All Things Considered Host Shares How Powerful Stories Can Connect Us 3/17/17 03/18/17 2:40:58 PM
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Ari Shapiro addresses participants at the Chamber’s YP Summit. His career has taken him from reporting legal affairs and the White House to NPR’s All Things Considered.
All Things Considered Host Shares
How Powerful Stories Can Connect Us
By Julien R. Fielding
The Daily Record
As a journalist, Ari Shapiro has spent his career dealing in facts, and yet, his keynote speech last Thursday at the YP Summit was about “The Power of Stories.”
He explained to a captive audience of young professionals that he majored in English at Yale University, where he immersed himself in Chaucer, Milton and Shakespeare. “I wrote my thesis on the gothic novel,” he said. “Stories let me see the world through someone else’s eyes; they helped me make sense of the world.”
And in what seems to be a “divided America,” what could be more important than “finding ways to relate to each other?”
After graduating from Yale, Shapiro spent 15 years covering everything from legal affairs to the White House. Since 2015, he has been a co-host of NPR’s All Things Considered. “Now I interview artists, filmmakers … storytellers. It’s not surprising that they shed more light on the world than do politicians and generals.”
He mentioned an interview that an outgoing President Obama had given in January not to a political reporter at the New York Times, but to its chief book critic. “He talked about the role that books had played in his life,” he said. Books “had given him the ability to slow down and get perspective; to get into somebody else’s shoes … Shakespeare’s tragedies helped him to understand how certain patterns repeat themselves and play themselves out between human beings … Stories unify rather than divide. I knew exactly what [Obama] was talking about.”
Because he had read Amitav Ghosh’s novel The Hungry Tide, Shapiro said that when he was sent to the tiny islands known as the Sundarbans in the easternmost corner of India to do a story on climate change, the locale had already been “lodged in his mind for more than a decade. His fiction had first illuminated this place for me,” he said.
In the last few weeks Shapiro has interviewed a number of writers, whose work, he feels give the reader insight to different cultures, experiences and points of view. For instance, Viet Thanh Nguyen, an award-winning author who came to the U.S. as a refugee, has shared his experience in a collection of short stories called The Refugees. Joyce Carol Oates, an outspoken “liberal,” has done something more unusual by crafting a 700-page tome called A Book of American Martyrs. In this book, she writes from the perspective of a gunman – a man who considers himself to be a soldier of Christ – who shoots an abortion doctor. By choosing this protagonist, she forces her reader to relate to the gunman not as a religious zealot and a murderer but as a human; she shows us the world through his eyes, so as to create empathy.
“Fiction can magnify one’s experience and transmit it to a larger audience,” he said. “I wish everyone could look at themselves as an outsider, because that gives rise to compassion. It shows you that you are not always at the center of the universe.”
While stationed in London in 2014, Shapiro attended a World War I exhibition at the Tower of London, where more than 800,000 red ceramic poppies were “undulating” in the moat. “I stood looking at these, and wondered how can you ever tell these [war] stories in a relatable way?” After all, aren’t these “war people in a war place?” How does one turn them into real humans to whom we can relate?
When he was in Izmir, Syria, Shapiro said he encountered many refugees, and didn’t believe that he had much in common with them. And then he came upon what one would loosely call a restaurant, where the owner had provided the public with his wifi password and powerstrips. Shapiro found the owner, who was also letting people wash up inside and allowing those with children sleep in his office for free. He said he was doing all of this because he would want others to do the same for him. “Elsewhere in the city, people were being charged $100 a night to stay in a crowded hotel. We can relate to these people whose iPhone battery is at 3 percent.”
“I learned from watching Mister Rogers that when bad things happen, you look for the helpers. The problem doesn’t go away, but it gives you some reprieve. Stalin once famously said that the death of one man is a tragedy; the death of a million is a statistic. How do you tell a story that affects millions without making it sound like a statistic?”
Shapiro said that to do this one must “zero in on the details, and find the helpers.” But what’s more, you must tell a good story. “Nothing beats a good yarn,” he said. One example he gave was about Qasim Shesho, a legendary Kurdish fighter who has been fighting in northern Iraq since the 1970s. While Shapiro was covering the news for NPR, he met Shesho, who took him to the sacred Yazidi temple called Sharfadin. “To them it is one of the holiest places on earth,” he explained. The fact that it was still standing was thanks to Shesho, who when ISIS attacked the area, with 18 men defended that temple. The siege lasted for more than four months. “They said that they would rather die than let the temple fall … The government even airdropped them food and supplies. When the siege ended, they said they just cried. It’s a tale that could have come from literature, or Hollywood, or the Bible. Why do these stories hold? They help us to see through the eyes of these people, and help us to understand them and the world.”
“Today, the challenge for us is to understand our neighbors. And everyone of us has the power to tell stories. What stories we like or broadcast to a larger audience … those decisions shape our understanding.
“Do we tell the story of the guy who charged $100 for a hotel or the one who offered free wifi? As Spiderman said, with great power comes great responsibility. We can chose to live in a world of cynicism or one of hope. The stories we tell can connect us or put up walls. We can relate to each other or hold each other at arm’s length. I hope you all choose to connect.”
Shapiro delivered the keynote speech at 3 p.m. in the Peter Kiewit Grand Ballroom at the CenturyLink Center. About 1,500 young professionals attended the all-day YP Summit, whose objective is to inspire, empower, and unite the community. As David Brown, president and CEO of the Greater Omaha Chamber said, it’s a way for attendees to “find opportunities to make this a better place to work and play, to empower you, and [show you] it’s OK to be different; to do something different; to make Omaha a better place to live.”