Paul Costello
 April 12, 2003: 
Smithsonian Associates 2003

One conventional way to get a few hints is to condense decades of work into a few descriptive sentences.  Here’s the view from 35,000 feet.

Paul Costello is an educator, writer and social activist from Australia where he developed creative writing curricula and founded a youth-to-youth volunteer organization that continues to serve homeless youth in six major cities along Australia's east coast.  Paul’s studies with Michael White, founder of narrative therapy, inspired Paul to come to the United States to research narrative method and its applications in community renewal and organizational transition. 

Paul founded the Center for Narrative Studies in 

Washington DC and currently serves as the Director of the Center.  The Center offers a training program for narrative practitioners and sponsors The Washington Program for Service and Leadership, a peace and reconciliation program that brings 30 university students from Northern Ireland and Ireland to the United States each summer. Paul frequently lectures at universities nationally and internationally.  He holds degrees in Literature, Theology, Education and an MFA in Creative Writing from American University. 

   On the power of stories, storytelling and narrative
   Are stories a means to a larger end and perhaps not ends in themselves?  I think that is where I find the term narrative more embracing—at least in regard to my own work at Storywise—because it is one thing to tell good stories and use that as a way of building groups, and it is quite another to have an understanding about how stories map meaning for every facet of our lives, and to believe that we cannot but help be storytellers and storyweavers because we see this narrative process as core to identify formation and building our relational reality.  (Read Ricoeur, Sacks, McAdam, White, Polkinghorne, Dimasio, Randall, etc.). 
   “Stories are us,” so to speak.  The logic of story is the hidden logic of our meaning making system, even though we ‘tell a story,’ especially in science and business circles, that we make meaning through reason and facts.  That too is a story.
   Perhaps this sounds more like a philosophical position vis a vis the world, but I get a little anxious when stories get to be treated as just one more trick on the consultant’s bag of tricks.  I feel that the power of the narrative approach is that it is so much more than that—that it offers a radical shift in our usual epistemology-our ways of knowing, and that is what makes it so transformative.

   Narrative practice offers a way of understanding how language works and how meaning is made, broken and remade, how stories provide the theatre of possibility and action, and how culture can be interpreted as an anthology of preferred stories that conform to certain genres.  For instance, my work in America is steeped in the American Narrative of possibility and focus on the future.  When I go to Ireland or Eastern Europe, I almost drown in the genre of tragedy and the focus on the past.

   Narrative practice gives me a tool for understanding how meanings are made and how I can interact and participate  in that process more effectively . . . . 

I don’t want to sound like I am plugging narrative at the expense of story, but I do want to plea that we don’t dismiss story as only meaning “storytelling”.


Paul: One of the things I’d like to come back to in constructing a story: there’s a real evangelical fervor about, like we want to go out and spread the word. It’s like there’s a set of religious feel about it. We’ve found karma, or we’ve found a pot of gold. We want to share that.  (12.2.58) But I know from my religious studies and stuff that the mission, a mission story, is a particular genre of story, at least in religious texts.

 So we’re competing with a whole lot of other fads, new ideas that are out there on the block, and can be confused with it. A mission story often is like: it starts off with the urgency, which is: WHY do we need this? Why is it so important? Why is it so critical? What hangs in the balance if this doesn’t happen? What’s at stake if the storytelling movement doesn’t get into organizations and transform them, make them more human? 

So part of it is, not to sound critical, in the sense that it’s all bad, but it’s the construction of a story which is a recruiting, how you
recruit people into a sense of energy and urgency. You have to argue your case. “Ok. Knowledge management is good. So is having chaplains in factories. That’s good. So is giving Ritalin to kid.” There’s lots of needs out there. How do you establish some sense that: no, this is really important, guy! This is not just another you-know-what..

    That’s why I think what’s at stake in 

storytelling – whether it sounds grandiose or not, with the global thing and the war – but by god, that’s something that people deeply care about. At least, it seems to me. People are very deeply worried about the fate of the world and all that kind of stuff. Well, you’ve got to speak to that. You’ve got to speak to that concern. One’s work has to be relevant to that. Otherwise you’re in two different conversations….
   I see it as an opportunity for us . . . it’s in organizations, and this is a way of humanizing organizations. Somehow – story and being human — there’s some connection there. There’s a piece I read in the last workshop by Ignatieff: he said that being human is a story. And you can forget it. People butcher each other: they’ve forgotten the story of what it is to be human. So for Christ’s sake, we need to get in and keep that story to be alive. Our fate depends on it. 


We’ve had glimpses of Paul through his accomplishments and his words.  But the to know the man is to know the work he is doing today.  As I write this introduction, Paul is in Belfast, doing his magic—bringing together  29 college students from different sides of Ireland’s political divide to work and learn in an environment of mutual respect and to come away with a renewed confidence in their own leadership abilities. 

Beginning as The Young Leaders Program in 1995, Paul and his network of supporters bring students from Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland to Washington DC for the summer internships and leadership seminars.   Now known as The Washington-Ireland  Program (WIP)  interviews, selects and trains the group to serve and to work as an effective leadership team through building  a trust that transcends sectarian boundaries, celebrating the group's identity in diversity, and challenging  them to achieve professional and personal excellence, all to better equip participants to meet the future challenges of peace and progress on the island of Ireland.

If this program has done one thing for me, it has shown me that there is so much more to be done. I left Belfast knowing that our chance for peace was slipping through our fingers; now I know that there is a future. Maybe we really will be the next 

                  Young Leaders. Graduate of 1999 program 

Tel 301 371-7100 :; www.Pelerei.Com
Steve Denning
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Seth Kahan 
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Rob Creekmore
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To buy:
The Springboard: How Storytelling Ignites Action in Knowledge-Era Organizations
by Steve Denning (October 2000) Butterworth-Heinemann, Boston, USA

          Paperback - 192 pages. ISBN: 0750673559 
To read 
of :
The Squirrel: The Seven Highest Value Forms of Organizational Storytelling
          by Steve Denning (work in progress) 
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