When Kirsten Durzy was growing up in a refugee family, stories were some of the strongest ties she had to her history. Then she began working in public health and saw that storytelling was a way to understand issues, bring people together and help promote healing. Now, Durzy is co-leading a project to help Granite Staters share their stories about life during the pandemic.
“There is a tremendous need to reconnect to each other in this very human way, maybe the most human way that we connect: telling stories,” she said.
The project, “Our Story New Hampshire — Reflections from the Pandemic and Beyond,” will encourage New Hampshire residents to tell their stories about life during COVID. The project is funded through a grant from the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, and Durzy’s team will work with community partners including the Granite State News Collaborative to help reach potential participants.
The stories can be told in any medium, including art or music, and can be shared in any language. While the project will serve as a historical record of life during the pandemic, the more prominent focus is to benefit the storytellers by opening space for them.
This is an approach known as ethical storytelling. The core tenet is that the storyteller, rather than the audience, is the focus. This is different from many data-collection efforts, historical records or even journalism, Durzy said.
“We consume a lot of stories. Sometimes it’s done in a healthy way for the storyteller, but sometimes the storyteller gets lost in the process,” she said.
Participating in the project — telling one’s story — is the exercise. Sharing the story with more than one person is entirely optional.
“This is opening a safe, supported, facilitated space for people to tell whatever story they want to tell,” she said. “It’s not for a purpose other than to allow them the space to get out a story that they’ve been holding inside for a long time.”
Keisha Sheedy, community council convener for the project, hadn’t realized the power in that approach until she heard about the project.
“I never thought of storytelling as a form of healing to that extent,” she said. Now, “I have a more in-depth perception of what it really means to tell your stories and how it can be healing, particularly when the folks who are helping have you in mind as the storyteller, rather than ourselves” as the audience, she said.
While there is no pressure for stories to be shared, hearing the stories will be very impactful, said Sarah McPhee, project coordinator for “Our Story New Hampshire,” and an adjunct professor of Public Health at Southern New Hampshire University.
“In public health we tend to use a lot of data. Data is very important, and can be presented in different ways, but storytelling augments that data in that it provides the human perspective,” she said.
Bringing the community together through storytelling is the second objective of the project, Durzy said. She points to neuroscience research that shows that brain waves change in response to hearing a story.
“There’s the hard science proof of what generations and generations of humans and cultures have known: When you share stories, you connect closer to people,” she said.
Social isolation during the pandemic has underscored just how interdependent we all are, Durzy said. Stories can strengthen those connections by showing people what they have in common with each other, Sheedy added.
“You start to find shared values among people’s stories,” she said. “You start to find out that there is a way we can all do something to support the person next to us in healing, even if it’s just listening to their stories.”
A community council, made up of people from various communities around the state, will help support the project and bring it to their own communities. The project leaders sought council members of different races, ethnicities, genders, orientations, ages and socio-economic statuses to help ensure the project is inclusive.
“We want to gather a group of folks that truly are diverse,” said Sheedy.
The project organizers are seeking employers and other organizations that are willing to host story-telling events. People can get in touch and upload their stories at any time on the project’s website: ourstorynh.com.
These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.