The theme of the conference was Collecting & Connecting Stories and I was honored to be one of the facilitators for the 5-workshop seminar that unfolded throughout the conference.
The workshops began by focusing on why we tell stories, focusing on the work of Marshall Ganz. While there was the obvious and sometimes surreal fusion of my life as a ‘Jewish professional’ and as a social activist writer, I was just as struck by how much you learn from a person when you listen, really listen, to their story, including the spaces between the words.
I remember a writing coach saying that the reader not only learns from the words on the page, but from the white spaces (what we don’t say). For example, when someone tells you a story about their children, they are telling you how important their family is in their lives. They are sharing their values and priorities.
We learned how when you share a personal story with someone you are making a commitment towards friendship as you share a piece of yourself and you are honoring them by offering a level of exposure. Likewise when people share their story with us, they are inviting us to get to know them on a deeper level.
In a conversation with a colleague at the conference I explained that I write novels that highlight social injustices and promote individual empowerment to create change, and she tied this into a model of how I envision my work in the San Francisco Hillel Jewish Student Center.
My biggest takeaway from these workshops was the realization that to compartmentalize stories within the pages of a book is only one facet of storytelling. We use our personal stories to reach out to others and offer an insight into our character, a lesson from the moral of our stories, and the opportunity to bear witness to the stories of others, validating their experiences and values. Stories are all around us. They form an integral part of the fabric of social interaction.
Stories are all about delivery, but they are also about listening. How much better can we make our world if we can find the comfortable space to tell our stories and learn to truly listen and learn from those of others.
Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/and on Twitter (#alonshalevsf).