Lifting Together: Finding Purpose in Storytelling

“Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign. But stories can also be used to empower, and to humanise. Stories can break the dignity of a people. But stories can also repair that broken dignity.” 
I remember when I didn’t have a voice. 
I spoke a lot, but my voice? 
It wasn’t mine. I didn’t own it. I didn’t know how to own it
Being a social person, I certainly knew how to talk a lot, but to have a voice that can carry a story worth telling? This, I did not have. 
I didn’t think I had much to talk about. I could tell stories about others. I could share a funny quip about my weekend and I could tell a joke. That was the extent of my storytelling abilities.
I tried so hard to be and sound like others — trying to be right and not be wrong — always second-guessing myself every step of the way. 
I knew how to talk about other people and their ideas but rarely my own. 
I thought I knew how to entertain others with tales and anecdotes. 
Storytelling? Me?
No. 
So what is the difference?
Even as I think on how to answer this question, my heart beats faster and my cheeks begin to flush. 
For me, storytelling is very personal — a purposeful act of vulnerability. 
It is a conscious reveal of a parcel of my soul and the preparedness of vocalising it for someone else’s benefit. 
The story we choose to reveal is for our audiences to reflect on and digest — and if our story is authentic, meaningful and vulnerable, it will encourage our own vulnerabilities and personal experiences to entwine with their own.
Imagine for a moment, a world where our vulnerabilities and our experiences are intertwined together in a swirl of understanding, compassion and empathy.  
If we are being truly honest, this sharing of ourselves through story means we are encouraging others to find the strength to share and reveal a little parcel of their own souls.
And if they do?
Suddenly, this world of empathy, understanding and compassion which we’ve imagined opens up for us. It passes on, it grows and evolves and we all learn together about our different worlds. A web of interconnected similarities and differences grows in the space where our stories reside. 
The great philosopher, author and civil rights activist, Angela Davis said that “stories are power. They are the way we shape our world, the way we challenge injustice and the way we inspire change.”
Dear reader, I am lucky to come from a long line of storytellers.
My people are from Kiribati. Pacific Islanders who pride ourselves on storytelling, oratory lessons and narrative traditions that have held our collective identity together for generations. 
We tell grand, sweeping stories. 
We inhabit each character in the stories we tell
We share our experiences, our trials and our struggles. 
We make each other laugh and we seek to connect with each other through these stories. 
Over the centuries my ancestors have shared knowledge, advanced our ancient culture, nurtured innovation, eased diplomatic tensions, celebrated each other and maintained our indigenous culture through storytelling. 
My own connection to my indigenous culture and identity has been uncovered, explored and grown through storytelling. 
Just like the Kiribati creation story of Nareau, the spider opening up a whole universe by discovering a stone and encouraging the people stuck inside the stone to ‘Lift! Lift!’, I too have prised open my own identity and discovered a whole galaxy of stories that continue to make me who I am.
Stories I can learn from, and through this growing connection to this long line of ancient storytellers, add to, continuing on theirs and my, legacy.
The Ancient Greek storyteller, Euripides said “Galaxies have fallen into my cupped hands, and I have drunk the stars” in an ode to the power of storytelling and oration. 
In my culture, we don’t hold culture within, we express it to unleash it. 
We dance, we sing, we tell stories and in all of this we are creating art for one another, our children, our ancestors and for the world, in an act of compassionate and selfless sharing. Knowing that each of these art forms has a purpose to hold our culture, to help us find our pride within it, and pass it on to others
Within each of our stories is a promise to pass on our Kiribati identity and for the listener to share in it, keeping our culture alive. 
I have inherited a purpose-driven voice through generations of people sitting together and sharing their stories with one another. 
 
As a writer, I have learned the power of storytelling. It has allowed me to connect deeply with others and also encouraged me to emerge into someone who is proud of their identity, passionate about their culture and driven to encourage others to find their own connection to their own stories, cultures and purpose.
Words are powerful. 
They hold, shape and reshape history. 
Words and how we choose to use them and those we allow to fall at our feet, forever unused, make our story uniquely ours.  
However, what is the difference between speaking with words and a ‘voice’?
How do we move past niceties and create stories with meaning and heart?
And most importantly, how do we ensure that our own act of storytelling is an act of compassion, of sharing and connectedness which allows the vulnerabilities and experiences of others, to intertwine with our own?

Belonging

‘What am I supposed to forget? 
What part of my story am I expected to embrace and what part do I reject?’ 
- Stan Grant, Australia Day
To tell a story worth reading, we must look inwards. We must understand our sense of self and our sense of place. If we are to share who we are with the world, we must understand where where are today, where we came from, and where we are going.
We must understand our own sense of belonging.
Understanding belonging is often a complex journey in itself. If you reside in Australia or on any colonised land the exploration of belonging means reflecting on land and your own relationship to it. 
Non-Indigenous Australians like myself, live and work on unceded land, living on Aboriginal Country of which we don’t lay any cultural claim to. 
Whilst some of us may have purchased the land that we live on, it doesn’t belong to us in our sense of identity, although we are part of it and we are part of its story. 
But we don’t belong to it — not in the way Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people belong to the land we stand on. 
The relationship is different and we must acknowledge this. 
The relationship is important.
We belong with to our families and our communities but relationship to land is an altogether different kind of Belonging. Australia can only grow and evolve in its identity if we understand this meaning. 
A refusal to acknowledge the complexity of this is doing your own personal sense of identity a disservice. 
You can, and I urge you to ask yourself the question ‘Where do I belong?’
At this time of writing, we are witnessing Israel relentlessly bombing Gaza and the people who live in it. We are watching innocent Palestinians die for the sake of land and an act of mis-directed vengeance, in a fight where some people are trying to find a sense of their own belonging. There is a genocide currently occurring under our very eyes all for the sake of wanting to belong somewhere. 
It is a wonder then to ask ourselves if seeking our own sense of belonging means we are to disrupt or erase the very personal sense of belonging of another people.
It does not and should not.
We can’t call Australia our home without first acknowledging that this land holds a culture and a history of stories that do not belong to us — and yet we must acknowledge the complexity of calling a place home because we live in it whilst understanding that its story includes it being stolen by force.
And even though we call somewhere ‘home’ we cannot and must not take stories from someone else because in doing so, we erase them and deny their existence.
In Kiribati we are taught that the land has power. 
It has a memory. 
In my own understanding of belonging, I have visited land for the first time and been told I belong to it. A somewhat confusing notion. 
How do we belong to somewhere we’ve never been?
I belong to land in Kiribati because the stories my families have told have been held there for thousands of years. Others who were born on that land, those who died and fought for it, people and communities that have protected it over eons are held there.  Those people who built The Bobai Pit*, who built the fish trap, they too belong to this land.
I lay claim to a position in the Maneaba* because my family has always held that position when deciding upon matters for the community. I still have the right to return (return while also having never been there) to that maneaba and name my ancestors who spoke before me. 
I descend from a specific land and our stories have been there well before the arrival of colonisers. 
I belong to the land and I am greeted back there as a descendant returning, not a stranger arriving because of the stories that were told by my ancestors and the stories that I carry within my sense of whom I am.
My own sense of belonging.
Dear reader, perhaps this is not the white paper you were expecting to read, but if we truly want to be purpose-driven, if we truly want to do work that matters, we must understand our own place in this world and understand where we have come from. We must understand from whom we are descended, and stories that connect us to them, and the stories that connect us with one another.
And it requires us to understand that our story does not begin with us
That it begins with our our place in our communities and acknowledgement of the privilege, and the societal structures that have allowed us to climb with ease to where we are today, or stumble at the first step on that journey
Once we further our own understanding of where we belong, we can then start to think about how we might contribute. 
Our story begins with family, connection, community and a contribution to ensure it lives on for others.
Finding belonging is understanding who you are and our story must start at this beginning. 

Are you prepared to be seen?

“How can you possibly be an agent of positive change in the world when you are full of bitterness and hatred?”
Being part of society and choosing to work with purpose is a human part of us all. 
Most of us have a need to contribute and feel useful, needed and to feel seen. 
But allow me to turn to the other side of this coin.
Are you prepared to be seen?
I have often seen people struggle with spaces and conversations that force them to see themselves. 
To see privilege and to see colour.
To see patriarchal systems and gender.
To see stereotypes and assumptions that might place them at an advantage. 
For those most marginalised in our communities, these things are glaringly obvious, whereas those who benefit from them, these systems are often invisible, unspoken, unseen and not on the agenda for discussion. 
It is business-as-usual takes their attention because anything else is too confronting.
However, for us to be able to listen to someone else’s story, we must understand that each of our worlds are both different and complex; and often, these worlds — these places of belonging — sit right next to one another, with divisions and differences that are simply figments of our own imagination or manufactured by those more privileged.
Listening deeply to the world around us means hearing some things that we may not be ready to hear; and this confrontation means that we will be seen.
Are you prepared to be seen?

What makes you rise from your chair?

“That's what careless words do. They make people love you a little less.”
― Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things 
We all stand for something.
We must.
Our upbringing, culture, history and life experiences lead us towards some things that we individually decide are important.  Whether we consciously articulate these things as values, beliefs or principles, or subconsciously make choices in accordance with a set of guidelines we live our lives by, we all stand for something.
Our values are a the ideas that guide us towards decisions that we deem are ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. 
Our values guide the work we choose to do as much as whom we decide to be. The relationships we commit to and those we choose to walk away from. How we raise children, how we contribute to our community and how we choose to use our time.
And society will always come back to us to ask the question, what is it that you stand for?
What do you deem is important and how are you going to work towards it? 
And it’s not just you that is being asked this question, organisations and their leadership are expected to answer this question through every interaction they have with the world around them, and every one of their decisions.
What do you stand for? What makes you rise up from your chair and stand on your feet? 
As purpose-driven leaders we are expected if not required to stand for something — and yet we can’t stand for everything because then we know, we stand for nothing at all.
Because when we share those things that are important to us — those things we value most —our experiences and our vulnerabilities — we are then able to see through on our promise to tell our story.
We are able to tap into our inner-most voice, to elevate our stories and those of others.
To educate ourselves about ourselves.
To listen to ourselves so we might then listen to the stories of others.
We can’t celebrate International Women’s Day and then pretend not to notice the lack of gender representation in our leadership.
We can’t call for Indigenous reconciliation, and not be strong advocates for a voice to parliament.
We can’t signal our celebration of diversity, and then cry innocence when a person of colour states that racism is rife in the organisation.
We can’t talk about pride across our organisation’s social media channels, when we lack the ability to create safe and open spaces for members of the LGBTI community to share their stories in a platform they can call their own.
The days of hiding behind middle-of-the-road statements, word-smithed to an inch of their lives, plastered on posters throughout our offices are gone. If we are going to rise from comfort we must face discomfort first.
If we are to make a stand, we must be prepared to make that stand, and honour it, if not for ourselves, but for those we aren’t able to make it themselves.
We each have a voice and only we can choose how to use it at the m
So why bother? Why share who you are and what you believe in?
Because statements are worthless without action. 

Why say something in the first place?

“We Own Our Stories”
Aseel Tayah, CEO of Bukjeh, Palestinian Artist
If I may, let me share for a moment. 
I recently travelled back to the country town I grew up in for my 20-year school reunion. In the last 10 years I have been back there twice. Suffice to say, I rarely find a reason to go back. 
I had odd feelings about returning. As a teen, I floated across social circles and through sport and music managed to consciously evade any major bullying or controversies. I was agreeable and loved a laugh and tried as much as I could to stay away from controversy. 
I still am this person to an extent, but due to my own self work and career, I was now returning as a proud Pacific Islander. Outwardly, perhaps I hadn’t changed much other than now being a mother of two children. So, some things had changed.
I was returning as someone who’s entire identity had now evolved to someone who held a strong sense of pride of their heritage and ethnicity. A sense of pride that eluded me in my high school years and a topic I never saw the need to address publicly as a teen. 
Something that I never saw as controversial or political, but in a mostly white, country town, being proud of one’s ethnicity and culture was often seen as controversial and different. Un-Australian and confronting to some, unheard of for others.
I went along to the reunion, ready for a night of light-hearted banter. 
The small-talk that makes up much of what is deemed as conversation at these gatherings included the expected questions which I was well prepare for. 
Where are you living? Do you have kids? What do you do for work? 
The last question, I summarised this, very simply with ‘’ I am a Writer.”
If you are reading this and are also a Writer who write across sectors and genres and you know how to answer this question, I would love some advice.
This is usually met with What do you write?
By the fourth conversation of this kind, I grew tired of my answers and responded with, Well…  much of what I write is about my culture and being proud of my Kiribati identity.’
This was met with one response which touched my heart:
10 years ago, I came to learn about my Aboriginal heritage. My grandfather was told to hide his Aboriginality. He wasn’t allowed to go out in the sun because he wasn’t allowed to show how tanned he would get. Once you learn about yourself and your family story, there’s no going back.”
What followed was a sharing of stories of our own identity journey. 
What followed was a sharing of our experiences and our vulnerabilities.
What followed was both connection and compassion.
We spoke of our own work to arrive at a moment in time where we were proud of who we are. To reflect on the generations before us and figure out how to raise children who are proud of their culture. 
I was expecting drunken jokes, reminiscing tales of teachers, perhaps a little bit of posing and posturing — and yet I had conversations of culture, identity, pride and generational learnings. 
All of this at my own school reunion!
I showed my authentic self because I found the confidence to speak about work that I am deeply proud of, and in turn, I was invited to hear a snippet of a story that would expand my own thoughts, perceptions and culture. 
The sharing of experiences and vulnerabilities has its place, even at a high school reunion.
When we lift our own stories, we are encouraging others to lift their own. 
Showing up with vulnerability and truth can be hard — I get it.
Sometimes it is not safe to do so. 
Sometimes you are asked to defend your own identity and turn down the volume of who you are and what you represent. What you stand for and why you are here.
Sometimes it is all just too much work. Tired.
Other times, you just don’t know if you will be accepted and embraced or ridiculed and vilified. 
But what I do know, is that it has been in the moments that I have decided to share my culture and identity where I have garnered encouragement and strength to keep sharing who I am. Conversations expand and I feel my culture open upwards and outwards a little more. A voice deep within calls out for me to ‘Lift! Lift!’ and I am encouraged to share more - to not only share my identity but to keep my culture alive. 
I encourage you all to ask yourself what stories guide you and share them. 
To share your authentic self so that we can all connect more deeply and in a way that is honest. 
To find your own sense of belonging so that you may understand others in your own community. 

Know the moment to stand aside

When you steal a people's language, you leave their soul bewildered.”
John O'Donohue
I am not the only Australian person who remembers being taught in detail about James Cook and his so-called celebrated ‘discoveries’. 
In Primary School I was given assignments to imagine myself as a convict and their captors, writing about what that would have been like. We were told about those ‘brave men’ who had travelled the seas to ‘discover’ this land we now call home. 
This First Fleet narrative was iterated over and over again, in an act that created empathy and compassion for whom today we see as Colonisers. 
Indigenous stories and perspectives were deliberately silenced in an act of disservice to an entire culture, each other and our communities.  
I’ve come to believe the truth would’ve been a better story to share with those young Primary School students — as difficult and unbearably sad as that story was.
When we share our personal stories authentically, we allow ourselves to grow, to better understand our life experiences, and reflect on how they might teach us; as we move onward.
The act of sharing authentically and true stories — as opposed to fabricated one-sided narratives — this act creates an opportunity for growth, inclusion and empathy. 
Being able to listen to stories is equally as important as being able to share our own.
We don’t share our stories for our own benefit, we share them to connect with one another.
To discover our similarities and our differences. 
The act of sharing in story is a dance — a back-and-forth sway between the storyteller and their audience; and through this simple act of sharing truth openly, we create a space which is respectfully equal between us and those who are listening — an atmosphere of understanding. 
Yet we have so far to go
We must ask ourselves who’s stories have been missed?
Who’s experiences haven’t been heard and more importantly, who’s stories have been deliberately silenced?
Purposeful storytelling is an opportunity to be critical, to draw a line in the sand and hold our opinions and our values with grace, in an invitation to others to engage in a healthy, open-hearted and compassionate dialogue.
I invite you to look within your own stories and those of others to find this line in the sand, these opinions and these principles in the hope you are able to discover someone else’s perspective; one different than your own.
We must ask ourselves if we are taking centre stage when it may not be the correct time or context.
Simple questions such as: am I speaking for someone in their absence? Am I right the voice to be telling this story? 
Creating the space of story-sharing allows for someone to speak. 
To share what and how they want to share. 
To know that they will be heard. 
To know that they will be seen.  
The more stories we listen to, the more perspective we have of our own. 
This is speaking and listening with purpose.
Our world could and should be so much better if we were all taught to do this.
In the Kiribati creation story, Nareau the spider finds a stone and peers closely at it, spying a crack. He then hears the voice of the people stuck inside the stone and realises that if they all work together to lift the heavy stone ceiling above them, they could separate the sky from the earth. 
If they could figure out a way to stand together and lift as one, they could uncover a place of beauty and harmony.
These words are powerful. 
They hold, shape and reshape history. 
They bring people together and tell each of them — you belong here.
Purposeful stories do this.
It’s how we lift the un-liftable together. 
‘Firm be his hands, firm be his feet, firm be his body. We shall strengthen him. Lift the sky, lift the sky, lift higher and higher still, lift all, lift all together.’