Restoring Dignity to the Human Spirit

By Andre B. Heuer D.Min. LICSW

Originally published in Storytelling Magazine: Storytelling and Justice, 18:5 September/October 2006, p.25

Each day an old man while beating a drum would sing out his stories of justice and peace. In spite of his neighbors ridicule he would not stop.

One day a young man yelled out to the old man, “Why do you do this? No one is listening. No one is changing.”

He gently says to the young man, “I do not do this to change you but to remind me of who I am.”

Seeking justice is often draining and tiring. Sometimes in the midst of the hard work an individual forgets who they are and why they are seeking justice. The story of the old man goes to the heart of this struggle. The story reminds us that there is a time and a place when we must remind ourselves of who we are and for whom we are seeking justice. This story points to one of the primary reasons for my story work with the Center for Victims of Torture. Since 2002 the CVT has hosted six storytelling sessions. It is now entering a three-year project of collecting the stories of the volunteers, staff, clients, and supporters of CVT.

The Center for Victims of Torture founded in 1985 serves the needs of individuals, families, and communities wounded by government-sponsored torture. They also advocate for the end of torture worldwide. Their slogan Restoring the Dignity of the Human Spirit reveals the heart of their work. The intensity of the work can be overwhelming. Yet CVT’s volunteers and staff continue the work with hope, joy, and compassion. My story work with the staff, volunteers, and most recently with clients provided them with days of renewal. The purpose was to remember the Center’s stories and to learn about the role of story in working with individuals from oral based cultures.

My first story project with CVT was in 2002 with community workers who were dealing with immigrant populations in the Twin Cites. Many of these immigrants were victims of torture. The participants were from Africa, Asia, Russia, South America and the United States. The participants were asked to remember and share the story of the experience that inspired them to do their work. As they shared their stories their voices rose and the excitement filled the room. At the end of the day individuals spoke of their experience:

A woman participant stated, “Our stories provided a safe connecting thread that brought us to each other.”

A tall African male immigrant and community worker stood up at the end of the session and addressed the participants, “Often you Americans ask us to tell our stories but today you told us your stories. This is good. I want you to know that your stories are important to us and we want to hear your stories. Often people do not think they have a story to tell but we proved today that we all have stories.”

In the following years workshops focused on narrative communication, oral cultures and story, and community building through storytelling. The workshops attended by volunteers and staff provided the opportunity for participants to share their stories and to learn how to use story in their professional and volunteer work. However, something else happened. People noticed how the storytelling helps to build community, deepen the appreciation of the work of others, and reminded the participants of who they are and why they work with CVT. The excitement for these earlier sessions led to a day of renewal using storytelling for the client social services staff. The experience for this staff was one of regeneration and a remembering of why they were committed to their work with torture survivors.

In 2005 as CVT entered its twentieth year of service the desire was to celebrate their anniversary. Also, the CVT wanted to remember and preserve the personal, organizational, and historical stories that composed the legacy of the Center for Victims of Torture. A day was set aside for the staff, volunteers, and clients to come together to share their stories. The CVT wanted to preserve the stories for the purpose of sharing its work and vision. As the planning progressed the importance of establishing an ongoing process of collecting the stories became apparent. A team of storytellers, writers, archivist, historians, and staff was organized to accomplish these goals.

In October a group of the CVT’s staff, volunteers, and clients gathered to share their stories. They were asked to share three stories: the story that inspired them to work with survivors of torture, a personal story focused on their involvement with torture survivors at CVT, and a story they saw as significant in the history of CVT.

The day began with a welcome and a story by the Executive Director Douglas A. Johnson. The story of the old man framed the day as a time for the participants to remember who they were in their work with CVT and of the work of the organization. With each type of story a member of the staff or volunteer told a brief story as a starter story. The participants then gathered into small circles where they shared their stories. After the stories were shared the participants wrote a short version of their story. These written versions were then placed on a large sheet of paper under the year when the story took place.

A participant from Africa at the gathering sat silently in her chair listening. As I approached her I was told that the woman did not feel comfortable sharing her story. She felt that her English was not good. As I spoke to her thanking her for being there she stated, “Even though I am not telling my story today I am here to give witness to what has happen to me.” As I heard her words I saw in her face determination and strength. Her response reminded me of the story of the old man shouting out the stories of justice and compassion. “I am here to remind myself of who I am.” At the gathering her strong, silent presence was the most dramatic story and a reminder of who all of us are in our work with the CVT.

After the event the written stories were preserved electronically and a database was developed to keep track of each story. The team members now are working on selecting the stories to research and to further develop with the tellers. Also approaches to gathering more stories are being developed. In addition to preserving the history, CVT hopes to share a collection of the stories publicly when it celebrates its 25th Anniversary. Beyond the anniversary, the stories are also seen as potentially being used for articles, books, training materials, and other artistic expressions to support the mission of CVT.

---

Andre Heuer, D. Min. LICSW’s story work involves him not only with issues of justice but also with individuals who are dealing with the challenges of mental illness and health crisis. To gain information about Andre’s CVT work and his work in Liberia go to http://www.andresjourney.blogspot.com or contact him at andreh@usfamily.net. For more information on the Center for Victims of Torture go to www.cvt.org/main.php.