By Pamela Karch, Bridges’ Research Coordinator
At Bridges, we are learning that our personal stories are of great value: to the individual, to our communities, and to everyone we share life with. We teach each other through stories both with our words and with our hands, showing and telling, “this is how you do it”; we circulate stories about who we are and where we come from, what we have seen and what we know; we write and tell histories. Our lives, our families, our communities, our cultures, our religions, our nations, what we know, what we believe, and what we have tested have been based on the practice of narration. As humans, we relate to one another by way of storytelling. What we know and can predict of our past, present, and future is supported by stories.
So where in this vast collection of stories does one begin to define their Wisdom Story? What is a Wisdom Story and why is it important to know it? Why is it important to share it? Wisdom Stories describe a person’s life purpose and meaning; they define one’s passions, desires, values and motivations. Wisdom Stories answer questions such as: why are you the way you are and why do you care about the things you care about? This is not just the telling of your life’s history or your genealogy, although often these things are included within a Wisdom Story; this is a story that helps you generate your inner power, strength, abilities, and capabilities. It is the story that connects you to the responsibility of your life’s journey. A Wisdom Story is not stagnant; it is forever changing with you – it is both adaptive and resilient. Furthermore, to be a catalyst of positive change or become an agent of transformation for your life and your community, it is important to know and understand how you and your stories not only affect and support you, but also those around you, and those who live in your communities.
A Wisdom Story cultivates self-awareness as it asks, “Why is this my story? Why are these my most deeply held values, and why do these principles guide me? What motivates me and why?” It is this challenge – this exploration of your story, this telling of your story, this writing and rewriting of your story, this artistic representation of your story – that captures and reflects upon the driving forces of why you are who you are, and speaks to your life purpose as part of the larger human story.
At Bridges, this process of developing a Wisdom Story is completed through a series of activities and exercises led by expert facilitators in the context of our programming. These exercises then culminate in the sharing of Wisdom Stories by way of video, poetry, art, narrative or other form of expression, chosen by the storyteller.
A definition or explanation of wisdom is hard to capture, but if we can centre its meaning on our life experiences, it may just become a catalyst of both inner and outer learning and growth. Therefore we can ask: is there a way to go about discovering personal wisdom? And how is it reflected in a Wisdom Story?
Developing Your Story
Why are we who we are? At Bridges, we can’t claim to have the answer to this question, but we have been working with an approach through our Unveiling Youth Potential (UYP) program that helps participants discover the answer for themselves. Wisdom Stories explore how connections between our personal stories, our communities, and the types of change we hope for become important contributors to the growth of inner resiliency, empowerment, and capacity for initiating change in our program participants. Participants of the UYP program begin to discover common threads in their life experiences, learn to navigate hardships, develop self-evaluation and self-exploration techniques, and find a sense of self and identity while focusing on empowerment and change leadership.
To identify how a story can function as a catalyst for learning and change, the themes of time, identity, life experiences, meaning making, imagination, and action can be applied to the process of discovering your story (Aalsburg Wiesner 2005). Time plays a significant role in the way we “grasp what has been and what presently is, and to imagine what could be” (Aalsburg Wiesner 2005, p. 103). An exploration into past events can lead to an assessment of how moments define our identity. This evaluation of life timelines has the potential to unveil meaning from life experiences that become part of our larger stories. By exploring life experiences and how they make meaning and shape identity, we become better equipped to know why we are the way we are. During the UYP program, participants work through an activity called “Be the Change Challenge!” in which participants use their imaginations and what they discover about life experiences, identity, and meaning making to answer questions such as: what are your intentions in exploring opportunities for change in the world? What are your talents? What issues do you feel strongly about and why? What issues are you motivated to lead change in and why? These questions are asked of program participants to encourage dreaming about new possibilities, and about where these possibilities could be implemented so as to result in positive individual and community change.
Imagination and the exploration of questions asked within the Wisdom Stories framework can then inform any resulting (and often necessary) action – moving from the why to the how. Action is not only one of the basic ingredients of human life (Aalsburg Wiesner 2005); it is the initiator of positive change. Yet, in order to create authentic and lasting change, you first need to know and understand your intentions and motivation, and then take action towards inner and outer change from this place of knowing and trusting yourself. By forever yearning to learn about not only ourselves but also the world around us we can become purveyors of our own wisdom, by making our own meaning from our life experiences.
“Much is gained from learning processes that allow young people to reflect positively on who they are, where they live, and how they might bring changes to the world around them” (Cammarota 2011, p. 829)
Sharing your Story
How do stories catalyze change? With the right motivation, knowing and sharing your story has the potential to heal, lead, teach, and inspire. There is great responsibility in knowing your Wisdom Story because it is not for you alone. In the same way that it can heal, lead, teach, and inspire you, and it can do the same for those around you. From this perspective, sharing stories invites everyone to live more conscious lives. Bridges is not the only organization that acknowledges the importance of supporting people in sharing their wisdom for change leadership. The idea that storytelling can be a catalyst for change is being explored within organizations around the world, including the Center for Digital Storytelling located in Berkley, California.
“Personal narratives can touch viewers deeply, moving them to reflect on their own experiences, modify their behaviour, treat others with greater compassion, speak out about injustice, and become involved in civic and political life. Whether online, in social media, or local communities, or at the institutional/policy level, the sharing of stories has the power to make a real difference” (Center for Digital Storytelling).
A Wisdom Story has the potential to create positive changes both in the life of the individual storyteller, as well as for the communities in which they live and work: to heal, lead, teach, and inspire. This is why Bridges is helping youth and young adults explore their own Wisdom Stories through the UYP program. This process of exploring and sharing stories both from a personal and community-based perspective is a big part of Bridges’ approach.
Wisdom Stories shared by our program participants (often video recorded and available for viewing on our YouTube channel) become bridges between individuals and their communities. As individuals share of themselves with one another, relationships are built and bonds formed. And as they speak about observations of their communities and desires for change, these stories, when heard by the open-minded and open-hearted, can generate collective empathy and hope. Furthermore, an individual storyteller and their communities become inextricably linked during the process of sharing, particularly when the element of co-authorization is considered. Our program participants come to recognize that while their communities most certainly affect them, they also have tremendous capacity to affect their communities.
It is our hope that Wisdom Stories would not only be useful for participants of our programming, but that these stories would become connectors and informers for individuals, communities, and the world. By garnering insight about inner and outer wisdom, and drawing from learned and understood realities, an individual can become and act in a way that will usher in peace, harmony, joy, and happiness for not only him/herself but for the communities and societies of which he/she is a member, and for humanity at large (Chung-Ying Cheng, 2006). This is what we believe in at Bridges: fully realized human potential and a peaceful world abundant with optimism and hope.
Aalsburg Wiessner, C. (2005). Storytellers: Women and crafting new knowledge and better worlds. Convergence, 38(4) 101-119.
Cammarota, J. (2011). From hopelessness to hope: Social justice pedagogy in urban education and youth development. Urban Education, 46(4) 828-844.
Center for Digital Storytelling. What We Do. Retrieved from http://www.storycenter.org/what-we-do/.
Chung-Ying Cheng. (2006). Preface: What is wisdom? Journal of Chinese Philosophy, 33(3) 317-318.