"Year of the Adopted Family" book release

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Storytelling Ethics & Bok's Model: Freedom with Structure

Note: The Ethics course was required with my Communications degree at Brigham Young University. After consulting with Professor Kevin Stoker in 2000, I was allowed to write my research paper on storytelling ethics. The paper has since been lost, but my choice of an ethical decision-making structure for storytelling was and still is the Bok's Model. Here is my 2009 take on it.

Each of us has instinct, and it is instinct that allows us to make ethical decisions as human beings. When it comes to storytelling, we have responsibility as storytellers to heighten and sharpen this sense in ourselves as well as in others. We may not directly state, "the moral of the story is. . .", though our views are implied by actions on and off the stage.

As more people discover storytelling as a viable career choice, then it is more necessary to have options to determine standards.

Some people prefer standards that are clearly defined and rigid while others prefer flexibility. When I learned about the Bok's Model--created by Sissela Bok--during a college course, I was impressed as it had structure and room for individual interpretations.

Steps for Bok's Model--
1. Consult your conscience/gut feeling
2. Seek experts and people who have gone through similar circumstances
3. Discuss problem with those involved or could be affected, directly or indirectly

What are some common situations for storytellers?

Samplings of Topics that Require Ethical Decision-Making:
  • Copyright and Permissions
  • Credit to Sources
  • Offensive Story (anything has potential to be offensive)
  • Censorship of Story
  • Adaptations of Tale (personal, folktale, literary, etc.)
  • Proper Research of Tale
  • Telling Story Outside Your Culture
Example #1--Copyright and Permissions

Whether someone has shared one story or many stories, copyright and permission issues will be ever-present for storytellers. People like to receive credit for what they do. Some people prefer acknowledgment from the stage while others like monetary "thank yous" or any combination of gestures. There are laws to remind us of these courtesies, but what matters is how we would act even in the absence of laws.

Whenever I look at a children's book at the library, part of me says, "If I decide to tell this story, then I will need to ask for permission." Sometimes I groan at the thought; asking for permission does not guarantee that permission would be granted.

Stories are not the only things that could call for permission in a storyteller's life.

Bill Harley wrote a three-page article "Taming the Wild Beast: Family Audiences and Survival". While developing a packet to give to current and potential venues, I wanted one page of his article to be shared as a resource. The way Harley worded the article was perfect and I did not want any of its power lessened by creating my version.

I emailed Bill Harley and was pleasantly surprised when that same day he responded with "Sure". I created a permissions folder in my email to store this answer.

As Harley's article was included in A Beginner's Guide to Storytelling by the National Storytelling Press, I called the National Storytelling Network to ask permission. The person who answered the telephone did not have the authority to grant permission, but soon the right person was contacted and I officially received permission.

My Decision for Example #1:
I shared the publisher and author information at the top of the handout in large font and indicated that the permissions were granted to distribute. To this day, the date of the permissions is on the handout: January 12, 2006.

Review of Bok's Model from Example #1--
1. Consult your conscience/gut feeling
The law requires permission from the publisher while permission from the author is optional. It would be a nice gesture to contact Bill Harley. I sensed that he would approve of the act, but I preferred not to assume.

2. Seek experts and people who have gone through similar circumstances
I love hearing opinions face-to-face. I called some local storytelling friends and performing artists about my intentions for Harley's article. I perused through books like The Storyteller's Guide written and edited by David Holt and Bill Mooney and Ethics, Apprenticeship, Etiquette, Courtesy, and Copyright by Susan Klein. (see bottom of post for more resources) There were plenty of recommendations for my situation.

3. Discuss problem with those involved or could be affected, directly or indirectly
The people directly involved are easiest to determine such as the publisher, the author, and the storyteller. Imagination is required when thinking of those people who could be indirectly involved.

In this case, I reflected on how someone receiving the handout may react with the permissions stated. Then I imagined how results may differ if permissions were excluded from the handout.

If the information was missing, then the person may credit the article to me. While this may have me look like a genius, the acclaim would be false. However, if the information was conspicuous, then that person may call the National Storytelling Network and order a copy of A Beginner's Guide to Storytelling.

Optimistically, perhaps this person would become a NSN member. Later in years, the person could be invited onto the NSN Board or be asked to lead storytelling projects. . .all because the permissions were stated on the Harley handout!

Yes, I am not short on creativity. Silliness aside, these "wild imaginings" remind me of the impact that a small choice can make.

Example #2--Telling Story Outside Your Culture
I am intrigued by stories that come from outside my culture as there are always more similarities than differences. Everyone is a mix of cultures, which goes beyond race and ethnicity. Culture could be determined by religion, the area of the neighborhood one lives in, gender, and so on.

Certain cultures are more sensitive than others in how they feel about "outsiders" sharing them. I remember the heated discussion at the 2005 National Storytelling Conference on the Native American panel.

Recently, I chose to tell an Ojibwa story as part of my "Family Famine: Hunger for Love" program. Thanks to the family history discovered by cousin Kristen Lorensen, I knew I had Ojibwa blood on my mother's side. The fraction would be deemed insignificant by most tribes. My blonde hair and blue eyes fool many in regards to my background.

Yet, I felt a need to share the "Forsaken Brother" story. Telling a Native American story automatically forced me to look at ethics. To add to the conflict, I pictured the piece to merge with instrumental backup. The instruments in mind were not authentic to the culture. They were an electric guitar and an upright bass.

My Decision for Example #2:
When it came time to premiere the story, I chose to go forth and tell the tale with the electric guitar and upright bass providing soundscapes rather than tunes.

Review of Bok's Model for Example #2--
1. Consult your conscience/gut feeling
My initial reaction was, "Some people will not like me for telling a Native American tale." Despite this uncomfortable feeling, "Forsaken Brother" came to my awareness for a reason, especially as my cousin was inspired to mail a copy of the story in 2005.

As to the choice of instruments, though some people could shudder at the use of non-traditional ones, the music would enhance an already powerful story. The guitarist would not jump off the stage or play wild chords nor would the upright bass player mock the story by adding inappropriate strokes. The sounds would be fitting to the reverent mood of the story. Besides, few instruments could make a proper howl of a wolf. An electric guitar was the most obvious answer.

With these thoughts, I was comfortable enough to proceed and ask opinions of others.

2. Seek experts and people who have gone through similar circumstances
To calm nervousness in developing the story, I thoroughly researched the Ojibwa culture through books, encyclopedias, maps and other multimedia. I went to the official Ojibwa website and checked out all the books available on the culture from my local county library system. I read to see the the tribe's overall views to having others tell their stories. A few videos were found to guide pronunciation of Ojibwa words. Spending time in this way showed my respect to the culture and to the story.

I chose Julie Barnson as a story buddy/coach for "Forsaken Brother". She does not have Ojibwa ties in her heritage, but she would act as a witness in that the story was told respectful of the Ojibwa ways through words and music.

From the 2005 National Storytelling Conference panel on Native American storytelling, there were disagreements among the panelists on who can tell what stories. It would be nice if a storyteller could go to one person who held authority for their tribe when asking permission to tell stories. At least with books, one can turn to publishers. The world is not so black and white when telling stories of various ethnicity.

Even if a storyteller was fortunate enough to have the blessing from the tribe of which the story originates, there would always be someone who wished only Ojibwa people would tell Ojibwa stories.

People are entitled to their opinions.

I had to decide how much influence each opinion would have on my venture of telling "Forsaken Brother".

3. Discuss problems with those involved or could be affected, directly or indirectly
There is always the chance that someone in the audience hearing "Forsaken Brother" would have Ojibwa heritage. Some may be pleased that there are those who remember their stories. Some may be insulted that an outsider is "stealing" stories when, in history, so much more was stolen from the Ojibwa people.

When the final decision was made that I would tell "Forsaken Brother", I thought mostly of the potential audience. As the story addresses abandonment within the family, there could be someone who needed to hear that exact story to be able to progress in life.

I expect criticism for telling an Ojibwa tale when my blood connection is minute, but there are times when stories ask to be told as "Forsaken Brother" did for me.

No Right or Wrong Answers
You may have had different gut reactions when you read the experiences I have faced as a storyteller. You probably thought of other experts to consult for advise. You could have come to a different conclusion than me.

That is okay.

The Bok's Model allows freedom of thought in a structured way.

What is most important is that you took the time to review your thoughts and the thoughts of others. In the end, the decision is yours.

Such is the way for life.

Such is the way for us as human beings.

Resources on Storytelling Ethics:
Fun Fact about Sissela Bok and Bok's Model:
When Sissela Bok first created the Bok's Model for ethical decision-making, she intended the use of it in the medical field. The model has since been used for media-related industries, especially journalism. Perhaps influence was due to her brother being a controversial journalist. Regardless of the use, the principles within Bok's Model are easily applied anywhere.

Until we tell again,

Rachel Hedman
Professional Storyteller
Former Co-Chair of Youth, Educators, and Storytellers Alliance
Tel: (801) 870-5799
Email: info@rachelhedman.com
Performance Blog: http://familyfamine.blogspot.com
Other places to find me: Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, LinkedIn, Professional Storyteller

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