President of the International Storytelling Center in Jonesborough, Tenn., Kiran Singh Sirah, 39, was born in England.
His grandparents, migrant workers from India to East Africa, helped build railroads when Kenya and Uganda were British colonies.
After the expulsion of All Ugandan Asians in 1972, by the then dictator of Uganda, Idi Amin his parents settled in south England in 1972 as refugees.
“My mom was born in Kenya, and my father was born in India,” he said. “My brother was born in Uganda, and I was born in England. We were all born in different countries, but we’ve always been united as one intimate family.”
He said the power of storytelling through traditional art forms was passed on to him. When he was young, Kiran remembers growing up in a household where an average family gathering consisted of about 200 people. He said everyone sang, danced, and told stories.
Just by listening as a child and running around with his cousins, he learned stories from his elders about traditions and history that went back thousands of years. Kiran said there were tales of family warriors and freedom fighters, of course, funny ones.
“Later on, I realized this helped me form a sense of a personal identity,” he said. “Your greatest survival mechanism and your greatest tool navigating you throughout the world is your identity.”
the START of a STORY
Kiran said he had always been drawn to storytelling and has seen the effects of it play out in his life.
“It started out with me being an art teacher working at a high school in North London at 22,” he said. “I saw things happening and changing, and I realized I wasn’t teaching art, I was helping people tell their story.”
Kiran moved to Scotland where he started organizing events in response to the tension that followed the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
“There were suspicions and fears in the religious communities, and I reached out to all them. Here was a world event that affected a lot of local communities as well,” he said. “I started organizing public events that were co-curated by inviting people not just to participate but to create, design, and be involved as equal parts.”
Kiran said those organized public events developed into festivals and some had over 6,000 people in attendance.
“There were festivals of faith and celebration, festivals where people came and told their story. People used objects and experiences and talked about what it meant to be Jewish, Muslim, Christian, or Hindu.”
He spent ten years in Scotland where he said he was using the arts in its widest form as an artist and a professional curator in museums.
“I was using the storytelling approach to do work around conflict resolution, too, including gangs,” he said. “I would bring different leaders from gangs and have them meet for the first time in a museum space. I would give them a task to create an art exhibit together.”
He said one of the things he’d do is use visual artist, storytelling artist, technical artist, and media artist to help kids who committed first-time offenses find their voice. He said once they found an opportunity to find their voice, they would present that work on the museum wall.
“When we find our voice and tell our story we begin to own our story. When we own our story we begin to love ourselves. When you love yourself, you can love others.”
Kiran said his efforts started on a local level working with gangs and looking at poverty eradication, but then expanded into a program where he began working with people affected by conflicts in Northern Ireland.
He said that experience led him to discover an area of work allowing him to hone in on storytelling arts in the areas of community development, social justice, and peace.
In 2011, he was offered a rotary peace fellowship at the University of North Carolina where he studied social justice, folklore, and international development.
“What I began to focus on when I was in the United States and the Appalachian region was the concept and the folklores of home,” he said. “What I mean is how we create a sense of home with each other through our story, through our memory, and through our expressions.”
Kiran began working with the homeless community. He said when people are stripped of their material possessions their stories become even more powerful. Focusing on the aesthetics of the concept of home, he worked with individuals in a homeless shelter to comprehend how they searched, found, or understood the idea of home.
“Through that experience I learned more about the storytelling process because I discovered what happens when we start to share a story,” he said. “When you have a conversation with someone it leads into storytelling. When that happens, worlds start to overlap, and a sense of shared identity is created.”
After finishing two years of his fellowship in North Carolina, Kiran crossed state borders and accepted the top leadership position with the International Storytelling Center in 2013.
“We produce our flagship event, a national storytelling festival, which is considered the world’s oldest and largest storytelling festival of its kind.”
Starting in 1973, the National Storytelling Festival now hosts around 11,000 people each year in the small East Tennessee city of Jonesborough.
“The center began two years after the festival,” he said. “The festival ignited a storytelling movement in America and professionalized the industry of storytelling.”
Kiran oversees all the international partnerships, programs, and fundraisers among other things.
“We elevate the art form of storytelling to connect with people’s lives.”
“I got involved with an internal passion and an eternal belief that storytelling matters and telling stories matter because it’s how we connect with one another and how we build friendships.”
He said building friendships in the most powerful tool to build peace in the world.
“As the saying goes, the closest distance between two people is a story,” he said. “So when we connect through stories one of the things we do is that we empathize with someone else, we can see the commonality and the connection, and we can see our common humanity.”
Kiran said the best thing about a story and the digital area we live in today is that it’s even more powerful because it can move faster than the speed of light.
“If there are eight billion people on the planet then there are eight billion ways of telling and relating stories,” he said.
NASHVILLE, COMMUNITY, and TEDx
Kiran loves visiting Nashville whenever he gets a chance. He said along with it being a musical city it’s also a storytelling community.
“I love all the little pockets that exist around the city like South Nashville and East Nashville,” he said. “There are a lot of sides of Nashville that people don’t always get to see. There are a lot of things going on too. Sometimes if you look around the corner you’ll see something amazing like a mural or a speakeasy art scene. Nashville has that mysterious quality to it.”
Kiran said what helps a community flourish is when people share and cherish each other’s stories.
“A community is something that binds people together by a set of factors or principles. It’s something you share with someone. It’s a sense of belonging.”
He said what’s embedded in a community are values, beliefs, traditions, foods, connections, friendships, and all the things that make up who people are.
“It’s also recognizing our differences,” he said. “We might practice a different faith at a different mosque, church, or synagogue, and that’s beautiful because that’s what makes diversity and that’s what makes a community great.”
Also a slam poet, Kiran has performed at festivals, the street corners of New York City and even gave a performance at the United Nations.
“I wrote a poem for all the people affected by Hurricane Sandy,” he said. “I was in New York City just after Hurricane Sandy, and I rewrote my speech to give a slam poem instead. It was about if cities could speak what stories they’d tell.”
He said when takes the stage it’s a sacred space for him.
“Every time I walk onto a stage I haven’t been on before, I always touch the ground and put it to my head and my heart because in my tradition that’s what we do for our elders.”
At TedxNashville 2016, Kiran spoke on the peaceful power of storytelling to connect the idea that everyone can contribute to building a better world through stories.
Kiran said it was challenging to narrow down the ideas into a single message, but said he enjoyed it because it made him think about why he does what he does and why storytelling matters.
“At Ted you have to be very concentrated to a single idea because there’s only a limited amount of time,” he said. “It’s so well curated that it allows people to hone in on that idea.”
Kiran said he hoped people walked away with the idea that they are storytellers and that they can make a difference.
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