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Storytelling Makes the Heart Grow Larger

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I was on the edge of my seat hanging onto his every word. Landry Ninteretse, a climate activist from Burundi, was speaking in front of hundreds at the United Nations Climate Negotiations in Durban, South Africa at 350.org's African Youth Voices event last month. I closed my eyes, trying to send him the message, "Your feelings Landry, share your feelings." Landry is one of the 400 people that I worked with over the past two months through a public speaking and storytelling workshop that my boyfriend, Julian Mocine-McQueen, and I run through a project called the Million Person Project. The Million Person Project is an international project about love, globalizing relationships and supporting change-makers who are working to protect the environment.

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Landry wrapped up his talk: great visuals, good story flow but very little emotion. Our storytelling workshop is designed to work with change-makers around the world to support them to become better public speakers and better organizers. It's developed out of the belief that if someone wants to change the planet they have to be able to be an effective communicator and be willing to inspire people with their story. A key part to being able to inspire comes from the willingness to share personal history, feelings and emotions about the path that has brought someone to do the work they do.

Landry smiled as we walked down the hall after the event. "I know, I know, Heather I need more practice. I'll be back tomorrow." Landry attended three workshops over the course of the two week climate negotiations and the last time he shared his story in front of the group, I had tears in my eyes. Landry's story is an incredible story of perseverance, commitment, dedication and love, love for his family, love for his country and love for the earth.

He remembers, when he was young his father used to take him for nature walks and bird watching in beautiful valleys of southern Burundi. Landry remembers running in the fields with packs of children in the rural north of Burundi where his grandfather lived. It was the time of his life when he felt the most freedom. He thought of those times often when he sat cooped up in his home in Gitega during the brutal political unrest that Burundi faced throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. He felt he had nowhere to go, but into his memories. When the conflict ended and he was able to return to his grandfather's village, the place that he had held so dear, it looked very different through his young adult eyes. He recalls a conversation that he says he will never forget. He and his uncle were sitting in front of his grandfather's house and his uncle told him about the changes of climate resulting in loss of harvests, hunger, poverty and the lack of clean drinking water. Landry thought back to his friends and neighbors in Gitega and Bujumbura, so many had fled the country. They had gone in search for a more peaceful life and for education in North America or Europe. He knew that was an option for him, but sitting there with his uncle that day he committed himself to Burundi. He paused and said, "I could go find a better life for myself, but what would that mean if my family and my people were in Burundi struggling to survive? Nothing, I am Burundian, and I am committed to the betterment of my country, my people and the world."

The group broke out in applause. I have been doing this training for weeks, with people from all over the world, but for some reason as I looked around at people's faces in the room as they clapped for Landry I felt this overwhelming, almost panicky, sense of understanding, like there was something universal in the room. Like there was something universal in what fueled each person to clap their hands together. It just felt like if our hands can clap like that, our hearts can all beat like that, and our stories can resonate with such magnitude then maybe we do have a chance at global understanding. It felt audacious for me to feel that way but as I looked around the room I couldn't help it. There were organizers representing 12 African countries, 3 European countries and an organizer from Indonesia, Canada and the United States. As each person, one after another, got up to share their story I could only imagine what would be if everyone in the world could sit in a room like this and listen to dramatically different stories and hear that common root in each person's story. That root of each person's love, their personal determination and desire to be heard and understood.

At the beginning of each workshop we start off by sharing a few quotes. One is by Ben Okri, a Nigerian poet and author, "Stories can conquer fear, you know. They can make the heart larger." I thought of that quote a lot that evening after that workshop. As I walked down the crowded South African street back to the United Nations Climate Conference I knew one thing for sure, that workshop made my heart larger, made me more excited than ever to be doing this work and more hopeful for our world.