Who here thinks they’re a storyteller?”
Besides a squelched giggle or two, the 30 Burke High School juniors gathered for a storytelling workshop a few weeks ago stayed silent. No hands were raised; no eyes lit up.
That’s how veteran slam poet Kiran Singh Sirah, president of the International Story Telling Center in Jonesboro, Tenn., opened a three-hour session he led for the students. It’s an educational outreach component of the annual Charleston Tells festival that will be held next weekend.
“So who do you think storytelling is for?” Sirah followed up.
“Little kids,” students chimed together. “You know, like children’s storytime at the library,” another said.
But by the end of the workshop, these same students realized they each had stories worthy of telling, and gathered in a circle for an impromptu story slam, showcasing newly discovered techniques to make their personal experiences come alive.
Burke AP scholar Kevin Frayer, typically shy and prone to hiding his shining brown eyes beneath a Clemson hat, was tapped to emcee their cafe-style “slam,” just as he will emcee the storytelling performance nine of these Burke students will deliver during the festival on Saturday, March 12.
Sirah drew from his multicultural background — the child of Ugandan refugees growing up as a person of color in South England — and shared his own poems about what it’s like to be an outsider. The kids could relate.
“He was interesting, he took his time and opened up and let us inside his own experience about where he came from. I especially liked his poem about a chip on his shoulder,” said workshop participant Sydney Huger. “At first, I thought ‘I can’t do this,’ but he helped me bring back memories I didn’t know I had.”
“The way he put his words together helped us really imagine what he was talking about,” added Frayer, who admits at first he was nervous about sharing his own poem, and them emceeing the slam. “I liked his play on words. There was a lot of action, it wasn’t boring.”
An advisory member to UNESCO and a Rotary Peace Fellow who has addressed the United Nations Headquarters on the power of storytelling, Sirah’s passion and expertise is using stories to bridge divides, address injustice and build community.
Sirah has international experience using storytelling as a tool for peacemaking and conflict resolution, and “this year, especially in the wake of the Mother Emmanuel AME shootings, we wanted our annual storytelling festival to offer that to the community,” explained Cynthia Bledsoe, acting executive director of the Charleston County Public Libraries and director of the annual Charleston Tells storytelling festival sponsored by the library.
To honor her CCPL colleague, Cynthia Hurd, one of the victims in the shootings, Bledsoe secured grant funding from the South Carolina Arts Commission and Humanities Council SC to bring Sirah to Charleston for the first time and to Burke, where he worked with students to create stories or poems on the concept of “home.”
“Home is the one thing we all know, but what home means is different for everyone. It could be a physical place, or a memory, a smell, people. … By providing a safe framework to explore all aspects of ‘home,’ we helped them bring their stories to the surface,” explained Sirah. “I believe every story is worthy. When sharing a story, one is making a mark and asking others to listen. It can be a healing process, a way to find connections and build community,” he added.
For soft-spoken Chanquaisha Drayton, it did just that. “The workshop helped me say exactly what I feel,” Drayton said. “It showed me I could just be me and let my thoughts flow onto the paper.”
And she’s excited, if a little timid, about taking the stage to share her story with the larger community at Charleston Tells. “People might understand our point of view and where we’re coming from better,” Drayton added. “I think people just see the news and think we’re all hoodlums and don’t want to go nowhere, but things may not seem how they are. I hope our stories can help people see a different perception of us.”
Image above: Elias Wendt and Sadayah Brown