Story Circle Exercise

 This was one of my fave exercises from the ELI:

At the beginning of our ELI session, our facilitators, Theresa Holden and Rosalba Rolon, immediately asked us to complete the Story Circle exercise.  It was a simple and effective way of immediately getting to know  each other and think about leadership and values, from our own perspective and experience.  We got into groups of 5 and were each asked to talk for a few minutes about a person or an experience that stands out as a great example of leadership.  Theresa Holden created the story circle guidelines and here’s how it works (Taken from here with my own notes added):

Everyone sits in an even circle with no physical obstructions.

The facilitator introduces him/herself and the story circle method. Everyone introduces themselves in turn.

The facilitator or the group can choose a theme at the beginning to guide the stories.

The facilitator can use a primer story or other memory prompts to can be used to stimulate the group. Theresa and Rosalba asked us to talk about to talk for a few minutes about a person or an experience that stands out as a great example of leadership to us. 

The facilitator and the group agree on a period of time for each person to tell his/her story. Depending on the size of the group this can be 3 – 5 minutes. It is important that everyone has equal time to ensure inclusion and equality. A person who has taken more time should not end their story abruptly, but be allowed to finish. One way to keep time is for the person sitting next to the story teller to gently tap that person one minute before the designated time has lapsed.

Each person tells their story in turn. If a person is not ready, they can ‘pass’ and tell their story once the circle has been completed.

Stories can come from anywhere – one’s day, personal experience, an encounter, a phase in one’s life, or from someone else. But it is important that they remain stories – not rhetoric, opinions or analytical thoughts. Recently i had written a blog post about our department’s accomplishments and teamwork over the last year, so this subject was fresh in my mind.  I immediately thought about Keri, who is my supervisor, and the Unicorner she had created in her office.   Although it is a physical space, it is also a representation of our values and reflects the way we approach our work with creativity and joy.  She loves the idea that our office is a place where we make magic happen every single day, for our donors and for each other. That’s the big idea that inspires all the other incredible things we do as team.

After all stories are told, participants may engage in cross-talk or open discussion to ask clarifying questions or generate themes. Upon sharing this, others ELI members seemed to really value the idea of a supervisor encouraging and emphasizing creativity and valuing each team member’s contributions and creating a space where everyone’s contributions are realized and recognized.  At the end of the two-day session, this was a value that really stood out as something we wanted to receive from our management, and in turn, foster ourselves within our own leadership styles going forward. 

The Reason Behind  the Story Circle:

Story circles bring people together in an equitable, collective experience to share their stories. In facilitating reflective convenings among professional practitioners we have found it to be a profound way of generating insight from personal and professional experience while creating a democratic atmosphere and a safe space for expression. Theresa Holden uses the analogy of a gumbo to describe the story circle- Imagine the space in the middle of the circle as a potential holder of all the stories. Before stories are recounted, that space is empty. In going around the circle each participant puts his/her story in that space. In the end, it is filled with potent memories, emotions, and importantly connections. Out of this central space and in combining all the stories, a new story emerges that belongs to everyone and is like a rich and textured stew.

When to use Story Circle

Leaders of social change efforts have used story circle to stimulate memory, share experiences, and/or to build community solidarity through remembering events, people, or repertoires. Junebug Productions refers to this as ‘creating a tapestry of community’ and has used stories to share experiences of the Civil Rights movement.

At the Research Center for Leadership in Action, we have tapped the dialogical and reflective elements of story circle in facilitating convenings of practitioners belonging to the same professional sphere or sharing similar interests. Using story circle we have brought practitioners together to:

Identify and explore patterns relating to an experience, problem, or issue.

Find common threads of experience and build relationships among practitioners by illuminating connections.

In addition to its potential to explore patterns and find commonalities, we have found story circle to be effective in:

Encouraging practitioners to shed technical jargon and overly processed communications by focusing on direct experience.

Empowering individuals by sharing their memories and experiences, which are precious sources of knowledge.

Creating a deep space fairly quickly among people who may have never met before.

Ground Rules

The equal spirit of the ‘circle’ should be enacted through the story circle method:

Everyone sits in an equal circle with no physical barriers like tables or chairs in the middle.

Listening is more important than talking.

A storyteller and his/her story should be respected, not judged.

Too much information processing in the mind should be discouraged. The story that needs to be told will emerge from the heart.

What to Keep in Mind

Sharing stories on a personal level can summon deep human emotions that require empathy and emotional intelligence.

Silence in between stories is, in fact, good. It gives the latest story teller, and the circle, time to reflect on the story they just heard, and it gives the next person time to land on his/her story.

If the story circle is going to be recorded, group permission needs to be obtained. It should be disclosed that the designated note-taker will compromise full participation in the story circle. There is a trade-off between deep listening and taking notes.

For more information, please see:

Junebug Productions Leadership Story – Leadership for a Changing World

Junebug Productions The Color Line Project

Making Connections – Denver


Leadership Articles Referenced During ELI 2012

“What Leaders Really Do” by John Kotter

“A Dance That Creates Equals: Unpacking Leadership Development” by Denise Altvater et. al

The Performing Arts in Lean Times: Opportunities for Reinvention by Adrian Ellis and Russell Willis Taylor

“Creative Courage: Leadership Practices to Build Resilience and Vitality in Performing Arts Organizations” by Elizabeth Auer et al.

“Are you a workplace pyro? The manager who makes every little problem a three-alarm fire can burn your business.  Is it you?” by Patricia B. Gray


Women of Color in the Arts Meeting & Brunch

As a first time APAP attendee, the WOCA meeting and brunch immediately caught my eye and it was a wonderful way to connect with other WOC in all levels of arts admin.  Looking around most of the APAP sessions and audiences at the showcases, I saw very few who looked like me, and attending WOCA provided an immediate network of support and comfort.   I was able to connect further with women from all over the country, and I appreciated the hospitality and warmth I felt from the member that invited me (Kaisha Johnson). The main goals of the group are to:

  • Create a real and virtual community to discuss issues in the field, specifically affecting women of color
  • Develop a community to share information about collaborative programming, funding resources and career opportunities
  • Organize annual special interest group sessions to fellowship and create agendas at regional, national and international arts arts conferences
  • Facilitate panel discussions at arts conferences, specifically targeted to encouraging diversity in the field behind the stage and addressing the necessary sensitivity needed for implementing more diversity on stage
  • Provide mentorship opportunities for new and mid-level administrators

Connecting with others of the aspects I treasured the most about this process of APAP.  Hearing about what others are doing and experiencing, and even hearing what other folk’s job titles were helped me realize the potential for growth that there is in this field and that I am not so isolated.  In fact, after the meeting, a colleague from another arts org in Seattle approached me and we discussed the possibility of starting a division of WOCA right here in Seattle.  I am familiar with this kind of work I have done previously with the UW Bothell Women of Color Collective, which has become a  great support system for me academically, personally, and professionally.  I look forward to connecting with this colleague and have applied to become a member of WOCA.  Check out photos from the brunch here: APAP 2012 Women of Color in the Arts Brunch

APAP Forums and Showcases

So i may just have one of the coolest jobs ever.  This conference proved it.  As a benefit of being chosen to participate in the ELI program, i gained free entrance into the Association of Performing Arts Presenters Conference, which is a retail value of over $900! Basically my badge got me into a variety of forums on the performing arts, as well as over 1,000 performances from artists showcasing their work!

Most performances that i attended were excerpts of full length pieces and one purpose for them showcasing is for possible booking opportunities with performing arts organizations nationwide. The performances took place in venues all over NYC, so it was an awesome opportunity to check out some of the super cool venues around town!  Some also took place in my own hotel too, so if i had a spare moment, most times i could just head to the second floor to see who was performing! Check out photos and excerpts from the shows I got to see here:


APAP and the Emerging Leadership Institute

The Emerging Leadership Institute is geared towards those who work in arts administration and are in the first decade of their careers.    Little did i know that this would be the trip of a lifetime, and expose me to other folks working in my field who would inspire, motivate and help me recognize not just my potential as a leader, but help me realize that i already am a leader, whether my job title specifies it or not.  For two days, 25 of us learned from each other, exploring leadership styles and what we value about the work we do and the kind of leaders we value. From the very beginning, I was able to see issues and topics emerging that I could relate to my every day work.  It was amazing to see how others are also having similar experiences, and are striving for the same kinds of fulfillment that I am.  I didn’t realize how much we would all have in common regarding our values, and how we want those reflected in the work we do.

I feel like the field is changing, and that was apparent in the way we value our work and the ways we want the freedom to explore and be encouraged to take risks and be creative.  The creativity aspect seems so obvious, but when we are inundated with everyday tasks and our time is limited by the many hats we wear, sometimes that value gets lost.   I believe the way we value our work in the arts is shifting, and it felt exciting to be a part of the arts at this very moment.

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