Transformational Storytelling is an online and in-person school founded by Jim Brulé which focuses on two major areas: providing classes and mentoring in developing the skills to tell truly transformative stories, and the application of those skills to organizations and communities to help heal fractures of class, ethnicity, tradition, and privilege.
“Stories develop the potential to transform when the right combination of content, structure, and presentation style are married to the open-hearted telling by the storyteller and open-hearted hearing by the audience,” says Brulé. He forms his approach on his training and experience in multiple fields: clinical psychology, neuroscience, systems cybernetics, plus the years of training in maggidut – the Jewish pursuit of storytelling as a modality for inspiration and spiritual growth.
As an example, Brulé points to the work pioneered by Gregory Bateson in how systems learn and change, which in more recent years has been validated through research on neuroplasticity – how our brains “rewire” themselves. “The greatest opportunity for significant, lasting change comes when we suddenly find ourselves in an unexpected context,” Brulé says. “Stories naturally use this device: the growth of anticipation, the creation of a cliffhanger, and the sudden twist. By being intentional about encouraging our audiences to encounter deeper spiritual or moral values in those moments, we can spark moments of true growth that endure far beyond the moment of the story.”
The Transformational Storytelling school grew out of the school of maggidut run by Brulé’s teacher: Reb Maggid Yitzhak Buxbaum. As a school rooted in traditional Jewish study and s’micha (ordination), almost all students were Jewish, and the curriculum, while appreciative of other traditions, was decidedly Jewish. When Buxbaum passed the school along to him, Brulé shifted the focus to a highly multi-faith program, engaging adjunct faculty from a dozen different traditions and students from equally diverse backgrounds.
Brulé feels fortunate that he had been delivering his programs online since 2015, long before covid, which gave him a familiarity and comfort with the issues of online training and curriculum development. In fact, in the time since covid, the school has seen significant growth and change. For example, Brulé has launched a new series, “Diving Deeply into Stories,” four weekly sessions that examine two stories from different or unfamiliar traditions for their more profound spiritual and metaphoric meanings. Students deconstruct each story, consider alternative plot directions, decipher hidden values and assumptions, and explore storytelling techniques to highlight their interpretation of those values.
The “Diving Deeply” series is now about to begin its fifth iteration, with a dive into two mysterious African stories: the well-documented (but controversial) story often referred to as “The Starwoman,” and another relatively unknown outside of the Yoruba region: “The River Olu.” In a planned expansion of the series, this class will be co-taught with Laura Simms, known to many as an internationally acclaimed storyteller, writer, and educator advocating engaged storytelling as compassionate action for personal and community transformation. Additionally, a Yoruban student of Brulé’s – Titi Ogunnaike – is scheduled to be live from Lagos for the series. A rare recording of the current priest of the river Olu telling its story will be part of the experience. Upcoming classes will include stories from First Nations and Hungarian cultures, with co-teachers from each tradition.
The “original” program, accredited by the National Storytelling Network, will resume after a two-semester hiatus mandated by the retooling necessary to adapt to the new challenges and opportunities presented by the pandemic. It was this component of Brulé’s school that drew the attention of the NSN Accreditation Committee. The school has seen students from around the world who follow more traditions than the average person ever encounters. Brulé believes that it is this component that is critical to our successful spiritual development: “If we only see the world, particularly our traditions, through our own eyes, we never fully understand others – or ourselves.” Paraphrasing the closing of a favorite Hasidic tale, he says, “We will know that we are on the right path when we hear someone else tell us our story.”
This accreditation has proven to be a beneficial asset in helping others decide to join the two-year program. “I encourage students to be sure the program is right for them and offer a full refund if it is not,” he says. “When prospective students know that the program has been reviewed by the NSN, it gives them another reason to consider committing to the work.” As testimony, students have come from a wide range of professions to learn and grow with Brulé, including physicians, lawyers, social workers, and in particular, clergy – perhaps the most common non-storyteller profession. “I never realized the nuances of my own tradition’s stories until I took this program,” reports one clergy member. “It has been a significant part of my development as clergy.”
The other side of Transformational Storytelling is the direct application of these techniques to current social conditions. Examples of this work include an extended engagement with a community’s religious organizations, school system, and first responders to build bridges; work at healing fractures between different religious organizations in various communities; establishing study and dialogue programs with Jewish, Muslim, and Christian communities. Most recently, a program co-developed with Sheila Arnold called “Wounds: Healing and Truth” explores the history of racism in the US (as told by both the perpetrators and victims) with the goal of building the mechanisms for reconciliation and healing.