As a part of the Locality-led community organisers’ programme, we’ve been encouraged to tell stories. Well … not lies and fabrications but accounts of our experiences and achievements as organisers. This is one of the main ways the government sponsors of the programme are able to assess the impact of their commitment. It’s growing into a huge resource of verbatim stories of community activism – perhaps the largest and most diverse ever collected; a source of evidence and inspiration for organisers to come.
In this new series of posts, I am going to explore stories, story-telling and the power story holds over our lives in community. I want to look at the way stories play a critical role in organising both in the way we think about our work and the way we feel about it. Community organising is a complex art and much of our approach is stimulated and controlled by the stories we tell each other and ourselves. We will see that stories are a universal part of human life and play a integral part in our successes and failures both as individuals and as communities.
When young like most kids, I was told off for ‘telling stories’. It comes naturally to children to deviate from the truth and add details from their imagination. But truth comes in many forms. For our children, we tell so-called ‘fairy tales’, often grotesque portrayals of semi-mythical events set far away and lost in distant lands. But we continue to retell these ancient (and not so ancient) folk tales not to frighten our children but to imbue them with key lessons, with moral understanding, with ideals and with measures of good and evil. Truth telling is as much about emotion, humour, morality and character as about sticking to the bald facts. We tell stories to give us a moral landscape, to educate our awareness of the human plight, to offer role models and lessons about consequences.
Narrative also provides a frame for our actions. As humans, we are incredibly good at pattern recognition. In fact we outperform almost every computer at the task. Stories come in parts that we intuitively recognise: a beginning, the middle and an end. In drama, these are often marked out as Act I, Act II and Act III. In TV drama, we know that the attractive young lead (or team) in the first scenes is most likely to be the main protagonist in the rest of the drama. We know they will get into scrapes and face hurdles that they will struggle with in the middle part and then some form of resolution or conclusion will be reached by the end. We look for this ‘arc of the narrative’ in many places and remain fixated on finding resolution to hanging questions in many parts of our lives.
Organising with two hats
One way of understanding the power of public narrative – the story we tell as organisers – is to recognise that we have to think about our organising with two hats on. One focuses on the strategy, the facts and figures, the cause and it’s logic. The other deals in the motives for action, the reasons for justice and the emotions that fire our response to oppression. To move people to action, we need both a clear path to tread and an intense belief in the importance of the action. If you like, see it as appealing to both the logical, rational facts and detail head AND the emotive, compassionate feeling and urgent heart. With both in play, we have a chance of getting people’s hands and feet involved in taking action.
Stories shape our world
All this is not exclusive to organising. We know the power of story in great drama, whether it is the tragedy of Shakespeare‘s King Lear or the struggles of Christian through the troubles he overcomes in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Great narrative in all media gives us the ability to associate our own lives with those of the characters on show – Dickens’ Oliver Twist or Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. Empathy and the power of association gives us the human capacity to see in the journey of another our own lives and to reflect on how we would respond in similar circumstances. The pilgrims’ tales entertain us in Chaucer‘s Canterbury Tales because they offer us a huge range of human types and experience. And today we see in the impact of great story telling in Lord of the Rings trilogy or the Harry Potter series, the same intense characterisation and emotive power. We are moved, we are challenged, we are changed.
The greatest examples of narrative of course are rooted in faith. Whether it is the story of Abraham and Isaac at the burning bush or the revelation of the Qur’an to Mohammed in the cave Hira near Mecca, our sense of the numinous, of the human spirit in process and of the impact of deep spiritual values are uncovered and made raw once more. The myths of the ancient Greeks (and their successors the Romans) have remained central to Western culture throughout the last 2400 years. And why? Because they speak to the dilemmas and trials that we all experience whatever our background, era or context. They give believers examples of faithful service and challenge the certainties of everyday life; these stories inspire and exhort, they have shaped whole movements and given birth to tragedy, comedy and pathos. We all live in their thrall.
Narratives for change
So what’s the role of story for organisers in local communities? At the opening, I mentioned using narrative to give account for time, effort and resources expended. That can be about telling outsiders – funders, allies, partners – what happened but also giving account to he community itself. Newsletters, blog posts and presentations are all great ways to ‘tell the story’ of your organising. But story will always also share values, ideas, motives and purpose; the way you frame your work will communicate the intentions you have as an organiser, creating your own fables and parables of change. Leaders of the community will identify their struggle for change with certain ideals and a vision of their work that will be timeless. And of course other stories about your work will be circulating among community members, stories that question your values or motives, that seek to undermine your approach and achievements. We need to tell convincing stories that inspire action and defend our goals from malign attack.
- Whose story inspires you? What is it about the story that touches your psyche?
- How do you understand your past and future as a story?
- Where do you come from? What are you made of? How do you account for your life?
Next time: Stories express meaning and truth and so they tell us about the key points in life and how we should (and shouldn’t) act. Our values are cenrtally engaged by stories and the frame they ewxpress. Next week, I will be introducing ‘frames’ and their importance to organising.
Marshall Ganz (2009) ‘Why Stories Matter’ in Sojourners Magazine March 2009
School of Storytelling – an international venture aimed to encourage and support excellence in storytelling
Brian Sturn (2007) Storytelling Theory and Practice UNC Chapel Hill – a YouTube video lecture that explores the nature and value of storytelling in 45 mins; worth every minute.