Lee Keylock, director of programs for Narrative 4, said these words at one of this year’s Faith, Reason and World Affairs Symposium concurrent sessions.

What’s the best way to use your imagination?

Tell a story.

Narrative 4 is an international organization that understands the power of storytelling and the empathy it creates – and strives to break down barriers between people through story exchanges.

The process begins by pairing people off randomly. The pairs share a personal story to their partner. The story could be funny and lighthearted or intimate and serious. After each person shares their story with their partner, the pairs return to the group to share, each individual taking on the persona of their partner and telling their story in first person.

Through this exercise, people see the world through their partner’s eyes by repeating their story in first person, creating radical empathy.

Concordia is a pioneering member of Narrative 4 at the college level with its own N4 chapter – a process that would not have been feasible without the help of Dr. Dawn Duncan, English/global studies professor, and Micaela Brannan-Gerhardt ’17, who is double majoring in English writing and Spanish.

As media coverage portrayed negative images of New Americans in the community, Duncan pursued research on an organization that could help bridge the gap between the community and New Americans. After Brannan-Gerhardt approached Duncan about the possibility of working on a summer research project with her, the two decided to make it their mission to bring Narrative 4 to Fargo-Moorhead.

“We have to be reminded of how to practice empathy by looking eye to eye, listening to the narrative and telling it,” Duncan says. “It takes practice. The more you do it, it widens the emphatic neurological paths in the brain.”

They reached out to Colum McCann, president and co-founder of N4 and an author who has been to campus for the National Book Awards at Concordia event. After establishing a foundation, Duncan and Brannan-Gerhardt attended the N4 global summit in Ireland where they exchanged stories with influential people from around the world. The professor and student wrote about the experience for Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies, a Concordia publication.

“During the summit, I was surrounded by absolutely remarkable writers, artists, teachers and students who are committed not only to being and fostering empathetic people but also to putting empathy into action,” Brannan-Gerhardt says.

We have to be reminded of how to practice empathy by looking eye to eye, listening to the narrative and telling it. – Dr. Dawn Duncan

Narrative 4 made its debut at Concordia during the 2016 symposium, which focused on America and the Middle East: Local and Global Dimensions. To demonstrate the power of story exchanges, students showed the community how it works. At one session, Corinne Burrell ’18 and Nadia Toumeh ’19 shared each other’s stories – Burrell’s about being adopted and growing up in Moorhead, and Toumeh’s life in Syria and how her family escaped to the United States. Ben Deetz ’17 and Haroon Hayder, a student at M State, exchanged their stories next – Hayder spoke about Deetz’s life of moving around the U.S. and finally settling in South Dakota, and Deetz talked about Hayder’s life in Iraq and how he escaped the war. After the retelling took place, the audience asked questions about the practice and its logistics.

“If I tell my story to someone, that means he cares about me and that’s an emotional release,” Hayder says.

“It was liberating to share something so close to my heart to someone I don’t know,” Burrell says.

For students and faculty who were intrigued by the practice, a workshop was held the next evening. At the workshop, everyone participated in their own story exchange and debriefed afterward on the experience.

To continue to expand within Concordia and the Fargo-Moorhead community, Duncan and Brannan-Gerhardt have founded areas that could be healed through the power of exchanging stories – reaching out to the immigrant communities, First-Year Transition curriculum, the police force, Microsoft and the native nations, Lutheran Social Services and more. By connecting with more organizations, the empathy gap will begin to diminish and, hopefully, disappear.

“In South Africa, Narrative 4 members are combating academic inequalities and injustices with art. In New York, they’re bridging socio-economic divides. In Connecticut, they helped students heal after the Sandy Hook tragedy,” Brannan-Gerhardt says. “In Mexico, they’re using story exchanges to cultivate compassionate students in a violent community. All around the world, Narrative 4 members are actively engaging in their communities and that made me realize I could do so much more for my community too.”

Since the fall symposium, the Narrative 4 team at Concordia has continued to host story exchange events and N4 facilitator training workshops to help ease tensions and build bridges of empathy in our community and globally.

“When you do things like this, it unlocks your fixed mind and you can see each other as human,” Keylock said.

Published November 2016