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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

CT Gets its Own FIG

CT Gets its Own FIG

Feeling guilty about spending so much time settled down in front of the computer screen playing games? Finding it hard to set aside the gaming mentality? Feeling you should be spending more time interacting with friends and family face-to-face? Well, you’re in luck: On April 30, you can spend an entire day face-to-facing with friends, family and strangers while continuing the gaming mindset yet leaving your computer screen behind. Amazing as it sounds, folks, it is possible!
The first annual CT Festival of Indie Games (CT FIG)  will be hosted onsite by The Grove, the Happiness Lab and Elm City Games on Saturday, April 30. April 30 also happens to be International Table Top Day, ergo, all games at the festival will be table top games (think board games, card games, dice games) as opposed to digital games.
The Connecticut festival is modeled after the annual Boston Festival of Indie Games , known as Boston FIG  which has been a tradition since 2011. Game designers and co-founders of Geek Fever Games, Jason Micelli and Matt Plourde have attended the Boston FIG for years and finally decided the time was right to give Connecticut its very own FIG. Among the sponsors for the CT FIG are the Boston FIG, whose core team has worked closely with Micelli and his partners to organize the event, and The Game Crafter, a site well known to indie game designers that produces game components and custom print-on-demand card and board games.

Jason Micelli co-founder of Geek Fever Games

Jason Micelli co-founder of Geek Fever Games

You probably won’t find any of your old favorites like Monopoly or Parcheesi as the games at the festival are designed by independent game developers and published by small game publishing houses. Micelli describes the festival as “dedicated to celebrating and highlighting indie game designers across New England.” Many of the games at the festival have yet to be launched, so you’ll get to give feedback directly to the game designers. Along with prizes to be raffled off there will be games for sale by vendors so you can bring home something completely new to show off to friends.
For designers, there will be prizes in various categories as well as the opportunity to test out their games, speak with game publishers and even be interviewed for live broadcast on Late to The Table on Twitch TV, a live streaming video platform owned by a subsidiary of Amazon.com Inc.
With tickets for the entire day costing only $10 per person or $15 per household (no limit on household size) this is likely to be the most fun for the least money you’ll have all year. Crowds are expected as the event is being widely advertised, so advance registration is recommended and can be done at online at http://ct-fig.com. Directions and parking information is also available on the website.

Sweet Success

 

John Fitzpatrick Co-Founder and CEO of Applivate

John Fitzpatrick Co-Founder and CEO of Applivate

When John Fitzpatrick got up to give his 60-second pitch at the November 2011 Startup Weekend at The Grove’s former Orange Street location, he had never given a business pitch before. He also didn’t have a clear idea of the product he was pitching.

What he did have was a background in biology and an intimate knowledge of the constant tracking people with Type 1 diabetes must do. He knew that for people with Type 1 diabetes, keeping track of their blood sugar levels is vital, sometimes onerous, and levels that are too high or low can literally be fatal. “My wife has diabetes and we sit down to dinner every night and she would measure her blood sugar,” John told me. The readings determine the correct dose of insulin to administer. The dose is then stored in the insulin pump. “That’s data stored in these devices. The idea is, we needed to get this data off these devices and into the cloud where we can use it to help people manage their diabetes.”

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Life After The Grove

Ever stay awake wondering if there’s life after the Grove, and if so, what it holds? Well, if Raj Jalan,  co-Founder and CEO of Device 42, Inc. http://device42.com, is to be believed, the answer is ‘yes, there is life after The Grove. And it holds growth, success and even a few challenges.’

Grovers who have been around for a while may remember Device 42 from the early days when The Grove was at 71 Orange Street, or from the days when Device 42 occupied the entire third floor of the expansion wing at the Grove’s current location on Chapel Street.20160202_113639In November 2015, Device 42 moved to its new location at 600 Saw Mill Road, West Haven, having outgrown their space at The Grove. Their new offices are spacious, bright with ample onsite parking, and located only a half mile from the exit off I-95. The new space allows for an increased staff and has several quiet conference rooms, for customer demos and conference calls.

Jalan founded Device 42 in 2010 and ran it from his home till the company took off to the point where Jalan needed space for employees and to meet with customers. Realizing it was no longer feasible to run the business from home, he looked into The
Grove. “The main benefit [of The Grove] was collaboration,” Jalan said. “So many helpful people around, full of energy more – than in the usual office.”
Device 42’s product, an IT infrastructure management tool that allows companies to identify, visualize, and manage devices (physical, virtual, or cloud), networks components, software, and passwords, was already developed by the time it took up residence at The Grove. The product allows a company, using Device42 browser interface, to visualize their infrastructure, understand network interdependencies, improve network security, and mitigate the impacts of planned and unplanned IT network changes.20160202_113748

Having spent years working as a consultant to various IT companies, Jalan had first-hand knowledge of the need for such a product and, with his background, he was able to design and develop it. His experience working with companies that needed the product meant he could also market the product efficiently. In fact, Jalan told me, Device 42 was in the enviable position of being profitable from day one.
Given those advantages, Jalan was not looking to collaborate with other Grovers on product design or development, but, transitioning from a solo, service-based business consultant, to entrepreneur of a product-based business with employees, presented new challenges. It was this area, what he refers to as “mind expansion” where Jalan found the creative energy at The Grove most helpful. He mentioned another Grover, John Fitzpatrick, founder of Applivate LLC ( http://shugtrak.com), as being particularly helpful by introducing him to The Founders Lunch group, an informal group of startup entrepreneurs who meet regularly for lunch and discuss various challenges they’re facing.

Asked what was the biggest challenge he faced on a daily basis as the founder of a startup, Jalan didn’t hesitate:  “What to do first. You have one hundred things to do; what are the five most important?” Jalan noted that this is an area where too many startup entrepreneurs get trapped. Having run his own consulting business before Device 42, Jalan knew how to handle various administrative details such as bookkeeping, but once the company got to a certain size, doing those things himself was no longer feasible. “I’ve seen startups where they won’t spend the money to hire a resource that can do the work in two hours that it would take you ten hours to do. I was at that point at some stage, I suppose,” he admitted. “But you can only do five or ten things a day. Which five or ten?” Another constant challenge, not just for Device 42, but for any business, is finding, hiring and keeping the right people. “Our most successful hires are from networking,” Jalan told me. “Networking is absolutely necessary for everyone at every stage.”

Other advice Jalan had for entrepreneurs included being sure to keep good records and not to get discouraged when things get hard. “I think it’s all about persistence. Just keep going.” Given that Device 42 now has clients in 29 countries and is actively growing its employee base, it sounds like this is a man who knows what he’s talking about.

Elinor Slomba: The Grove’s Curatorial Eye

Now here’s a challenge for you: Find the peephole at The Grove. Yes, for all you Grovers who harbor a secret fascination with peepholes but are too proper to indulge your fantasies, you now have dispensation. Go find the peephole and indulge yourself. Telling you exactly where it is would take away the thrill of discovery- and that’s the whole idea behind peepholes, right? It’s a secret. But I will tell you it’s on the second floor.

And just how did The Grove come to have a peephole? Enter: Elinor Slomba.B&W headshot She’s also the person responsible for having Marilyn watch over you as you work and the vines that add such a fun touch of nature outside the Big Bang office and in the downstairs entryway. While Elinor is not the artist who produced these works, she is the person who curated each piece for The Grove’s permanent collection. She is also the founder of Arts Interstices http://artsinterstices.com/, which just celebrated its fourth year of business, and is dedicated to bridging the spaces (interstices) between organizations and the arts and more traditional businesses by providing a way for them to communicate and use each other’s models to their own advantage.
When Elinor was finishing her B.A. in fine art and cultural anthropology at William and Mary, a career advisor at the college suggested she consider a career in the Foreign Service, an idea that seems to amuse Elinor. It’s easy to see that she would have been well-suited to such a career. Today, instead of helping foreign countries navigate their cultural differences, she helps disparate domains recognize they each have something to offer the other. She’s expert in navigating the ‘between spaces’ and in making associations that may not be obvious at first, but once identified opens a vast array of possibilities.

It’s this associative thinking, a process Elinor describes as “definitely nonlinear,” that Elinor sees as a key tool in curating and that she helps people develop in her series of classes on curation.

“We live in a visual age. People can be energized by nontraditional gallery spaces,” she explains, when asked about curating art for business locations. In her work with The Grove, she realized that the concept of collaboration is a key element of The Grove’s culture.Marilyn9 In keeping with that value, all of the shows she has curated at The Grove have featured more than one artist. Marilyn, the piece above the elevator doors on the second floor, was part of the show Re:Generate – Art Based on Code (co-curated with another Grove member, Brian Monahan). In this piece, a collaborative effort by Dan Gries, Dannielle Kefford and Dan Bernier, the digital eye resolves the oversized pixels (made from pool noodles) to reveal the iconic image of Marilyn Monroe. The high-tech reference of the work, along with the collaborative nature of its inception, makes it uniquely appropriate for The Grove.

The two other permanent pieces, Peephole by Mark Williams, a New Haven-based artist and Climbing Ivy by Giada Crispiels, an Italian artist who completed a year-long residency at Artspace New Haven in 2012, were part of the show Navigate Complexity. Mark's wall piecePeephole is an example of artwork intended to be viewed “an eyeball at a time.” Climbing Ivy was the first piece acquired for The Grove’s permanent collection. Crispiels installed this work specifically for The Grove, constructing the vines and leaves from local newspapers and magazines.WP_000865

In addition to curating art, Elinor offers a 3-part course Open Your Curatorial Eye  for those interested in learning about how curating art and mounting an art exhibition. She is offering her next one at The Grove on January 22 http://Curatortraining.bpt.me.

Along with art curation, Elinor is the organizer of the meetup Artful Agilists which holds virtual meetings the first of every month at sococo.com. Through Artful Interstices she offers a range of services including coaching, a variety of training workshops including The Agile Gym™, writes guest blogs and hosts and produces virtual events. Agile is a project management method that differs from the traditional approach in that it stresses collaboration, individual participation and flexible response to dynamic situations. This method was originally designed for software projects but has gained popularity in wider settings. Elinor has adapted this method for her work with her clients.

Arts Interstices clients cross  many time zones in the U.S. and Europe.   Elinor has done projects for the New Haven Museum, Project Storefronts and Citywide Open Studios. Several Grovers participated in the public programs she produced for the New Haven Museum with the theme Connecticut at Work.
Originally from Tidewater, Virginia, Elinor has been in the New Haven area for 14 years and particularly enjoys the sense of civic space she finds in New England. “It just made me feel like I’d won the lottery to be moving up here,” she said. Elinor discovered the Grove through Meetups. “I like the day-to-day practice of being agile,” she says of working at The Grove. “If a client needs something I can’t provide, there’s usually someone in the [Grove] community who can.”