Editor’s note: We often encourage philanthropic families to share their family stories. It’s a crucial way to pass on the family’s legacy to the next generation. In this essay, National Center for Family Philanthropy Board Member Bill Graustein shares how he uses storytelling to help nonprofit leaders shape the future of their community.

For 20 years, my career was in geophysical research, trying to better understand how the physical world worked. I’d collect samples of dirt (I’ve dug holes in 44 states!) and airborne dust and try create pictures in my mind of how tiny particles move through the atmosphere and come back to earth. This helps clarify how both natural materials and pollutants are carried by the wind and affect our environment and our lives.

Fifteen years ago when I was in my forties, a surprisingly large amount of money came, without much warning, to a charitable foundation my dad had started and named in memory of his brother. I was named after my uncle, so this change in the foundation’s assets felt like both a responsibility and an opportunity. I had the chance to re-imagine what charitable work would be a fitting memorial to Dad and his siblings.

I talked with many people to plan the work of the foundation. They shared not only their professional opinions and judgments, but also their stories. Those stories laid themselves next to my memories of the stories Dad had told about times when he was young. To my surprise, I then began to see the images in the familiar family stories in a strikingly different light than I had as a child. I had remembered them as Dad’s explanation of how things were, but I now saw them as examples of how my Dad came to see the world and its possibilities.

About this time, I happened to meet two master storytellers, Donald Davis and Catherine Conant. They showed me that my experience of finding new meaning in old memories is not only common, it is how stories are created. They showed me how exploring old memories works better with company and how looking for meaning together can turn a group into a community.

I began to listen more closely for others’ stories. Working with organizations – with people and their stories – took more and more of my attention. Within a couple years, it became clear that a shift in career had snuck up on me and that it was time to quit my job as a research scientist and focus on philanthropy.

As I got to know more nonprofit leaders in my community of New Haven, Connecticut, I became more and more confused. I carried an expectation from doing science that I could put bits of information together to form a picture of a whole. I found it much more difficult when the starting materials were abstract mission statements and program descriptions rather than rocks I could touch or dirt I could dig in. I could not see the vision of the future. I had to do something.

I drew up a list of 20 people I respected from across the nonprofit sector – agency executives, community volunteers, foundation staff officers, individual donors – and invited them each to share a meal. I asked each of them the same two questions: What is your vision for what you want to accomplish? What gets in your way?

What I heard repeatedly was that people wanted to work in cooperation with others for the common good of the community but that they found that was difficult in the culture of our town. I also heard people say that they often felt a disconnection between their values and their work; that they wanted to find a way to express more fully in their jobs those things that were most important to them. It sounded as if they were looking for an opportunity to renegotiate the connection between their hearts and their heads; between their sense of self and the role that they played in their jobs. It was also clear that the yearnings were more than desires for personal fulfillment. I heard them saying, “Working alone I can’t create the future I want for our community.”

I decided to start a workshop series called the Community Leadership Program (CLP) to address this yearning and brought in some skilled colleagues to help lead the workshops with me. We’re now beginning our eighth year, and more than 150 people have taken part. Story and listening for story have been a central part of the program since it started, and an additional yearning has become clear: to have a courageous and creative conversation across various boundaries of difference, including race and class. Story can shape how we, as a community, hold this conversation. The stories that come from this conversation will, in turn, shape the future of our community.

New Haven is made up of people with many different life experiences. The conceptual words we use to describe our experience are based on our memories of what we personally saw and felt. The same conceptual words can evoke very different experiences for different people. If we gather and talk in abstract terms misunderstanding can quietly open the door and join us before we recognize it. Once misunderstanding has opened the door, mistrust can sneak in behind it. Fear, guilt and anger wait outside in the shadows.

We’ve found that when we start a gathering with story and describing the things we’ve seen, the conversation follows a different path and different guests arrive: respect, curiosity and hope.

As part of a CLP weekend retreat we ask participants, in pairs, to take turns describing to each other a place they remember fondly from childhood and some of the things that happened there. We then ask what it was like to take a turn listening to others’ memories.

Here are some typical responses:

• I could feel the warmth, exhaustion, calmness of evening and the loss of the passing of summer.

• I liked seeing the smile as my partner went into another world.

• I made my mind blank, then my partner’s words filled it with color and smells.

• I was taken by the similarities and wanted to make a connection.

When asked what it was like to share their memories, responses include:

• I connected with layers of experience I had not thought of. A real picture appeared in my mind.

• It is such a gift to have somebody listen.

• I was worried that my story wasn’t significant, but we found commonalities in the details.

• I began to stammer when I recognized class disparities – for the first time I recognized them in my own story.

It is as if the attention, respect, and appreciation that the partners silently convey while they listen invite the tellers to go beyond their familiar recollections, giving them the courage to keep looking when they reach the edge of what is familiar and comfortable.

Salman Rushdie spoke to the relation of story, community and leadership: “Maybe they’ll agree, too, that the row over ‘The Satanic Verses’ was at bottom an argument about who should have power over the grand narrative, the Story of Islam, and that that power must belong equally to everyone. . . because those who do not have power over the story that dominates their lives, power to retell it, rethink it, deconstruct it, joke about it, and change it as times change, truly are powerless, because they cannot think new thoughts.”

Leadership is, in large part, about thinking new thoughts – imagining a future day that is unlike the past or present – conveying a picture of that new day to others, and persuading and inspiring others to live into that vision.

The story that dominates our lives is often difficult to see because we are so familiar with it. Both in facilitating CLP and in retelling my Dad’s stories, I’ve seen how sharing stories can enable us to understand the past more fully and imagine a different and better future. My strong sense is that the power of story to change our vision grows as the diversity of experience of those in the story circle increases.

Adapted from the Spring 2009 issue of “The Museletter” of the League for the Advancement of New England Storytelling, used with permission. To learn more about the Community Leadership Program,visit www.wcgmf.org and click on ‘Grants and Programs” or contact Bill at william.graustein@yale.edu.

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