Interview and article by Binks Hub student intern Brigid McCormack as part of our series on human flourishing, following our human flourishing symposium in June 2023.
“A story-rich community is a flourishing community,” Alette Willis says when explaining the importance of ecological narratives that drive social change.
Alette Willis, author, performance storyteller, and teacher and researcher at the University of Edinburgh, author, has placed narratives at the centre of her teaching, research, and writing. Having met Alette prior to our interview as a student in her class ‘Story Roots for Sustainable Futures’ in the Edinburgh Futures Institute, Alette and I dove right into a rich conversation on the importance of narratives and sharing stories.
Alette first encountered the power of story in the early 2000’s while earning her doctorate in Human Geography in Canada. Once familiar with ecological narratives, Alette focused on reading nature memoirs. “I became interested in how narratives can be a resource for people trying to live lives that are more ecologically sensitive”, Alette explains.
Reading these counter-stories and accounts of people living with nature inspired Alette to look at climate change and sustainability through a more positive lens than she had been presented with thus far. Reading these new positive, harmonious stories about sustainability inspired Alette. “Certainly through telling these new stories, you know, we’re not just the subjects of discourse; we are the co-creators of discourse,” she says.
She was then introduced to oral storytelling when teaching a creative writing class. One of her students, a Venezuelan storyteller, ushered Alette into a network of storytelling based in Ottawa. The storytelling world would then open up a new path for Alette that would lead her to Scotland, where she would come to work with the Scottish Storytelling Centre.
The importance of story-rich communities
“If a story has survived for centuries as an orally-told story, it must have some usefulness”, Alette says. It takes active remembering on the part of the tellers and listeners for a story to be passed down from generation to generation.
Stories that are preserved and passed down can have a positive and lasting impact on a community, despite existing and future adversity and challenges.
Alette recalls a conversation she had over ten years ago with Glasgow-based storyteller Russell McLarty, surrounding stories and communities. McClarty considers a community to be flourishing depending on how story-rich or story-poor the community is.
“A story-rich community would know their stories, would know their history, would have a diversity of stories”, Alette explains. She notes how important stories are to building a community, and how so many stories, history, and values are lost when communities are broken up.
The history of urban geography in Glasgow, Alette explains, is evidence of the importance of story-rich communities and how impactful their loss is when interrupted. In the 1950’s and 1960’s, tenement living was dismantled and Glaswegians were placed in new developments built outside of the city. Many of the stories that were shared and created within the walls of the tenements were then lost when the communities themselves were dismantled.
“So communities were actively broken up, often for good intentions, but they lost their stories through that. My geographer mind is saying the disruption of people getting separated from their geographically community can disrupt stories.”
Change the story and change the environment
The loss of these story-rich communities is not without consequence. Human flourishing and the overall wellbeing of a community can fall apart if stories are not upheld.
In Alette’s passion for communal connection with nature, she notes the danger of story-poor communities existing within in the face of eco crises: “Being part of your community’s stories is knowing the stories that nature is telling in that particular community, and how people fit into those stories.”
In her book (co-authored with Alison Galbraith) Dancing with Trees: Eco-Tales from the British Isles, Alette and Alison collected stories from the Scottish studies archive and Scottish Storytelling Centre to gather nature-centred stories shared in England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland for centuries.
Collating these into one book, Alette notes, is an effort to encourage current dominant stories to be changed for more sustainable and eco-counterstories. Alette’s work is all in the name of changing the stories we tell to ones about a world more centred on nature, raising collective environmental consciousness . Communities without stories and without connection to their immediate environment, have a lesser chance of flourishing.
“If we’re losing our local stories, we have fewer narrative resources to make sense of our lives and our experiences in that community, and instead we are forced to use the stories that dominate more generally within our society”.
The role of the humanities
While communities like those found in Glaswegian tenements have unfortunately been lost and ecological damages have been done, there are plenty of flourishing communities today striving for a better environment across the world.
“Because we are so embedded in a community, I don’t think an individual can flourish in their community isn’t flourishing.” Alette celebrates the collective action taken to change environmental practices: “People are finally starting to pay attention to [climate change], partly because there’s been a big effort to change the story around it.”
Now is the time, Alette says, to involve people in the humanities and the arts, who have been practising storied communication and knowledge exchange, in the efforts to recover our environment. “
There’s now a more general acceptance that the stories that we tell matter, and we can’t just present the science and expect people to take the science and change their lives. That’s why humanities has seen a resurgence”, she says.
Story-rich communities, in harmony with their surrounding environment, are attainable when stories are valued and shared. Seeking out local stories and harnessing new stories for change is the key to human flourishing.