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  • Sage Lamott, Staff Writer

The art of storytelling: Willamette’s Conversation Project

Photo by Lucy Devlaeminck

Talking about collaborative discussion seems to serve the members of Professors David Guttermen and Wendy Petersen Boring’s Conversation Project class. With an open awareness of the political, heated world we live in and a positive outlook toward collaboration, the class and its extended opportunities serve as a beacon of hope. The Conversation Project’s most recent event was the second annual Immigrant Story Live, hosted on Oct. 10 in Willamette’s Hudson Hall. In collaboration with the Immigrant Story Foundation in Portland, the event featured music, vendors and storytellers.

The event was hosted by the students of the class itself. Kate West (‘26), Sawyer Garrison (‘26) and Mira Karthik (‘24) discussed the importance of having an organization like this one: “The goal is to strive for conversation, and enhance democracy." Students were the heart of the evening working the whole event. There were volunteers working at book sale booths, ushering, talking to guests and creating a comfortable atmosphere.

After opening with an introduction by the associated professors, the music portion of the event began. Martin Zarzar, guitar and vocalist, led the group with his musical compositions and some traditional music from various cultures. He performed with unmatched passion and charisma, telling the story of his life with each of his original pieces, noting, “What can be achieved when people work together, that’s the real American dream.” A standout piece was a song written about his son in which he compared him to a “growing tree.” Tying into the overall theme of storytelling, the music was soft and lingering, allowing the listener to consider it long after it concluded. Accompanied by Willamette’s very own music professor Mario Diaz on percussion and guitar, Randy Porter on piano and Michael Dougherty on bass, the band serenaded the audience with flair.

Four storytellers shared with the audience. Nasirullah Safi discussed his trauma growing up in the Kunar Valley between Afghanistan and Pakistan. He shared that he now works to help refugees coming to Oregon. TK Kapurura was a lawyer in Rhodesia before the corrupt government forced him and his family to move to the United States. Now providing legal advice in Oregon, he aims to support social justice efforts. Jane Mantiri shared about her immigration to the U.S., and how it felt to be an outsider in a new place. She now shares her story in order to empower others who feel like outsiders. Emmanuel Turaturanye survived the Rwandan genocide and shared his journey of faith and perseverance. Now working as a TriMet driver, he is optimistic about the future.

Finally, Sankar Raman, The Immigrant Story’s founder, spoke about the power of conversation, noting that you “learn so much from stories and music that you could never get from a textbook.” Raman has collaborated with the class on multiple occasions, serving as a guest speaker as well as interacting with students and faculty.

The class itself was founded with the goal of “supporting the atmosphere of conversation,” said Petersen Boring. Student Cassie Segura(‘26) added the class helps in “learning how to facilitate conversations.”

Peterson Boring detailed how the idea for the class originated during the height of the 2016 election. Both she and Gutterman noticed how America’s political divides were affecting students and decided to take action. Collaborating to apply for a grant, they started the class based on their passion for community-based learning. Gutterman noted that the class “listens [to] past differences.” Both professors added that after leading the class they began to recognize that “people are story carriers.” Due to this, they focus on being careful listeners and urge their students to do the same.

Empowering active listening and sharing a message of unity and support, the Conversation Project serves as a beacon of light within the Willamette community.

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