Volume XIX | Issue 2 | Fall 2019
Mark Yaconelli addresses a crowd that has gathered for an evening of storytelling sponsored by The Hearth. Photo: The Hearth

Bridging divides with storytelling

Oregon-based organization produces projects worldwide

In a time of increased polarization, an urgent need exists to bridge divides and bring people together. How to do that? By telling stories to each other, according to Mark Yaconelli, the founder and executive director of The Hearth Community.

“The power of storytelling goes beyond the normal debates we have. It takes us into a place of connection,” says Yaconelli. “What most of us long for is a good question and a listening ear.” 

The Hearth, a nonprofit organization based in Oregon, helps cities and organizations produce personal storytelling projects. It has produced events in Oregon, North Carolina, Texas, California, Indiana, New Mexico, Minnesota, Washington, Florida, New York and the United Kingdom.

 Several communities in Oregon are holding regular Hearth events, and the launch of a recent certificate program (see sidebar) promises to expand the program into more towns.

In Grants Pass, where Hearth events are held at Bethany Presbyterian Church every quarter, more than 200 people gathered in July to hear stories on the theme of “Going Wild.” Admission was free, but participants were encouraged to make a donation benefiting featured nonprofit Wildlife Image, which made a quick presentation. New York musician Lipbone Redding entertained the audience before the storytelling began. Six local residents presented their 10-minute stories, interspersed with more music. 

“It’s really the power of building community. People get together, and they are so honest in telling a story,” says Grants Pass co-organizer Steve Roe. “And it keeps going — I almost feel sorry trying to get people back from intermission. The audience is out there sharing their own stories — it’s like a Hearth within a Hearth.

“The next morning on Facebook, we post pictures of people who gave Hearth presentations, and the conversations take off from there.”

Noche de Cuentos

Each community structures its Hearth events in its own way. In Phoenix, Oregon, Noche de Cuentos (Night of Stories) is held entirely in Spanish and begins with food. After music and an art show, community members share their stories around a common theme, such as Day of the Dead or Mother’s Day. 

Noche de Cuentos started out as a way to bring together the Hispanic community in Southern Oregon. “There aren’t many spaces bringing together the Latino community,” says organizer Erica Ledesma. “We started talking about how we can carve more spaces and more opportunities for the community to come together and share. With all that is going on nationally, it’s a way to control the narrative in our own community.”

When she was growing up, Ledesma explains, her parents taught her values through stories. 

Three events have been held in the Medford-Phoenix area so far. Childcare is provided and sponsors provide food, such as the tamales and agua fresca donated by Southern Oregon Education Service District’s  Migrant Education program. 

The last event drew about 250 people. “People just didn’t want to leave,” Ledesma says. “The project has been very well received. People are excited that we are empowering them to step into their voice.”

Building community

Hearth events have developed a loyal fan base in Grants Pass, says Roe. Many people come to support friends who are telling their stories, but Roe also sees regulars who attend every event. “There’s no bad that comes out of the Hearth. Maybe someone gets up there and stumbles, but there’s no ridicule, only love at the Hearth.”

“The Hearth relies on storytelling as a way of building community and deepening relationships,” Yaconelli says. “It’s a way for sharing the diversity of human experiences with a town or among people so we can feel empathy and address issues we have.

“Every time we gather and someone is vulnerable and willing to tell, we each come home to our humanity. We are blowing on the coals of the fire, coals that are the hearts that are gathered in that room.” 

Certificate in Storytelling

Certificate in storytelling

The Hearth recently launched an intensive certificate program in community storytelling. The program offers a variety of experiential exercises, individual skill-building, practical teaching, online discussion groups, and written and online resources.

Almost 60 people from around the country are in the current class, which will end in October with a four-day workshop.  Participants include community leaders, a chaplain who is working with nursing staff to use storytelling in hospice, and a board member of a group of scientists studying climate change.

“It’s sort of a Hearth within a Hearth,” says Steve Roe, who is in the class. “We have some really spirited discussions.”

In 2020, The Hearth is offering the program as a weeklong intensive workshop, April 19-24, with additional coaching as graduates test their skills and models in real-world settings. For more information, check out https://thehearthcommunity.com/

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