Change happens when people tell their story – not yours

An intention for 2019

In addition to helping the nonprofit community speed up membership innovation, let’s create a framework for helping people find, create and share their own stories in ways that build community, grow power, and strengthen their ties to organizations as well as one another.

Never before have we had so much content, so many stories, so much news to consume. The volume isn’t just overwhelming members, readers and supporters. It’s transforming how organizations, businesses and even individuals create and fund content.

The issues facing content creators, marketers and digital strategists are many. A few: No longer is getting a story in the newspaper sufficient. An organizational blog post that gets 100 views and three retweets isn’t getting you anywhere. A video on YouTube is likely lost to the world unless you’ve committed to a full-blown YouTube marketing strategy.

Here’s the thing

Content is created to serve organizational goals. Stories we create and ask people to share may be about people impacted by the policy or product we’re working to promote (or oppose). But it’s still our story. In our voice. With our context woven through it. Aimed at achieving our purpose.

Advocates, organizations, companies, journalists and storytellers all approach content with intention and filters. We have a goal in mind. That goal shapes the questions we ask and the pieces of the story we pick up and shine a light on.

So, are we creating content, stories that actually give voice to people? Or are we just rewriting our own beliefs in the words of others? Are we reporting on the world as it is or the world as we see it?

When I talk about content strategy and storytelling, I want to be very intentional about the who, what and why. Some recent articles and conversations help here:

Ashley Alvarado is the Director of Community Engagement at KPCC, a public radio station based in Pasadena, California. They’ve been taking on a range of innovative content programs aimed at better / more deeply covering and finding community-driven news. They bought and revived community news site LAist, for instance, not what you might expect from a radio station.

Alvarado joined a Media Impact Funders webinar last month to share an update on KPCC’s Unheard LA project. Think of it as TedX talks with real local people sharing personal experiences.

The project’s name is intentional – Unheard instead of untold. As Alvarado points out, more stories go unheard than untold because people with stories don’t have access to media and storytelling opportunities. Unheard LA is about stripping away control over who gets to hear stories by investing in meeting people where they are, applying user-centered design to journalism and storytelling, and really shifting engagement from being organization-centered to people-powered.

Alvarado has a great example in the webinar of how user centered design (or, really, just listening to people who don’t usually get talked to by the media and nonprofits) is transformative right now. She talks about the coming 2020 census, how important it is to LA residents, and how many advocacy groups are working in the community to organize and raise awareness about the census.

But, in talking with people, it’s become clear that people have heard of the census but have no idea about how it affects them, why they should care, or what to do.

In other words, despite all the work happening on the ground, there’s a gap between the stories being created by advocates and how people consume, translate and use stories.

In a story for NiemanLab, Known but not discussed: Low-income people aren’t getting quality news and information. What can the industry do about it?, Christine Schmidt talks with Jay Hamilton, head of Stanford’s journalism school, and Fiona Morgan, an information ecosystems consultant and former director of Free Press’s community organizing News Voices program, about their research into the information needs of low-income communities.

The context of the conversation is journalism. Are news and media companies meeting the needs of low-income communities amidst rapid changes in newspaper availability and digital platforms?

But there are big lessons (and opportunity) here for community nonprofits, advocacy groups and anyone doing community organizing. Schmidt, Hamilton and Morgan talk about behavioral economics, helping people access information that impacts their lives, and how people make decisions. These factors, much more than high level policy outcomes, impact how people access and use messaging.

Any framework for community storytelling that builds power needs to emphasize user experience and design. Many of the organizations already working in community organizing have relationships in the community, access to data (or at least awareness of what data is out there), and insights into what information people use to make decisions on a daily basis.

These are the organizations that, with storytelling skills and resources, can transform how communities access information, use information to build power, and

Let’s think about how we scale up storytelling that puts communities at the forefront. The role of nonprofits, media organizations and funders is to train, support, guide and, perhaps most importantly, create the channels that spread learning faster.


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