Effort to build understanding one story at a time gains traction in Fargo-Moorhead

Concordia College professor Dawn Duncan (left) is a master practitioner of the Narrative 4 program, which seeks to bring people together through personal stories.  She is pictured with Narrative 4 ambassador Hamida Dakane Omari. Special to The Forum
Concordia College professor Dawn Duncan (left) is a master practitioner of the Narrative 4 program, which seeks to bring people together through personal stories. She is pictured with Narrative 4 ambassador Hamida Dakane Omari. Special to The ForumSpecial to The Forum

FARGO — An international effort to bring people together — despite their differences — while inspiring empathy and building relationships to create healthier communities continues to grow here, and the next local activity will add to those connections later this month.

Another Narrative 4 personal story exchange, this one focusing on interfaith exchange, is scheduled for 3 to 6 p.m. Sunday, March 24, at Olivet Lutheran Church, 1330 S. University Drive, Fargo. Those interested in attending are asked to email duncan@cord.edu by Sunday, March 17.

During a divisive time in American life, Narrative 4 has garnered international acclaim for its ability to bring people together. In May 2017, the BBC even came to Concordia College in Moorhead to profile the exchange of stories between recent immigrants to Fargo-Moorhead and those who have lived here most or all of their lives.

Dawn Duncan, a professor of English, film and global studies at Concordia, has been a driving force behind Narrative 4 in Fargo-Moorhead since its beginning here in 2016. She has conducted all but three exchanges, with past themes including immigration and community, identity and difference, and land and our relationship to it.

The upcoming Fargo session is the first-ever local interfaith exchange. Duncan is retiring, so this might be the last Narrative 4 she leads.

She recently answered The Forum's questions about the project, which she hopes will make a difference in our community.

What is Narrative 4?

"Narrative 4 is an international nonprofit founded in 2013 by artists, educators and organizers interested in using personal narratives to bring people together across differences and bridge the empathy gap, what some consider the problem that must be addressed before any of us can work to solve other problems of local to global significance," Duncan says. "The process sounds simple but is stunning to experience: I tell you a story; you tell me a story. Then after reflecting on one another’s, we return to an exchange circle, seated side-by-side, and tell each other’s story to the group in first person, as if we are one another."

What do people learn?

"The science shows us that gazing at and listening to another for several minutes activates the empathetic channels of the brain and that actively engaging with a story heightens areas associated with perception of emotions, recognition, and attention. A summary of our exchanges assessed for 2017-18 showed a 74 percent post-exchange increase in perspective, a 94 percent increase in empathy and an 88 percent increase in motivation towards action among all participants. People are learning to see life from more than just their own experience, to understand that others have struggles and joys we cannot know unless they tell us and we really listen, that to build positive communities and solve problems together that we must learn to care for one another and appreciate our differences, as well as the humanity we each share."

What surprises participants?

"Over and over again, people express that what most surprises them is how close they feel to the other participants in such a short time," Duncan says. "I think this is because of the deep listening and shared vulnerability we all experience together. We each feel heard; we each truly hear one another."

Does it lead to change?

"As you can hear from the testimonials and see from the data gathered, we are changing communities, person-to-person. The end result is a caring, confident community ready to solve problems together rather than demonize and divide. A number of those who have participated are now trained and conducting exchanges. A number are also taking an active part in leadership positions, contributing to positive change."