You also have to be prepared to tell your own story

John ShattuckU.S. Ambassador to the Czech Republic
in conversation with
John W. ErwinDirectorThe Stories Exchange Project
U.S. Ambassador’s ResidencePrague28 November 2000
John Erwin
What about you? What did you learn here?
John Shattuck:
Well, I think I learned more patience, and I learned to listen. Americans are often much too impatient. We tend to jump from one thing to another. We also often have the idea that we can tell people howthey ought to live their lives, sometimes in a very friendly way. But Ilearned that that’s not necessarily the way to operate in the world.
I also learned an extraordinary wealth of information about a culture and a people that I didn’t know so well. And I can honestly say as I get ready to leave that second only to my own country, the Czech Republic is the country that I’m most fascinated by and that I love the most.
John Erwin
Bohemia and Moravia are certainly enormously rich in culture, and Czechidentity is very bound up with its cultural – well, let’s say it directly: with its cultural superiority. What kind of context does this give, do you think, for an effort to tell stories in an activist way – as the Stories Exchange Project does?
John Shattuck
Stories motivate people.
Of course they can motivate them in a very bad way: certainly Hitler was good at telling stories. So have been other great dictators.
But the stories that I think mean the most are not heroic, grand cultural stories like "The Story of Bohemia” – or even necessarily the story of the Roms. Rather, what does one individual have to say to others about his or her life? Those can be extraordinary stories. TheOdyssey was in many ways that: it was not the story about some great culture; it was about one man, Odysseus. So I would always want to look at the motivating story as the one that comes from an individual about his or her own experience.
I’d also be on the lookout for danger signs: for stories that are trying to get you to do something that you shouldn’t be doing. Stories can go in any number of directions, so you have to be patient, and you have to be careful as you listen.
But you also have to be prepared to tell your own story.
John Erwin
For sure.
Some of the stories that have recently been coming from the Roms have been about culture heroes: people who are not figures of the past, but people who have done extraordinary things and continue to do extraordinary things. They’re writers, they’re poets, they’re musicians – many are musicians – , and they’re being consciously held up by the Roms who tell these stories as models for their people. Have you encountered this at all?
John Shattuck
Well, that’s very important. I’m glad you brought that up, because I think in the end that’s what a motivating story has to be. Whom can we look at in our lives who is close to us, in some ways, either because they come from our own culture or our own economic circumstances and who has done something extraordinary, who can be a model?
I think that’s a very good part of the Rom story today: to find outstanding Rom achievers – and there are many in the world – and to urge them to come forward and explain themselves. African-Americans have done this. All hyphenated Americans have done it. Irish-Americans: I’m an Irish-American. Jewish-Americans have done this. Especially if you arrived in the United States as a poor immigrant, if you’re looking for a sort of foothold, a story of someone who’s got somewhere can make a big difference. And that’s certainly going to be true in the case of the Roms.
John Erwin
Do you think the Stories Exchange Project should be done outside the Czech Republic?
John Shattuck
Oh, absolutely. I don’t think there’s any national boundary for this project.
John Erwin
Possibly in the U.S.? Or do we do enough of this already?
John Shattuck
No. I don’t think so. No, I think we could do much more of this, and more of what I call civic education. Really, I think that’s what the stories are.
When I go back to the United States, in my next job I will be the CEO – the chief executive officer – of a new organization which builds on the legacy of President Kennedy, whose life is obviously an enormous story. In this new organization we will be trying to find ways of developing civic education programs, helping people understand the importance of public service and public participation. And that’s certainly going to require a lot of storytelling.
John Erwin
Yes, and Boston will produce stories – automatically.
John Shattuck
Right: there are plenty of stories there.
John Erwin
So we’ll follow you.
John Shattuck
I’ll be your outpost there.
[You can find a transcript of this whole exchange, “You really can’t rub out history,” in “Interviews” on this page.
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