By MARINA WATERS
The annual storytelling festival is coming back to Jonesborough this weekend, but there’s another event coming up for International Storytelling Center President Kiran Singh Sirah to look forward to.
Sirah has been named one of six honorees who will be recognized as a “Champion of Peace” at the United Nations Office in Geneva, Switzerland on Nov. 11.
“For me, this award honors both my father, my mother, all my teachers,” Sirah said. “There are a lot of people who helped me personally get where I am today. If it wasn’t for Jimmy Neil Smith, we wouldn’t have this storytelling festival. It honors Jimmy Neil, my friend. It honors the community, all the education I’ve learned, the wisdom that I’ve had. For me, I feel that I can take this and be representative to those who have helped me become who I am.”
Champion of Peace award winners are chosen for their commitment to finding innovative approaches to conflict-resolution, poverty, inequality, and education. Sirah was nominated by Rotary District 1020 in Scotland where he spent more than 10 years in museum and charity management. He also worked with the Scottish Refuge Council and developed folk and faith-based programs at National Museums Scotland.
Through his work, which has also included working with gang members, refugees and various marginalized groups, Sirah said storytelling has been a tool he believes can better the world and the lives of others.
“Storytelling is the world’s oldest art form and the oldest form of communication. In every one of us there are thousands upon thousands of stories. We live our lives through story; we dream in stories. We don’t talk in facts; we talk in stories,” Sirah said. “That’s what connects us on a human level.”
Sirah hasn’t only dedicated his life to using storytelling as a force for good; he’s also dedicated himself to working for peace, which is a lifelong mission he says started long before he came to the United States.
“It goes back to something that happened to me when I was 16 years old. I grew up as a minority kid in South England as part of an immigrant family. It was also a really proud, hardworking family. Something bad happened to me when I was 16 years old and I got into trouble. I started to get really angry and my dad turned around to me and he said, ‘You’ve got two options: one, you allow your anger to fester, or two, you get yourself an education.’ He said, ‘If you get yourself an education, you could be the first person in our family to get a degree. And when you do, you don’t just do it for yourself, you do it for all of us.’
“When he said ‘all of us,’ he didn’t just mean his immediate family. He meant anyone who felt the feelings of marginalization or oppression because whenever you work, you can consider ‘how can you serve people in the best way possible?’”
Not only did Sirah make the conscious decision to pursue education (he now has a master’s degree in folklore and peace and conflict resolution from the University of North Carolina as well as a master’s degree in museum cultural heritage studies from University of Newcastle upon Tyne), but he also dedicated himself to serving others as a young child as well.
“My mother turned to me when I was 8 years old — we have a tradition that when we walk into a Sikh temple, we all take our shoes off. But this day she told me to clean everybody’s shoes,” Sirah recalled. “I thought I was being punished. There were hundreds of shoes.
“Afterwards she goes, ‘What I’m doing is teaching you a very powerful Sikh practice that we call ‘sevar.’ It’s the application of what we do in our everyday lives through action that can help to serve humanity. We say it’s the highest form of prayer and its the idea that whatever you do in life — if you become a business leader, an artist, a non profit manager, a shopkeeper — what can you do everyday that constitutes someway to making the world a better place.”
“This is the beginning for me, in a sense,” Sirah explained. “There’s a lot of work to do to get towards peace. We have to be smarter. We have to be cleverer. We have to come together. We have to think strategically. So I’m going to use this award to leverage our work even further to promote the sense that storytelling is a peace-building tool. I want to continue to promote that idea whether it’s here in Jonesborough, in D.C., or in Geneva or back in Scotland. Wherever we are. We need to keep promoting that idea.”
Part of promoting the idea and human connection attached to storytelling also contains a sort of responsibility that, for Sirah, won’t sit idle on a shelf with his UN award.
“There’s a responsibility in it. It’s not something you put on your shelf and leave and don’t do anything the rest of your life,” he said. “The more the world seems like a dire place and a dangerous place, the more peace-builders have to work harder. We’re in it for the long run. We’re not in it to win one award. We’re committed to building more peaceful communities. It’s more than just a job to us. It’s a passion. This is our life.”