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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2 Responses to Formed by Our Story

  1. Mark. I’m having problems finding your e-mail address and wanted to send you details of some community development initiatives we are engaged with in dull old Cambridge. I remember doing a social work placement almost fifty years ago in the East End, and the excitement and the creativity of the Mile End Road through to Old Street has never left me. Especially, after leaving school at fourteen, my first job until my early twenties was a messenger boy working for a firm of tea brokers in Mincing Lane. With, again, years spent pleasurably walking around the western part of Tower Hamlets close to the city and, when I entered the social work trade, (let’s keep away from top-down professionalism) remember especially a memorable meeting with a family in one of the Guinness Trust, or similar, dwellings. Which began my story of how, over the years, I realised we need to reform Social Work and/or develop a dialogue around more radical community social work/community development models. I’ve just written a piece to my local friends here on the 1982 Barclay Report, would you believe it, and will send it if you would find useful. As I regularly do with your view of the world….. Peter Durrant. 01223 415597.

    • Mark Parker says:

      Sorry for the delay in replying Peter. My email is kmarkparker [at] gmail dot com. I’d love to read your piece and hear more about the CD going on in lively and exciting Cambridge!
      Hope to hear from you soon.

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