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  http://billmoyers.com/content/the-personal-is-political/ Nine students of Marshall Ganz tell their Story of Self from the (Bill) Moyers and Company website  http://billmoyers.com/

Telling Your Story – a workshop outline for helping a group explore their Story of Self. http://workshops.350.org/toolkit/story/

Story of Self – Worksheet http://forces4quality.org/story-self-worksheet Here is a simple but profound route to developing a Story of Self

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1 Response to Uncovering The Story of Self

  1. Pingback: Better Stories, better lives | Southwark Organising

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