Advocating for Peace: Supporting activists in shaping their stories
by Noa Baum
I am sitting in a small room of a modest apartment on the upper west side of New York City, listening to Israelis and Palestinians. The accents are heavy, speech often halting as the teller searches for the correct English phrase or word.
A young Palestinian woman tells about being 9 years old, seeing her beloved friend lying on the ground with a red stain of blood spreading on his blue school uniform. He is 12 years old, and the pride of the school, shot by Israeli soldiers. Filled with rage and grief, she picks up a stone and throws it at the soldiers. She is terrified and confused, “I’m a good girl. I don’t throw stones”.
Why is this happening? Why did they kill her friend?
A young Israeli man, who grew up like me, proud to serve and defend his homeland, tells about being 19 years old in his active army service. He has orders to “extract” a man from his house and bring him in for interrogation. It is well after midnight, he is carrying a large gun and feels powerful, but his heart is pounding with fear. After banging on the door with his gun, a woman opens it and starts crying. He is pointing his gun and sees the terror in her eyes. He completes his mission, drops the man at the detention center but never finds out if he was returned to his wife. The terror stricken eyes haunt him. He is tormented and confused. He was raised to believe he is the good guy. Why is he feeling like the bad guy?
These are just snippets of the stories I hear in that room from five members of Combatants for Peace (https://cfpeace.org/), a grassroots group of people who grew up amidst the violent Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
They all saw family members and friends die. They were soldiers and stone throwers, they spent time being tortured or torturing, been in jail or guarded prisoners, they were freedom fighters and protectors of their homeland.
But one-by-one renounced violence put their weapons down and chose to work together, Israelis and Palestinians, to end the cycle of violence and occupation. Today they tell their stories to build bridges of hope, understanding and peace.
My job is to help them shape their stories for advocacy and get comfortable presenting them to American audiences.
I share my own story: growing up an Israeli Jew in Jerusalem, my friendship with a Palestinian woman and journey of discovering “the other” through the power of story, and how I use storytelling to build bridges of understanding and compassion with a live performance and a memoir I wrote: A Land Twice Promised: An Israeli Woman’s Quest for Peace.
I ask them to identify what makes an oral story compelling and we discuss the components of spoken language, I spend the rest of the day working individually with each one of the five members.
I am faced with many challenges:
How to help trauma survivors tell trauma-laden stories without re-triggering the trauma?
How to choose from dozens of experiences those that can be shaped into a coherent story arc?
How to be truthful to the pain and violence of the stories, convey the message and capture the heart, without alienating or overwhelming listeners?
How to create a message of hope about an ongoing conflict when a peace resolution seems farther away than it’s ever been?
There is no formula and I don’t own the “Your Advocacy Story in Five Easy Steps” magic manual. I approach each individual story as a journey of exploration.
One teller needs to figure out how to talk without crying. Another needs to figure out how to put emotion in his voice when his instinct is to protect himself from the pain by talking in monotone.
And for everyone, the challenge is to learn the language of images:
Can listeners see/imagine my story? Am I showing: describing the scene with sensual details? Using dialogue to give information and/or help bring each character to life? Or am I summarizing?
There are sound principals to the art of Storytelling but Coaching is not an exact science. I tread carefully, ask lots of questions, and offer examples and suggestions. I worry that it’s too hard for them.
But then, one of them retells his story after the morning suggestions. We invite our host, the apartment owner, to listen.
I watch the magic of teller energized by listener. I hear the emotion in his voice but he’s in charge, not collapsing. The story comes alive, our host is clearly moved and confesses that as an American Jew she had never heard this perspective.
It can be difficult to see the relevance of storytelling in the face of the growing conflicts, divisions and hateful rhetoric, the plight of refugees and the collapse of climate stability.
Pete Seeger said, “The key to the future of the world is finding the optimistic stories and letting them be known.”
The stories of the courageous people who are caught in conflict and suffer but choose to reach out to each other, hold that optimism for me.
Poet Wislawa Szymborska, writes,
Four billion people on this earth,
But my imagination is as it was.
It doesn’t cope well with big numbers.
It’s still moved by singularity.
We need the stories. Let’s help people tell them.