Monday, May 6, 2013

Reintegrating lives through story

“Our brains are wired for story,” says Gail Christopher, vice president for program strategy at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. "Hearing a story changes you forever even if you don't want it to," says Lewis Mehl-Madrona of the Clinical Psychology Program at the Union Institute and University.

The power of storytelling in our personal lives and its impact on policy was the common thread for a three-day conference last month in Asheville, North Carolina.  Racial healing practitioners, advocates, academics, and leaders of major civil rights organizations gathered for "Reclaiming the narrative," the third annual America Healing conference convened by the Kellogg Foundation as part of its racial equity program.

According to Gail Christopher, the theme was chosen “to acknowledge the glaring omission of the stories of our nation’s collective history and the impact of that omission on today’s national narrative….(and) to open the door and share the untold stories to create a richer and more reflective narrative of our collective human experiences.”   

As in previous years, we spent the first day in "healing groups" led by 40 experienced racial healing practitioners. I partnered with Carol Babelle of the Ashé Cultural Arts Center in New Orleans in facilitating one group. We all remarked on the depth of personal sharing. Civil rights activist Myrlie Evers-Williams opened the day with a moving reflection. “America has a lot of healing to do,” she said, noting that hate erodes the spirit. 

On the second full day the conference heard stories of systemic barriers to equality in education, health care, and criminal justice – and how they can be overcome. Especially striking was the growing sense of common cause between African Americans and Latinos and people of other ethnicities as the country approaches landmark immigration legislation. One person said, “If we can come together and succeed on this issue we can go on to address other issues.” But as Ben Jealous of the NAACP cautioned, “If our new majority does not have a vision for poor whites we are never going to get there.”

I was fascinated by a panel on the final morning on the power of storytelling to impact the health of individuals and communities. Lewis Mehl-Madrona said, “The fiction of race has imprinted itself on our bodies.” But stories can also have a healing effect. According to Wayne Jonas, a professor of family medicine at Georgetown University who heads the Samulie Institute which supports scientific research into the healing process, “reintegration with the past” results in enhanced immune systems and better overall health.

Jonas, a retired Lieutenant Colonel in the Medical Corps with the U.S. Army, has conducted research on Marines suffering from post-traumatic stress. He says, “We have a medical system that almost entirely focuses on cure and says let healing happen on its own.”

According to medical research, the very act of telling our stories to others or even to ourselves can have a measurable positive therapeutic impact. It is also the case that our communities can reintegrate themselves as we learn to tell our different stories.

Some of the important take-aways for me:

  • We need to teach people how to be quiet and listen.
  • We need to discover the story behind the opinion: how did the person we are with come to hold a particular view? 
  • The most important narrative is the story we are constantly telling ourselves.
  • It is hard to reconcile the need for storytelling with the media focus on 140 characters!
Gail Christopher closed the conference with a moving story of her own physical healing – and she related it to the healing of America.  Born with a painful eye condition, she underwent more than 20 operations as she grew up. One day she cried out to God in her despair, “and in that moment I heard a voice as clearly as I hear my own voice now:  ‘Love your eyes as they are loved.’ I hated my eyes, but I went to the mirror and looked at my eyes with love. The pain disappeared, the pressure normalized, and for the next 30 years the pain was controlled without medication….

“We must learn to love ourselves and to extend that love to all other human beings in the overcoming of racism.”

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