Contributed by JEFF RUBY, Photography by IAN CURCIO
Editor’s Note: This story is reprinted with permission from The Rotarian, Feb. 2019 publication.
In August 2017, a small group of white supremacists planned to stage a Confederate rally in Knoxville, Tennessee. It had been two weeks since violence erupted at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and people’s anger had not cooled.
When Kiran Singh Sirah checked his Facebook feed, he found much boasting about going to the rally to “beat up Nazis.” Unimpressed, he posted a long and persuasive comment urging a different kind of action. “Channel that anger and figure out your own best alternative-non-violent means, skill set, talent to contribute to a better world,” he wrote. “Activism also means writing, telling or collecting stories, mobilizing, working on policy, offering a service, writing a letter, getting educated, educating oneself, being part of a community garden.”
In the blustery, knee-jerk world of Facebook, this proposal sounded a lot less sexy. It also sounded like a lot more work. One commenter snapped, “Well, if you don’t want to go, we’ll fight your fight for you.”
Sirah, who has 26 stitches on his face from multiple attacks during his childhood in southern England — the earliest at age five when a neo-Nazi knocked him from his bike — did not much care for that response. “I can defend myself,” he told the commenter. “And if you’re willing to take an oath of non-violence, I will stand on the frontline with you. Even if they beat you up, I will join you.” His words did not appear to sway anyone.
A few days later, Sirah made the 107-mile trek from his home in Johnson City, Tennessee, to Knoxville. But while 3,000 protesters amassed to counter a group of roughly 35 nationalists at a Confederate memorial, Sirah attended an alternative interfaith rally that celebrated diversity.
“It was a great event,” he said, “the perfect response to the other rally,” at which, it turns out, there was not a single act of violence. “At the very least, you’ve got to know you’ve done the right thing yourself.”
Ask Kiran Singh Sirah how he’s doing, and he will tell you. Honestly. Deeply. Lengthily. Every human interaction is a sacred thing to him, a chance to know another person on this earth. To hear their story. And his insatiable curiosity draws people in. “Kiran doesn’t do small talk,” says one friend. “He comes up to you and says, ‘How’s your soul?’ And he really wants to know.”
As president of the nonprofit International Storytelling Center in the small Appalachian town of Jonesborough, Tennessee, Sirah, 42, is constantly talking. Whether at the Library of Congress, at the Kennedy Center, or in a bar over a couple of beers, the goal is always the same: to get people to listen, not necessarily to him, but to one another. Because in Sirah’s world, listening — really, honestly listening — leads to understanding, understanding leads to connection, and connection leads to peace. “Storytelling is not meant to be a sound bite,” he says. “It’s not 140 characters. It’s about filling the completeness of who we were and what we can be, and it can help us to change the world.”
When Sirah talks about storytelling, he doesn’t just mean Grandma spinning yarns from her rocking chair. Nor is it necessarily the open mics, slam poetry competitions, and slew of spoken-word podcasts. It’s all of the above and everything else. To Sirah, storytelling encompasses everything about who we are, what we believe, where we’ve been, and where we want to go.
Take Sirah’s story. The son of a Kenyan-born mother and an Indian-born father, he grew up in the coastal town of Eastbourne, England, where his family landed after being forced at gunpoint to flee their home in Uganda. As a member of the only Sikh family in Eastbourne, Sirah immersed himself in the cultures of other religions. His mother — who took him to synagogues, mosques, and churches of all denominations — once made him clean the hundreds of pairs of shoes congregants had left outside a Sikh temple in London. “She was teaching me the act of seva, which is community service,” he says. “I learned that as long as you are serving society, then you are doing good.”
When the 9/11 terrorist attacks happened, Sirah was a student and slam poet living in a hippie commune in Edinburgh, Scotland. “That was the moment I woke up and realized I was a citizen of the world,” he says. He began to organize festivals, including a diverse, faith-based gathering for 6,000 people at the National Museum of Scotland. He wrote in his blog: “Coptic Christians sang songs of resurrection in Arabic. Sikhs wore the Scottish Sikh tartan and performed traditional bhangra with bagpipes. Jewish Scots performed music that combined the Scottish Celtic and klezmer traditions.” In other words, each group told its stories.
After graduating from Wolverhampton and Newcastle universities with multiple degrees, Sirah spent nearly seven years as the learning and access curator at the St. Mungo Museum of Religious Life and Art in Glasgow, where he created programs on human rights and led an African-based exhibition/community partnership. He also hosted anti-sectarian debates with gang members and former members of paramilitary groups. His résumé lists numerous acts of social justice and conflict resolution, painting the picture of an indefatigable global humanitarian. In 2011, Sirah moved to North Carolina, where he attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s department of American studies folklore program through a Rotary Peace Fellowship. His master’s thesis, “A Stone in the Brook,” explored notions of home as expressed in the life stories of men he met at a local shelter.
On Nov. 3, 2012, Sirah was slated to speak at Rotary Day at the United Nations. Days earlier, Hurricane Sandy had flooded New York. Much of Manhattan had gone dark, but as Sirah wandered the city the night before his appearance, he saw cafés welcoming people of all cultures, who talked through the night by candlelight. He incorporated their tales into his speech, “Telling Stories That Matter.”
“Many people are of the belief that discrimination against people is wrong,” he told a crowd of 1,300 at the UN. “However, discriminating between people, looking at how we are all different and belong to unique stories, is an intelligent approach to developing … a world based on mutual respect and discourse — and one without conflict.”
Around that time, the International Storytelling Center was in transition. A modest nonprofit organization, ISC had evolved over five decades from a grassroots organization into a genuine cultural movement that hosted folklorists at a 3-acre campus devoted solely to the art of storytelling. Its annual National Storytelling Festival, which began in 1973 with a wagon and a bunch of hay bales parked beside the Jonesborough courthouse, had ballooned into an enormous three-day celebration that drew visitors from all 50 states and several continents. The festival, which doubled the town’s population every October, had basically revived Jonesborough, which renamed itself the “storytelling capital of the world.” Despite those successes, ISC had filed for