On very rare occasions, the organization actually knows what they want me to do and why they are interested. Most of the time they are just excited I'm coming, and it requires lots of discussions for them to figure out how I might fit into their event.
Yesterday I worked as the artist for the 14th Annual International Conference on Breastfeeding and Feminism.
How Did That Happen?
One night about six months ago, I was out to dinner with "The Empty Nesters", a group of women whose children have left home.
One of my friends said, "So, I thought it would be cool if you would come and tell stories at our international breastfeeding conference."
I was a bit surprised at this. "What kind of stories do you want?"
Paige told me about the nature of the conference, that the women and men who attended came from around the world and from very different types of backgrounds and there had been some tensions and cross-cultural confusions.
If I should choose to come, what she wanted was a way to help these women bridge some of these differences and learn to listen and speak with more care. Storytelling might very well be the key to that.
Since using storytelling as a tool for communication is one of the things I advocate for on a regular basis, it felt like a perfect fit.
What Was The Plan?
Through talking to Paige, I designed a storytelling activity for one of the breakout sessions. It was only an hour, and that limits what you can reasonably accomplish, but I was hopeful we could at least make a good start on using stories to build community.
I always come up with several activities and several variations on those activities before I meet the participants for a workshop because I don't have any idea what they might want, need, or be capable of doing.
I settled on a variation that was an easy one to launch, learn and replicate. My hope was that the women who attended would easily be able to take it and use it in their own work if they wanted.
This is something I try to do when I go to conferences with non-storytelling groups. I want them to be able to take whatever we were doing and easily institute it.
This workshop was a version of the story swap activity. Each woman had to find a partner in the room, preferably one they did not know.
|Statuette of Nursing Egyptian Mother|
I wasn't sure how long the first round would take, but I was very pleased.
These women (and all the participants in my workshop were women) had spent a portion of their lives advocating for breastfeeding. They were scholars, medical professionals, writers, educators, and some of them had babies either toddling or in arms. Their stories were amazing and the first round of telling and sharing ate up twenty minutes.
If I hadn't stopped them, they would be sharing that story still!
Then, I asked them to find another partner in the room. After they were all settled I gave them their next assignment.
"Tell this partner the story you just heard."
They looked at me in surprise. "What?" was the most common response.
I said, "You just listened to a story by another woman talking about her experience. You are all trained to work with women whether you are gathering data, encouraging a woman who is having difficulty, introducing the process to a woman who isn't familiar with it, or supporting a woman as she begins this journey. One of the things you are supposed to be doing is listening to them, right?
So, what you will now do is consider the story you just heard and pretend it is your story. Figure out how you would need to alter the various characters in the story to make this tale fit into your life, but don't change the substance of the tale."
I waited to see if any of the participants would ask for further clarification. They didn't, they just launched into the stories.
After this round, a woman was very dissatisfied. She said, "We've just spoken to each other for ten minutes, and we don't actually know anything about each other! We didn't get to tell our stories!"
At this point, quite a few women were feeling like this. I pointed out that if they'd done what I asked their partner would have learned quite a great deal about them. That's when I pointed out that they were supposed to co-opt the story and figure out how to tell it as if it happened to them.
|Statue of a Zambian woman nursing|
They were required to swap out with the story they'd just heard, but this time they needed to figure out how to retell that story and see if they could own it.
That was the round when things got interesting.
Our Stories Touch Each Other
After this round, there was lots of discussion about the activity. One woman cried out in surprise as her partner started telling,
"Hey! That's MY story!"
She was so excited that she practically giggled all the way through the telling. She was so delighted and so amazed to hear it coming back to her in a different form.
At the end of the tale, another woman in a different grouping admitted she felt like she was lying. She said, "I got a story about a woman's grandmother who escaped the communists with a baby. They had to remain hidden, so whenever the baby started crying, the woman would put the child to the breast. My grandmother escaped the Nazis in Germany, but she was a little girl. I changed the story so that my grandmother was older, and it felt strange to lie about that.
I pointed out that she could have started with her grandmother escaping Nazi Germany and saying that other women used that technique, or that she could imagine that if her grandmother had been older, she would have used it. The woman's eyes widened, and she grinned.
Across the room, a woman from Vietnam said, "That was my story! My grandmother escaped the Communists there!" The two women grinned at each other in acknowledgment of a shared story from two different parts of the world who had didn't even belong to the same generation but knew exactly how their lives fit together at that moment.
|Breastfeeding Heritage for World Breastfeeding week|
Then, our hour was over.
I explained that we could keep on going with this exercise, and more women would undoubtedly hear their own stories reflected back at them through someone else's eyes, and that in the end, we would learn not only about someone else's life but our own.
I was only there for another hour and a half before I left. In that time, women found me and told me their stories.
-One woman told me she was very shy and couldn't speak in front of people, and that being able to share her story with only one woman was very powerful, and telling the stories she heard made it easier because she didn't feel as vulnerable even though she was telling a story about herself. She told me she is a journalist, and once she was a television anchor. Most people are surprised she could be on television in front of so many people, and I grinned.
"You weren't on television with lots of people, it was just you and the camera."
She nodded. "You get it."
-One woman told me that her uncle was the one who told her about breastfeeding. She said that when she says this, lots of women recoil as if that is strange. It makes her nervous about sharing her story to have a man so front and center. Especially since it puts some women off who have had bad experiences with controlling men.
"Tell me about your uncle," I suggested.
Then she told me about this hilarious, funny, warm, loving man who was such a safe and wonderful part of her life.
"That's where that story starts," I suggested. "Don't start by telling us you were barely twenty, pregnant, and scared when your uncle told you that you were definitely going to have to breastfeed. Tell us who he is. We'll embrace both of you."
She teared up, gave me a big hug and started laughing. "Yes. Thank you! I guess that's why you are the professional."
That made me laugh.
I wish I had space to tell you all of the stories I heard in the workshop! Here are a few.
|Woodruff Nash mother holding child bust|
-The woman whose mother squirted milk at her father from across the room in a playful moment that made her laugh when she was about four.
-The tale of the nursing woman who was at her family reunion where everyone shares food and drink when a three-year-old approached, pointed at her breasts and said, "My mommy lets me have those," and expected a drink.
So Much More!
This post is running long!
There were so many other storytelling/community moments, but it will have to wait.
I will blog tomorrow about the technical part of how I planned the workshop, what stories I told and why, and the strategic choices that went into shaping the workshop and the changes I made on the spur of the moment.
The crafting bit that goes on in my head that nobody sees.
I know, it is backward from the way I usually do these things, but I really just wanted to share the experience first!
Storytelling, Breastfeeding, and Strong Women: Part Two