Featured Storyteller: Janet Allen

Monday January 11, 2016

Click Here to Watch Janet Allen tell, Bush Cow
WS: Janet, you have been involved in Peace Corps a long time.  Could you give a brief history of your relationship with Peace Corps over the years?

I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Sierra Leone, from 1981-83.

When I got back to the States I applied to be a recruiter but didn’t hear back for a long time.  By the time I did hear back from Peace Corps I had already gotten another job. Around that time, I joined the Northern California Peace Corps Association.  It had just been formed.

Then I got a job with the Federal Food and Nutrition Service.  I was there for 22 years which was fun because there were a lot of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers who worked there.

Then an opportunity for manager for recruitment for the Northern California Region appeared.  A friend of mine told me about the job and said I would be great at it.  I applied for it and got it.  For the last 8 ½ years of my career I was the recruiting manager first for San Francisco, then San Francisco and Seattle then the whole West Coast.

WS:  It was one your Peace Corps recruiting events about three years ago that started Beyond Borders Storytelling.  You were doing a story jam with Alexander Labinov and Jean Ellison.  After that jam I talked to Alex and he volunteered to lead a storytelling workshop that eventually became Beyond Borders.   What gave you the idea to do story jams at recruitment events?

It was a number of things that came together.  I loved listening to This American Life on public radio and my niece turned me on to The Moth when it was first playing on the radio.

In the recruitment office, we realized that stories are really powerful.  At the time, Raleigh Ellison was a volunteer in the office, and his wife Jean had been a recruiter and was an accomplished storyteller.  So during the 50th Anniversary of Peace Corps, we thought we would try an event with storytelling.

WS: I know a lot of Peace Corps recruiters are so submerged in Peace Corps activities that in their free time they need to detox from Peace Corps.  Did you experience something similar when you retired?

Oh definitely.  When I retired I just wanted to do nothing, especially related to Peace Corps.  It’s not that I didn’t love Peace Corps but I was living Peace Corps 24/7.  Even when I went home at 8pm, I’d hear something on the radio and think,  ‘Oh we should try that,’ or walking my dog I’d think, ‘oh we should do this or we should do that.’  So, even when I was not at work it was still a part of my thinking all the time.     I’d been doing that for 8 ½ years so I thought, ‘Okay I need to step back’.

WS:  How did Beyond Borders Storytelling draw you back?  

It had been about ten months since I retired from Peace Corps in June, and I got an email from you saying, ‘Hey Janet I know you’re interested in storytelling. We have a workshop in July.’  If I had gotten that email in February or March, I would have said no but there had been enough time that I thought I would check it out.

After I told my first story in August and posted it on Facebook, staff at the Peace Corps Office that I used to work with started responding saying, ‘When are you going to tell this story or that story?’  When I told the story about the Bush Cow in September I got a messages back saying, ‘I love the bush cow story!’

I have a lot of stories, and if I see a story jam for which one of those stories fits the theme, I want to do that jam.

WS: How was Beyond Borders different than the storytelling you did at recruiting events?  

The stories I told at recruiting events brought home a particular point – such as integrating into a community, and the humility of becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer.

The stories I choose to tell with Beyond Borders are stories that have a particular power or meaning for me.  The first story I told about being banished from a portion of my village was a really powerful experience for me but not the kind of story I would tell at a recruiting event.

In Beyond Borders Story Jams, it’s the person’s personal story.  That’s one of the reasons I really like it and couldn’t do it when I was Regional Manager.  I wanted to do a story in my own voice and not have it be connected officially with Peace Corps because of my position.

The other thing about Beyond Borders is that the stories don’t have to be from Peace Corps.  It’s much more open in terms of what the intention and purpose is.

WS: What did you think of the process of the workshops and practices?

The process that Beyond Borders used was really helpful.  I had a story and through the workshops and practices I learned the mechanics of how to start, where to start, how to end, what pieces go into a good story and the stuff to leave out.   A lot of the formation of my story came out of that first workshop and practices.

I wanted to start by hooking the audience.  I could have started right at the beginning of my experience but for me it was more effective to start the story in the middle and explain how I was feeling at that moment, ‘Oh my God what have I done?’ then go back to the beginning.  That was much more powerful and hooked people in right away.

I also didn’t know how to end it until I went to the practice, and the other storytellers started asking me questions.  In asking me questions and me telling them what was not in the story, I said something that caused someone to say, ‘That’s how you should end it!’ It worked.

WS:  When you were the Regional Manager spoke at hundreds of gatherings.  Were you nervous at your first Jam?
Oh yeah.  I am always nervous.  It’s my body reacting when I am about to do something that’s on the edge of my comfort zone.  The bright lights, the microphone.   Because it’s a personal story and I want to do well there’s a little bit at stake.    When I started working for Peace Corps, barely a year, I remember someone saying, ‘Everyone gets butterflies.  You just want to get them to fly in formation.’

Practice helps a lot.  I can’t overemphasize practice.  Practice in the mirror, practice with people, practice in the shower, practice in the car, practice!

The other thing to remember is that the story is going to be a little bit different each time you tell it, but it’s the same story even if you don’t use the exact same words every time.  If I forget a detail, that’s okay.  There are certain cornerstones that make the story.  As long as those are there it’s okay.

WS: You’re coming to the ‘Love at First Sight’ story workshop.  Do you have a story in mind?

I have a potential story.  It wouldn’t be a love at first sight with a person, it’s love at first sight with a concept.

WS: From your years with Peace Corps you must have heard some amazing stories. What would you say to someone who has a great story but might not think they can do a story jam?

If they have a great story, and I know it’s a great story because they have told it to me, they can be a storyteller.  There’s so much support with the workshops, practices and the coordinators.  I have seen the progression of people’s stories through the workshops and practices and thought, ‘Wow, that was great!’   The people get feedback and work to make their stories better.  Everyone is working to make each other a success.

Going through the process, I learned more about what I had experienced.  Even though my experience happened 30 years ago, I knew the experience was powerful for me but I had never sat down and thought why it was powerful to me.  Why is this story significant to me?  I learned a lot about myself through the process of refining my story.


By Will Spargur

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