Power-full storytelling for change

Can we create powerful (and “power-full”) storytelling for advocacy that shifts power to people and communities so they may better control the change they seek?

Power-full storytelling

The “traditional” framework for advocacy storytelling is built around persuading those who aren’t directly affected – or who aren’t currently engaged – to empathize and act. This is a good way to go when what you need are people to write Congress, come to a march on Washington or give you money so you can do more of your good work.

But persuasion isn’t about power. Persuasion acts on those not affected. Somewhere along the way it’s possible—too easy, really—for the change that needs to happen to be disputed, watered down, stalled in a committee. Meanwhile, real people go hungry, real homes sink into the ocean, real wildlife lose a place to live.

Philanthropy may recognize the power problem

Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, recently wrote Why Giving Back Isn’t Enough in the New York Times. In it, Walker calls on the philanthropic community and, perhaps, a broader economic and political establishment, to not simply address the effects of inequality and injustice on society but to solve their root causes.

Farhad Ebrahimi of the Chorus Foundation wrote about the Foundation’s decision to focus on systemic change and supporting transitions to a new political economy in choosing how to direct its support of climate change advocacy.

It’s not a new idea to social justice advocates: We can (and should) feed the hungry but wouldn’t it be more prudent to tackle systemic causes of inequality and poverty that are leading to a growing number of hungry families and children each year?

Pressuring the System or Shifting Power?

Advocates and campaigners can do much more to tell the stories of people impacted by inequality, poverty, hunger, war or environmental disaster. And many are doing just that with interviews, personal histories, photos and video, and other narratives that tell stories of the impacted and less powerful in their own voices.  Recent work by Humans of New York tells the story of refugees to help fundraise for the community. In the film @Home, activist Mark Horvath interviews dozens of homeless people, family members, and others in the community to tell the story of homelessness from the perspective of those living it.

But at the end of the day most advocacy-related blogging and storytelling is aimed at encouraging the reader to act, share or simply think. The reader is typically someone at arms length (or, more likely, many many arm lengths) from the subject of the story. And by storytelling I don’t just mean blog posts, videos or articles but all communications that identifies characters, creates a narrative arc and results in action. This could be a paragraph in a fundraising appeal, a page in an annual report, a Facebook post or even ad copy.

A question worth our attention is this: Do our stories empower the reader or the subject? If it’s the former we’re going to alter the system with policy change, a charitable gift, or education.

But if it’s the latter—empowering the subject of the story—we’re doing something entirely different, and a bit radical. We’re giving people tools to build and shift power and change systems in which they live.

In a reaction to Darren Walker’s column, public health advocate Roz Lasker reflected on her team’s research into community health and empowerment. Lasker found that when impacted residents speak out not influencing decisions but instead communicating with more privileged community members who use the information in policymaking.

When we looked not only at who had a voice, but also at whose ideas determined which issues were addressed, how they were addressed and how success was evaluated, we learned that marginalized residents were usually limited to providing information for more privileged participants to use. Consequently, they were unable to move forward the ideas they cared about most or to address those problems in ways that would work for them.
—Roz Lasker

In other words, the role of marginalized people in stories about their situation has largely been to provide information that others might consider when creating changes meant to affect those people or groups. Power lies outside the impacted community and voices of that community, when sought, don’t tend to shift that power.

Also consider a recent piece by Kate Aronoff in Waging Nonviolence: [Climate activists can learn a lot from Black Lives Matter]. In it, Aronoff challenges the climate movement to more actively work to build the power of the most impacted groups, a strategy she sees as core to the impact #BlackLivesMatter has had on policy change.

As the movement for black lives already understands, dismantling racism is not about proving racists wrong. Climate change will not be solved by convincing climate deniers of their own idiocy. Each are about power and affecting near-tectonic shifts in national values and priorities: Whose lives matter? Who controls our future? What does security mean amidst rising tides, and who deserves it?
—Kate Aronoff

Power-full Storytelling

Stories, of course, exist in the context of the world around us—that includes what the writer, reader and story subject is experiencing, needs and wants. It’s important to recognize the place from which each party is operating and where they’re most likely to end up at the end of the story.

Storytelling as used (and shared) by advocacy organizations most often works by changing policy to the benefit of a group of people while by helping another group feel the need to take action.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Moving a group of people to action and changing laws or behavior as a result can be extremely useful and powerful.

But systemic change often requires growing (or shifting) power so that those affected have the ability to control the outcome or at least control the nature of the policy debate. So we’ve been mulling over what a “power-full” story looks like. Some thoughts:

  • There is a clear and strong theory of change and that change gives power to people in the story, not just the reader or a third party decision maker.
  • People are at the center of the story and they have a role in how the story is told.
  • Stories connect subject and reader, not just tie readers to an organization or cause.
  • Think about the subject of the story as the reader. If the subject (or his/her colleagues) were reading this story, what would help them use the story to be more successful advocates? If those people wouldn’t act as a result of the story, who would?

Those are just ideas for some “power-full” storytelling principles. Regardless, our content and storytelling should build power for those in need, not just readers, campaigners or organizations. What do you think?

Leave a Reply