Jan 17

Stories of Us: How telling stories can change the world

(Excerpt from my recent webinar for Faculty of Medical Leadership & Management)37vqcavvujilgcqe08wycqlis3st9goeo2j8zhaosy9b6es00m2vwoazsz7gbs7d

Storytelling is a powerful tool for change. Throughout history stories have been used to translate values and inspire action, to bring people together, bind communities.

ethiopian famineMy story starts with my first call to medicine, one of my earliest memories, enhanced over the years by my mother’s retellings. Not in fact beginning with my story, but the story of a nurse working in Ethiopia during the famine who my mother and I watched together on the news (my mother never being one to shy away from exposing me to the stories of the world, for how else does a child learn and grow?).

I was fascinated by this doctor as she spoke about the challenges faced by the people affected by the famine. Her compassion, her ability to take responsibility for and advocate for others, her efforts to help directly through Caring and indirectly through telling their story to the world touched me deeply. I wanted to be lighbulb bright 2that woman, wanted to give that care and tell those stories. That set me on a path to becoming a doctor, later sealed by not only my love and aptitude for science and communication, but also my experiences of growing up with and eventually losing a parent, my mother, to cancer. Being an isolated child in the disruption and distortion of ill managed grief that takes its toll on a family, I wanted to help ease and assist others who may face such challenges in life, health and death.

activismBut when I got to Uni I was sorely disappointed! I was looking for the student activism, you can make a difference attitude I had seen in pictures from the 60s, but what I saw a superficiality in those first few months. There was a lack of soul in the disimpassioned clinical lectures, no actions to be taken, no stories being told, nothing to believe in, nothing to inspire me. And so I was quietly isolated from my dreams and displaced from my hopes. I went along with all the usual broken bulbfresher’s antics, but it all felt a little empty and meaningless, my great disillusionment. Now of course over the years that changed and forward thinking lecturers would sometimes share a little of their story, or when finally getting more patient contact I was honoured to be given insight into theirs. But I want to focus on one particular story that really changed my life and led to the evolution of my story and that of hundreds of others…

Par6102806At a medical students conference at the end if my 1st year, I Heard a story: a story of Raz, a medical student from Cardiff, who told of his colleagues experience of travelling to Belarus on elective. Visiting an orphanage and finding physically and mentally disabled children so starved of love and attention they would often bang themselves against the wall, just to have some stimulus, some feeling in their locked in worlds. The story of how those medical and physiotherapy students came back to Cardiff University, organised and began a relationship with the orphanage. They began a small project, sending out students to help with play care and stimulation, training staff, securing funding for sensory stimulation light bulb fireequipment, changing local attitudes towards the kids, de stigmatising and integrating them. Raz told us of how he had gone out and engaged with this project and what he had learned about the power of taking simple positive thoughtful action. Suddenly the light came back on, possibilities flooded in before me… I saw that students could have impact that I did not have to wait in limbo for 5 years before I could make a difference in the world.

UntitledSo when Raz asked if anyone else wanted to try and establish a group like this, I tentatively and shyly raised my hand.

Now back then, I would shake a little and turn red just reading out a case report in class, and the idea of leading was the farthest thing from my mind. I was raising my hand to be led by some else, to maybe make some fliers, but not expecting to lead myself.

smile-because-I-am-overwhelmedSo it came as an overwhelming surprise, when through fate or circumstance, somehow 3 months down the line I found myself taking the helm of the first official project at Birmingham Uni. Travelling to Zambia to seek out a local partner, recruiting, fundraising, coordinating, training and not too long after leading our first wave of students on our first pilot project! It was a whirlwind, I was terrified and completely overwhelmed! Suddenly, there were a lot of people looking to me for answers and guidance! How would I lead these students, how would I inspire them and bring them together? Not possible I thought! Oh, I could study and learn and regurgitate knowledge, strategy and information… but this did not seem to begin to tackle that intangible elusive concept of leadership in its entirety!

But despite my fears and ignorance of leadership and public speaking, I had always been an open person, wearing my heart on my sleeve. Those who know me well will tell you, with affectionate patience, that I am known for sharing pieces of my life story on a one to one basis and I am always keen to discover yours.

child storyAs a child, when I was angry or frustrated at the cancer card life had dealt her and us… that age old “Why me?” Syndrome humanity is so prone to…My late mother had always told me that behind every door is a a story, that everyone’s story is equally valid, and, that if we share and listen, we can learn from each other’s stories. So, I have always naturally shared, sometimes over shared… but shared nonetheless, and asked and listened, perhaps I think in a quest to try and interpret life and the world around me.

pic_rippleeffectAnd so I discovered that little by little this natural inclination to share my story, my passion and encourage others to share theirs began to have an effect, began to build a community, began to inspire those around me to take action.

Thus, through the telling of many stories, Raz’, mine, our  student volunteers, the people we worked to support in Belarus and Zambia… SKIP (Students for Kids International Projects) was born, and I became a Untitled1unexpected leader not just for a few students at my Uni, but for scores of students across the country.  And what was then 2-3 students, is now a national charity, with over 10 active university branches working on projects around the globe, of which I remain a Patron to this day.

In SKIP our storytelling continues to drive, define and inspire us…  when meeting, fundraising, recruiting or training butterflieswe share the stories of our struggles to manage our committee and projects and of the challenges faced by the children and communities we work with. At our annual elections individuals share their story of their journey, and how they came to have such passion and drive to commit so much of their free time whilst also undertaking their studies.

It is these stories that create the tangible indefatigable organisational drive in SKIP, our perseverance in the face of adversity. An organisation that thrives on 100% volunteers, mostly full time students and a few full time healthcare professional alumni, and takes no unethical funding streams, has overcome many seemingly insurmountable challenges and will continue to do so because of the shared passion, commitment and motivation of our members, the shared story of us.  And each time I hear those stories I am reminded, reinvigorated and re-inspired to continue to take action, even after 12 years of Flight of the Butterflies - Monarch Sky2 - SK Films2 (1)hard work.

And so I am inspired to share with others the art of storytelling in the hope that they too can build communities for positive change.


To be continued…


Permanent link to this article: https://www.clairemariethomas.com/2015/01/stories-of-us-how-telling-stories-can-change-the-world/


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  1. FIn

    Wow, Claire! The details of our meeting a decade ago are hazy – was it on the boat or at Mayoka village? – but it was clearly meaningful, as we made contact and saw each other back in the UK for a number of years. I’ll bet we exchanged quite a few stories…that must be how we established a friendship…?
    Your narrative leadership thoughts have really struck a chord with me…it seems a simple, self-evident truth now that I’ve been given the opportunity to consider it. The possibilities for creating positive change through narrative seem endless to me. Now to get more people on board.
    Thanks for sharing…:-)

    1. Dr Claire Marie

      Wow someone actually read my blog! Lol thanks Fin, I believe it was nkata bay and hanging out chatting til the wee hours that confirmed our friendship! Best wishes to you and yours!

      1. FIn

        Read it and shared it on fb actually (for all that anyone takes notice of the constant output on my timeline these days). Best wishes to you and Stu too…hope Uganda’s treating you gently 🙂

    2. Dr Claire Marie

      Thanks Fin, I will be posting a few more about narrative soon ☺️

      1. FIn

        How bizarre that you wrote that just yesterday…I came hunting for more! Like I said, it’s really struck a chord in me…I feel like many occasions that people have joined in or contributed to a project seem to make much more sense and that there is a real need for powerful, just narratives in the world.

  1. Ripple

    […] to …. inspire change” I was keen to tune in. The series of webinars run by a medical colleague Dr Claire Marie Thomas (who did a great job) brought an approach to my attention which immediately resonated. Exploring […]

  2. Change story number 1: A Story of Self – Ripple Foundation

    […] to …. inspire change” I was keen to tune in. The series of webinars run by a medical colleague Dr Claire Marie Thomas (who did a great job) brought an approach to my attention which immediately resonated. Exploring […]

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