International Storytelling Center hires new executive director
By Lynn J. Richardson
His appointment is the culmination of an extensive national search that began in December 2012, following last year’s retirement of Jimmy Neil Smith, ISC founder and president emeritus, and the organization’s emergence from Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
Sirah brings a background of multicultural work in arts programming to the post and says his love of storytelling is something that has always been part of his life.
“I come from a background where I had stories told to me from all over the world,” he said. “My father is from India, my mother is from Kenya and my brother was born in Uganda.”
Sirah, who was born in England and raised in Scotland, hopes to tap into his multicultural experiences as he begins his work with the ISC in Jonesborough next month.
“I think stories are a way to grow as a community, to learn more about each other and to change the world,” Sirah said. “It is a way to learn we are part of a global community.”
The 37-year-old folklorist currently lives in Chapel Hill, N.C. He brings a diverse skill set with him to the ISC, having worked as an artist, curator and teacher.
His experience encompasses award-winning national and international arts, cultural and human rights programs in Europe.
He holds one of his two master’s degrees from the University of North Carolina in folklore and says he is interested in emphasizing “the power of human creativity, arts, and social justice, and the notion of a truly multicultural society.”
He hopes to bring that multicultural vibe with him when he reports to work in mid-August.
“The Storytelling Center is located in such a beautiful part of the world,” he said. “This is a great opportunity to work with local communities and attract an international audience from all over the world. This will be a chance to work with different kinds of people, drawing on hundreds of years of tradition.”
Following 9/11, Sirah developed folk and faith-based programs at National Museums Scotland and has created several peace and conflict resolution initiatives exploring issues of religious, ethnic and sectarian conflicts in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
In his other arts-led projects, he has tackled such issues as poverty, gang violence and modern-day slavery, working with refugees affected by war and persecution, including socially marginalized people such as migrant Roma communities.
Sirah served as an artist and community curator of St. Mungo Museum of Religion in Scotland, where he developed one of the largest arts-based, anti-sectarian projects in the museum’s history.
He also led the Helen Keller International Arts award, establishing disability arts as part of Glasgow’s Creative United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization City of Music. As a Rotary World Peace Fellow, he focused on the folklore of the homeless through a shelter community, showing how to bring the international development community together with arts and culture.
He shared his ideas and belief in the power of story at the United Nations Headquarters, where he delivered the keynote address at Rotary International UN Day last year.
As Sirah prepares to take the reins of the ISC, he tipped his hat to Smith, who founded the organization, saying he wants to build on Smith’s years of work.
“I want to recognize his legacy and his ideas that he came up with,” he said. “It is important to build on the work of a group of individuals who have made Jonesborough the capital of storytelling.”
Sirah is already busy preparing for his new job and his move to the area. He plans to attend the National Storytelling Network Festival in Richmond, Va., this week. After that, he said he is looking forward to getting acquainted with the community and participating in local festivals, including the upcoming UMOJA festival in Johnson City.
His move to the area should be pretty simple, he says, since he will be traveling light.
“I gave away all my worldly possessions when I moved here from Scotland two years ago,” he said.
“I moved to the United States with only two suitcases. Since then, I’ve accumulated about two carloads, but just as soon as I can get everything packed, and find a place to live, I’ll be coming.”