issues that relate to them.

When project members in the community get involved by coming to these events, it encourages students even more to express themselves and challenge opposing ideas with dignified responses. It teaches kids to embrace a world that’s filled with adversity and strife. Because in a community where people don’t just tolerate the freedom of expression, but encourages it as well, is a community that inspires intellectual growth.

The Wednesday Wine Down

Every Wednesday afternoon, The Grove becomes a place of refuge for its members, offering an informal, relaxed setting for fellow grovers to kick back and enjoy each other’s company over some wine. One late May afternoon, grovers came together in hopes of getting their minds off of work and lift the burden of responsibilities. With the help of Cultural director, Christina Kane, over the course of a few social games to break the ice, the group started to ease into comfortable conversation.

Everyone began talking about what brought them to New Haven, which consequently educed grovers to discuss about past jobs, former ambitions, and what’s led them to The Grove.
Meet Marc Audet — he is a computer programmer for a new innovative system that’s been developed to evaluate school teachers on a more objective basis. Marc emphasized the fact that this new program is much more positive and beneficial compared to the traditional evaluation systems used in most public schools. “Teachers that get poorly evaluated on certain skills, like engaging the class, are sent to complete certain modules online.” Essentially, it allows teachers an opportunity to improve their skills, rather than formerly having punishment as a reinforcer. Jesse Raccio, a fellow grover, shared with Audet his unfortunate experience of being evaluated during his first year as a music teacher. He claimed that traditionally teachers are assessed by administrators with no expertise in the subject being taught, which can lead to an unjust evaluation and an overall ineffective system. Together, Audet and Raccio discussed the nature of this new program and the potential it has to offer. Although Audet works more behind the scenes, programming, he agrees that the content of the program itself is more fair in its evaluations. As a music educator, Jesse commended Marc for his work and conveyed a certain appreciation.
Also, within the midst of discussing different projects, a few grovers discovered that they’ve all spent some time in Oxford, England. John Nixon, who works on the Board of Directors for team MakeHaven, mentioned he studied a year at Oxford University for engineering. Jesse Raccio and Marc Audet both chimed in that they had lived in Oxford for some time, as well. Together, they reminisced on their favorite pubs and restaurants in that area, as well as the type of work they did there. Audet reflected on the aspects of European culture he thought were especially different from America, saying, “People have a special respect for reserving tradition in the UK — living under a queen and their structure of government was something I had to get used to.” They went back and forth over some time about their experiences and bonded over their shared interests.
Matthew Masterson, a newbie to The Grove community joined in to share his backstory, as well. Originally from Kansas City, Matthew moved to New Haven with his wife and four daughters in need of a space to get his work done. “I looked on the website and I wasn’t really sure of what this place was about — like I don’t need to co-work,” he said using air quotes, “I just want space to do my thing.” Everyone at the table broke into laughter — they agreed that from just looking at the website, they hadn’t understood what the The Grove entailed either. Matthew spends his days here doing necessary paperwork for the company he works for, Deloitte & Touche Consulting. He adds that with a family as big as his, it’s been a blessing to find a place like The Grove to work.

Although grovers vary greatly in whatever profession they pursue, it’s easy to find similar difficulties and aspirations as independent workers. As stories are exchanged, people come to realize that through their individual journeys, they find common ground.

As admirable as it may be to work independently, it can be isolating. Take advantage of the community in which you surround yourself with and meet new people. Whether you’re running a small business, selling your artwork, or keeping up a blog, know that everyone needs encouragement to get through each week.
Join us for Wine Down every Wednesday at 4:30 pm, we’ll see you there!