How Stories for Society uses fantasy to get to the heart of reality
Stories for Society hosts a training for teachers from 20 schools in Stockholm. The training was about the meaning of tolerance. All photographs courtesy of Julie Lindahl.
By: Rachael Cerrotti
It all starts with a well-researched and practiced method, developed by Stockholm-based nonprofit, Stories for Society: “A visitor comes to your island where you live. Your task, together with those in your community, is to take care of the visitor for one day so that he/she wishes to come back again.”
Once given this prompt, a group of schoolchildren (or adults) are given a theme. Collectively the group builds characters, an environment, and a sequence of events. Often times what emerges are personal experiences and unique ways of dealing with them.
The idea is to employ fantasy to work out reality.
Stories for Society was founded in 2010, by writer and educator Julie Lindahl. The concept began when her children were young and her family was living in a small community on an isolated Swedish island. Lindahl was volunteering reading fairy tales in English to groups of children after school and noticed that they were picking out complex themes, such as death, to discuss; this observation developed into the idea that collaborative storytelling could help young people work through complex issues.
Using these components that are an inherent part of storytelling, Lindahl collaborates with visual artists, participative theater experts, and even Sweden’s most famous clown to encourage participants to use words, pictures and drama to communicate their story.
“When we do analysis, that is one level, but when we actually use storytelling to explore complex subjects, we have the possibility of reaching much more innovative conclusions,” Lindahl told ivoh. “Often times, [we reach] a more authentic picture of things.”
Sitting in her kitchen in Stockholm on a snowy Saturday in December, Lindahl explained that the current interest and need for Stories for Society is greater than ever before; this is in reaction to the refugee crisis.
Lindahl believes that directly addressing a trauma or a problem to a child can be counter productive. “If you get them to project it into another character, or into a story, or into a fantasy world, then they can work it … out and it doesn’t have to hurt them. And this is particularly useful for kids, for example, who are refugees, [and may] have seen terrible things or have been abused.”
Lindahl’s own childhood was troubled by her family’s inability and unwillingness to speak truthfully about its past. Born in Brazil, but raised all over the world, it wasn’t until she was in her twenties that Lindahl became conscious of her family history, and it wasn’t until her forties that she learned the specifics. Her grandfather was an influential member of the Nazi civilian administration in western occupied Poland; he was responsible for the torture of laborers, and the deportation and murder of the previous landowners – facts which members of her family flatly denied. You can read about her journey in her book, “The Pendulum.”
“What I learned through my journey is that because the previous generations were not prepared to face history truthfully, my generation ended up in a very bad emotional space. So bad that we felt we couldn’t move forward with our lives,” Lindahl said. “I always say that if I didn’t have the means and the education to pursue this story, I probably would have done something violent or bad because of the rage, because of the silence.”
She sees the same possibility in many of the youth that the organization works with. She understands that more often than not there is little conversation about where their families are coming from or what role they played in the wars from which they are fleeing. Silence exists in their life. “But, the difference will be that these people will also have to fight other battles, which is the battle of having a different skin color, a different appearance, don’t have the means, don’t have the education, don’t have the job, and what happens then?”
Stories for Society is a preventive measure for later generations so that the anger doesn’t lead them to make counterproductive decisions for themselves, their families and society.
This is the big idea for the organization, although this was not the original intention. For Lindahl, she realized this when Stories for Society worked with an organization in the marginalized villages in rural northern Bosnia-Herzegovina in 2014. “Suddenly the lights went on, oh, that’s why we had to create this.”
Stories for Society is now working with Fryshuset, one of the largest youth centers in the world.
Fryshuset, a Swedish-based NGO, was founded in 1984 in an unused storage building. The place was rebuilt for young people; there are basketball courts, skateboard ramps, rehearsal rooms for musicians, and meeting places for the youth to come and develop their skills, talents and passions. It is open to everyone and now runs about 50 different programs and projects. There are special programs for at-risk youth as well; it is a space for prevention and reparation.
Stories for Society will train Fryshuset’s youth leaders in their storytelling method. “We will be plugging into youth leaders from all of these different projects who will come together and be trained in this method. Then they will all go back to their areas, which are very full of immigrants and refugees as well, and implement this method for three weeks and then they will come back and tell us how they feel about it,” explains Lindahl.
“Stories for Society’s job is to reach and equip, as much as we can, all of the institutions that come into direct contact with these people,” Lindahl said.
The partnership with Frushuset is a step towards this goal. The center’s emphasis is on inclusion, not integration, and Stories for Society’s method will complement this approach as themes will drive the storytelling, rather than demographics or specific experiences.
“The core of the entire idea is the creation of trust,” Lindahl said. “Because to create a good story together, you have to trust, or trust must emerge.” She believes that every institution in Sweden that works with refugees or immigrant communities should provide an avenue for storytelling.
Related: How The Video Project promotes and distributes educational media around the world | How ‘Double Exposure’ illuminates the stories of Rohingya refugee children through art | Meet ivoh’s 2017 Restorative Narrative Fellows