I like shiny things. And most things are shiny and worthy of attention. Rarely do I meet anyone without an interesting story to share and something to teach me.
Lately, I’ve been pondering the metaphor of a kaleidoscope. All the shiny experiences are combining to create beautiful, unique, and surprising things. Playing with a kaleidoscope is like playing with a multitude of ideas, allowing them to merge and generate new patterns and discoveries. Different shiny objects rise to the forefront. And, just as kaleidoscopes create beauty through reflective mirrors, wisdom requires self-reflection and the sharing of knowledge.
This boundless curiosity has resulted in a passionate and kaleidoscopic career. Among other things, I’ve been a book publicist; abortion provider and activist; producer of a radio show on religion and politics; founding member of the American College of Women’s Health Physicians; and an entrepreneur, consulting around the world and across sectors for 13 years on all aspects of interpersonal communication.
So, when offered the opportunity to work on a project that seems to encompass ALL that I have done and studied, I am beyond delighted. Recently, I designed and facilitated a program to guide people in sharing and making sense of their stories, and exploring the creation of new stories. Our approach builds upon participatory narrative inquiry*, exploring emergent stories and how they might be communicated to shift larger narratives.
This was a pre-conference workshop at the 2018 Southern Harm Reduction and Drug Policy Conference. Our goal is to widen the lens on the substantive women who participated. Drug use doesn’t have to be the only or largest thing about them.
Most of the participants had overcome addiction. Some had been homeless and have felony convictions. All are super-smart and deeply reflective. Their wisdom comes from listening to other people, and listening to themselves.
This successful project was the surprising synthesis of much of what I have learned and experienced. The program was a mix of careful planning and unexpected discovery. It was the synthesis of the meaning, value, and application of serendipitous experiences.
The harm reduction workshop drew on my strategic and diverse work in the 1990s as Public Affairs Director of a large urban health and social services center. This was during the height of the AIDS and crack cocaine epidemics. One thing we did was provide a safe sex course in the county jail. [Although at the time, we had to refer to it as “Anger Management”.] The workshop drew on my knowledge of the challenges faced by homeless families, gleaned while Communications Director for The Children’s Health Fund. The design mined the intercultural advocacy and public presentation training I developed for UNFPA and delivered worldwide.
Years of improv training enabled me to remain flexible, creative, and respectful. Everyone in that room was an expert in their own story, and we equitably shared status and authority. The design and facilitation was fertilized by years of study in narrative medicine.
Listening to stigmatized populations while advising National Advocates for Pregnant Women, Exhale, and the Robert Wood Johnson Local Funding Initiative was most informative. Working with women who use drugs and are seeking justice, women who have had abortions and are seeking to be heard, and transsexuals seeking dignified healthcare, taught me the importance of enabling complex people to share authentic stories about complexity.
These experiences provided the courage to refrain from assumptions and be open to learning and understanding the women’s perspectives, to provide the collective with what they desired, and to offer guidance on their making sense of what emerged. The quest has always been, how to best share powerful and truthful stories when others insist they can tell your story better than you.
And what emerged was their power to disrupt the dominant narrative and to share stories of mutuality, reciprocity, and balance. One participant said, “I was able to see, firmly, that with every piece of pain, there was love.”
*Cynthia Kurtz, the founder of Participatory Narrative Inquiry, and one of the shiniest people I’m honored to know, advised me on the program.