On the Bryan Center walkway on a sunny day, a sign by a table reads "free art for your wall" "pick a page" "make a poem" "free Polaroid." Several people stop by the table to create black-out poems.

“Say the Thing” Encourages Ethical Self-Reflection through Storytelling

How does telling your own story help you figure out how to live your life? With the help of great thinkers, poets, and mystics, a new initiative of Duke Chapel and the Kenan Institute for Ethics offers students the chance to explore their own internal ethics through storytelling — and to ask how they might direct those beliefs into external action.

People typically think of college as a place for young adults to embark on journeys of self-discovery — getting to know people who are different from them, exploring new hobbies and intellectual interests, and learning how to be independent.

For Leah Torrey, college is also a time of moral formation, and with the help of storytelling, this can be just as fun as it is meaningful.

As the director of Say the Thing, a storytelling initiative launched by Duke Chapel in partnership with the Kenan Institute for Ethics, Torrey creates “meaning-making opportunities” for students to engage in ethical self-reflection. These can span from writing a poem at a pop-up event (or “Lark”) to six weekly sessions at “the Studio,” which helps students tell their own stories through reading and discussing works from “big thinkers” from across the disciplines.

“We’re trying to create a program where you can walk in from every door,” Torrey said.

During a “Lark” on the Bryan Center walkway on a sunny day in October, a student volunteer called out “Free art for your dorm!” to passers-by — who, after stopping out of curiosity, learned that they would be making the art themselves.

A prompt on the table read “What makes you come alive?” Taking up markers and sheets of pages from books, including a humble dictionary, participants blacked out words, sentences, and entire paragraphs, leaving their answer in a cluster of words comprising a mini-poem.


While Say the Thing is a secular, inclusive project, it draws from many influential thinkers, both religious and not. One key figure is Howard Thurman — professor, chaplain, and mentor to Martin Luther King, Jr., who is known as the “spiritual godfather” of the Civil Rights Movement.

“He’s often overlooked, but his philosophy undergirds all of this,” Torrey said.

Thurman’s book “Jesus and the Disinherited” focuses on a “minoritized man living in an oppressive society, who uses non-violent tactics to create systemic change,” Torrey said.

“You don’t need to be Christian to read it,” she added.

Another is “Meditations of the Heart,” she said, which drives home the message that “one has to look inwards and move outwards, back and forth….the inward analysis directs one’s outward actions.”

This resonates for Torrey, a former community organizer.

“In organizing,” she said, “the idea is that your story informs how you’re civically engaged, the actions you take.” She created the “Studio” curriculum to guide this kind of self-reflection.


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The next phase of Say the Thing will see the launch of storytelling booths around campus. Supplying participants with prompts on ethical questions, these custom kiosks will record their responses, providing a record of their moral reckoning during a certain time.

Only the participants will have access to the cloud-hosted recording, which expires after a week. “You can download it or let it go,” Torrey said.

While Say the Thing playfully engages with technology, “it encourages a slow-down,” Torrey said. “The limits of older technologies have gifts to offer us.”

This is why she offers a Polaroid portrait to the people who stop and write a poem during a “Lark” — as a physical artifact of a potentially transformative moment in one’s life journey.

Learn more about Say the Thing doings and happenings by following their Instagram.

A collaboration between the Duke Chapel and the Kenan Institute for Ethics, Say the Thing is part of The Purpose Project at Duke and is funded by The Duke Endowment.