Art as Action: Changing the World with Stories

Lisa Consiglio and Colum McCann. Photo by Mark Hedden.

By Reisa Plyler

On a breezy Saturday afternoon, Narrative 4 cofounders Lisa Consiglio and Colum McCann introduced the “global, non-profit organization using stories and storytelling to effect change … to inculcate the idea of radical empathy … where young people tell each other stories, and tell them back to each other in first-person.” Originally scheduled as a breakout session for Key West Literary Seminar Teacher and Librarian Scholarship recipients, the pair took to the main stage to enlighten the larger crowd about their mission to bring students, teachers, and artists “into the fold.” 

On an earlier panel at the Desire-themed seminar, author Joyce Maynard unpacked the nearly universal desire to “be known.” Meanwhile, Consiglio said that many youth believe they simply have no stories to tell. Devoid of the realization of one’s story, how can a young soul, even on the most basic of levels, experience the feeling of being heard? Of being known? Through Narrative 4, young people—often lost and lonely—discover their voices. As they dig deep to unearth their stories, ultimately hearing them shared on a global platform, they begin to experience what it is to be known, increasing a sense of belonging.

Consiglio—the “brains and the brawn” of the organization, in McCann’s words—exudes contagious enthusiasm for watching the spark come alive in the eyes of teenagers. The pair described the brain as being “like a circus” when telling our own scattered story, but when telling someone else’s story, lighting up with meaning “like a pinball machine.” 

“Increasingly we are being dehumanized,” McCann said, by not sharing our stories. Our dichotomous technological obsession renders individuals endlessly accessible, yet at the same time, less adept at the art of meaningful human connection. Narrative 4 changes this dynamic. McCann summed up the program’s urgency by quoting Edward Abbey: “Sentiment without action is the ruin of the soul.” It is critical that we nurture this empathetic craft of story-sharing among our youth, who can spread this spirit of lasting connection.

McCann described one otherwise unlikely Narrative 4 partnership between students in the Bronx and Appalachian Kentucky: “urban versus rural … blue versus red.” He has observed “borders dissolving … as students see the humanity in each other.” For example, young New Yorkers have come to understand that some Appalachian students use guns not for violence, but to provide food for a family which otherwise may not eat.

Consiglio’s five-year goal is for Narrative 4 to be a worldwide mandatory curriculum, as it is in Ireland. (The organization’s developing digital platform translates into eighteen languages.) McCann adds, “The absolute heroes are the teachers” who can help “increase the lungs of the world through the very fine act of personal storytelling.” And what richer legacy can we leave to future generations than fulfilling the primal desire for deep human connection?

Reisa Plyler teaches AP Literature & Composition in Miami, Florida. She is currently working on her first novel.

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