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A woman speaks during The Moth community Program workshop in Kampala, in partnership with the African Women's Development Fund and Femrite. (youtube)

Spinning tales

How live storytelling can help women around the world to find their voices

By Alli Maloney on May 24, 2016

Sarah Austin Jenness of The Moth has worked for over a decade helping ordinary people tell their stories before a live audience. An executive producer for the storytelling platform since 2005, Jenness told Women in the World that she’s found oral storytelling to prove a powerful medium because it “forces you to take stock of what you’ve been through.”

The Moth is where, on the recently-aired season five series finale of HBO’s Girls, Hannah Horvath rediscovered her storytelling voice after a long hiatus from writing (Lena Dunham’s character isn’t sure if she’s ready to return the pen to paper, but picks The Moth as her starting place because “I have something to say”). It launched in 1997 as a platform for professional and amateur storytellers to spin true tales live and without notes. The experience often proves intimate, whether heard before an audience in a theater or by radio, where the non-profit’s radio hour has thrived.

Jenness’s work with Moth storytellers first began with New York’s homeless and disabled populations and now brings her around the world to lead global community programs that focus primarily on women and gender-based issues like maternal health. Many of the workshops she has led have been women-only by request — a “safe space” for sharing elected stories, where censorship is rare. When women speak among other women, they “get into the core of the story very, very quickly,” Jenness said. Themes that she has seen grab the attention of such storytellers include “coming home,” “when worlds collide,” and “out on a limb,” but every community — every woman — is different.

“I won’t tell you what story you need to tell, but I will present a host of stories that [The Moth coordinators] love and I will tell you how to identify the elements of a terrific story,” she explained cross-legged from her grandmother’s couch in The Moth’s New York offices. “And then I will listen to you.”

Sarah Austin Jenness.
Sarah Austin Jenness.

Oral storytelling builds a bridge between speakers and listeners. “[It] can only work when there is an audience and there is not one person in that audience who can interrupt that gorgeous storyteller,” Jenness has learned.

Listening purposefully can reveal common ground and stories that make it to The Moth’s main stage can turn an ordinary woman into an extraordinary public speaking force. “It’s even more joyous to see this person who, perhaps has been overlooked and underrepresented, stand on a Moth stage that is even more formal, and tell this story to a couple hundred people,” she said.

Last summer in a workshop made possible by the African Women’s Development Fund in partnership with FEMRITE, a Ugandan writer’s organization, Jenness and The Moth brought together 22 women from 14 different African countries for two days to dig deep in to their stories. For a total of 12 hours, the women “dove right in,” Jenness said. A mini-documentary of the workshop shows the women brainstorming at long tables with notebooks and teacups, playfully dancing together and standing alone a microphone. The opportunity to explore their ideas was just the beginning, a catalyst to get the creative, emotional wheels turning. “They dove so deep that some of the participants realized the story they wanted to tell, and were most excited to explore, was not going to [be found] in just the first draft form after two days,” Jenness explained.

A woman shares a story during The Moth community Program workshop in Kampala, in partnership with the African Women's Development Fund and Femrite. (youtube)
Jama Jack shares a story during The Moth community Program workshop in Kampala, in partnership with the African Women’s Development Fund and Femrite. (YouTube)

A handful of selected stories premiered by broadcast through 500 American radio stations on The Moth Radio hour in March. Additional tales from these women will be featured on the podcast that attracts 30 million downloads a year and through grants, like those from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation that helped make the Africa trip a possibility, The Moth hopes to continue helping women storytellers around the world find their voices. It is committed to including all people in the art, too: in collaboration with the New York Public Library, The Moth last month called on the public to help transcribe audio stories through Pop Up Archive to make audio stories more accessible to the deaf and hard of hearing.

Robin Sparkman, a veteran journalist who joined StoryCorps as CEO in 2014, believes oral storytelling fills a profound need to connect that is shared by all humans, one that doesn’t translate across all modern mediums. “There is something unbelievable about the human voice that doesn’t come through on the printed page,” she told Women in the World by phone. “You’re able to really concentrate on what someone is saying and how they’re saying it, [giving the listener] that nuance of the person as well as the substance of what they’re saying.”

StoryCorps began in 2003 and calls itself a public service, with an interview session between two people at the center of the story. Sparkman describes this particular brand of oral storytelling as an “empathy play,” where two people sit down with someone close to them to conduct meaningful conversation, a copy of which is then saved in the Library of Congress and in the StoryCorps archives and made available for the participants to share. It’s a self-created record, one in which women choose to memorialize their family history, tell romantic stories, or share their experiences at as a member of the LGBT community.

Her favorite StoryCorps recording was made between a daughter and her bricklayer mother, “a skinny little woman” who chose to do the hard work because it paid a higher wage. The mother, Baltimore’s Barbara Moore, did not see herself as a hero despite working so hard for 30 years, Sparkman said. She thought of herself as just a mom. In the Storycorps recording, Moore tells her daughter, “A lot of the older guys, didn’t think I should be there and I was taking a job from a man. But I believed that I could do that job.”

Sparkman was moved. “It was very touching, clearly the level of sacrifice and the level of discrimination that the mom felt, yet she is so un-self indulgent about it.”

Having heard tens of thousands of stories, she connects most with tales of women who present dualities, juggling independence with career and family life. “Those stories seem to resonate with me, linger with me,” she said, noticing that most women are “very exacting and demanding of themselves, particularly as mothers.”

Storytelling functions, too, she observes, as self-preservation. “These are stories that nobody gets to tell in the mainstream media because there isn’t a news peg, [the storytellers] are not celebrities,” Sparkman explained. “They’re the quiet, desperate stories of everyday lives.”