Jimmy Neil Smith – The Future of the International Storytelling Center

Press Play to hear Jimmy Neil Smith about the future of the International Storytelling Center on the Art of Storytelling with Brother Wolf.

Press Play to hear Jimmy Neil Smith about the future of the International Storytelling on the Art of Storytelling Center with Brother Wolf.

Jimmy Neil Smith - President of the International Storytelling Center.
Photo Courtesy of Fresh Air Photo

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The Future of the International Storytelling Center

Jimmy Neil Smith writes...
In the early 1990s, I attended a conference of the Tennessee Arts Commission in nearby Johnson City.
During the session, potter Bill Strickland spoke about the arts-based Manchester Craftsmen's Guild and Bidwell Training Center in inner-city Pittsburgh an institution, founded by Strickland, that teaches low-income, inner-city youths an employment skill.

Strickland spoke eloquently about his institution and its program. His address was stirring and powerful. Then, as a closing, Strickland said, "I challenge each of you to go home and build an institution that confirms and makes real what you know."

Strickland's challenge inspired me.

Less than a year later, the National Storytelling Association announced the development of what would become the International Storytelling Center the organization's first permanent home in 30 years and a "launching pad" for a series of national and international programs, products, and services.

It was Strickland's challenge that would give birth to the institution that has become the International Storytelling Center. The Center campus now composed of the elegant Mary B. Martin Storytelling Hall, Historic Center Inn, and the Storytelling Community Park opened in June of 2002.

Through the work of ISC, we are seeking to confirm and make real what we know about storytellingthe ancient tradition that is as old as humankind yet as modern as this morning's headlines. Now, in 2010, ISC is launching an expanded vision a journey to a New Horizon a better life, a better world, through the power of storytelling.

    To achieve this vision, ISC is:

  • Building international awareness, appreciation, and audiences for storytelling
  • Teaching individuals, organizations, and communities across the globe how to tap into the power of storytelling to build a better life and a better world
  • Enhancing the Center's role in Jonesborough as the worldwide beacon for storytelling the home of the global storytelling renaissance

It's a delicious but colossal task, and we can't do this work alone! The task is too big, and we are too small. If there's going to be a better world through storytelling, it's going to take the leadership, contributions, and resources of ISC and the personal and professional involvement of every one - including you - working together.
Our work is being built upon tradition honoring, respecting, and effectively utilizing as a foundation for our work the existing knowledge, experience, and skills of the national and international storytelling community while, at the same time, tapping into new communities, new fields of knowledge, and new possibilities for storytelling.

Indeed, the reality of our 21st century vision has been slow in coming- but the time has come (it is here) to work together to realize the full potential of storytelling, our storytelling community, and our vision for a New Horizon for our world and the people who live in it.

Jimmy Neil Smith - President of the International Storytelling Center speaking with Jackie Torrence at National Storytelling Festival.
Jimmy Neil Smith, President of the International Storytelling Center, speaking with Jackie Torrence at National Storytelling Festival.

Bio of Jimmy Neil Smith
Founder and President of the International Storytelling Center

Jimmy Neil Smith's interest in storytelling began as a child. His life was peopled with talkers storytellers and liars and his favorite time was that spent sitting around the dinner table with his family, long after the dishes were washed and put away, sharing stories. He life's work teaching high-school English and journalism.

But Jimmy Neil's ultimate calling came when he, with the help of some Jonesborough townsfolk, staged the first National Storytelling Festival in October, 1973 - an annual event, now going into its 38th year, that has spawned a revival of appreciation for the ancient art of storytelling. Two years after the first festival, Jimmy Neil founded the International Storytelling Center then known as the National Association for the Preservation and Perpetuation of Storytelling to help spearhead America's storytelling revival. Since its founding in 1975, ISC became the premier institution promoting this cultural renaissance.

The International Storytelling Center (ISC) is dedicated to promoting the creative applications of storytelling to produce positive change in our society healthier communities, more effective workplaces, and enriched human lives through a program of public awareness, knowledge, and learning. ISC continues to produce the annual National Storytelling Festival, and Jimmy Neil serves as the Center's president and vision keeper.

Jimmy Neil's inspiration for founding the festival actually grew out of his love for Jonesborough, his hometown and the oldest town in Tennessee. The Jonesborough native created the festival to celebrate the town's cultural traditions and to help ignite the community's infant tourism-development program. Today, the festival and the town's role as the "birthplace of America's storytelling revival" have brought national, even international, acclaim to Jonesborough and the entire state of Tennessee.

Jimmy Neil Smith - President of the International Storytelling Center meeting with Barbra Bush.
Jimmy Neil Smith meeting with Barbra Bush.

To honor Jonesborough's role in America's storytelling renaissance, a new facility, ISC's Mary B. Martin Storytelling Hall, opened in June of 2002 to serve as the organization's headquarters, a beacon for storytelling worldwide, and a "launching pad" for an expanded array of national and international storytelling outreach programs. The facility is part of ISC's campus in downtown Jonesborough.

Vice President Al Gore, who launched the Center's construction at the 1995 National Storytelling Festival, called the facility "the epicenter of American storytelling." U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander, who was on hand for the grand opening of the Center, wrote that "The story of how the International Storytelling Center came to be has been told and will be retold because it is the American story. It teaches and reminds us that given a mixture of inventiveness, entrepreneurship, leadership and hope in a free world, anything is possible."

Since the Center's opening, approximately 300,000 people have visited the new facility, which includes a state-of-the-art theater built especially for showcasing storytelling. The Center is also now home for the Teller-in-Residence program, beginning its ninth season in May of 2010, which includes twenty-six consecutive weeks of live storytelling featuring nationally- known storytellers. Through the formation of partnerships with the Library of Congress, Smithsonian Institution, and others, Jimmy Neil Smith continues to expand the work of storytelling throughout the world.

Please read more about the ISC and Jimmy Neil Smiths Legacy on the International Storytelling Centers website http://www.storytellingcenter.com/


  • By Charles Johnson, February 24, 2010 @ 2:30 pm

    This was one of your best interviews yet, incredibly informative.
    I loved the blooper reel at the end.

  • By Brother Wolf, February 24, 2010 @ 6:46 pm


    I struggled with feeling that I was too excited about my guest. Sometimes it can be difficult to balance my joy in meeting with guests that I admire with my desire to ask real and balanced questions.

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