Karen Gilliam, PhD, Q&A

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I came across Karen Gilliam, PhD, unexpectedly while researching another storytelling guru who agreed to respond to a Q&A. I was instantly attracted to her practice and philosophy, and she graciously agreed to respond to this 21st in a series of Q&As.

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Bio of Karen Gilliam, PhD, can be found here.


Q&A with Karen Gilliam, PhD:

Q: How did you initially become involved with story/storytelling/narrative/working with stories? What attracted you to this field? What do you love about it?

A: As I thought about this question, I came to realize that whether or not I was consciously aware of the impact of a story, I was never the less encapsulated by its power to influence. I actually cannot remember a time when I was not attracted to story. As a child, I hung on to every story shared by my relatives, in particular my grandmother and uncle. Their stories about family told me that I belonged, that I was special and that I was a part of something great and wonderful. As an adult, I’ve used stories and storytelling in my work as a trainer, coach and organization development consultant. Jerome Bruner defines it best when he says “story is meaning.” I love story and storytelling because of its ability to capture emotion and reason, hearts and minds like no other spoken communication tool. And, there’s something quite liberating and authentic about being able, as a listener, to take, in that moment or some future point in time, from story only what I need in order to make meaning.

Q: What future aspirations do you personally have for your own story work? What would you like to do in the story world that you haven’t yet done?

A: I’ve become a lot more conscious in my use of story and find that I gravitate toward processes, tools, and curriculum that honors story. Most recently I’ve been facilitating workshops in an organizational environment and working with a young ladies’ mentoring group in the community. Each of these venues respects and honors the individual’s story and in different ways helps participants to recognize their stories and the power that they have to write and re-write their stories.
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We all have a story to tell, a chapter that is yet to be completed or written. I need to capture in writing, in journal or workbook format, what I’ve been experiencing through my own story work and that of others who share a kindred spirit in storytelling. I believe that people, especially our young people, are yearning to find their own voice, to know that they have a unique purpose in life and to be connected to some one or some thing greater than self.
Using story and storytelling to say what people have in their minds and hearts; to allow them to see something they’ve not seen or imagined before (raising their sights, unlocking potential, focusing on possibilities); to find hope and invite others to do the same; and to cause them to want to struggle for some shared aspiration is storytelling leadership. This is a concept, first introduced in my dissertation, that I plan to further examine as a part of my volunteer work with Restore Cleveland Hope, a non-profit organization whose mission is to restore the last known pre-civil house located in Cleveland, Ohio, into an underground-railroad teaching center.
Q: Your doctoral dissertation focused on the influence of the story of Joan Southgate, “the 70+ year old African-American grandmother, educator, social worker, and community activist, who walked 519 miles of the underground-railroad.” How did you come across her, and how did you decide to focus your doctoral research on her journey?
A: A good friend who was involved in the planning of the last leg of Ms. Southgate’s walk invited me to his home to meet her. It’s quite startling how we imagine someone might look based on limited prior knowledge and assumptions. Her story of traveling the path of the underground-railroad had become so large that I imagined her to be of the same stature, but when she stood for our informal introduction, I saw that she was short, petite and unassuming in her demeanor. What she lacked in height was more than compensated for in her presence, strength of character and unwavering belief in what she was doing.
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Her storytelling reminded me that rather than discounting or ignoring my heritage, I needed to recognize and reclaim its richness and goodness. I needed to know from whence I came, find and reestablish my voice in articulating a self-claimed Black identity, and then support others in finding voice, gaining control of their existences and becoming all they were meant to be.
My story of Joan Southgate’s story is only one version. It’s based on what I paid attention to and on what I needed in order to make meaning in my life. Recognizing this truth led to my foreshadowed question: What is the impact of story on the listeners and why do they react the way they do? From a knowledge-application perspective, I hoped to uncover how business/community leaders could better connect with those they’d like to influence in some way and how storytelling could be used for a social movement.
Q: Joan Southgate turned you onto Sankofa Symbolism, which your Web site talks a bit about. Can you elaborate a little on how you use this Sankofa Symbolism in your story work?
A: If you stop to think about, for example, a coaching practice, performance consulting, leadership development, or a post-project review, certain steps, like first becoming self-aware, gathering the facts, or reflecting on what was learned, are recommended. Each on its own accord stresses the importance of examining the past and present in anticipation of a desired future. This is Sankofa.
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We don’t always know what we don’t know. We don’t often think about our own thinking or how we come to know what we know. Consider the Ladder of Inference. In lightning speed we select from all the available data what we will focus on. We add meaning, that is create a story, through a lens of the world that reflects our beliefs, experiences and personal histories. The theme of Sankofa centers on the importance of going back — retracing our path — to the past in order to understand the present. As stated by Anais Nin “we don’t see the world as it is. We see it as we are.”
Q: Given that some of your story work is with individuals, to what extent do you support the concept, and given that Sankofa Symbolism embraces redefinition, to what extent do you support the concept: Change the story, and you can change your life.”
I absolutely believe in this statement. As human beings we have freedom of choice. We are not robots. Even as we are presented with certain circumstances, we still have the choice of how we react and respond and what story we tell. It is the latter - the story - that occurs first and where we don’t stop to question.

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One symbol frequently associated with the first interpretation of the term Sankofa is the Sankofa bird [Editor’s note: Pictured here], which is also referred to as the bird of passage. This mythic bird is a bird that is looking behind it. This represents the fact that although the bird is constantly moving forward, it continually looks behind it - to its past, with an egg (symbolizing the future) in its mouth. Rev. Joseph E. Lowery, who is the past president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, having retired in 1977 after 40 years of dedicated service, once visited our church and shared this message: “If you don’t know where you come from, you won’t know when something is trying to take you back.” So while you don’t want to hold the egg too tight or risk breaking it; don’t hold it too loosely either.
Sankofa can be translated in various ways:
  • No matter how far away one travels, s/he must always return home.
  • It is not taboo to go back and fetch what you forgot.
  • To move forward, you must reclaim the past.
  • We should reach back and gather the best of what our past has to teach us, so that we can achieve our full potential as we move forward. Whatever we have lost, forgotten, forgone, or been stripped of, can be reclaimed, revived, preserved and perpetuated.
  • In the past, you find the future and understand the present. And, in doing so, we can change the story and change our life.

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