For Kiran Singh Sirah ’13 M.A., finding common ground through storytelling is the foundation for peace.
Sirah, a former Duke-UNC Rotary Peace Center Fellow and folklore master’s student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has made a career out of linking storytelling and folklore to issues of equality and social justice. Working as an artist, curator and teacher, Sirah has created and established innovative peace and conflict resolution programs and exhibits that tackle issues such as religion, race and identity.
“If you really look about the world today, identity is the thing that people are profoundly interested in, and it’s also the thing that people will fight over,” Sirah said. “So the connection between folklore and social justice is about helping people…tell their stories in their own unique ways — in their own ways that are important to them.”
Sirah’s own identity has been shaped by his family’s journey from India to East Africa to England, where his parents arrived as refugees in 1972 and where Sirah was born. Over the years, his work has taken him to places like New Delhi, Uganda and Madrid.
Over the course of his career, Sirah has worked with various organizations and museums, curating exhibitions and creating educational programs. He earned a bachelor’s degree in art and design from Wolverhampton University in 1998 and a master’s degree in museum, gallery and heritage studies from Newcastle University in 2003. In December 2002, he was chosen as the first learning and access curator at the St. Mungo Museum of Religious Life and Art in Glasgow, Scotland, one of the only museums of its kind in the world.
During his time with the museum, Sirah established a citizenship and anti-sectarianism heritage project and managed Glasgow’s contribution to the UK’s national initiative in commemoration of the bi–centenary of the abolition of the British Slave Trade Act.
“I embarked on a program that explored the issue of sectarian and ethnic divisions by drawing from museum collections but also encouraging the collecting of new material for the museum displays,” Sirah said. “I also [worked] with gang members, police officials and community workers in ways that encouraged a wider partnership approach for enabling young people to tell their stories.”
Sirah arrived in Chapel Hill in 2011 after being accepted into the Department of American Studies master’s of folklore program and being offered the prestigious Rotary Peace Fellowship.
The Rotary Peace Fellowship is a fully-funded scholarship offered through the joint Duke-UNC Rotary Peace Center, one of six Rotary Peace Centers worldwide. Fellows in the program study subjects related to the root causes of conflict and explore innovative solutions that address real-world needs. In addition to taking courses focused on conflict resolution through the center, students are enrolled in master’s programs in departments at UNC and Duke.
“It was a great university to be part of,” Sirah said. “It really pushed me academically and professionally and mentally and brought the best out of my interest in building peace through artistic expression.”
As a Rotary Peace Fellow, Sirah was invited to speak at Rotary Day at the United Nations in 2012. With support from Rotary International and UNC, he traveled to New York just after Hurricane Sandy, and what he witnessed in the aftermath of the natural disaster inspired him to write a poem and story that he performed as part of his speech.
“I got to write a story in reflection to how people were responding to the hurricane from a grassroots level — a lot of young people, a lot of communities and families that were basically taking it on themselves to help one another out,” he said.
Sirah returned to New York again in 2015 for a program commemorating the International Day of Peace. He worked with the United Nations on a global storytelling competition and coached the winner to perform her story for an official ceremony at UN headquarters.
“It was really nice to come back to the UN, not as a speaker this time but in support of an education and storytelling program,” Sirah said. “To be able to help somebody else, a young person, tell their story live — that was probably more special to me than actually speaking myself.”
Today, Sirah is the executive director of the International Storytelling Center, a nonprofit organization in Jonesborough, Tennessee, aimed at advancing the performance, preservation and professional practice of storytelling. Through the center, Sirah helps run the National Storytelling Festival, the longest-running storytelling festival in the world, and works with a variety of organizations, from UNC to the White House, to promote storytelling across disciplines. Currently, he is exploring a project with NASA aimed at encouraging student interest in science and space exploration.
Reflecting on his passion for storytelling, Sirah described the many ways we can train ourselves to “hear” other people’s stories.
“What drew me to storytelling was the idea that in fact everyone is a story,” Sirah said. “Someone can tell a story loudly, but also stories can exist very quietly—in an object, in ritual, a handmade quilt—but when we look and learn to listen more closely, what it does is help us to connect with the stories of our shared humanity and brings us all closer together.”
By Tat’yana Berdan ’16