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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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 http://greenmemesteam.tumblr.com/ ‘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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Frames for change

Last week we started looking at story and story-telling by exploring the ubiquitous and pervasive nature of story in our family life to our national identity. This week, I want to focus down on the shape of our stories – their frames. Much research and thinking has been looking at how the frames we use influence the power of our change efforts and I want to offer an introduction to that thinking in this post.

Frames by Bart Eveson CC FlickrWhen we think of a frame, most of us will have in mind a photo or painting on the wall. We may have some at home or on our desk at work. We see frames in many places – the TV at home acts as a frame, the bill board on our street, the screen on our phone. What they have in common is that they include some things and exclude others. They form a boundary around the object of attention. So it is with the metaphor of mental frames I want to introduce here. Of course we don’t use wooden or plastic borders to shape our mental world but we do chose particular ways of regularly organising our attention that include key elements and exclude other related material, giving a particular meaning to our perspective.

Frames help and hinder

Frames allow human beings to assimilate new information by fitting it into a framework that is already understood. They offer “organizing principles that are socially shared and persistent over time, that work symbolically to meaningfully structure the social world.” (Stephen D. Reese, Framing Public Life, 2001) Most people don’t think about most issues most of the time; they need to have a frame in which to hang their thoughts about each issue and this is provided by the controlling frame. This is mostly provided by the news media that gives many people their agenda (what’s important to attend to), their frame (the lens through which to interpret facts and events) and their priming (what is relevant to making judgements). Different frames make for different opinions and willingness to act.

Homeless Man in Tokyo by Tony Waghorn CC FlcikrFor example, an episodic frame gives portraits of particular human stories whilst a thematic frame will pull the camera back to show the landscape in which the individual story is set. Episodic frames deliver a series of disconnected episodes and random events whilst thematic frames provide context, trends and explore how the system more widely has contributed to the situation. The difference between the two frames is seen in the response of those reading them. An episodic frame will leave the responsibility with the person or family; the required response is with the individual to ‘do good’ or ‘act well’. The thematic frame points beyond the case study to the wider causes; it asks for social policy responses, for government action or collective challenge.

Understanding frames (and becoming astute at recognising them) makes the reading of novels, the news or advertising very informative. You can begin to see that stories embody fundamental principles or values. Aesop’s fable of the hare and the tortoise is not just about two animals in a race but expresses a view of (human) nature that encourages reflection, steady effort and an avoidance of flashy show. Similarly reading the frames involved in the Harry Potter novels provides important ideas about heroes being ordinary people made extraordinary by chance, fame that is not about celebrity but about heritage, loyalty and commitment and the recognition of a fundamental choice facing every human being: to be good or evil.

Frames express values

Schwartz’s value circumplex from The Common Cause HandbookThe importance of frames comes home when we look at research findings about values and motivation. In The Common Cause Handbook, the authors explore our growing understanding of human values and how they are structured. Over decades and across cultures, psychologists have found that the same group of ten repeatedly occurring values do not stand alone but each is related to the others as neighbours and opposites. The result of plotting these values on two axis – one about agency and the other about communion – is the circumplex, illustrated above. The findings show that values held on one side of the circumplex will be incompatible with values on the other. On the other hand, each value bleeds over from one segment to its neighbours, strengthening values on either side. Values are closely related to a person’s goals in life whether those are centred on external approval or reward or more inherently rewarding in their pursuit. For example some people seek social power or authority (extrinsic goals) whilst others are focused on creativity and a connection to nature (intrinsic goals).

Day 40/365 - Driving Home Through The Snow by Tobi Mattingly CC FlcikrNow values and the frames that express them are really important to community organisers. The way our people see their situation, the way they interpret the facts and figures, the meaning they place on events are all strongly influenced by the frames in use and the values that are triggered by them. For example, many people in my community see the council as just about the only body that can change their situation; they have never been exposed to a frame that suggests that any other agency can have an impact on their lives. So when I began to talk as though their own agency might be capable of delivering change, the frame was derided and laughed out of court. It was only as we worked together, as a few who shared the frame came together to make a start that the frame became more credible. As I shared my confidence in the ‘story’ I was telling them, shared examples from elsewhere and talked about the frame in many different ways, so people came to see they could be in the driving seat of their own lives.

The frames we chose to work with are really fundamental to the values we will illicit from the community. If we chose to use frames that focus on family security, honouring of older people and respect for tradition we will have problems drawing people into action that requires daring creativity, a broadminded acceptance of diversity and a sense of independence. The stories we tell ourselves do indeed determine what we can become! We can expect a wide diversity of values to be held by individuals in our work for social justice but the way we – as organisers and leaders – talk and act (our frames) will support a certain group of values to become the culture of our network rather than others. Being conscious about our choice of frame will ensure that our culture embeds values and frames to support our work and not undermine it.

Next time: the underlying structure of stories is important to appreciate so that we can develop narratives of our work that speak to the needs of communities for purpose and direction. In my next blog, I want to consider how the universal hero story underlies the life of communities getting organised and how the organiser themselves has to look to his or her personal narrative for inspiration.


Tim Holmes et al (2011) The Common Cause Handbook Public Interest Research Centre Available from http://valuesandframes.org/downloads/

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

Anon (2002) Framing Public Issues: A Toolkit The Framework Institute

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Values, Fairy Tales and Organising

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.

Storytelling @ Thurdays by Zhao ! CC FlickrTruth telling

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.

Two hats by Mark Round CC FlickrOrganising 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.

The Power of Myth: Science, Myth and Parable by Timothy Takemoto CC FlickrStories 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 – DickensOliver 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.

leveraged wheelchair kenya 8 by Engineering for Change CC FlickrNarratives 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.

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Redesigning Organiser Training

The Locality-led community organisers’ programme was commissioned by the incoming UK Coalition government in April 2011. It promised to develop a new home-grown movement of 5,000 community organisers across England building on the experience of existing community organisations and using an approach called Root Solutions – Listening Matters(RSLM). Over four years, the Programme offers a year’s experiential and accredited training to 500 individuals and to help them in turn to recruit 4,500 volunteer organisers who join them in developing local initiatives, based around the priorities of local residents.

At Chester (Cohort 9 Training) by Community Organisers Programme - FacebookTraining so far

For each cohort – and there are fourteen planned in all – their training starts with a three and a half day residential. With about 40 in each cohort – from about nine or ten locations – this intense process gives each cohort a distinctive character and identity. It helps to bond the teams together and introduces the key elements of RSLM. I was a part of the first cohort that trained in September 2011 and at the time, I wrote three posts one about each of the three days (below). The residential (and the rest of the training experience) has of course evolved significantly since then:

The residential only forms the first element in an extended range of training and development opportunities that supports the evolving practice of new community organisers. These include monthly online group supervision, onsite visits from the training team, a mid-year cohort-wide face-to-face meeting and the Annual Action Camp. The core of the learning agenda is carried by the seven-module Open College Network (OCN) accredited distance-learning course and the ‘Go Deeper’ options which allow trainees to specialise in a particular aspect of organising in their later months. When nearing the end of my year, I wrote a post about the training:

Ahmed Kabba at Yarnfield Conference Centre for Action Camp 2013Review

Since the Programme first started, the key training partner for Locality has been the RE:generate Trust, who hold the copyright on the RSLM materials. The staff of RE:generate have formed the core of the national training team and ensured consistency to the learning journey for all trainees. The Programme has contracted with RE:generate only until April 2014 and so is now embarking on a review and revision of the organiser training for the final months. As a consequence, Locality convened a review conference recently to look at the nature and scope of a new training package to be used for the last three cohorts who will start their year training from April 2014.

In preparation for this review, Locality invited their partner Imagine (an informal group of four experienced community sector consultants) to survey opinion amongst the current community organisers about their training and how it might be changed to better prepare them for organising. The results of the survey were interesting. The trainees divided between those who relished the practical learning focus and felt the course was too ‘theoretical’ and a second group who enjoyed expanding their understanding of organising and wanted to restrict the amount of practical application. This is no surprise with such a broad range of experience and ability in each cohort. However it presented a real challenge to the review conference to take account of both these groups and develop a more coherent and sustainable course.

Community organisers cohort 7 introduction map and flags. Community Organisers Programme FacebookSurvey results

We opened the review by considering the feedback from the survey and a summary of the main findings from the Imagine report. We spent a couple of hours considering what the core elements of a new foundation course in community organising should cover. We came up with all the elements that we felt fundamental to the learning and clustered them under understanding, knowledge and skills. Each of these headings were then summarised from the many ideas grouped and categorised so that in the report back, each group brought a simple (or not so simple!) schema of the core elements. They fell into three areas fairly clearly: the person, the process and the power.

The organiser needs to learn during the year how to be resilient, reflective and responsive. We identified a range of factors that make for a successful community organiser such as self-awareness, the ability to challenge and work effectively in a team. Secondly we wanted trainees to develop an appreciation of the process of organising moving from developing deeper relationships of trust to building action groups toward a network of people who are committed to changing their community for the better. Thirdly we felt it crucial that organisers were able by the end of the course to analyse power, use it themselves and work in an empowering way with others. These core areas – person, process and power – were the essential ingredients of the training course content.

The survey had indicated that trainees found the accredited element the most stressful, asking them to write several short essays for each of module. We recognised that this gave preference to those who found it easy to express themselves in writing and that people with other learning styles were disadvantaged. The conversation turned to look at how a broader range of learning styles might be engaged by the training using online, multi-media and other mechanisms (such as presentations and interviews) to encourage each organiser to at least ‘have a go’ at two or three new ways of expressing themselves. I expressed the hope this might be done so as to help the organiser use such newly-acquired skills in their community and in turn to pass on the knowledge.

Community Organisers Programme FacebookTiming and Accreditation

When we turned to the timeline for the year’s training, two groups of organisers took apart the events of the year and reconstructed them to reflect how they would like to see the training develop. This allowed us to consider how peer support from earlier cohorts might be incorporated, how the fledgling Inspiration Network of graduate organisers might facilitate the creation of regional learning and support networks and the role of a short residential at the mid-point. My group suggested a final day closure session combined with the public graduation session to provide a full stop for everyone.

We concluded with a short session on the OCN accredited materials and what changes or developments were felt necessary and feasible. Given the timeframe, we felt that only a cosmetic adjustment was possible at this stage and that a more substantial reworking of the material could be considered with the OCN at a future stage. We talked throughout the day about the Go Deeper options that are currently taken after about 6 months. We did not reach any consensus but it was clear that some would need to be better integrated in the core offer and others might be part of monthly day events either online or in person.

The review conference was an opportunity to consider how the training might be delivered differently given the experience of nine cohorts. It built on the existing model (and resources) and tried to make the design more coherent and consistent. Moving beyond a dependence on the pure RSLM model (due to copyright restrictions) will allow the training to be more flexible and adventurous in some aspects. There is of course much work to be done – not least to consult much more widely – and that will require a great deal of necessary constraint on ambitious plans. Nonetheless, a redesigned training for UK organisers has begun its life; I hope it fulfils on its potential.

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Tooling up for power analysis

We’ve been on a journey together over the last two months. Looking at different aspects of power has been a rewarding experience for me, consolidating learning and experience from more than ten years of exploration. I outlined my understanding of power and empowerment in the first three posts and then I examined personal, cultural and structural power in turn. Last week, the focus turned to using power analysis and this time I want to conclude by sharing some great tools and approaches to power analysis.

DeWalt Power Tool - Drill by Digital Internet CC FlcikrUsing the right tool

When you are considering doing a power analysis with your community network, an organiser needs to think carefully about the goal you have for the analysis, the nature and stage of development of your group and how it all fits in the wider context. Choosing the right approach to analysis has never been ‘one size fits all’. Rather you need to take stock and chose carefully from a range of options. One key part of this consideration is to always work within the wisdom of your people. Don’t ask a group who are just starting out together to work through a complex and emotionally charged agenda. But similarly, don’t offer a mature and well functioning group a simplistic exercise that trivialises power analysis. It’s important to think through how you will present the power analysis too. How will you get the best from the group? How can they best see the analysis fitting into the narrative of the group’s development?

Forces and influencers

There are some great tools that can be used ‘off the shelf” so to speak for a single session or discussion. One that makes sense in some contexts is a force-field analysis, devised by Kurt Lewin. This approach involves looking at the forces holding things as they are and forces moving toward the change you want. At present, these two sets of forces are in equilibrium but you want to move the status quo closer to your goal. The way to visualise this is by drawing a straight line from top to bottom of a large sheet of paper. On one side list each of the forces at work to keep things as they are and on the other those forces driving for change. Once you’ve got your lists, give each force a strength say from one to five, reflecting the power they hold. This can be recorded with a line of the right length underlining each force. Once you have a picture of the power at work on each side, the fun begins of trying to assess how to increase the likelihood of change. That starts with reducing the forces that resist the change; the evidence shows that if you focus on creating greater pressure for change, the forces that are resisting it will merely redouble their efforts. Thinking through how to reduce the impact of the resisting forces gives your efforts for change more chance of succeeding. You can use this tool to look at any change process and plan your actions.

Another useful tool is Power Mapping from James Whelan at The Change Agency in Australia. James suggests helping the group to consider first what they want to achieve in their campaign. Being clear about your objective is really important in looking at the local power environment. Once you have the goal set, you can begin to use a simple map of power using two axises: one showing the level of influence each organisation or person has over your outcome and the other showing their level of support or opposition. Taking first your own network and then the most powerful player, you place sticky notes with the agency’s name on them onto the grid. You need to think broadly about a range of players in relation to your goal and map each onto the grid. When you’ve done this part of the process, you can turn to how you might move key influencers of your main power player closer to your cause. This tool helps to begin to develop a strategy for action.

100 Rubic cubes by Sam Greenhalgh CC FlickrPower cube

Among the most reflective and useful approaches to power analysis is the Power Cube. Developed by John Gaventa and his team at the Institute for Development Studies at the University of Brighton, the Cube is a distillation of power studies in the context of popular participation in international development. The framework suggests that power can be analysed in three dimensions, taking the analogue of a Rubik’s cube. Each face can be viewed in three ways, allowing the analysis to focus on how things are at present and what the strategy should be to move power to a more ‘pro-poor’ position.

Starting with the issue of scale, the first dimension of the Cube sets out three levels of power: the local, national and global. In terms of participation in international development, these three clearly make more sense than for organisers working at local level. However, this face of the Cube can remind us that the power wielded in communities may be located well beyond the local or indeed national context. The second dimension of the Cube looks at spaces for power. Building on his colleague Andrea Cornwall’s work, Gaventa suggests that the space for participation can have three forms: closed, invited or claimed / created. This dimension focuses on access to spaces for the exercise of power. Some spaces are defined and controlled by the powerful and hence are closed to other participants. Other spaces are open to those invited to participate but often still defined by those with authority and influence. The third type of space is designed for the less powerful and deliver real and tangible control for the many. The third dimension of the Cube speaks to the form of power exercised in those spaces. Some power is visible in observable decision-making. Other power is hidden in the setting of the political agenda, what can be discussed and what is not debated. Invisible power shapes the meaning of the debate itself and what is acceptable attitudes, values and behaviour. To use this approach effectively, do read the paper referenced below and visit the IDS website to find many relevant resources making the application to different contexts much easier.

Paulo Freire by novohorizonte de Economia Solidaria CC FlcikrDevising codes

Most people experience their lives as constrained by factors outside their immediate environment. Paulo Freire was a Brazilian educator (pictured right) who led a national literacy campaign for peasants and slum dwellers in the 1950s and 1960s. His methods have been very influential on both community work and education ever since. When looking to explore power with community members, Freire’s approach can be very productive and insightful. If you are thinking of using this style of analysis, it’s well worth taking a look at Freire’s thinking more generally to understand where he was coming from and how his wider values informed his educational process.

In summary, this approach has three parts: to see, to analyse and to act; it starts with agreeing on the issues the community faces. This will normally be a long list and may take some time to summarise and agree. The organiser is a full part of the research drawing out the different expert insights from across the community and helping people engage with each other’s perspectives. Encouraged to look more deeply at causes rather than merely recording consequences, the group seeks a short list of say three issues. They become ‘generative themes’ for the analysis stage. This process allows the community to ‘see’ the issues clearly and to understand how they effect different groups and parts of their neighbourhood.

much.ado: the watch by Emily Hummel CC FlcikrThe second stage starts in small groups, each creating a ‘code’ which might be video, a photo, drawing, audio or perhaps for children a puppet show. The ‘code’ is a way for the group to express their understanding of the power at work in their issue in a distilled and cogent way. The code should make the link between the issue and the situation faced by the community itself explicit and help to open up the power at work. They should be encouraged to think through how best to explore the issue which allows more than words to express the meaning. Once the codes are ready, the group meets together to hear from each of the small groups. This brings together the wisdom of the whole group to analyse what is happening, why it happens and what are its causes and consequences. Here the three levels of power – personal, cultural and structural – all come into play and immediate causes are separated from root causes. It’s often best in this discussion to summarise it as a problem tree. This presents the agreement as a picture of a tree with the consequences as leaves, the trunk as the issue itself and roots as the fundamental causes.

Moving from seeing to analysis to action is critical to this process. It gives participants opportunity to grow more aware of their power situation and how the decisions and actions of others impact on members of the community. They begin to see how the issues are socially constructed and neither natural or inevitable. By the third stage, the group is ready to decide not only on a long-term strategy to move some of the key power players but also on short-term next steps to create momentum for change.

Magnetic field - 15 by Windell Oskay CC FlickrPower analysis does not create change alone. It is however a key part in awakening the potential of a community to tackle power realistically, recognising their own power and how the power of others – in the network and beyond – enables or constrains their lives. To become truly liberated citizens, communities need to organise, to act collectively for the common good and to be conscious of their place in the matrix or forcefield of power. Only when the acts of fully-awake groups of citizens are integrated with each other across our cities, towns and villages will we see the start of a new form of deeper democracy taking hold.


The Change Agency (TCA) – a website crammed with great campaign resources and some deep wisdom too – highly recommended

Find here worksheets on forcefield analysis, power mapping and problem tree analysis

Training for Change (TfC) – another brilliant resource site for trainers and activists engaged for social justice. Plenty of great resources to delve into here too.

Andrew Boyd (ed) (2012) Beautiful Trouble – a Toolbox for Revolution OR Books Available to buy or download at http://beautifultrouble.org

The Power Cube from the Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex. This website brings together thinking and research into power over three decades at IDS into a simple but powerful summary. The resources to make use of the concepts and approach in participative ways are diverse, rich and practical.

John Gaventa (2006) ‘Finding the Spaces for Change – A Power Analysis‘ in The IDS Bulletin Vol 37 No 6 Available as a pdf

Oxfam (2009) A Quick Guide to Power Analysis Available as a pdf

Raji Hunjan and Jethro Pettit (2011) Power – a practical guide for facilitating social change Carnegie UK Trust

Dawn Martinez Therapy for Liberation – the Paulo Freire Methodology Simmons College School of Social Work Available as a pdf

Tools for Influencing Power and Policy” in Participatory Learning and Action No 53 Dec 2005 International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) Available as a pdf

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