Storytelling and the Movement Towards Radical Empathy
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