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New ISC leader Kiran Singh Sirah now in town, on the job

Just two weeks into the job, the International Storytelling Center’s new executive director, Kiran Singh Sirah, says he is listening to and learning from those who call the region home.
“I’ve always been a bit of a fast mover,” Sirah said. “But I have learned that although it is great to get to the top of the mountain, it is even more important to make that journey in a collaborative way so we can celebrate those successes together.”
Sirah was hired after 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.
Born in England and raised in Scotland, Sirah says he hopes to tap into his multicultural experiences as he begins his work with the ISC.
With a background in arts programming and non-profit leadership, he says stories are a way to “grow as a community, to learn more about each other and to change the world.”
His first official day on the job was Aug.12. Since moving to the area, Sirah says he has been warmly welcomed into the community.
He hopes to reciprocate that welcome by inviting people to have open and frank conversations with him, going forward, about the ISC.
“I acknowledge the past,” Sirah said, “but we have a future ahead of us. We need to set a pace that allows for the building of a strong foundation. If we’re going to have an idea and make it work, we need to find ways to fund it.”
Funds and their management have been issues for the ISC since the organization was forced to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy at the end of 2010.
Having emerged from that situation in mid-2012, the ISC will be operating on a budget of $1.25 million, according to Board of Governors Chairman Dr. William Kennedy.
Kennedy declined, however, to disclose the salary of the new executive director, saying he didn’t want “people in the general public helping us decide what we should or shouldn’t be paying.”
“We kept the salary open during the search because we wanted to identify the right candidate,” Kennedy said. “I will tell you that his salary is comparable to other non-profits of similar size and with similar responsibilities across the U.S. We checked on that as we made our decision.”
Kennedy said he and the rest of the board are looking forward to working with Sirah and moving forward on program expansion and the further stabilization of the entire organization.
“He has a wonderful balance of great ideas and practicality,” Kennedy added.
Sirah sat on the second story porch outside his Chester Inn office, legs crossed and coffee in hand. It is a place where he plans to spend a lot of time when he isn’t working inside in his office or offsite, a place where he will be “completely accessible,” he said.
“This first year, I plan to spend a lot of time listening,” he said. “I would love to have people come and share their ideas with me. I’d like them to come forward and not be shy about it.”
While listening to the community, Sirah says the organization will also be working to develop a strategic vision with the ISC Board of Governors.
“This will be a process of a series of discussions, not something that is haphazard,” he said. “These discussions will focus on how the ISC can support and help develop community.
“We will start planting seeds shortly, but we need to build a strong foundation and go at a pace that builds strength. In order to get where we need to be, we will be doing some strong board development work.”
Describing himself as “easygoing and hands-on,” Sirah said he would like to work toward creating more programs that provide opportunities for people to get involved.
“This way, we can attract more people to the region,” he said. “We currently focus on the main event, the National Storytelling Festival, and we will continue to do that. But we would also like to develop more things that would give people a reason to come to Jonesborough two or three times a year and stay longer.”
Sirah referred to the current Teller-in-Residence program as a perfect example.
“The Teller-In-Residence program already brings people to Jonesborough throughout the summer,” he said. “We need to create more yearlong programs in collaboration with the arts, faith-based organizations, businesses and with the Town of Jonesborough to give people a reason to be here in the fall, in the winter and in the spring.”
He will also be working hard, he says, to encourage even more participation in the already established “Friends of the Festival” project that seeks individuals, companies and organizations willing to invest $1,000 annually in the ISC for the continuation of the National Storytelling Festival.
“Certainly, we will need to find additional ways to do more,” Sirah said, “but we will start by putting an emphasis on that. We will do strategic planning to find more ways to encourage donors by building networks and developing relationships that will strengthen the organization.”
However, Sirah is adamant that everyone who gives, whether it is money or time, “needs to get something back.”
“Everyone who helps needs to see the value of their contribution,” he said.
Sirah said he will be seeking the community’s input every step of the way. He is especially looking for ideas for educational projects, business partnerships and ways to connect with a variety of agencies.
As a way to enhance those connections, locally, nationally and worldwide, Sirah will also be looking to ramp up work in the areas of digital media.
“We know how important social media and digital media are,” he said. “We need to be on top of our game in those areas. They need to be an integral part of our work.”
Those changes must come, he said, but it will be a while before they can be fully implemented.
“We have a great team already,” he said. “If we are to make changes, we will need to be able to finance those additional jobs and that will take some time.”
Projects that are near and dear to Sirah’s heart include work with “marginal people.”
“I love the work I see the Storytelling Guild doing with the Crumley House (Brain Rehabilitation Center),” Sirah said. “I love the idea of taking storytelling to groups of people who can’t come to us. This is what our work is all about. It is about outreach and enabling new audiences to experience the whole diversity storytelling can offer.
“This is a way for people to come together and interact with one another, when they share their stories and their experiences. It’s never simple, but we have an exciting future ahead of us.”