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Concordia effort aims to build empathy through retelling a stranger's story

Participants at a Narrative 4 story exchange summit last year at Concordia College. Photo special to The Forum.1 / 2
Dawn Duncan, a professor of English literature at Concordia College, is spearheading the Narrative 4 story exchange initiative, which involves bringing together diverse people for dialogues intended to strengthen communities. Photo special to The Forum.2 / 2

MOORHEAD—Dawn Duncan might be expected to be an ardent fan of the power of a story. After all, she's an English literature professor at Concordia College who specializes in Irish literature.

But the transformative ability of sharing stories with those who are different than ourselves, she's become convinced, is one important way to build stronger, healthier communities.

The key is forming connections with another by hearing that person's story, absorbing its meaning, and retelling it, a process that she says fosters empathy, the gateway to mutual understanding.

"The greatest problem in our world today is a lack of empathy," she said.

It's not hard to find examples, given all of the conflicts and strife throughout the globe. Here in Fargo-Moorhead, the tensions between immigrants, including refugees, and non-immigrants seemed an obvious focus.

Duncan is spearheading an initiative at Concordia called Narrative 4, a program to promote dialogues among diverse communities in Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and 24 tribal nations.

To help the effort, Concordia has received a $35,000 grant from the Open Society Foundations to carry out "story exchanges" throughout the next year. Participants are paired randomly to share a story from their lives that helps to define them. Then, each takes on his or her partner's persona and tells the story.

The approach, backed by neuroscience, has demonstrated an ability to forge connections.

"It's really building those relationships, creating the path of empathy, in our brains and in our communities," Duncan said.

"It's a pretty powerful tool," she added. "It's not a solution, it's a tool."

Duncan was introduced to Narrative 4 story exchanges in a trip to Ireland, where she met with author Colum McCann, the project's co-founder and a National Book Award winner who has visited the Concordia campus.

In Ireland, Duncan took part in story exchanges, one with a wealthy woman and another with a 16-year-old boy from South Africa who herded goats. Duncan, who grew up "lower working class," had to work past her bias against the affluent in her story encounter with the woman, with whom she established a surprising connection.

"We were all bonded," despite their profound differences, she said.

Duncan brought the story exchanges back with her to Concordia, including a session earlier this year in observance of Martin Luther King Day. Several hundred have been in audiences for the story exchanges, and the college has an active core of between 16 and 28 students, Duncan said.

"The kids are on fire about it," she said. "But there's a midwestern reticence that is fairly hard to work through. It takes courage to allow yourself to be vulnerable."

Tim Flakoll was one of the participants in a recent story exchange involving immigrants and nonimmigrants in Fargo-Moorhead. A BBC America crew filmed the exchange.

A former North Dakota legislator who heads the Tri-College, Flakoll said he came away from the experience with a deeper understanding of the lives of others—all of whom have faced challenges, regardless of their circumstances.

He found it an exercise in getting beyond the stereotypes and shortcuts people often rely upon to form quick judgments about people.

"We oftentimes take the easy way or the lazy way to figure people out," he said. "Oftentimes the stereotypes out their frustrate people."

Flakoll was paired with a man from Rwanda who was four when ethnic violence erupted in the African country, resulting in 1 million deaths—some whose measurements, including height or forehead slope marked them as being in the wrong ethnic group.

"It's about really getting to understand someone," Flakoll said.

Arday Ardayfio, an immigrant from Ghana who came to the U.S. in 1998, was paired with a man who was criticized for calling publicly for an accounting of spending by a refugee resettlement agency. He was vilified as anti-immigrant and called a racist.

"You can tell he was really hurt about it," said Ardayfio, a Concordia graduate who owns his own consulting business, Blueprint IT Solutions. "I put myself in his shoes. I didn't want to be that guy."

Hearing his story, and being responsible for retelling it, weighed upon Ardayfio. It was one of many thought-provoking stories he heard during the exchange earlier this month. "I usually don't go that deep," he said. "It was interesting and eye-opening for me."

Patrick Springer

Patrick Springer first joined the reporting staff of The Forum in 1985. He can be reached by calling 701-241-5522. Have a comment to share about a story? Letters to the editor should include author’s name, address and phone number. Generally, letters should be no longer than 250 words. All letters are subject to editing. Send to

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