John W. Erwin
PresidentThe Fund for New Performance/VideoNew York
DirectorThe Stories Exchange Project
Stories Exchange Project 2000: Workshop IEastWest InstitutePrague6 December 1999
The Stories Exchange Project is mobilizing cultural resources to help form societies which are open, democratic, and prosperous.
This is not only a human rights issue: it is also a human responsibility issue. It involves the development of the whole society. We are not speaking on behalf of any group. We are trying to foster relationships among groups who do not speak or work with each other nearly as much as they could.
The project is an exercise in cooperation. It is not a discussion of issues, but the beginning of actual personal relationships and of experiencethat can lead towards greater cooperation.
We hope that our work together will make it much less likely that you will hear in the Czech Republic the kind of comment which was printed in the Prague Post last week as a quotation from a woman in Usti nad Labem. She was speaking about the houses in Maticni Street which the Czech government allowed the city of Usti to buy in order to appease Czech residents who had had a wall built between them and their Rom neighbors. “No one would buy the houses, because no one wants to live in filth like the Gypsies. These people have not reached the level of homo sapiens: they are still Neanderthals.”
This is the challenge.
The three themes of the Stories Exchange Project are citizen participation, education, and business development.
The three cities are Brno, Usti nad Labem, and Ostrava. Groups from these cities will come to Prague six times during the year. And we will focus on developing models of individual initiative and cooperation for presentation at the World Bank and International Monetary Fund meeting in Prague in September 2000.
There will be delegates here from throughout the world, and we hope to involve some of them in the final review of the 1999-2000 phase of the Stories Exchange Project expansion.
Our activities will be both local and international.
We will set up electronic information programs in public libraries, schools, and city halls – throughout the country we hope, but certainly in the three cities.
We will organize public discussions, performances and exhibitions.
We will develop a Web page that will allow anyone anywhere to participate, to contribute stories, to carry on the dialogue, and perhaps be inspired to work with us in developing Stories Exchange Projects in other countries.
We hope the Project will become a leading Czech export.
But all of us in the Stories Exchange Project have to find something we have already done that we can build on. Something that has convinced us to open doors and find what we need. Something that has convinced us to act on our own and not wait for someone else to do it for us.
This is where our work begins.
We’re not going to spend our time together complaining. We’re not going to talk about how terrible the situation is with the Czechs – or with the Roms. We’re not even going to say: “such and such law should be changed,” or “such and such a program should be started.” We’re going to say, “I have had this particular experience, and on the basis of this experience I am going to take the next step – whatever that may be. And then the next step.”
There are many, many steps. It takes a long time. But we can build on something. Something has given us the confidence to begin and to continue. A lot of things convince us not to, but something has convinced us to start and to go on.
We will try to become aware of what it is that makes us think we can do something. Then we can build on that.
We’ll be getting a lot of stories fromother people, but the first story we have to learn to tell is our own.
This is an opportunity to do, as a group of people, what most institutions are not able to do: to build upon the individual stories of the members of the group, and to build something that has never existed before.
But we can’t build on sand, or on water. We need to build on something that is going to stay there. And in each of us there is something that stays there. This is our first – and never-ending – job: to find out where, in ourselves, to build.
And one final note about stories.
A story has to speak for itself. We don’t interpret the story, we don’t put our opinions into it. We’re not trying to improve on stories. We’re trying to bring out their own truth.
Just as we’re not trying to improve on people: just help them to bring out their own truth, to recognize it themselves and learn to share it with others.
When you receive stories from people in your community, you don’t want to write editorials about them. Just let the people who listen to the stories make up their minds about them. We have to respect the people who listen as much as we respect the people who tell – and as much as we respect their stories.
As much as we respect ourselves.