Q&A with a Story Guru: Cynthia Kurtz, Part 4

See Cynthia’s bio, photo, Part 1 of this Q&A, Part 2, and Part 3.

Q&A with Cynthia Kurtz (Question 4):

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 came to story work after spending six years writing free educational simulations and participating in the great knowledge democratization and gift economy that is the internet. When that endeavor ended (not a monetary success, but we often joke that we got the internet in return) I was excited to have the chance to work with a group researching stories and storytelling in organizations at IBM Research. One of the things that struck me right away on taking up this work was that the wonderful ideas and techniques we were developing were bottled up and available only to giant corporations, government agencies, and academic institutions with money and knowledge and power. While being grateful that those powerful bodies were willing to pay me to do this work, I could see right away that the people most in need of story techniques were Margaret Mead’s small groups of thoughtful, committed citizens trying to change the world. I was very happy this spring to finally have enough time and knowledge to be able to write Working with Stories, which is my first return to participation in the gift economy. My aspiration for my own story work, and for that of others (if I may be so bold), is that lots and lots of people will find a way to balance putting food on the table and helping make working with stories something accessible to everyone on earth.

More specifically, one thing that I’d dearly love to do is write an open source suite of free software tools that can help small groups support community storytelling for local conflict resolution and decision support, with all that entails (seeing things from new perspectives, reconciling the past, envisioning the future, building bridges of understanding, discovering transforming insights, etc). I’ve looked some on the web and found nothing remotely like what I want to build. For example, generally when I search for “tell us your story” or “share your story” I find mostly just lists of stories, not dynamic exchanges. In the same way that people who want to discuss something can install any of dozens of free forum packages, I’d like people to have easy access to software that supports community storytelling and group sensemaking in a way forum software cannot. I’m looking into various sources of grant funding for such a project, for example the Knight News Challenge is one possibility. I’m also looking for collaborators so if you are interested please contact me!

Update since Cynthia’s response above: Since I wrote this last part, I’ve spent quite a bit of time working on a new project called Rakontu. Rakontu’s goal is to create a set of free and open-source software tools that communities can use to share and work with stories. Here is one of our shorter blurbs:

Long ago, community stories were tended by griots or shamans or
bards or just older people. These story caretakers watched as stories
formed patterns through time and space. They helped communities use
their old and new stories to settle disputes and make decisions
together. In many of today’s communities, increased segregation of age
groups, increased mobility, and increased consumption of packaged media have reduced the story caretaker role. As a result, critical connections are not being tended and cannot be called upon in times of need.

Communities need stories because they help people probe sensitive
topics safely, experience events through the eyes of others, and get
past knee-jerk reactions to contentious issues.

Rakontu will help communities share and connect stories into webs of
resonant collective meaning, discover insight-creating patterns in
collected stories, and work with stories during group sensemaking about
decisions, conflicts and plans. Outcomes may include better consensus on
tough choices, greater emotional engagement and resolve for action, and
greater common strength in times of crisis.

So far we have a 100-page “Vision+Plan” document that lays out our goals
and ideas, a great group of “well-wishers” and a grant application. As
of this writing we are waiting to hear from the Knight Foundation as to
whether we have advanced to the third round of consideration. But we are not sitting on our hands waiting for Prince Charming! We are moving
forward with “bootstrap” plans that can work whether we have lots of
time to work on it or just bits and pieces. Either way, it will be a
fully open-source project, in ideas as well as code, and open to all. If
anyone is interested in participating, the best thing to do is to skim
over the Vision+Plan document since it will serve as the starting point
in our design discussions.