Better Stories, better lives

Over recent weeks, I have been exploring the role of storytelling in the work of community organisers. In November and December, I looked at the way stories structure our world, giving us identity with others and shaping our perceptions. We discussed how stories have provided the basis of civilisations and dynasties, offered entertainment for millions and given us some of the most recognisable figures in our lives. Since December, I have introduced the ideas of Marshall Ganz who argues that community leaders need to develop and perfect a Story of Self, a Story of Us and a Story of Now. In my last two posts, I looked at the way powerful narratives play out in the life of our communities and the way we need to ensure our stories privilege the marginalised and dispossessed.

November 21: Spoken Reality: A talk with NYC Storytelling Producers by UnionDocs CC FlickrIn this last of the series, I seek to give you a set of practical guides to developing your skills as a storyteller. Many would suggest that human beings are by nature storytellers, taking every opportunity to structure their environment with meaning and to develop elaborate sagas of their own and their people’s journey. We dream in stories, our science tells us stories of origins and processes, children play in stories, businesses are encouraged to express their mission as a story, we seek entertainment, even horror in stories. In fact you are an experienced storyteller by the time you are six. You can of course become a better, more conscious quilter of narrative and use the art in your work for the community.

Capturing your Community’s Saga

Your people already have already told the story of their community; the problem is that it is scattered across many households and age groups. Getting people to tell their part of the community story – and recognising it as such – is a fantastic way to bridge people’s understanding of the shared journey so far. When different accounts of the same event are shared, it can split or reinforce a sense of common purpose. The community leader has the role of helping the group recognise each other in the narratives and to bring the accounts together to build on each other.

Wedding Party by Evgeni Zotov CC FlickrHolding a story-telling party is one way to get the community’s saga told. Gathering the best storytellers together, you can give them ten minutes each to tell the group about an incident in the community’s life. Then other people are given five minutes to add, challenge or change the story in accord with their memory. In an evening, you might get five or six stories and if you plan it right, you could cover the major community crises and successes for the last few decades. Recording the conversation can give the community a place to start from in constructing it’s own shared biography.

Building your Style

Personal stories make riveting listening. If you have not yet got to grips with your own Story of Self, then may I encourage you to revisit my post here and have a go at your own story. As you learn to tell your stories – of Self, of Us and of Now – more effectively, you will begin to recognise that they work best if you follow some tried and tested guidelines. A good story follows these guidelines:

  • a single theme, clearly defined
  • a well-developed plot with a great opening, pace and intrigue
  • uses vivid word pictures and pleasing sounds and rhythm
  • characters are well drawn, handling antagonist / protagonists well
  • metaphor and analogy give it depth
  • remains faithful to the source
  • there is a strong drama involved with a powerful lesson to be learnt
  • engages the listeners appropriately

Heroes, Myths and Legends display by Moore Memorial Public Library CC FlickrClearly no one has this off by heart from the outset and retelling your stories in many contexts will give you confidence to devise a style that reflects your own values, approach and personality. In time, your way of storytelling will become inseparable from you and your style will become second nature. New stories, as they arise, will take their place alongside your established portfolio and give you opportunity to tell them still more inspiringly next time.

Using Different Media and Approaches

So far, I have given the impression that stories are verbal and told live in person. Of course, most of the stories we consume are told by other means. And your story telling can take any number of forms – leaflets, newsletters, video, photos, cartoon, novel, audio, street theatre, interview, blogs, social media – and can be delivered in all sorts of creative formats. Each media has its own strengths and weaknesses for storytelling and you should think through what elements your story has, your audience’s situation and how you can best engage them. Written media can be hard for those who struggle with words and visual media can feel ephemeral and insubstantial. Use the right media for your story.

Prop 8 Protest by renedrivers CC FlickrWe have also encountered narratives that are much larger than the individual story, creating for our whole society deep wells of meaning and influencing action and reaction from school children to politicians. These meta-narratives offer ways of tackling uncomfortable aspects of our collective lives such as single parents, migrants, people of different abilities, faiths and cultures, celebrities, oligarchs and princes. The mainstream media often portray these narratives as common sense and ensure they remain in place to support the powerful interests that fund them. As organisers, we need to take a critical look at such stories and work in our local setting to undermine the demeaning of our fellow citizens with stories that build solidarity, compassion and empathy. The future of our communities lies with the story-tellers!


Center for Story-based Strategy (2013) Workers Rising Up – an example of storytelling of a campaign to demand dignity for US workers at Walmart and McDonalds

Aunt Renie (2013) The Future of Storytelling – a course from Iversity at . See also

Barry McWilliams (1998) Effective Storytelling – a manual for beginners Available at

Chicago Public Media (ongoing) This American Life – a weekly storytelling podcast – wildly successful on iTunes

The Moth (ongoing) The Moth Podcast – another weekly storytelling podcast – live unscripted true stories delivered to packed audiences – also found free on iTunes

Benedict Carey (2007) This is Your Life (and How You Tell It) in Mental Health and Behavior in The New York Times Fascinating insight into the psychological role of storytelling for the individual. Available at here

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Stories that really count

Last time, I explored three narratives that are currently being propagated across the UK, giving the powerful and influential opportunity to construct a debate that favours their interests. This week I want to explore how organisers can take action through their work to counter such stories and to promote narratives that speak of justice and truth for those with different interests.

Before Christmas we were looking at the way stories are constructed – from mythic structures, using frames and drawing on current cultural memes. I outlined the approach to public narrative taught by Marshall Ganz from Harvard that encourages organisers to develop their own Story of Self, Story of Us and Story of Now. Creating effective narratives is not guess work but nor is it about applying preset recipes uncritically We have already seen many of the key building blocks of great storytelling and today I want to discuss some of the key elements of compelling narrative.

12 Years a Slave by Craig Duffy CC FlcikrMake it Human

Stories are built deep within our consciousness because they carry meaning for us. And meaning is about touching the fundamentals of our soul, our emotions, our capacity to feel for and with other people. A memorable story is one that holds our attention through its human quality; the characters make us feel and organiser stories need to centre on human life. Such a human focus causes us to recognise ourselves in others and so generates compassion. When we know something of the experience depicted in the story, we can leap the boundaries of time, culture and space and see in the other something of our own lives. The human dimension is central to stories of justice and peace; it speaks to our heart and motivates us to action.

Solidarity is built from a sense of common humanity and shared purpose

yelp helps hawaii fundraiser for hawaii foodbank by Yelp Inc. CC FlickrSo as organisers we need to look for stories in our work that allow individuals and families to speak for the issue. People get the pain and trauma of others; they recognise in other’s circumstances, their own dilemmas and they celebrate as with family members when others overcome the odds stacked against them. Making people just like us heroes of our stories gives our community members the opportunity to see themselves as potential heroes and heroines. And what is true for one or a small group can be seen to be available for many in the crowd.

Setting your frames and values

The essence of telling stories that empower and articulate another reality is the frames we use. Every frame has embedded within its structure certain values that can build collective action or undermine it. As we saw in my post on frames, some values enhance the work of organising and some pull in the opposite direction. So for example developing stories that support values of self-reliance, image and status will tend to encourage individual action whilst values that speak to our common humanity will lead more naturally to collective action. In developing the frame behind your community’s narrative, focusing on values that build shared effort and mutual dependence will support the work of organising more effectively than frames that highlight values such as wealth creation or hedonism.

Young Leaders Soiree by United Way Greater St Louis CC FlickrFrames are also bound to the culture of your audience. If your community gives precedence to older people, then your narrative of change needs to take that into account. You may of course want to offer an alternative perspective – that young people have an energy and drive to offer, for example – but you need to take the existing frame into account in developing your narrative. Change driven through by energetic young people may just fall on deaf ears if you are not also able to justify how the wisdom and experience of older people also contributed. This cultural awareness is difficult to achieve as we are often shielded from the general view by our own bias toward alternative perspectives and values that sit ill with the prevailing mood. Testing your stories with different audiences is the only way to be sure of what works.

Creating the broader myth

Whilst our local action is in the foreground of community members’ consciousness, the narrative you tell through organising can have greater impact if it reinforces and supplements stories told in a wider field and with a greater audience. So if your local action is essentially about giving space for new arrivals to contribute, then you can give your story more credibility by linking it to overarching narratives that emphasise the value of mobility and migration to the community and the wider world. If you are working on living wages, then develop it within a wider saga of workers’ rights to benefit from the accumulated meaning that struggle has for many communities.

Testing your stories with different audiences is the only way to be sure of what works.

Occupy Solidarity by Wolfgang Sterneck CC FlickrOrganising is about building community members’ sense of their shared destiny and their capacity to take collective control of their lives. Narratives are the way we touch the emotions of our supporters and our opponents; they transcend the immediate concerns of the moment and offer a relationship with the larger dimensions of life and death, over time and space. Solidarity is built from a sense of common humanity and shared purpose and we gain awareness of the human struggle of others through stories of dilemmas overcome, wrongs righted and dragons slain.

Next time: Building stories that resonate and play the key role I have been outlining in these posts is a skill we all learn to exercise to one degree or another. In my next post, I want to conclude this series by looking at some practical ways to develop as a storyteller and myth maker and point to some resources that will help us all be narrative artists!


Patrick Reinsborough and Doyle Canning (2010) Re:Imagining Change: How to use story-based strategy to win campaigns, build movements and change the world PM Press Also available as a pdf at

Jonas Sachs (2012) Winning the Story Wars: Why those who tell (and Live) the best stories will rule the future Harvard Business Review Press

Tim Holmes et al (2011) The Common Cause Handbook Public Interest Research Centre (PIRC) Available as a pdf from and in hard copy

Micha Narberhaus (2013) How to Break Out of the System Trap? A model to support conversations for a more strategic activism Smart CSOs Available as a pdf at

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Posting this week

I’m sorry to say that due to losing broadband connection at my home, I am unable to post my normal blog this week. I hope to be able to return next Wednesday if I can obtain connection again. In the meantime, keep telling great stories!

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Lies, Lies and Damned Narratives

In this series on the nature and value of public narrative to community organisers, we have reached a stage where we can move on to look at the wider implications of storytelling. In the early parts of this overview, we explored the sheer ubiquity of story and its power to shape our appreciation of issues. We looked at frames and the way myth is fundamental to human existence. We also considered how memes carry key elements of story through our culture, being shared, transformed and reinvented constantly. In the last three posts, I have outlined the practice of public narrative as a way for community organisers to harness the power of storytelling to their work.

story_warsAny reader who has browsed this site or read more than a few of my posts will know that I am absorbed by power and its influence on our society. Today I want to consider how stories are used to powerful ends. My thinking on this has been essentially formed by Winning the Story Wars by Jonah Sachs who lays out in strong prose the development of marketing and public affairs. He argues convincingly that we are in an age when the story is king. Policy making, economic development and social relations are fundamentally structured by the stories we believe. I will illustrate this with three current examples and then next time draw out the implications for organisers.

An Ageing Population

We are continually reminded that the demographic profile of our country – and indeed most of the global North – is growing older. We have declining levels of fertility and mortality which in plain speech means fewer children are being born and more people are living longer. Now the story of most coverage tells us that this means a growing number of older people dependent on a shrinking number of wage-earners and tax-payers. The grim future predicted is one of strained services, declining standards of family care and millions living with “dementia sufferers”. This narrative has been successfully used by government, media and civil society to engineer a specific set of policies, to frame a policy debate that has foregrounded some issues and placed in the background others of equal merit.

An alternative narrative points out that this trend is nothing new and that society whilst challenged by such changes has so far managed to deliver increased standards of living and improved prospects for most people. Currently we are enjoying the work of over 1M people in the UK who are working when over the age of 65, still active, participating, earning and contributing their wisdom and experience. As those numbers rise, so will the income to the state and the quality of life for most people. The real issue is that we still associate older years with poverty (because we do not pay people sufficient in their younger years to ensure they have reasonable means to sustain their lifestyle as they age) and dependency (because we assume that ill health mushrooms when people pass a certain age when in fact it’s greatest impact is in the last five years of life, now in the late 70s and early 80s for many). The reality is that we are becoming ‘younger’ as the decline of old age is increasingly postponed to later and later in life. We need a different focus for policy development!

DWP targetting fraud poster by Richard McKeever CC FlickrStrivers and Skivers

Another narrative that has the media and government in its thrall is the story about the danger of scroungers to our nation and its character. Whilst this story is expressed as a party political one, nonetheless it can be unpicked by careful analysis and checking with the research data. The story is promoted through many channels such as several national newspapers and some broadcast media. Its power comes from the sense of unfairness that is triggered by the comparison of our own righteous hard work and deserving effort and the lazy, lying and undeserving characters who appear regularly as benefit scroungers. The key to its insidious nature is that the word ‘scrounger’ is only used sparingly but the underlying frame remains in place, reinforcing the perception that the UK has a major problem with benefit fraud and large families perpetually dependent on state handouts.

The picture is clarified when the facts are laid bare. Whilst the survey results from respected Ipsos MORI show people in general (the mean) estimate for the number of people unemployed is at 22%, the real figure is closer to 8%. The mean estimate for people not born in the UK but resident here (read immigrants) is 31% whilst the true figure from the 2011 census is actually 13%. To return to our theme, out of £100, people estimate that benefit fraud totals £24 of the benefits budget whilst the reality is 70p. The problem is blown out of all proportion to promote a particular view of society and its ills. If benefit fraud is low, then it cannot be justified to place claimants under such draconian scrutiny; if most people on benefits are honest and law-abiding, we cannot impose such stigma and humiliation on those who need society’s help. Yet we do because the story is king!

Woodcock St food bins by Birmingham News Room CC FlickrAusterity and Neoliberalism

Great work has been done by the new economics foundation (nef) to reveal the story told the British public about the necessity of cutting services to the bone, pulverising the NHS, radically reducing or removing welfare payments all together (reform?) and exasperating the divide between rich and poor. The story goes that debt is dangerous to the nation’s well-being, that Britain is broke and that austerity is a necessary evil. It goes on to suggest that big bad government is the problem, that welfare is a drug that builds dependence, the country can be classified into hard-working families and the lazy, fraudulent benefit cheats and that its all Labour’s mess anyway. This story allows the Coalition government to place itself in role of hero and calls on values such as ambition, wealth, self-discipline, independence and reciprocity. No other narrative so well defines the current situation and nothing coherent has yet been constructed to challenge its legitimacy. It is in the interests of those who profit from this story to prevent an alternative being developed and promoted; the oppressed and marginalised continue to suffer the consequences of such a narrative.

If we as organisers are to be effective in countering such stories, we need to attend to four things:

  • Getting our facts straight
  • Sorting out our own frames and values
  • Telling stories that inspire and resonate
  • Creating the broader myth with others

But more on creating counter-narratives next time!


Jonah Sachs (2012) Winning the Story Wars: Why those who Tell – and Live – the Best Stories will Rule the Future Harvard Business School

Great Britain: The Way we Live Now – Ipsos Mori End of year Review 2013

Carys Afoko and Daniel Vockins (2013) Framing the economy – the austerity story nef Available as a pdf from

John McInnes and Jeroen Spijker ‘Hard evidence: Can we afford an ageing population?’ in The Conversation at dated 18 December 2013

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The Imperative of Now

Over recent weeks, we’ve been looking at storytelling and its place in community organising. As we arrive in the New Year, its time to finish outlining the approach to organising developed by Marshall Ganz of Harvard University. We have seen how organisers – and community leaders – need to be ready to tell their public narrative, an account of their motivation and values. So far we have looked at developing your Story of Self and your Story of Us. The final Story we need to uncover is the Story of Now.

imageThree Linked Stories

The three parts of your public narrative do not stand in isolation but rather they work to reinforce and illustrate each other. For Marshall Ganz, such storytelling is foundational to leadership. We build a community’s action from their own history and context. We give them space to uncover the deep wells of shared motivation and experience that will sustain them in difficult times. Organisers tutor the leaders who emerge from the work in their own public narrative, becoming over time the best spokespeople for the work and able to share the collective journey with all sorts of people.

Stories are most powerful when they are short and told with passion. We will look at some clues to better story-telling later in January but the organiser plays a key role in coaching the community in telling powerful stories about their shared endeavour. You can become proficient in telling your public narrative in any order and at the drop of a hat. Practice both on your own and before others is critical to improving your capacity to tell your story with conviction and humour. Keeping it to just two minutes forces you to focus on the key elements – the challenge, the choice and the outcome – and makes it capable of being reinvented for different audiences. Once you can confidently tell each of your stories in two minutes, then you can use them flexibly to tell in various setting when you can learn to expand and embellish them with a purpose.

So what’s this Story of Now?

It’s all well and good describing the problem and focusing attention on the consequences of no action but leadership is about identifying the next practical step and motivating others to join you in tackling the issue together. The Story of Now is all about action in the immediate future and helping those you are talking to to recognise their responsibility for taking that action.

imageThe Story of Now follows the same pattern as the other Stories but with a twist. There’s a challenge, but instead of being in the past, it’s in the present. There’s hope, but instead of something that happened in the past, it’s in the future. And there’s a choice, but instead of being a choice we once made, it’s a choice we must make now. And that’s why it’s a “Story of Now”.

The Story of Now follows the familiar structure but in the present and future. The strategy is a fundamental part of the Story. How will we achieve the goal we want? The choice is about what the individuals in your audience need to do today, before they leave. It offers a hopeful option that directs energy toward a collective solution. And finally there is a vivid description of what we can achieve together if we act now.

Working on your Story of Now can be challenging. It can cause us to think again about what we want and how the goal will be reached. It can ask us deep questions about the solution we have chosen and whether the Story of Self and the Story of Us provide the motivation and energy to deliver the collective action that is now needed. It can help us gauge whether the action we are asking of our people can build power and do so in a way that shows our values in the best light.

There are stories in every community about why we need to act now. We also have stories about our challenge and its urgency. We can tell those stories to offer hope in the face of the challenge and picture the future when we have overcome it. The challenge needs to be made particular by appealing to the sounds, smells and images of the situation. The choice needs to be stark and compelling, now or never. Your vision needs to be concrete and evocative, speaking of the new reality that action together will deliver.

Moving Stories by Het Nieuwe Instituut CC FlickrNo story is complete without an audience. Your Story of Now – like your Story of Self and your Story of Us – needs to resonate with your listeners. In your choice of images, the characters in your stories, your language and metaphors, you need to judge carefully how they will be heard by your intended recipients. A great story can lose credibility if it does not relate to the experience of your audience. Give them your very best links so they can see how what you are telling them has immediacy for their situation, how it motivates them specifically for this action now.

Frames, memes and myth

In building your public narrative, organisers need to be aware of the frame of their stories. As we have already explored, changing frames can change it’s meaning entirely. What you put in the foreground of your narrative can place in the background a range of factors that your audience may for example be more aware of. Such a frame can mean that your audience is confused or unsure what point you are making. Make sure you put the emphasis on the most potent elements of the story for your audience.

The role of your public narrative is to offer back to the community a myth of their own making. Myths draw on deep human drives and dilemmas and to make a really powerful narrative, any storyteller needs to create tension and resolution, adventure and return, heroines and persecutors. The so-called ‘narrative arch’ is important to any story and for public narrative it points to the future shape of the solution.

Pulling on the current memes of your community – be they soap story lines, adverts or current box office hits – and subverting them to tell your own story can deliver a really creative and powerful sense of the moment. Memes are small units of cultural life that are duplicated, shared and reused but which also develop their own life as people shape and reshape their meaning for different purposes (Think how the Stay Calm and Carry On slogan has been reinvented and transformed for many purposes.) Creativity is often about using such memes with skill and dexterity. Look for opportunities to give your story currency and immediate appeal.

imageCreating your Stories

For the community leader, the Story of Now is setting the scene for action. It draws on motivation from the past but also the challenge of the future. It impels the audience toward a hopeful outcome and presents a tangible choice in strong contrast with the present. Whether it is where you start or the final flourish of your public narrative, your Story of Now makes the case for collective action that builds the power of the community and gives everyone a role to play.

Next Time: As organisers we are faced with stories that undermine our communities, that fragment them and leave them without hope. We need to recognise some of those stories and work to develop alternative narratives that serve our goals. We need to tell ourselves, each other and the wider world empowering and authentic stories of hope and resilience.


Jonathan Gottschall (2012) The Storytelling Animal – how stories make us human Mariner

Crafting your Public Narrative – from a climate change perspective Available as a pdf here

Marshall Ganz (2011) ‘Public Narrative, Collective Action and Power’ in Sina Odugbemi and Taeku Lee 2011 Accountability through Public Opinion: From Inertia to Public Action World Bank Available as a pdf here  Single chapter also available here

Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. “I Have a Dream” (speech, Washington, DC, August 28, 1963) available here

John Capecci and Timothy Cage (2012) Living Proof: Telling Your Story to Make a Difference Granville Circle Press

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Taking a break over Christmas

I want to wish all my readers a very happy Christmas and fantastic New Year. I hope you get the ideas, dreams and stories for Christmas that you deserve and that you get your community organised in the New Year.

I’m planning to take a break from blogging for the next couple of weeks but will be back with another post on 8 Jan. In the meantime, enjoy the festive season whatever your circumstances and beliefs!

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Formed by Our Story

I have been writing about storytelling and the importance of narrative to our lives for five weeks now. I have pointed to the importance of the way we frame our narratives, what memes we use to draw on wider cultural currents and how we need to develop our own personal myth.

In my last post here, I introduced the work of Marshall Ganz, a community organiser now based at Harvard. I explored his idea of the Story of Self last time and underlined that it forms a key element in the resources of any organiser and indeed any community leader – a public narrative. Marshall Ganz talks of two other Stories that are vital to community organising, The Story of Us and the Story of Now. I want to explore the Story of Us today.

The three of us at the Dome by Asim Bharwani CC FlickrThe Story of Us

We all belong to many ‘us’s’; we are part of many groups and networks. Some may be permanent such as family or nation; others are transitory such as organisation or in the modern world community. Each has an identity built around the narratives that are told and retold. We construct our shared identity by telling each other stories and in turn these stories become the reality of the group. For community organisers, the story of the community – or one part of the community – is built up through conversations, listening to each other and one-to-ones. The community begins to tell stories about itself as it begins to believe in itself and act as a community.

The experience of being part of a community is about sharing in the common past of residents and in holding a common future as part of that identity. Such stories can be disempowering, despairing and isolating or they can be replaced by positive narratives that offer real examples of the community succeeding, triumphing and even winning against the odds. The change of atmosphere, motivation and expectation can be tangible as community members over time come to hope once more, to believe different stories about ‘their people’.

The Story of Us is all about values. Whilst it is normally encapsulated in four or five simple stories, each illustrates how we have together expressed the values we own. As an organiser, in the early days, we are looking for the people who hold those stories on behalf of the community and who are willing to entrust them to us. We want to find community members who hold the keys to sharing authentic accounts of the great days of the community and how change IS possible, despite the odds. Community values are uncovered in storytelling and individuals and families will reveal them to us as organisers if we give them space and time to trust us with them.

Storytelling at Fifth Avenue Court by Andrew Codrington CC FlickrOrganisers and Us

Organisers are set in place to draw out the Story of Us. As we bring people together around the issues they see as critical to their life as a community, so we give space for stories to be told and identity to emerge. The Story of Us points backwards to the great moments of transition when the community became itself. It also looks forward by illustrating what amazing resources – moral, physical, practical – we have already used and how they lie ready to be used again at the next turning point. The Story of Us is about resilience and perseverance as well as hope and belief.

Many organisers start in situations where there are few shared stories of community achievement. The stories have gone underground, been silenced or have never had a hearing beyond the family. Uncovering those stories takes time but can be inspired by the acts of our heroes and heroines. There are already people and groups from far afield who exemplify the values of your community and whose stories can act as a lightening rod for the local stories of challenge, choice and outcome. Using their stories can help community members become aware of the great deeds of their neighbours, parents or school friends and how those deeds show the values of the community in practice.

Men of Progress by cliff CC FlickrOrigins and Identity

In drawing out the Story of Us, the leaders are looking for stories that show the origins and unique character of this group, this community. What was it that made this a special group? How do you know that individuals belong and what makes their participation meaningful? How did you join up or become a part of the community? What did it feel like?

Like every citizen, communities have key moments of choice, when they face dilemma or another sort of challenge and have to make a decision. These moments play a great part in your Story of Us. On the community’s journey, what have been the key challenges and how were they addressed? How did the values of the community inform the way those decisions were made? How did the outcomes further the community’s goals and purpose?

Stories of Us are about motivation and identity. They can of course be used for both good and evil. In helping to bind together a community, they can exclude and marginalise voices that are crucial to the community’s future. So some key questions remain: Who isn’t here in this community who ought to be here? What communities ought to exist, or ought to be more empowered, that don’t exist right now? How can our Story of Us be inclusive and support others who face discrimination and oppression?

Ever moving on

The Story of Us is an evolving entity. It is never finished and when we sit down to reflect, we are able to update and revise it to match our current situation. As I have said before, story is all around us and a strong, clear and inspiring Story of Us is a critical part of shifting the power toward a community. Who are we? What do we stand for? Where have we come from and what resources do we have to make our future from? Building a collective narrative provides a bedrock to sustain hope in the face of adversity and identity in face of challenge.

Next Time We come together as individuals with personal myths of our lives built around our challenges, choices and outcomes. We come together as communities armed with our collective narrative that gives us uniqueness and power. We also face real and immediate challenges that require us to uncover a Story of Now, the issue of the moment, the shape of our destiny.


Richard Kearney (2006) On Stories: Thinking in Action Routledge

Nelson Mandela (1990) Speech on Release from Prisonvalues made clear in a call to nationhood, a true Story of Us

RSA Animate – The Empathetic Civilisation

Renny Gleeson (2012) 404, the story of a page not found A short talk about how you can switch an error into a way to build relationship. Find it on TED here

TED Global (2009) How to tell a story – 6 talks about storytelling. Find them curated on TED here

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Uncovering The Story of Self

I’m in the midst of a series of posts about stories, storytelling and their important role in community organising. So far – here, here, here and here – I’ve considered the way story turns up just about everywhere, the nature of myth, the importance of framing and the idea of cultural memes that carry values and story elements through our lives. I have said several times that stories shape our experience and that is no less the case with community life.

Nelson Mandela by Festival Karsh Ottawa CC FlcikrLeadership in communities is often about achieving with others in the face of uncertainty. Often the way you present your work – and the work to which others are called – can make or break the commitment of your leadership group. Your narratives are a key way in which you influence the life of the community, bringing a sense of can-do to an apparently hopeless situation, giving people confidence to voice disagreement or opening up new possibilities by sharing experience from elsewhere. We are only able to translate the values we hold into action through inspiring stories. We tap into the inherent feelings of the community and give that form through the right story, the right framing or the right meme.

Public Narrative

PowerShift 09's photo: Marshall Ganz Public Narrative Training by New Organizing Institute CC FlikrSuch acts of leadership can of course come from any member of the community and not just from the organiser. However, the art of public narrative has become a central part of the community organising tradition. It takes a particular form that has been most tellingly articulated by Marshall Ganz, a lecturer at Harvard who was part of the great movement to organise the fields and villages of California to deliver rights to those marginal and migrant communities of grape harvesters. His journey from a practical, hands-on organiser to a practical, hands-on academic is recounted in his book Why David Sometimes Wins (details below).

two ways of knowingMarshall observes there are essentially two ways of knowing: we can focus on strategy (from the head) or narrative (from the heart). Strategy draws on critical reflection on experience; it focuses on how challenges will be confronted, how we think about them, its made clear in words and structured thinking and leads to effective analysis. Narrative on the other hand draws on storytelling about experience; it focuses on why challenges must be confronted, how we feel about them, its made clear in action and guided process and leads to dynamic motivation. I want to be clear that Ganz does not privilege one way of thinking above the other; rather he says we often feel we can know only through strategy thinking rather than also using narrative to tap our motivation. We need to use both together – our head and our heart – to create the shared understanding that moves our hands and feet to action.

One distinctive contribution to the concept of public narrative made by Marshall Ganz is his three-fold story structure. He tells us that organisers need to develop, design and amplify three linked but fundamentally different narratives. They are:

self-us-now1. The Story of Self – your personal formation as a leader

2. The Story of Us – our shared values and shared experience

3. The Story of Now – the call to immediate collective action

Over the Christmas and New Year, I want to explore these three and their respective value for community organisers. My previous posts have in a sense provided background and context for this discussion and I hope will make the three public narratives more understandable and easier to get to grips with.

The Story of Self

Of course, everyone has their own story of self, the story of their birth and upbringing, their adolescence and young adulthood, their middle years, family and career, perhaps their hopes and dreams for the future. But in most cases, this is not yet a public narrative, a story of themselves developed and honed to communicate the essential elements of their calling to public life. That may sound high and mighty but we have already covered the importance of myth in human life and community.

Tell me a Story by RandyA38 CC FlcikrFor community organisers, our own person is the key to communicate our values and vision. Someone working in community without a spark of innovation or a amazing sense of humour or a deep commitment or any number of key elements has little hope of inspiring action in others. Our way of being in that community offers other people a chance to recognise in themselves hidden potential. To make that really work, we need to explore our own life history and develop its possibility to inspire, convince and motivate. In a sense, it’s offering ourselves as an experiment in just what we want other members of the community to be able to do in time: to tell their story authentically, with passion and impact and to make it clear what they stand for.

Your Story of Self will become your personal myth

So how do we uncover our Story of Self? What are the elements that make it work best? It’s important to start from the positive expectation that your life history does indeed have the potential to inspire others to action. You are looking to offer other people in the community an account of key moments in your life that reveal your deeper self, that can convince them that you are worth trusting and that you can feel comfortable making a public statement with. These are stories about your life that you will be able to quickly tell on the doorstep, in the house meeting, in blog-posts and on video but also from rally platforms and to huge numbers.

The best place to start from is those moments of choice that have deeply affected you. Some may be obvious turning points but others may need seeking out. Choice points have three elements: the challenge you faced, the choice you made and the outcome you entered into. Such narratives – stripped down to these bare elements – will show you operating effectively in circumstances of uncertainty, the actions of a leader. Told humbly with conviction and humour, they will define for others the way you lead. Some might be dramatic confrontations, others incidents that taught a valuable lesson. Your stories – four or five at first but more as you grow used to developing them – become your calling card and your lasting legacy.

The point of the Story of Self is that it reveals you

Your Story of Self needs to be framed, that is you will want to give attention to what your selection of moments of choice say about you and your people. What is included and what left out? How do you link the stories as beads on a necklace? Are there ways of linking your personal story to wider values through analogy, wordplay or reference? Your Story of Self will become your personal myth, an account of your journey through life’s struggles, so pay attention to both the ‘arc of the narrative’ – beginning, middle and end – and the values it can express. Perhaps something about origins is important, key choices about direction and how your values have been shaping you recently but each Story of Self is unique and personal. Make yours really sing!

My desk at Canberra Coworking by Nathanael Boehm CC FlickrFinding the stories is key but you must also use them again and again in practice so you develop an authentic way of telling them that evokes a response from your listeners. Sharing something meaningful of yourself in this way encourages others to do the same – tell their story and own their ability to bring about change. By telling your story you are offering to listen to other’s stories, by opening up your heart to them through your life history you give community members real insight into the sort of person you have become and how you got here. Practice using the stories with different sorts of people, in different contexts and at a variety of times. These stories – precious to you – will emerge from the repeated telling stronger and more vital if you attend to the response they evoke in others. As you grow better able to tell your Story of Self, try to think how you might

• present the challenge you faced more starkly

• express the emotions you felt so people are caught up

• make clear the process of your decision-making, being clear about the choice

• how what happened as a result motivated you to become the person you are

As you link your Story of Self with your other public narratives – The Story of Us and The Story of Now – it will also take on a new life and meaning for you and your community. You will begin to see others practicing their Story of Self and finding a voice they didn’t think they had. You will find a strong sense of shared objectives and a solidarity that only comes when people are confident of their personal identity.

Next Time: If we enter into actions together without a shared understanding of our common identity, we will founder. The Story of Us offers a way to uncover and express the collective understanding that will evolve with and shape our future.


Marshall Ganz (2011) ‘Public Narrative, Collective Action and Power’ in Sina Odugbemi and Taeku Lee 2011 Accountability through Public Opinion: From Inertia to Public Action World Bank Available as a pdf here  Single chapter also available here

Marshall Ganz (2009 ) How David Sometimes Wins: Leadership, Organization and Strategy in the California Farm Worker Movement Oxford

Barak Obama (2004) Keynote Speech to the Democratic National Convention – a great example of using the Story of Self to deliver powerful messages about the cause

Antonio Damasio (2012) Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain Vintage

John Capecci and Timothy Cage (2012) Living Proof: Telling Your Story to Make a Difference Granville Circle Press

New Tactics in Human Rights (2013) Change the Story: Harnessing the power of narrative for social change – a week-long online discussion of storytelling in campaigning, summarised in a single webpage

The Personal is Political Nine students of Marshall Ganz tell their Story of Self from the (Bill) Moyers and Company website

Telling Your Story – a workshop outline for helping a group explore their Story of Self.

Story of Self – Worksheet Here is a simple but profound route to developing a Story of Self

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Memes and Merchandising

imageAs we enter Advent and our TV sets are filled with advertising for Christmas, the figure of Santa Claus looms large. The red clothes, white beard, round and cheery figure appears on everyone’s idealised Christmas list of symbols for the ‘festive season’. In lands sweltering in the heat of summer and places too dry to have it ever rain, still less snow, the global man of Christmas plays a central part in conveying the season’s messages. Yet his form, stature and style were devised relatively recently by a advertising artist working for Coca-cola. This now universal figure was created in the 1930s to sell more Coca-cola and has since become deeply embedded in our culture. He has shed his commercial associations and has been remade as a child-friendly gift-giver in every shopping centre or department store across the Western world. Santa Claus (or Father Christmas as we knew him in the UK) has become a very effective ‘meme’ for Christmas.

frames by robayre CC FlickrTwo weeks ago, I explored the way in which the way we frame our stories – what we focus on, what’s included and what’s cut out – changes their value base, making them more or less useful in supporting progressive community change. And last week we looked at the structure of myth, how it becomes important in community organising and how you need to ‘construct’ your personal myth to sustain yourself in the role. This week I want to explore the meaning of ‘memes’ for organisers – both as a tool to analyse the power around you and a route to creating your own memes.

Memes are everywhere

So to explain. In 1976 in his book The Selfish Gene, the biologist Richard Dawkins outlined his theory that competing genes were the primary engines of evolution. Elsewhere in the book, he coined a conceptual term that has come to profoundly impact culture in the Internet age: ‘the meme’. Shortening the Greek word mimeme, which means ‘imitated thing’, Dawkins explained that the meme was a unit of human cultural evolution equivalent to the gene. But instead of transmitting genetic material, as a gene does, the meme communicates cultural phenomena: ideas, melodies, catchphrases, fashion or technologies. Memes are often small particles of culture but that get ‘copied with adaptation’, just like genes. They are clever, memorable, easily communicated and above all absurdly contagious! The meme of Santa Claus as a fat, jolly man with white beard and red and white loose clothes is a great example of a meme ‘in the wild’.

clip_image002But how do we use memes in our work? If you’ve heard about memes before, it’s probably in the context of social media where people create short videos, record catchy songs or construct amazing photos that then get shared, liked, tweeted or plused thousands and sometimes millions of times across the global online community. Often these are just about cats at play or people doing crazy things (see for example QuickMemes) but some – such as infographics – have been carefully constructed to catch the imagination of many people and have a dynamic that makes many want to show their friends or their feed.

The power of controlling memes

But memes also work at another less obvious level. Watch the advertising for Christmas spending and you will see repeated elements that work as cultural units related to a particular view of the ‘festive season’. Some that come to mind are glitter, Christmas trees, open fires, snow and large family meals. The media have constructed from a set of Christmas memes a whole set of assumptions about the way Christmas should be celebrated and hence it’s meaning for you as a consumer. And of course such memes are not just reflected in advertising but also in programming, in shop fronts, Christmas cards and even our own homes. Whatever your attitude to the season, its clear that there is a controlling set of memes about Christmas that shape what our expectations and assumptions are about that time of year.

City Centre shopping mall, Dubai by Bhakti Dharma - Amsterdam CC FlickrIn similar ways, we live with many controlling myths that show themselves in our experience of public life (think the centrality of elections as a way to representation), of our life as a consumer (for example, shopping as a leisure activity) and our perception of our nation (for example, the British always supporting the underdog). I am observing here the nature of the controlling myths that have developed around us, not questioning – or confirming – their truth. Memes often carry whole narratives behind them that in turn are related to certain emotions or responses. For example, John Major in 1993 evoked an idyllic village scene by using a sequence of memes saying, “fifty years on from now, Britain will still be the country of long shadows on cricket grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs…” By painting a picture these memes, he drew his audience into a particular emotional place.

Challenging the accepted narratives

In public life, memes and the stories they support play a critical role in sustaining a particular view of the world. Often such a view is based not on clear and uncontroversial evidence but on assumption, guesswork and straightforward prejudice. I have personally become very tired of the use by the current government of the phrase “hard-working families.” It is a deliberate attempt to divide those who are regarded by this administration as deserving poor from the supposed undeserving. It places a categorical distinction between those who fit the particular model of working family life (that supported by the speaker, no doubt) and those who do not.

We are not collatoral damage by Greta Neubauer Greenmeme TeamFor an organizer, an awareness of such controlling myths allows us to be wary of them. We are often called on to help the community’s leaders to frame their concerns, to draw a clear distinction between their position and that of their opponents and to promote their case in the face of attitudes and values that undermine their position. In these circumstances, helping your people to see the way in which their concerns are shaped, the nature of the memes and narratives used by others and how they can develop their own memes and stories can only make for a stronger appreciation of the way we are manipulated by the powerful. Creating new memes can be a creative route to powerful images and telling analogies capable of changing the way we – and others – see the issues. It’s a key way to open people’s eyes to the complex ways in which we are controlled – and kept powerless!


Patrick Reinsborough and Doyle Canning (2009) Re:Imagining Change: an Introduction to story-based strategy smartMeme Available both as a print edition and a pdf – highly recommended

Greenmemes at ‘make memes to fuel and inspire the environmental justice movement’. They have just published an excellent Guide to Online Organizing Available as a pdf

The danger of the Single Story – a TED talk by Chimamanda Adichie Find it here

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Being the Hero of your own Myth

Red Riding Hood by chiaralily CC FlcikrI read a couple of weeks ago that folk tales evolve in the same way as species do in biology. That is they follow a pattern of replication with variation that allows social scientists to use the same tools as the biologist to trace the family tree of a particular story to its origins. The example given in the article here was the story of Little Red Riding Hood. The analysis had pulled apart the story elements and explored how they were combined over centuries from disparate memes scattered across the globe. For example, the East Asian story has sisters at home alone when a tiger disguised as their grandmother knocks, is allowed in and sleeps with the sisters in their bed, eating the youngest whilst the older siblings manage to escape. The analysis shows that this is derived from the Western tale rather than being it’s progenitor. As we saw last week, stories carry meaning and evolve over time to reflect the social setting they inhabit.

This week (and next) I am going to encourage you to be more aware of story in everyday life. We are surrounded by many narratives – some of them obvious and explicit, many disguised and implicit – and the organiser needs to become attuned to the meaning of the stories told in their community. Stories – such as myths, legends and folk tales – reach back to pre-history and as we saw in my earlier post, often have their origins in attempts to explain the world in supernatural terms.


A deeper structure

The work of Joseph Campbell has always fascinated me. An American ‘mythologist’, he wrote extensively on comparative mythology and religion. He came to the conclusion that all great legends from across time and space are variations on a single ‘monomyth’. This underlying structure to all myth takes the form of a Hero’s Journey (illustrated right) and can be seen at work today as much as in ancient times. Campbell outlined his findings in his great work The Hero with a Thousand Faces published in 1949. He was deeply influenced by the psychological insights of Carl Jung who showed the importance of archetypes and the collective unconscious in understanding human experience. Campbell’s work has influenced many since, not least the creator of the Star Wars epics, George Lucas.

In organising, the community itself is the hero (or heroine) of their own Odyssey!

Whilst the community organiser is not devising myths for the modern world, nonetheless the structure of myth is instructive for the journey taken by communities and their leaders through their ‘adventure’. Organisers who are not aware of the shape of the network’s lived narrative may be confused or outraged when people respond in ways they do not expect. Our own actions can also be better attuned to the network’s inner story if we take account of the process through which the group is passing. In organising, the community itself is the hero (or heroine) of their own Odyssey! Story works at a deep level in organising as well as at the more superficial levels of our public narratives and we do well to be aware of its implications.

My Mother on the left with her father Frederick A EDWARDS and her younger sister Freda. Her mother was Dorothy (nee) DAVEY (not pictured)Finding ourselves

The stories we tell ourselves (and pass on to others in many unconscious ways) as organisers come from many sources. Our personal identity is shaped by the family ‘myths’ that are given us by our parents and close relatives – where we come from, how our parents met and how the family has lived before, how the feuds and friendships of the past are reflected today. Most of us understand ourselves in relation to a past that is only a partial reflection of the actual events, filtered and refracted through our parents’ perspectives. The truth of story however lies in its meaning and for most humans that is structured by our experience of our heritage, our place in the world defined by our parents’ expectations and by our peers’ norms. As we grow up, we create our sense of authenticity from choices to take on board or to reject our parents’ myths. We form our sense of self-belief out of a range of human factors such as our ethnic and national identity, our allegiances and convictions as well as our encounters with other people who shock or inspire us.

We create our sense of authenticity from choices to take on board or to reject our parents’ myths.

Organisers are fundamentally working with community identity. Shaping people’s expectations of the world, sharing our hope of change and belief in the power of collective action. Our self-belief, our authenticity and humanity all derive from our ability to tell ourselves  and others an empowering story. If we can’t believe in ourselves as the hero (or heroine) of our own story, we will not be able to give meaning to the actions of the network. The inner life of the organiser is seldom considered but plays a crucial role in building the values and culture of the network. We know now that in defence of our dignity we remember only in ways that set us in a positive light. Even manifold failures are reimagined as minor obstacles soon overcome. Our self-image is very fragile and highly defended. Our capacity for resilience in later life is deeply influenced at neurological levels by our early life experience and our participation in social networks gives us many of the clues as to how we should behave today.

empowered - power FROM the people by Ari Moore CC FlickrMeaning and process

I hope this discussion has sparked reflections on your own experience of story – in your family, your ‘clan’, your neighbourhood. Thinking about the influence of narrative on our community life starts from recognising the impact that stories have on our own perception of ourselves. The deeper sense of story as community journey can have profound ramifications on our practice as organisers and give us an understanding of the dynamics at work in neighbourhoods, often hidden from participants. We fail our friends and neighbours if we do not attend to the ways in which people work with change and understand their own and each other’s stories.

Next time: Story is all around us. Powerful institutions use narrative to persuade us that their way is the right way; we can use the narrative of the people to counteract these controlling myths. Story provides us with identity as families, groups, nations and even neighbourhoods.


Joseph Campbell (2004) The Hero with a Thousand Faces Available here as a pdf

Anthony Stephens (2001) Jung – A Very Short Introduction Oxford

Patrick Reinsborough and Doyle Canning (2009) Re:Imagining Change: an Introduction to story-based strategy smartMeme Available both as a print edition and a pdf – highly recommended

Daniel Hunter (2013) Strategy and Soul – a campaigner’s tale of fighting billionaires. corrupt officials and Philadelphia casinos Hyrax

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