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Facing the strange changes

ASU storytelling initiative launches latest venture to explore the power of transformative experiences

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May 28, 2020

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus once said that the only constant is change. It would stand to reason, then, that we’d be wise to prepare ourselves for it. Only, that’s not how life works. Change is often unexpected, sometimes painful and always transformative.

In the midst of a world beset with unprecedented change, the Narrative Storytelling Initiative at Arizona State University has launched its latest venture: an online magazine titled Transformations, a collaboration with the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Transformations features personal essays inspired by the belief that sharing transformative stories has the power to influence the trajectory of our lives.

Though the project was conceived of long before the coronavirus crisis upended life as we know it, Transformations editor and director of ASU’s Narrative Storytelling Initiative Steven Beschloss acknowledges in a note from the editor that it couldn’t be more relevant to the project’s purpose, writing, “In this particular moment, a global pandemic asks each of us to rethink the lives we’ve had, the choices we’ve made, and the choices we need to make in the coming months and years.”

At launch time, Transformations features six essays, five of which were written by ASU professors, though Beschloss said the magazine welcomes submissions beyond professors and the university, expecting to publish one new essay each week.

“In many ways, the impetus for the site was my belief that successful, creative people can identify personal moments in their lives that have been important catalysts for change and help define who they are,” he said. “I felt if we could work with people to unearth some of those experiences and then write narratively about them, then we could produce a compelling collection of stories that would be of interest and of value to a wider public.”

In addition, Transformations features visual art (Herberger Institute faculty Turner Davis created illustrations for two of the original essays) as well as one-minute video essays in which experts in their field share brief insights on topics ranging from creativity to fear to belonging.

The question of belonging is one ASU Dean of Social Sciences Pardis Mahdavi explored in both her video essay and her written essay, the latter of which expands on the former in fleshing out two life-changing incidents that led her to the realization that as an Iranian American, she didn’t have to identify as just one or the other — she could live in both worlds.

“I used to feel so alone, but there are so many people like me who share the experience of having this liminal existence, of feeling betwixt and between,” she said. “But we can find power (there).”

Mahdavi was a natural choice as a contributor to the Transformations project — she also serves as director of ASU’s School of Social Transformation. And while she had already agreed to contribute back in December 2019, she believes the project launch is well-timed, however unfortunately, considering the light recent events have shone on the need for societal change.

“I think the pandemic has exposed a lot of the most stark inequalities in our society, including the intersectional issues of race and class,” she said. “As an author, I feel like I succeeded when I get people to think about things in a different way, and this project is an opportunity to collectively pause and think about what kind of societies and what kind of changes we want to make going forward, and what are the ingredients that go into the recipe of transformation.”

Fellow contributor William Hohenstein, a professor emeritus in Sociology at Haverford College in Pennsylvania, has been passionate about social justice his whole life. His essay, “Lessons in Violence and Change,” relays a traumatic childhood experience and how it influenced his passion for understanding the ways in which forces outside of our control can have untold consequences on our lives.

Throughout his career, Hohenstein has been involved in researching capital punishment, prison reform and gender and racial disparities. After writing his essay for Transformations, he felt inspired to continue writing, exploring questions of justice in short pieces that he shares with friends, colleagues and former students. In regard to the coronavirus crisis, though he says it has not greatly affected him personally, he does foresee it causing great change on a larger scale.

“I believe that it’s going to change a lot about the ways we live our lives,” he said. “But I don’t know what that’s going to look like, or how that’s going to affect social inequalities. I just know that things are going to be different — and hopefully better.”

Top illustration by Turner G. Davis for the ASU Narrative Storytelling Initiative.

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