Note: This is the first of six blog posts on story and advocacy/social change. To read all of them, subscribe to the blog.
Through my own work with families experiencing homelessness, through my participation as a board member in an organization that serves struggling and homeless families, and as someone who does public speaking on poverty and homelessness, I have tried to communicate the realities of families and individuals who are struggling economically these days without playing into common stereotypes of poverty and homelessness. And I find it hard.
One approach is to tell stories about individuals experiencing homelessness or barely staying afloat economically. After all, humans are hard-wired for story. As Jonathan Haidt says: “The human brain is a story processor, not a logic processor."* We remember stories, while our eyes often glaze over when we see facts or statistics.
However, using individual stories often does not work. Social service organizations frequently showcase success stories, demonstrating through an example that participation in a program can lead to a better life for this individual or family. Given that we understand stories through the lens of our own ideology and worldview, what often happens is that when politically conservative individuals hear a success story, a common response would be: “If that individual made it, why can’t everyone in that situation?” The success stories can be interpreted in ways that reinforce that American core value of individualism. Many people assume that if someone is not successful, they must be unmotivated and not working hard enough.
I am a founding board member of the ecumenical nonprofit Bethel House, Inc. in Whitewater, Wisconsin (bethelhouseinc.org). We provide transitional housing for families experiencing homelessness and also engage in homelessness prevention. I have been working with the organization’s Executive Director to surmount the challenges of effectively communicating to the public the perilous situation that low-income working adults face, to show how the organization’s work with families is consistent with commonly held values, and to demonstrate that our efforts can make a difference.
We are utilizing the work and research of The Frameworks Institute, an independent nonprofit organization which uses cognitive and social science research to empirically identify the most effective ways of reframing social and scientific topics (http://www.frameworksinstitute.org/). Central to The Frameworks Institute’s approach is changing the way a societal issue is viewed from portrait (focusing on an individual) to landscape (seeing the big picture). This wide-angle lens systems approach means connecting personal stories with the answers to questions such as: “What are the conditions responsible for the problem?” For understanding the situation of low-income working adults, we draw on a number of sources, including research from The United Way of Wisconsin (https://unitedwaywi.site-ym.com/page/ALICE).
We approached individuals who in the past had received services from Bethel house, asking if they would be interested in telling a story about any part of their life before, during, or after experiencing homelessness. I offered to work with them to make a digital story** of their experience. The story, when finished, would be theirs to do with as they wished. When they finished the story, if, they wanted to give Bethel House the right to share it, we would then try to put their individual story in a societal context and perhaps highlight Bethel House’s involvement with them. I also stated that if they chose to make a story, regardless of their choice on who might see the story, the digital story would not divulge any names or show their or their family member's faces.
So far, three individuals have come forward wanting to tell their story. All three wanted Bethel House to use their story (two of the three have been developed to date). One of the stories, “Recovering from the Recession,” can be viewed here. We are in the process of showing the two completed stories to community groups and gathering feedback to assess the response from a range of viewers. It’s a good process. In showing the stories, discovering how they are interpreted and what impact they have, we hope to not only help people understand societal dimensions of homelessness but also to get better at telling stories in context.
* The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, New York, Pantheon Books, 2012, p. 281.
** Digital stories are personal stories, usually less than four minutes long, narrated by the person telling the story, usually including photos, video, and a soundtrack. They can be shared on YouTube or other platforms.
Storying the Human Experience
Yes, it's a grandiose title. But, as Flannery O'Connor once said, "A story is a way to say something that can't be said any other way."