Searching for Storytellers: Boileau family business establishes scholarship

This is part of the series Shore Stories: Life Along the Lakeshore, columns by local and former residents about their lives. 

We have access to more information than ever before in human history, and the sheer volume of it grows every day. The latest estimates (already 2 years old) claim that humans produce 2.5 quintillion bytes of information daily. But despite access to a broader set of data, we find ourselves increasingly confused and divided about what is and is not true.

Unlike computers, humans don’t have the ability to process all of the information we receive each day. Instead, we have to use filters to decide what’s important and what’s unimportant — we look for things that match what we already believe, for simple patterns in issues that are complex, for the negative in others and the positives about ourselves. These filters are useful to help us process overwhelming amounts of information, but they’re not so great when they blind us to fact and drive division between us.

So when you have something really important you need to communicate, how can you get past those filters and create understanding? I think the answer is in storytelling.

Data and statistics inform, but narratives transform details into something our brains know how to handle. This is one of the reasons why you will find the role of “storyteller” in the traditions passed down from generation to generation in every culture. And, I believe it has the ability to bridge some of the gaps that most divide our culture today.

Earlier this year, my business partners and I had the great privilege of working with the Community Foundation of the Holland/Zeeland Area to set up one of our city’s only scholarships to support the field of communications. We’re calling the fund the “Randy Boileau Storyteller Scholarship” to honor the founder of our organization’s passion for telling great stories that create understanding.

My father, Randy, started our company in 2005 with the belief that — more than raw data — narratives could bring people and communities together to accomplish great things. Over his career in journalism and public relations, he had plenty of opportunities to watch how stories could change minds, build empathy and motivate communities. Randy cut his teeth in journalism at Knight Ridder (Detroit Free Press and the Miami Herald) before entering the world of communications to manage public relations for the international companies Bank of America, Comerica, Mazda, Donnelly and Varnum.

When he launched his own company Boileau Communications Management (now Boileau & Co.), he had the freedom to choose which stories to tell — local businesses, nonprofits and educational institutions — and he had the freedom to choose who would work alongside him.

Randy’s perspective of narrative profoundly shaped how all of our employees approach business challenges. When my partners and I sat down to discuss what new initiatives we could try that would have the greatest impact on our community, no idea received more  support than that of a scholarship to preserve the tradition of storytelling in the next generation.

Randy retired from Boileau a few years ago, but he’s still telling stories. Instead of talking about his clients, now he’s writing songs about tomatoes and telling tall tales about the gators that swim in the lake behind his Florida home. When we told Randy about the scholarship we had planned to set up in his name, he said:

“It is a rare honor to have my name associated with something so worthy. Some storytellers are born and others are made. But all storytellers—and the communities they serve—are made better by opportunities for education. Now if we can just find candidates who can pronounce my last name correctly the honor will be complete!”

The Randy Boileau Storyteller Scholarship is $3,000 and available to local high school seniors who plan to attend Grand Valley State University and major in one of several communication areas. For details, visit the Community Foundation of the Holland/Zeeland Area.
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