National Storytelling Network 2007 Conference Keynote

Sheraton Plaza Hotel
St. Louis, Missouri
July 12, 2007
Ronald J. Turner
Executive Vice President Emeritus
University of Missouri


Thank you for that generous introduction and thanks to the organizers of this important conference.  It is truly good to be here with all of you as we continue the journey of growth and development of one of the most powerful and enduring forces in human existence, the act of storytelling.


As a native Missourian, I am especially pleased that the National Storytelling Network chose St. Louis to host this year’s conference.  You honor Missouri and Illinois area storytelling and storytellers by your presence.


Warm welcome to the Show-Me State.  I assume you know why Missouri is called the Show-Me State , but in case you need a reminder, I can tell you that Missouri Congressman Willard Vandiver was speaking at a democratic convention in Philadelphia in 1899.  At one point Vandiver took the stage and said, “I come from a state that raises corn, and cotton and cockleburs and Democrats and frothy eloquence neither convinces nor satisfies me.  I am from Missouri; you have got to show me”.


You know, of course, that Missouri is the birthplace of Mark Twain, one of our greatest storytellers and a perfectly typical Missourian.  Although Twain lived and worked in Nevada, California, New York, Connecticut and other places around the world, his work bears the strong imprint of his Missouri heritage.  He immortalized the Mississippi River which courses even tonight down the valley just a few miles to our East, and he brought characters to life for millions through his tales of life on the Mississippi.  And so… it is important to recognize Twain when storytellers come to St. Louis.


Walt Disney is also a native of Missouri; in fact, Mickey Mouse was born in Kansas City and came to life on Disney’s drawing pad there before going Hollywood and moving into theme parks and cruise lines.


Twain and Disney are simply the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Missouri Valley storytelling, and the growing numbers of storytellers and the vibrant storytelling communities in Missouri and Illinois are evidence that the movement here is alive and well.


Your conference here in St. Louis– in the heart land of America–also recognizes the centrality of storytelling in our time.  Missouri is the meeting place of two great rivers, and it is the crossroads of diverse cultures…the place where east meets west and where the south and north join hands.  Mark Twain said, “Missouri is far enough west to be friendly, far enough south to be hospitable, far enough north to be civil, and far enough east to be civilized.”


Again, warm welcome to Missouri and to the tremendous program before you at this confluence of storytelling.  We are truly glad you are here and hope you will come back often.


Now…as they say down in the Ozark mountains, where I grew up, it is time to stop petting the mule and time to load the wagon.  And so…let me turn to my assigned topic for a few minutes.


The title for this presentation, “A Movement in Motion” reflects the dynamic power of storytelling in society and recognizes its changing nature as the storytelling movement gathers steam and acceleration in a very complex and troubled world.  A world, I might add, that has never needed storytelling as much as it does today.  The pace of life is quickening; the threats to global security and peace are staggering; economic, political and social issues of monumental scope confront us at every turn; the AIDS  pandemic is changing the face and future of entire populations; technological advances come at a speed that challenges our ability to understand, absorb or embrace them.  We have reached a point in the march of human progress that recalls Edmund Burke’s lament for the return of the “…inns and resting places of the human spirit.”  Big business, big government, big violence, big poverty, industrialization and the bite of technology take an ever increasing toll on the lives of people around the globe.  The march is unrelenting, and the fragmentation of society seems at times unyielding.


It is against these trends in human experience that storytelling has come to the crossroads of America in its present state. A state that has seen enormous progress as people in all parts of the world seek the insight, the buoyancy, and the hope that storytelling can bring as torrents in the cascade of life wash over us.  Storytelling is increasingly, but slowly being recognized as a source of renewal and respite from the pressures and predicaments we all encounter day to day and hour by hour.


I have an email from Lee Ellen Marvin from about 10 years ago that gives me both hope and concern.  Lee Ellen’s tag line on that message simply stated; “Time was invented to keep everything from happening at once; space was invented to keep everything from happening to me.”


There seems to be a wide-spread belief that something is wrong in our society and in our world, and those of us who take the “half full” approach also believe there is still time to make things right for ourselves, our families, our communities and our world.  I believe there is a growing awareness that storytelling, in its many forms, is part of the recipe for making things right as we look to the future.  This positive approach calls upon us to make new commitments to the well-being of society, and the commitment to storytelling that you and those around you have made to this movement is nothing less than a magnificent example of progress toward hope and understanding that the world so desperately needs.  Your commitment is the glue that holds the storytelling movement together, and organizations like the National Storytelling Network are indispensable.   In fact, the stakes have never been higher, and the leadership responsibility of NSN has never been greater.  Because of NSN’s potential and its central position in the growth of the storytelling movement, I want to offer a few challenges and make a few suggestions to strengthen and sustain the effort that is underway.


As background for these observations, I reviewed my 1987 keynote at the first National Congress on Storytelling here in St. Louis in June, 1987.  According to Joseph Sobol’s  1999 book, The Storyteller’s Journey, the 1987 Congress marked a milestone in recognizing the national scope of the storytelling in America.  For the first time, the National Association for the Preservation and Perpetuation of Storytelling organized and sponsored a major storytelling event at a site other than Jonesborough, Tennessee.  NAPPS’ initial outreach effort for an event of this kind was the beginning of a process that continues to this day to expand the horizon of storytelling organizations and admit and embrace views that do not conform to any pre-conceived limits to the advancement of storytelling and the realization of its value in contemporary life.


In 1987 my vision for the storytelling movement was somewhat cloudy, but as S.I. Hawakawa so famously said, “I had nothing to lose, so I spoke my mind!”   In 1987, I urged the storytelling movement that was just taking its first most tentative, baby steps toward a national presence to go beyond itself and its legitimate and growing self interest by establishing formal and informal linkages, dialogues and associations with other organizations and interests outside the known world of storytelling…interests in education, religion, the arts and humanities, media, publishing and, yes, even government.  I called for exploration of such linkages in a regular, structured, at times formal manner, in an effort to gain support for storytelling and storytellers and to build alliances needed to bridge the gaps of awareness and appreciation for storytelling as the 21st century approached.


I called for an annual conference for leaders in storytelling, arts and humanities, education, foundations and the philanthropic world, broadcasting, publishing, business and government to explore common ground and to expand avenues of cooperation with the potential to increase public awareness and to expand opportunities for engagement in storytelling and work for storytellers.  I envisioned something like the successful Aspen Institute that brings thinkers and doers together around common themes and issues and adds intellectual and organizational wattage to illuminate and advance important social goals.


As I look back from the vantage point of 20 years, I believe a concerted effort to begin and sustain such an important dialogue would have opened doors today that appear to be somewhat open but need to be opened wider.  I will return to this point in a few minutes.


Also, at the 1987 Congress I called for local, state and national funding programs to support storytelling and storytellers from both public and private sources.  In 1987 there were precious few public dollars supporting storytelling and storytellers.  I called for the commitment of foundation and public agency dollars to be allocated specifically for the advancement of storytelling to stimulate the movement as a whole.  I warned that no outside force or organization would put the cause of storytelling first; I urged that we do it ourselves through strategic communication and alliances with organizations and entities at all levels with the capacity to move us forward.  I pointed out that if we wait until we are comfortable with reaching out, we will miss the opportunity to extend the enriching possibilities of storytelling to thousands if not millions of people.


I challenged every community in America to organize and sustain its own local storytelling festival and to expand its storytelling work in every school and library in the land.  I called for all local radio, TV and broadcasting stations to provide storytelling programs.  I challenged every senior center, juvenile detention center and hospital to integrate storytelling as a matter of course.  I called for strong local storytelling chapters to build toward a regional and national structure.  And…I called for the talent of our storytellers to be supported as matter of priority.


I called for us to create our own future in ways that develop the talent and resources we enjoyed while gaining new ones.  I called for the use of modern technology, satellite teleconferences, to communicate with others in storytelling around the globe.  In 1987 I did not imagine the pervasiveness of the world-wide-web and its capacity to move us forward; who could have known what the Internet would bring?


My final recommendation in 1987 was to recognize that storytelling is a powerful force for peace in a world torn by bitter conflict and violence.


In my remaining time let me issue, or reissue, three challenges for the future.  First, I challenge each of us to build public awareness to the value of storytelling in society.  Second, I challenge us to create and sustain a forum for critical dialogue with other sectors to join us in advancing the value of storytelling.  Third, I challenge us to increase funding for storytelling and storytellers on a monumental scale.  These three challenges are clearly interrelated, and our success in their advancement will pay enormous dividends.


There is a tremendous need to expand and sustain the dialogue with those in other organizations—both public and private.  Local, state, regional and international dialogues have begun, and they merit our participation and encouragement.  I know many of you are active leaders in this outreach to other pubic and private sectors, and your efforts and successes deserve our appreciation.  Nonetheless, I believe we can do more to create a direction based on dialogue; we can advocate and establish storytelling’s rightful place in the funding arena without selling out.


We need to look around the room and think hard about who is not here; which interests are not represented; and we need to resolve to include them in a vigorous discussion as we attempt to expand and enlarge what Robert Axelrod calls the “shadow of the future.”


I call again for leaders in the storytelling movement to organize and sponsor an annual conference with leaders from foundations, publishing, media, education, health, community action groups, government at all levels, both urban and rural, and the private sector to search for common ground.  When I was asked to think about this conference by the planners more than a year ago, I suggested that storytelling should not be content to find its way along the margins of public and private priorities, and I asked how bold the storytelling community wished to be in this movement from the margin to storytelling’s rightful place at the center of human experience.   I ask again: who are our natural allies; where can mutually beneficial strategic alliances be created that maintain our integrity and expand awareness and support?  Where will the leadership emerge that pulls the pieces of this patchwork quilt together and binds them in ways that are necessary and appropriate?  I believe this organizational challenge is appropriate for NSN to consider, and I was pleased to hear from Jo Radner that the NSN board is working hard on strategies for the future.


In this effort, I urge NSN to invite critical thinkers from other public and private sectors and organizations to share their views and explore avenues of cooperation along the lines I am advocating here.  This dialogue will go beyond attention to the art and practice of storytelling; it has the potential to vault storytelling to its place on the agenda of the 21st century with all the uncertainties and discontinuities associated with economic and social progress.  I advocate an open dialogue with interested parties currently at the edge or even alien to storytelling for thoughtful analysis, forward thinking, bold leaping, alliance building and agenda setting for the future.


In response to the funding challenge, I am absolutely confident that we can build on past successes in arts and humanities funding; we can build on educational and library support for storytelling and storytellers.  We can find willing patrons in philanthropic sectors, and we should be open to corporate sponsorship in ways that build audiences and opportunities for storytellers to sustain themselves. Investments in storytelling must be one of our top priorities, and NSN can play a strong and responsible leadership role.


In preparation for these comments I did a quick web search on storytelling organizations and story related efforts beyond NSN.  What I found was familiar I am sure to all of you.  Naturally, we see the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress as a major resource; I am especially pleased that Todd Harvey from the American Folklife Center will be speaking later in this conference.  We see the Veteran’s History Project and the work of producer Lee Woodman on the Nuremberg Trial Project; we see StoryCorp and its phenomenal contributions; we see the Skytellers with Dovey Thomason Sickles, Lynn Moroney, Gayle Ross, Joe Bruchac and Michael Lacapa; we see The Journal of Storytelling Studies under the co-editorship of Joseph Sobol; we see and honor Bill Harley for his Grammy Award; we see University of Missouri Professor John Foley’s Journal of Studies in the Oral Tradition; we see University of Virginia Professor Bill Ferster’s Digital Storytelling Initiative; we see Chris Crawford’s Storytron, a new approach to interactive storytelling; we see Storylink in New Zealand; and, of course, we see August House with its on-line profiles of  storytellers and current calendar of storytelling events; we hear “A Prairie Home Companion”; and we see the vestiges of George Gerbner’s cultural environmental revolution that was advanced by Larry Johnson and Elaine Wynne from Minnesota; we see the Institute for the Future with its resources on theories of cooperation; we see the Healing Through Stories conference; we see the international rural network conference with an interest in storytelling; we see WorldNET from the U. S. government sponsoring dialogues on storytelling; we see more college and university courses and programs on storytelling; we see more youth in storytelling; and we are seeing more and more festivals.  We have some increased programming via radio, TV and cable, but much remains to be done on that front.


This is all very positive, but as the Nebraska poet laureate John. G. Neihardt said in his autobiography, “All is but a beginning!”


Where do we go from here?  First, we need to applaud and honor the progress that has been made since the start of the storytelling revival so well documented in Joseph Sobol’s book.  We also need to find ways to chart our progress by collecting, organizing, interpreting and reporting the critical success factors that are driving and should drive the storytelling movement forward.  I am concerned that we have only primitive tools for this measurement of our performance; I think we can do better.


In fact, this is a potentially vital role a national organization like NSN can play.  First, we must agree on the critical success factors to be measured; then we must determine what standards will be applied and how data can be collected and used.  With the growth of storytelling on the web and the proliferation of storytelling events with support from numerous sources this measurement task is formidable.  Some will say, why bother, growth is occurring and stopping to measure our progress will simply slow things down.  I believe reflection on our past and creation of our future…the very theme of this conference… will be advanced if we have good, solid data on the growth and development of storytelling.  With solid data, the case to be made to public and private donors will be strengthened; it will help make the case I believe needs to be made to public and private decision makers, including school and library boards, foundations and public arts and humanities agencies at state and national levels.  A wealth of measurement tools can be employed, and I urge NSN and others interested in this need to take the lead.  If we do, we can return to St. Louis in another 20 years with a clear picture of where we have been and where we might need to be going in the year 2027.  In fact, I  plan to return here in 2027 just to see how far this movement has come as we tell our own story in a way that only we can tell it.


In our efforts to build public awareness of the value of storytelling, we need to develop a weekly, national, public radio program focused on storytelling.  We have the talent to take this step, but we need to organize the resources and generate the funding needed to make it a reality.  A national radio series will increase the profile of storytelling; it will build audiences and increase awareness of storytelling’s value for all ages.  I am prepared to help put this program together, and trust that many of you will join in the process.  There are some who resist efforts to develop a signature radio project and others resist the “wiles, guiles, blandishments and promises of pleasure” in the siren call of broadcasting and mass media.  I am a bit more pragmatic as I recall the ancient Chinese proverb which says, “When a Tiger enters the Temple, make it part of the ceremony.”  The Tiger is in the temple.  It is time for a major radio project.


Why is the advancement of storytelling so important?  I pondered that question when we started the St. Louis Storytelling Festival in 1980.  When 5,000 people came to our first festival,  I knew there was a deeply seated reason for people to suspend their usual activities on a beautiful early May week end to come to the museum under the gleaming St. Louis riverfront  arch to experience storytelling and storytellers.


As I looked for a way to explain storytelling’s intrinsic value in modern society, I came across these words in the book, New Rules: Searching for Self-fulfillment In a World Turned Upside Down, by Daniel Yankelovich.  He wrote:


“The freedom that seekers of self-fulfillment pursue—the treasure so easily lost—is not only political but cultural as well; it is the freedom to choose one’s own life according to one’s own design.  And this novel meaning of freedom has suddenly grown urgent because simultaneously tens of millions of American have concluded that the old giving/getting compact that has served our society so well for so long must now be revised because it fails to accommodate the sacred/expressive yearnings that lie at the heart of people’s search for self fulfillment.” Yankelovich, 1981, p. 225.


New Rules went on with the following comment on the social condition that I believe is true today:


“The idea of community is precious to people, although they often do not know how precious until it is lost; it must come from social arrangements that have endured long enough to enjoy some stability.  Although difficult to define abstractly, the idea of community evokes in the individual the feeling that: ‘here is where I belong, these are my people, I care for them, they care for me, I am part of them, I know what they expect from me and I from them, they share my concerns, I know this place, I am on familiar ground, I am at home.


“This is a powerful emotion, and its absence is experienced as an aching loss, a void, a sense of homelessness.  The symptoms of its absence are feelings of isolation, falseness, instability and impoverishment of spirit.”  Yankelovich, 1981, pp. 226-227.


Mother Teresa said America has a worse poverty than India’s, and she said it was loneliness.  I judge that loneliness to be akin to the loss of community and the search for the “sacred/expressive yearnings” that shape our lives and actions.


Storytelling helps build and bind community. The gift of freedom to move in so many directions and levels is a marvelous gift; the opportunities are boundless and the power of our mission is on our side.  The challenge is great, but so is the power of storytelling.  When Fulton invented the steam engine his critics said. “It will never go! It will never go!”  When the engine started, the same critics said, “It will never stop! It will never stop!”


St. Louis was home base for Charles Lindbergh as he prepared for his historic flight across the Atlantic.  In fact, his plane bears the name, “The Spirit of St. Louis.”  I hope the spirit of St. Louis and the call to reach new horizons animates each of you during this conference.  Building public awareness of the value of storytelling is a noble calling; and NSN is poised to lead the way.  I call for your commitment to this important goal as we look to the future.


In closing, I am reminded of the Irish way of ending meetings with a blessing.  And so, I will close my comments with this blessing of presence by John O’Donohue from his book, Eternal Echoes: Exploring Our Hunger to Belong:


“May you awaken to the mystery of being here and enter the quiet immensity of your own presence.

May you have joy and peace in the temple of your senses.

May you receive great encouragement when new frontiers beckon.

May you respond to the call of your gift and find the courage to follow its path.

May the flame of anger free you from falsity.

May warmth of heart keep your presence aflame and anxiety never linger about you.

May your outer dignity mirror an inner dignity of soul.

May you take time to celebrate the quiet miracles that seek no attention.

May you be consoled in the secret symmetry of your soul.

May you experience each day as a sacred gift woven around the heart of wonder.”


O’Donohue, Eternal Echoes: Exploring our Hunger to Belong, 1998, p. 139.


Thank you again for your presence, your leadership and your commitment; I wish you and this conference every success.


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