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From Stand-up to Twitter, A New Generation’s Fresh Take on Storytelling

Today's storytellers show that each of us can be part of something more powerful, diverse, and creative than we might have imagined.
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Cameron Esposito does stand up at the Crown Tap Room in Chicago. Photo by Erin Nekervis/Flickr.

If we make it through this time of climate crisis and economic upheaval, the new storytellers will deserve some of the credit.

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The new storytellers are writers, poets, musicians, documentarians, radio producers, and others who are reporting the story of a new world being built around the frayed edges of the old. It's a story that is invisible to those stuck in the old paradigm. There is no famous charismatic leader, no single dramatic event signaling the change. Instead, a new society is emerging from the bottom up, born of the hopes and hard work of many people who have been excluded from the old society and who yearn for a more just and life-affirming world.

Arundhati Roy said it beautifully at the World Social Forum in 2003: "Another world is not only possible, she's on the way and, on a quiet day, if you listen very carefully you can hear her breathe."

The new storytellers have in common a keen awareness that our society is not working. A key to building a better one is making visible new ways of living that are more just and sustainable.

A Story of Choice

Anthropologist, author, and activist David Graeber, like many of the new storytellers, wears many hats. He helped plan the occupation of Zuccotti Park, where the Occupy movement began, and he is among the organizers of the Rolling Jubilee, a debt-resistance movement that grew out of Occupy.

"Another world is not only possible, she's on the way and, on a quiet day, if you listen very carefully you can hear her breathe."

Debt: The First 5,000 Years , is Graeber's 534-page tour through the history of debt, showing how it drives and enables war, slavery, and assorted other atrocities. Debt is neither natural nor inevitable.

Graeber and other new storytellers challenge one of the central stories of the dominant world view: that "there is no alternative," as British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher put it.

There's nothing that says our homes, medical care, and education must be profit centers for financiers. Credit unions, mutual aid, single-payer health care, land trusts, and public funding for high-quality public universities—all are solutions that the new storytellers explore.

"They may live in the city, but they grow their own food…"

AshEL Eldridge (aka Seasunz), hip hop artist, a founder of the four-piece band, Earth Amplified, and one of the new storytellers, wants us to quit killing ourselves with junk food.

In Eldridge's music video, "Food Fight," junk-food addicted neighbors awaken from sugar-induced comas and battle the agribusinesses that have taken over the corner market.

People of color and the poor are more likely to live in areas with little access to healthy foods. The new storytellers, though, focus not just on the problems plaguing the downtrodden; they feature people in these communities who are working for change—in this case, working to make sure everyone has access to fresh vegetables.

These stories are among the most important of our time. They prove that there are alternatives to business as usual.

"They liberate themselves to elevate others. They are healers, revolutionaries, and poets. They may live in the city, but they grow their own food. They work to bring youth in contact with their indigenous ancestors, the wisdom of our elders, and the Earth herself. They are hip-hop AND absorb life from all forms of music, dance, and expression for they know that love is the way even though the paths are many."

The Universe is Waiting

An igloo-shaped structure sits humming in the lobby at the base of Seattle's iconic Space Needle. The sound comes from fans that keep the walls inflated. As you bow slightly to enter, it's as though you are entering a sacred space.

The StoryDome, which hosted some 5,000 visitors during its 2012 Seattle exhibition, is a place to explore the universe. Sit back on cushions and look up as planets, stars, and galaxies fly by. Then watch as our vibrantly colored home, Earth, sweeps into view.

Some stories are best told through experience. The Story-Dome, a project of NewStories, offers a direct experience of the immensity of time and space, and the extraordinary process that brought about the evolution of life.

"Many of us recognize that we are in a time of great transition, a movement from one belief system to another," says co-president of NewStories, Lynnaea Lumbard. "The story of the evolving universe offers clues for moving to a life-affirming future."

It takes participating in stories this big to grasp what we humans are a part of and to come to terms with our responsibility for the future of life on Earth.

Arising from the Rubble

If a new world is painfully arising from the rubble of the old, then these stories are among the most important of our time.

The new storytellers are reaching people through a greater variety of media than has ever existed. They post videos on YouTube, blog on Tumblr, discuss at reddit and Grist, and tweet out their latest inspirations. There's a resurgence of grassroots storytelling via poetry (especially poetry slams), folk music, and stand-up comedy. Documentaries are now a leading source of investigative reporting; graphic novels explore topics ranging from life in Iran to the history of the Freedom Riders; and satellite radio and low-power FM are reaching new audiences. Even protest is now an art form, with giant puppets made by the Bread & Puppet Theater, street choirs organized by Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping, and dancing flash mobs, like the ones that protested at Walmart stores last fall.

If the late Czech playwright and leader Václav Havel was right, if a new world is in fact painfully arising from the rubble of the old, then these stories are among the most important of our time. They prove that there are alternatives to business as usual. They show that people everywhere are responding to the challenges of our time, and that each of us can be part of something more powerful, diverse, and creative than we might have imagined.

As these many stories are woven together, the contours of a new world come into focus. And as these stories spread, it seems it might just be possible to take the leap, to leave behind the no-longer-secure world of business as usual and step out into a new world, knowing that there will be others there to join us as we find our way.


Sarah van Gelder newestSarah van Gelder wrote this article for The Power of Story, the Summer 2014 issue of YES! Magazine. Sarah is co-founder and editor in chief of YES!

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