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Participants in Narrative 4's empathy program met in Limerick, Ireland, in June to discuss their experiences. Photo by Larisa Epatko/PBS NewsHour

The barrier-breaking power of learning someone else’s story

As 16-year-old Malak Lahham was passing through Israel’s international airport, security personnel pulled her aside and told her she would have to answer some questions.

“I was creeped out,” Lahham, an Arab, later admitted. “What was going to happen? Have I done anything wrong?” She was traveling with no family members, only her teacher.

She was body-searched and all of her belongings unpacked and checked. The guards looked through her phone. Where was she going? What program was she participating in, they asked.

Lahham was heading to an annual summit of Narrative 4, a New York- and Limerick, Ireland-based organization aimed at building empathy in people through storytelling.

During the previous year, her school — Nazareth Baptist School — had twinned with a Jewish-Israeli school in Narrative 4’s program to help foster a better understanding of each other, and now she was flying to the organization’s global summit in Limerick.

She answered their questions, wondering why, even though the body-scanning machine hadn’t made a peep, she was still subjected to the extra screening and questioning. “I was searched only because of my identity as an Arab,” she thought.

“I had two choices, either fight this stereotype with hatred and make it worse, or fight it with love and kindness to break those stereotypes and show them who you are as a human simply by saying : ‘Thank you, have a nice day,’ which I chose to do. You can’t judge a whole group because of a small part of it,” she said.

“I remember how they reacted … they said: ‘Thank you, enjoy your flight.’”

Lahham told her story at the summit, which Lee Keylock, programs director for Narrative 4, called “very powerful. … She can be humiliated on a monthly or weekly basis by these things that happen in her community, but she can turn around and say, we have to hear the stories of the security guards. She was very generous.”

Narrative 4’s executive director Lisa Consiglio talks about how storytelling and listening can be a remedy in an era of constant noise.

Narrative 4 formed in 2012 by a group of writers and activists who recognized that learning each other’s stories and retelling them in the first person is a powerful way to gain understanding. The program evolved from Lisa Consiglio, Narrative 4’s executive director, who ran a literary organization in Colorado, including a story-swap program in English classes in Colorado’s Roaring Fork Valley.

In the process, she met novelist Colum McCann, who became a strong proponent and later president of Narrative 4.

A major donor — Jackie Bezos, president of the Bezos Family Foundation — asked if they wanted to make the program international and pair people around the world. “This was five weeks after the earthquake in Haiti and we found ourselves on the ground, running an exchange between kids in New Orleans and kids in Port-au-Prince,” connecting them through a videoconference, said Consiglio.

Their next stop was the Middle East, where they paired Arab-Israeli and Jewish-Israeli students. “These kids were 20 minutes apart and natural born enemies,” she said. Through telling each other’s stories, they were able to see each other with new eyes.

“We change the world when we walk in one another’s shoes: this idea of radical empathy,” said McCann. “We don’t do direct conflict resolution. People understand one another by walking inside the language and inside the story of somebody else’s experience.”

The organization has authors and artists visit the schools and lend their creativity to the program. Working with the students is gratifying for the authors as well. “Sometimes [the students] are surprised that you’re actually alive. They’ve never really met a living author,” said McCann. “Then they realize their own story is alive, and then they realize perhaps it has significance.”

The practice of learning someone else’s story well enough to retell it as your own builds an intimacy between the participants, and might spark a desire to do something more within the community. “Elementally, it centers around the power of stories, the power of empathy, the power of trying to understand what it means to be someone other than yourself, and how that then translates into action on the ground,” he said.

Novelist Colum McCann talks about how he gained strength from a personal ordeal.

Narrative 4 trains teachers in how story exchanges can enhance their curriculum and help their students learn leadership and communication skills, along with becoming more civic-minded. Guide materials suggest journal and art activities to get the students warmed up, but ultimately the teachers decide how they will run the program. Schools across the country or around the world can connect with each other through a growing network on the group’s Facebook page.

Through the network, Maru Castaneda, a Spanish teacher at the American School of Tampico in Mexico, connected with English teacher Faisal Mohyuddin at Highland Park High School, located in a suburb of Chicago.

Tampico, a port city on the Gulf of Mexico, suffers from gang violence and frequent shootings, which makes residents afraid to be out at night, said Castaneda. “The American kids don’t know this is happening, they think it is a normal city. It’s not a normal city,” she said.

Her high school kids told their stories, and the students in Illinois talked about their personal troubles such as their parents’ divorce. Learning about the problems of others helped put their own lives in perspective, she said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re in the United States or Mexico, we are human and we are here to be better.”

Likhaya Rooi, a 19-year-old from South Africa’s Port Elizabeth, is a veteran story-swapper, having participated in Narrative 4’s programs for four years. “It gives me a chance to take all the pain that I have and all the good things that I have kept in my heart for a long time.”

His pain came from the experience of having his father leave his mother and start another family in the same town. “I was a boy who didn’t want to talk to people about his thoughts. I thought maybe people would make fun of me. But when you share your story, it’s more like you become free.”

Sometimes things don’t work out as planned. Like the time Narrative 4 collaborated with Generation Global, another organization that promotes diversity through dialogue between schools.

They set the ambitious goal of supporting a story exchange among four schools in Indonesia, Italy and Ukraine. Between the time differences, language barriers and technical glitches, “it was carnage,” said Narrative 4’s Ruth Gilligan, a Dublin-born novelist and professor of creative writing at the University of Birmingham in England, who assisted with the project.

But amidst the chaos there were special moments, like the Ukrainian girl who brought in a musical instrument and talked about how it reminded her of her grandfather who had passed away, Gilligan recalled.

It was a learning experience for all involved, she said, and took the pressure off those who wanted to experiment with Narrative 4’s techniques. “I think it’s OK to go into these with good intentions, but we can’t control it. It’s way better to have a go and learn, rather than saying I’m only going to do it if it’s going to be perfect.”

Students model a portion of the story exchange.

The program also helped unite members of the community ordinarily at odds. In one Narrative 4-supported project, Sheri Parks, co-program director of Baltimore Stories and associate dean at the College for Arts and Humanities at the University of Maryland, brought high school students and Baltimore police officers together in a room.

“These are groups that actively shoot at each other,” she said. They swapped stories about their teenage years and let down their guard. When one student described getting caught while trying to sneak out of the house, a police officer actually told the teen what he was doing wrong.

“In one day, we went from fear and hatred to taking selfies and exchanging names and addresses,” she said.

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