(Photo courtesy of First Person Arts)
Humans’ defining difference from animals isn’t the opposable thumb or responsibility for the world’s mass development. Per Dave Winston, it’s the raw — and simple — ability to tell a story.
“It’s our ability to communicate not just information but feeling to each other,” the filmmaker said. “Storytelling is great for communicating empathy. We’ve been doing it since we had language.”
Each month, Winston said, he shares tales at about five story slams, or live events where participants tell first-person stories that last about five minutes. There’s usually a theme to center the night.
Within the last month, Philadelphia has hosted several social impact-focused story slams, including PWPVideo’s Mission Story Slam at Yard’s Brewery this Tuesday, which has the theme of “That Moment.” Winston works at the Germantown-based production company, which is a B Corp and largely services nonprofits, as a producer and said he hopes the event draws clients and similar organizations to share “war stories” about their experiences in the field.
Some other recent social-impact focused storytelling shows:
- The United Way’s Greater Philadelphia Corporate Volunteer Council held two story slams focused on volunteerism in April, including one to kick off National Volunteer Week.
- On May 7, the College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance (GPCA) partnered to put on a story slam for students at the seven Philadelphia-area medical schools.
- As part of its ongoing series with the city’s Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services (DBHIDS), First Person Arts held a storytelling event for men of color who are immigrants and refugees last week.
At least four of the events’ organizers attributed this trend to how these story slams highlight people’s shared experiences.
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“I think it’s the commonality of all of our stories,” said Jen Cleary, who is a project manager at First Person Arts, a nonprofit that has hosted storytelling events in the city for nearly two decades. “A lot of us go through similar struggles. … Seeing someone that goes through the same things you do is very powerful.”
In 2014, First Person Arts and DBHIDS partnered to put on Beyond Expectations, a series of wellness-focused storytelling events, Cleary said. Past shows have spotlighted Latino, Black and queer people — but no matter the focus of the night, DBHIDS always offers free mental health screenings.
While workers wait to assist people at Beyond Expectations shows, similar events put those occupied in the social impact field on stage, such as the College of Physicians of Philadelphia’s May event.
GPCA was a promotional partner for the slam, which was part of its Agenda: Wellness initiative focused on connecting medical professionals with art to mitigate issues such as the fact that the majority of physicians are experiencing burnout, said Anne Marie Rhoades, the VP of advocacy and strategic partnerships at GPCA.
Medical students participating in the humanities report higher levels of positive traits, such as empathy, and lower levels of burnout than their counterparts, according to a 2018 article in the Journal of General Internal Medicine.
Miranda Haslam, a first-year medical student at Temple University’s Lewis Katz School of Medicine who won first place at that slam, shared about her first time shadowing in the emergency department at Temple University Hospital. She described the “well-rehearsed dance” of doctors caring for a gunshot victim, who eventually died there.
Haslam started working on the story under Temple’s narrative medicine program, which integrates humanities into the medical school’s rigorous curriculum and holds story slams during the year. The program is why she chose Temple, Haslam said, and helped her process her first-year experiences.
“Other storytellers at the story slam told about feeling overwhelmed in a certain situation or making a mistake,” she said. “It just sort of creates a community where you don’t feel isolated … if you experience something difficult or you mess up.”
Winston said he hope PWPVideo’s Mission Story Slam evolves into a series that allows nonprofit employees to regularly share about the misgivings and bright spots of their demanding work in a busy society.
“[Storytelling] is just a real experience in a world that is content-driven and pre-packaged information-driven,” Winston added. “The real experience of a human being telling you their story is just so powerful.”-30-
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