Storytelling: Weaving a Tapestry of Trust

In the fall of 2012, a resolute group of intrepid volunteers sat around a dining table in a renovated old tobacco warehouse discussing the perennial issue of school fundraising. Burned out after years of big, time-consuming events that required many volunteer hours, we were trying to come up with something that would be fun, but simple to put together. All were fans of “The Moth” — a podcasted storytelling event in which storytellers get up in front of a live audience and have 10 minutes to tell a true-life story with no notes in hand. We loved the idea of bringing such an event to our community, but wondered whether it would fly in our small town of 4000 people. Would anyone in their right mind actually volunteer to get up on stage in this small, tight knit, Midwestern, farming community? Would people show up as audience members or prefer to politely look away? At the time, the idea felt a little bit crazy, but like it was still worth a try. What ended up happening was both powerful and magical surprise to all in attendance.

Imani Tbt resized

Those familiar with forums like “The Moth” and “StoryCorps” are already acquainted with the power of personal storytelling. Standing before an audience with no props, no notes, and no fanfare to tell something about oneself is about as close to being naked on stage as one can get. It is a tremendously vulnerable undertaking requiring more than considerable trust and abundant courage. Indeed, the essence of the courage required originates from the ability to trust others — a public audience— with one’s private life. And yet, when an ordinary person can muster the spirit to share their story, it offers an opportunity for growth and expansion for storytellers and listeners alike. As the gift of vulnerability is offered, the storyteller is empowered and listeners’ hearts are opened as they collectively share laughter, tears, heartache and empathy.

Corin TbT resized

Translating the successful, professional model of “The Moth” to the laypeople in a small community was daunting to say the least as we launched the first “Truth be Told” event in April of 2013. On that spring evening, fourteen brave souls —ranging in age from 14 to 65— took the stage one by one and shared a small piece of their lives with 150 audience members. Together, we shared tears of laughter and wept with heartache, and at the end of the night we all walked away knowing each other a little bit better —feeling closer, more appreciative, and more willing to recognize and respect the complexities of our fellow community members’ lives.

Since that time, there have been six Truth be Told events; each one of them sold out and reinforcing the fabric of our community just a little bit more.

Lydia TbT sized

Over the years, listeners have been entrusted with stories of a Thai orphan, a middle schooler’s first heartbreak, a picture of what it looks like to live with severe epilepsy, the horrific consequences of a drunk driving accident, a compassionate response to a harrowing encounter with someone suffering from severe mental illness, a young girl’s grace as she reflected on her parent’s divorce, and the story of a father’s suicide, among many others —every one of them poignant. We have also been delightfully entertained by the teenage shenanigans of a local doctor, a husband’s perspective on a road trip shared with his wife, the excitement of an outhouse aflame, a child’s perspective on being separated from his family while attending a Minnesota Vikings game, and the chaos created when an entire cast of performers was simultaneously walloped with Montezuma’s revenge.

Luke TbT resized

In her influential book, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead, author Brené Brown notes that:

 Courage starts with showing up and letting ourselves be seen.

The courage and vulnerability revealed through the simple act of sharing our stories is Brené’s research in action and has undoubtedly enriched our small community. It’s an idea worth spreading for those who wish to strengthen the “loom of democracy” in their communities. As Parker Palmer points out in his book, Healing the Heart of Democracy —The Courage to Create A Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit:

“The need for association is one of the deepest needs of the human heart, and it will always win out if given half a chance… the less we depend on each other, the more we weaken the interdependence that helps us develop democratic habits of the heart.”

 In short, the courage to “show up and be seen” helps build trust and compassion within a community framework —it exercises the “habits of the heart” necessary for a healthy conversation and a resilient democracy.

Paul TbT resized

I love this event. Truth be Told takes the ancient art form of storytelling and creates a space and time for people to gather, to listen, to laugh and wonder with one another. These moments are so rare in our daily hustle, and when they’re done well, the stories of our lives connect us in the best ways. We all want this kind of time in our lives.  —Anne O

In a time when everyone is plugged into a device, both at home and in public, it is extremely refreshing to sit in a room captivated by a single person telling a true story from their own life. The audience is encouraging and forgiving, and the speakers feel supported and loved as they bare their souls. The sense at the end of the night is that we are a closer community, having shared an intimate moment typically reserved for the best of friends. Every person leaves with a nugget of wisdom, and a deep sense of connection. —Susan N.

Exhilaration does not always require a high rate of speed.

Whether you are a presenter or an audience member, while participating in TBT, you feel yourself stretching—-real fast.

Standing emotionally naked before your peers and revealing deeply personal secrets, experiences and struggles is very very hard for the unpracticed.

And exhilarating.

Hearing and witnessing unfiltered, unadulterated, emotion up-close, is equal parts tension, anxiety and empathy.

And exhilarating. 

I highly recommend taking Truth Be Told or a spin.  —Vince H.


Living in a town of 4000 is not my favorite thing… I often feel stuck and irritated with the lack of anonymity. And then something comes along that makes me feel blessed by this community.. Something like Truth be Told. 

I was an audience member the first few times and I sat and watched members of this small community; some friends, some acquaintances, some only recognized by their faces. All stand and share pieces of their lives. Moved to tears and tearful laughter, I left each time with overwhelming gratitude for living in this small town. 

As a speaker… I stepped onto a stage and in spite of paralyzing fear. I began my story… 12 minutes later it was out and living in this small community.  This community that makes me feel seen and heard and vulnerable as hell…and in times like this, anonymity is the very last thing I crave.  —Erika B.









  1. Truth be told, Sheila Sherwin gets the credit for bringing this event to Viroqua. Yes, there was a small group of us talking about new ways to do fundraising, but we owe this one to Sheila. Thank you dear friend for enriching all of our lives!

  2. Good stuff. You’re right about how we’re becoming increasingly insulated from each other. It’s very troubling. I’m forwarding this to friends.

  3. A few months ago, I wanted to have a fundraiser that was unlike any other —one which offered MEANING for everyone involved. With all of the busy-ness of the world, meaningful, thoughtful interactions are taking the back seat and I wanted to remind people of the power and impact of being in community in a meaningful way. I wanted them to walk away with more than a new bottle of wine from a silent auction…yawn!
    More connection, less rushing.

    And so, after hearing about Truth be Told from a friend living in another small town, I was inspired to see if it could work here, and without a doubt, the experience was profound.

    The speakers learned volumes about authenticity, and bravery and declaring one’s truth. How it makes room for others to do the same, how it helps us feel less alone and how it provokes us all ot feel more deeply and think more broadly.

    I asked the audience to be active participants (not passively listening form the outside). I asked them to look for places of resonance, of compassion, of love and holding for all of the stories and truths that we all want to tell. And the feedback I got was that most everyone was craving this, did not even know what was possible in 2 hours of sitting intentionally and speaking our truths and most asked for me to do more.
    You bet I will do this again!!!!!

    This is the power of sharing good ideas, the beauty of something like RealSmallTowns building a community of communities!

    —Sarah H, Petaluma, CA

  4. Love!

  5. Sheila, this is a great piece of writing and really captures it! I love the idea of “strengthening the loom of community.” Thank you.

  6. Sorry, “loom of democracy” in their community – that was the quote

    • Thanks Mary, you know as a speaker and as a member of the TbT audience — in addition to your experience in Waldorf education— the power of storytelling! And just to be clear “the loom of democracy” was coined by Parker Palmer. I highly recommend “Healing the Heart of Democracy” and think I may bring his discussion guide to RST.

  7. I also live in a small community and work at the local library. I have wanted to do an event like this but I was not sure we would get any kind of turn out. I am amazed that in a town of 4000, you managed to get 150 people at your first event. Can you tell me what sort of advertising you did to achieve such amazing numbers? Thanks for the inspiration, now I will give it a try in my town!

    • Hi Tim,
      We simply started a facebook page and made posters to advertise the event, but word of mouth is probably your best bet. If you have a variety of storytellers, they will each draw their own crowd of supporters and if the first event resonates it carries itself from there. Please feel free to send me a personal email if you would like to discuss it further.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *