The center announced Wednesday that folklorist and museum manager Kiran Singh Sirah will take over in August for former director Jimmy Neil Smith, who retired from the organization in December.
“I’m absolutely thrilled,” Sirah said Wednesday. “It’s going to be a wonderful chance to get to know the storytellers and people of the region, and I’m excited to work with the community to attract more of an international audience to the area.”
Sirah, a native of the United Kingdom, moved to Chapel Hill, N.C., two years ago to earn a master’s degree in folklore at the University of North Carolina.
He paired the degree with his previous master’s in museum and cultural heritage studies in hopes of showing how stories can be used to promote peace and understanding.
“What I advocate for is the way in which stories can be used as a tool to understand what life is like for other people,” Sirah said. “Certainly among people in different countries, but also among neighbors in different status groups and political backgrounds, the stories we tell can help us understand more of what it means to be human and to foster a deeper sense of community.”
But tradition and storytelling can also be used to drive wedges between groups, Sirah said, like in the case of sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland between Catholics and Protestants he studied extensively.
The challenge lies in finding ways to use stories and history to highlight similarities, he said.
Last year, Sirah shared his views on conflict resolution with a crowd of thousands at United Nations headquarters in New York City as the keynote speaker for Rotary International’s U.N. Day.
His speech centered on using art as a social force for change.
Storytelling Center Director of Programs Susan O’Connor said Sirah emerged as the best candidate out of a field of more than 80 applicants.
Three finalists, including Sirah, traveled to Jonesborough to interview for the position.
“We felt his background and qualifications were really appropriate for us,” O’Connor said of Sirah. “Aside from managing the day-to-day operations, I know he’ll certainly bring a new perspective and new ideas.”
Sirah said he has plenty of ideas for helping to promote the center’s signature program, the annual National Storytelling Festival, including diversifying the lineup of artists and introducing new ways to convey stories.
Sirah also said he and the center’s board discussed the possibility of creating a new festival that could seek to highlight the stories of the East Tennessee as a region.
“There are many people abroad, who haven’t really experienced the inside of America, but hold on to a shared perception of what the country is to the wider world,” he said. “I hope we can bring a different perspective to them to help them understand more about the people and the diversity of the country, and I think of this region as kind of the heart of America.”
Sirah will being work at the center in August, and will helm the organization for the 2013 National Storytelling Festival starting Oct. 4.