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Working with Scarborough community to tell its stories

UTSC workshop series supports local residents

Daniel Scott Tysdal conducts a storytelling workshop with community members (photo by Ken Jones)

A good story can be incredibly powerful, capable of educating, enlightening and inspiring an audience. A well-told story can even change a life.

That’s why the University of Toronto Scarborough's English faculty partnered with the East Scarborough Storefront to conduct a community storytelling workshop series.

"There is such a great energy in the room," says Daniel Scott Tysdal, a poet and lecturer in creative writing at UTSC who spearheaded the new program. "I thought it might take a while for people to get comfortable, but right away they were into the exercises, listening to one another and sharing their stories.

"It's been a really fun and rewarding experience for us all."

The weekly six-part series, 'Telling Our Stories,' combines mini-lectures, writing exercises, class discussions and readings, introducing participants to the varied tools available to the storyteller. Students learn about the importance of sensory details, believable plots, character motivation and other aspects of narrative. They also discuss the all-important question, "What does it mean to tell your story?"

The goal is to inspire local residents to see their own stories as vital, and to give them the tools to begin expressing them.

Tysdal says the concept for the series was inspired by a quote from the writer James Baldwin:

“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world," wrote Baldwin, "but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.”

As with any good story, inspiration for the neighbourhood workshops came from multiple places.

"It speaks to our belief that the so-called 'ivory tower' doesn't actually exist," says Tysdal. "When I look at my colleagues across the university, I see so many of us giving public lectures, organizing public events, participating in outreach and sustaining a practice of getting involved in our local community."

The workshop series is free and open to anyone who wants to learn about the practice of storytelling and try their hand at the art form. Tysdal is joined in teaching the series by colleagues from the English department: Claudia Hoffman, Neil Dolan, Sonja Nikkila and Anne Milne. More than 20 local residents ranging in age from 25 to over 70 are participating in this first series.

And while the benefits for the aspiring storyteller are clear, Tysdal and his colleagues also reap great rewards from the program.

"Whenever I'm teaching I'm also learning, and I've learned things from the participants in this class that I haven't learned anywhere else. I see story in a different way now thanks to my students."