Each of our lives is a page in a sacred text

That only exists because each of us adds a page


We work with communities when invited. Our program works in stages which take place in a series of weekends with two evening lectures per week.

Stage One

The Neuroscience of High Stress -- what high stress/trauma/adverse events and chronic adverse conditions  do to the brain. Plenty!   We call this stage - This is What Happened to You.  

Stage Two Why You Should Care -- and -- This Is How it Looks and these are the symptoms.  In this stage we deal with how transmission of physical brain changes and psychological patterns create generations of suffering and destructive behaviors toward oneself and others. We explore what those symptoms look like and how the emerge in community members. We explore it as Acting Out - or - Acting In: high suicide rates (especially among young people)crime, violence, drug, alcohol abuse  and high risk behaviors.( No it is not all trauma -- the compensating behaviors and reinforcing conditions are complex --  but it begins in toxic stress/trauma and needs to be addressed at its root.)

Stage Three This is What You Can Do -  we offer methods and techniques that shift brain structures.  At this stage we look to collaborate with the inviting community to see what community/ sacred  rituals exist that can integrate what we share.  Our goal is to have teams of community members able to effectively respond to crisis and teach to any group that will sit still for twenty minutes the impact of unresolved toxic stress in our/their community.  Stage Four Your Commitment to Action.  How each community member will act on what they have learned.: a plan of action.  This emerges from a value we hold that speaks to:teach what you have learned.  

As a participant you will take with you: 

  • To access the creative source from which Story emerges. (This access provides a richness in experience and develops problem solving skills that carry into    everyday life.)  just two  of the methods we use: creating a Life Line for Shoe String Stories and   Writing Through the Body. 
  • To process stories of severe stress to  resolution or diminishing symptoms of toxic stress.
  • Deep Listening and Presence in group members 
  • how to help a reader free her voice when she is not inside of the story.  This is a powerful process.  
  • work through conflict
  • to create a script for writers
  • create a structure through which the story writing/telling process continues beyond the workshop.
  • Word Jazz theater -- build a performance piece that integrates the stories gathered at the workshop, yours alone or as part of  a group.
  • create a coherent diverse community in which all stories have a place to live.

The public offering of story: Attendees often bring their final performance – Word Jazz Theater -- to a public venue, an event that continues to be deeply moving, healing and powerful to participants and audience alike.

People remember these performances – we know, we have been doing this for 30 years.  

We provide one or two day workshops as well as writing retreats, training and team building for corporate and medical staff, schools, prisons and groups of must plain folks like all of us who are interested in knitting their lives together into a coherent whole.  

This last "take away" is quite important.  Most of us visit events in our lives in a way that approximates learning a city by taking the subway and popping up here and there. This section, that section -- all of them disconnected.  I learned a coherent New York after finally taking a bus and connecting this section to that section. We provide a bus ride through our story as well as taking the Sub-way through the unconscious. Riding the bus, connecting the fragments is quite a revelation when organized in this way.  And so is the story of your life.  

Resources on community building that expresses our philosophies most closely:  

  • The Power of Positive Deviance, Monique and Jerry Sternin, Richard Pascale
  • Pathologies of Power by Paul Farmer
  • To Repair The World, a collection of college graduations talks,  by Paul Farmer 
  • Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder -- a biography of Paul Farmer 

                                                                        Read on if you wish -- 

Community is created from stories and the storytelling function is hardwired in human beings. In giving form and voice to our stories, we transmit personal and collective history.  And, we heal. We heal ourselves. We heal divisions. We heal  separation along class and race because at base  my story is your story, our stories are the human story.

It started with myth: the creation myth, the birth of the world. In our lives it starts with the story of own births, our creation myth and the context into which we are born. These personal story extends into the birth of our community and the birth of our nation.  

In the US the fourth of July is a celebration of the story of how we came to be. And it, like others is not a literal recitation of Truth -- we will probably never know the truth behind the Truth.  Our stories are filtered through perceptions, values, and often, used for different purposes.  Myth when it functions in Primary Cultures, is a living body and shifts to reflect cultural shifts but some basic things remain the same. Often when people of a Primary Culture move or restore community after war or disaster the first thing done is to plant a stake, a pole, a symbol of the there, right there is the World Center.  the second thing is to tell the creation story.  The story of Other is often written by the "victor" and distorts the story -- the story of our Native American people, for example, who in earlier times were represented as blood thirsty non-humans. So we see, that inside each story are values, expected behaviors and contain subliminal messages or caution -- what and who we are to be afraid of, what boundaries we can't cross, who are our friends and who are our enemies.  Our collective stories, our family stories and the stories of individuals shape identity – who am I? who are we? is communicated in the stories we tell about ourselves.  And the stories we tell ourselves are sometimes distorted and do not serve us well. The retelling of The Story Wrong embeds it further and further in our minds.  It takes effort and love to change the Wrong Story. This is where we come in. We examine the story.  For those whose stories have been wrongly told, we provide opportunity for redemption of the original story. What happened -- where did it go?

And then there are those for whom the story is silent, without voice. For a people it is a loss of identity and for individuals it is a serious invitation to be tortured by the untold story through debilitating symptoms -- the story will be told one way or another -- in voice or in nightmares, physical symptoms and at worse through disease -- every disorder has its story.  The story must be told in a very  specific ritualized manner.  (Ritual in the sense of safety -- everyone knows the form -- and in the repetition of the story and we can thank our people from Primary Cultures for this form which exists in fragments in current western religious and mental health structures and incomplete rituals.) Think of the Blues which come out of suffering, the repetition of line, verse and chorus.  It is an example of that natural poetic voice that lives in all of us. Often the lyrics are simple but in the repetition and simplicity are expressive (yes, it happened just like this) and healing.  When my Baby left me.... In the process of directed story telling, song/poetry and guided writing the symptoms and damage of toxic stress is reduced or eliminated by addressing the story is very specific ways. Telling the story without the healing process in place often adds another layer of trauma.  Telling our stories when shared creates community and belonging from the isolation often felt when our stories have been silent, had never had voice.  In the telling, we learn that each of our personal stories is another human story -- of course, what separates and makes us is our story but when told, it also connects us to the larger story. This is Community Building at its best.  This is another means we use to work toward Peace and reconciliation where we transform conflict and adverse experience into Art. 

By exchanging stories, and being fully present to other people’s stories, our community building, peacemaking workshop creates a textured tapestry that most of us can relate to.  Isolation and difference is bridged.  An example: "

"When I (Andrea Steffens) taught a story writing workshop somewhere in Alaska many years ago, it was comprised of Native and non-Native American women. Tensions had built  in this community over time or remained from earlier historical periods when these communities were segregated. (Though I have to say that the Alaskan people are the most integrated I have experienced in the country. Native customs and art is treasured -- of course there are unsolved problems that are reflected in statistics of incarceration and drop out rates which are disproportionately higher for Native people.  At the time of the workshop/writing lab, I was not privy to reasons underlying the tension I sensed in how stilted people were with each other though everyone knew each other and certainly with me, an outsider. But, we had a weekend together and as the stories were written and read aloud, tentatively at first, something changed. The women relaxed as they found the commonalities in each of their lives through their stories -- misbehaving kids, tragic losses, weddings, not enough money, divorce and despair seasoned with celebrations of success and those humorous moments we have all had at one time or another -- sometimes a kind of black humor but funny none the less. In that weekend, that group of twenty some women and me became a community -- in the workshop breaks  we took there was a lot more laughing and good loud voices. It was a success and ultimately it impacted the larger community and both native and non-Native people began working together on issues that impacted all of them -- the big one was working on the problem of their kids and drugs. And they did it themselves as I was only there for the weekend.  But in the course of 25 years, I have remained in touch, sometimes visiting.  The main accomplishment for me was that they started and led their own writing groups.  We encourage that and I have learned that as people move to other areas they often will start a writing group."

When people share stories across difference, they feel their story is finally heard by others in a Witnessing process, a deep listening process. an important aspect in healing any conflict whether in individuals or communities. In reading the story aloud, the writer also hears their own story with greater emotional impact as well as they get to witness the impact the story has on others. Most people skate across the surface of their stories without really allowing themselves to sink into the emotional realities that live at the deeper levels. They also miss details that are essential to healing.  Because the method we use was developed 30 years ago -- Writing Through the Body -- it has had the time and breadth needed to refine the process and carry people ever more deeply into their story. Also important, is the fact that embedded in this technique is the means for remediation of toxic stress symptoms if they present themselves as they often do. Reading the story aloud in their group is an important aspect of the work as we all recognize whether the reader lives inside or outside their story.  You can hear it in the voice.  And, we never ask people to read if they are the slightest bit uncomfortable in sharing as it is not good if the story is read before the writer/reader is ready.  That can be counterproductive.   It is very rare that no one read for the whole workshop of series of classes.  In all these years there have been two people who chose not to read.    

As part of the community building process, we teach and practice Deep Listening a process that allows the listener to be fully present and hold the story in good humor with compassion and without judgment. The final piece of this community building process is the collaborative phase:  asking participants where the people in their communities are most comfortable telling their stories -- how do they do it now, if they do -- or if they know of traditions that have been lost, how might we reclaim aspects that remain relevant? Drumming was a big piece and common to all our tribal roots.  Could they think of a venue that might be appropriate for the sharing of stories? 

...The Alaskan group that had chosen to keep going after the weekend workshop, used the format I gave them -- our standard copy that precludes mistakes if followed.  In the course of this now totally community centered group, the word got out --  newcomers were referred to the group, mental health facilities referred people to the group or they just asked to join.  The leadership rotated and each new person learned the process and format. The group I recently heard about (2013) about was lead by someone I hadn't known but had learned from one of the early attendees to the workshop and she was using our process and had no idea about who I was. That is real success in my book! Of course my ego isn't crazy about this but often the ego is not our friend. This writers  group gained status in the town as reflected in constant invitations to read at a monthly community Open Mic.  They were asked by the larger community  to write on a particular subject that was important to all and read it in the Word Jazz Theater format. Something they also had learned in the workshop." 

How did the Word Jazz Theater come to be?

" In a moment of kicking up heals in the exuberance for what was happening at the end of these weekends when we devoted a few hours to the Word Jazz Theater, I rented a small downtown black box theater and I suggested that the group invite friends and family to come to the performance.  At the end of the workshop, the group practiced for a few hours using an easily learned format of when to read what piece -- it is the simple art of dissonance and resonance in terms of their choice of the pieces they would read following another reader. And then it was Sunday evening and the audience arrived some of them came muttering and kicking rocks with the same enthusiasm for this riffing theater piece as they had going to the first grade Christmas pageant when their kid was in 6th grade.  But.  They arrived.  They sat in bored little chairs, fifty or so.  And then it began and the audience listened and the reader read.  The audience laughed and sighed and hushed (all in the right places).   Then it was over.  A success. My initial response was relief as I had no idea if the performance would translate to a theater space or not especially when it was written and performed by these mostly new writers who certainly were not performers...  how much they had enjoyed it -- and two groups were created afterwards as others wanted to write their lives  I thought it would be good but not that good. But thank goodness,  it was. This one place, this one experience led to nearly 18 years with short breaks of this writing group continuing led by people who had experienced the process. Our policy is to teach a maximum of four classes and the writers are told about this all along -- that will be their group, if they want to continue.  Then, if the writers want to keep the group going they have to take over as facilitators. It was a natural rotation. 

So this is The Story of writing, or reading, or theater that teaches access, that bridges difference, that builds community.