I was co-presenting the workshop “Framing Stories for Social Change” at a regional storytellers’ event in April of this year. The workshop focused on the use of digital stories for promoting change and awareness, a theme that I have written about in this blog. The audience was primarily oral storytellers, professionals who are paid for their performances and others who use storytelling in their work or life. While there was interest in the use of personal digital stories, there was more interest in how stories told orally could be used to make a difference.
This blog post is an initial attempt to answer that question, focusing on my own experience. Before getting into this, I want to touch on the “storyteller’s magic.” There is something special about telling a story to a live audience, because when the story and the telling is working, the individuals listening are very present and engaged. I was talking several weeks ago with Kay Weeden, a bilingual storyteller who used to be a middle-school teacher. She was talking about the first time she told a story in her class, and how suddenly students started to really pay attention. A similar thing would happen when I was teaching social work students in college. In a class where some people looked distracted, when I switched to the storytelling mode every eye would be focused on me.
That’s not to say that any time anyone sets out to tell a story, there will be rapt attention from an audience. Stories need to be well-constructed with a beginning and an end, although not necessarily follow a linear timeline. They need to be about something. Jay O’Callahan, the superlative New England storyteller, says that stories are about people and places and troubles. Kendall Haven, in his 2014 book Story Smart: Using the Science of Story to Persuade, Influence, Inspire, and Teach, gives a succinct definition of a story: “a narrative account of a real or imagined account of an event or events.”1 Haven also states that for a story to be effective, there needs to be sufficient relevant detail to make it seem real, vivid, and compelling. When these components are present, and the teller is skillful, good things can happen.
In telling stories to promote change or raise awareness, the goal is not just to hold an audience’s attention but also to help them think about an issue or a group of people in a different way, and perhaps to take action.
My first experience of attempting to use stories for awareness was through the Wisconsin Humanities Council, which funded a story-based presentation I gave on poverty and homelessness in the Great Depression and the present. A researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh shared stories with me of people who had lived during the Great Depression in Oshkosh, oral histories gathered by his students in interviewing older adults. I paired these with my experiences from working for nine years in a shelter for homeless families in Southeastern Wisconsin. For the current stories, I would take the persona of the person experiencing homelessness whose story I was telling and tell it more or less in their voice. I would then step back and talk about it from the perspective of a social worker and professor. Over an eight-year period, through the Wisconsin Humanities Council Speaker’s Bureau and other invitations, I gave that presentation more than twenty times.
How well did it work? I really don’t know. I know that I had the audience’s attention while I was talking. There would be discussion afterwards, more in some venues than others. There was no systematic or unsystematic evaluation.
When I put the talk together and presented it, I did so without thinking much about how to address an audience that might be skeptical. I also did not know then what I do now, about the importance of framing a story. The Frameworks Institute. has conducted research on the difficulty of communicating with the general public about homelessness. The research was in the United Kingdom, but I believe that the findings and recommendations can be applied to this country. Their analysis showed that that people see homelessness as divorced from larger economic forces, and being homeless is seen as an individual rather than a collective problem. The Frameworks Institute recommends that organizations working in this area define homelessness in the context of the large group of people whose fragile economic status puts them at risk of being homeless. They counsel that stories that are told of individuals should be in the context of systemic causes which have systemic solutions, and these solutions can lead to positive societal consequences. Connecting the stories with commonly held positive values can lead people to consider homelessness as something other than personal failure.
I am currently putting together a story-based 35-minute piece that I will be presenting at least three times in the fall of 2018 in Wisconsin. I draw on my experiences living in El Salvador as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the early 1970s and in conducting research on youth and migration from 2005 to the present in that country. I also bring in stories of people I know, recent immigrants from Latin America to Wisconsin.
In this presentation, again drawing on the work of the The Frameworks Institute , I am attempting to link the reasons for immigrating to the United States with commonly held values, like our shared humanity. I will draw connections between newcomers to this country and my ancestors, who came to this land more than 375 years ago. My goal is to not come across as a figure of authority but someone who is sharing stories that are important to me, in the hopes that the presentation will be a springboard for discussion.
How can I tell if these presentations/discussions have been successful? It will be hard to determine. Talking to community groups is not like conducting a research study, where one can conduct pre-tests and post-tests. One indicator could be the amount of discussion generated from the presentation, but that is hard to quantify.
From my point of view, being able to tell if these stories and this presentation have shifted attitudes or beliefs is not the point. Certainly, I would be pleased if individuals coming to the presentation with a negative view on immigration came away with more nuanced opinions. But mainly, I want to spark discussion and communication. I want to listen as well as talk. That is something that those who live in this country are not doing very much these days. And if through stories, which captivate attention and aid one in understanding the situation of others, I have laid the groundwork for talking with each other, I will be pleased.
1 Haven, Kendall (2014). Story Smart: Using the Science of Story to Persuade, Influence, Inspire, and Teach. Santa Barbara, CA: Libraries Unlimited, p. 11.
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."