Connecting ethical storytelling and narrative change

If storytelling is to be a truly powerful tool for social justice activism, it is important to pay as much attention to the process of storytelling as to its outcome. Unless it is approached thoughtfully and with great care, impact-driven storytelling can easily become transactional and extractive, inflicting some of the very harms it seeks to address. 

This is vividly illustrated in a recent article in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, where Damion J Cooper asks, “Why must I relive my deepest trauma to convince donors to fund my organization?” Cooper runs a nonprofit organization working with boys in Baltimore. He describes how he has to repeatedly tell his own story of being shot—retraumatizing himself each time—as a prerequisite for receiving support from donors reluctant to fund organizations led by Black and Brown people. 

Cooper’s plea highlights the dark side of storytelling in the world of nonprofits and social justice. Consent turns into an empty formality undermined by vastly unequal power relationships, storytelling becomes a spectacle for the benefit of the listeners—to satisfy their egos or to fulfill their sense of being saviors—at the expense of the storyteller. The storyteller is hemmed into repeating a single, unchanging story that ultimately consumes  the person’s entire identity. 

Cooper is not alone in his experience. In “The Challenge of Stories,” an unpublished paper by Francesca Polletta, Tania DoCarmo and Kelly Ward (which I funded in my previous role at the Open Society Foundations), the authors interviewed 72 people who had either told their personal story for advocacy purposes or helped others tell their story. Many of the same concerns arose again and again. Among other things, the interviews revealed the inadequacy of viewing consent as a once-off decision rather than a multifaceted process. Not only is it impossible to predict how others will react to a story, but storytellers themselves may not realize how they will feel once their story becomes public, and may also grow to feel differently about it over time. On top of that, the interviews made clear that there are often tensions between the stories people want to tell, and the types of stories that journalists, funders and advocacy organizations expect and demand. 

Polletta et al.’s paper served as the springboard for a conference on ethical and impactful storytelling that I co-organized in 2016. At that meeting, people with extensive lived experience of an issue, as well as—in many cases—impressive academic track records, complained about being asked to make themselves vulnerable by telling their stories, only to be shut out of the strategy and policy process by donors and self-appointed “experts.” More recent debate and discussion on the ethics of nonfiction film-making, prompted by an outcry over the screening of films such as Jihad Rehab at the Sundance festival has highlighted not only problems of stereotyping, but the potential of endangering the physical safety of the people whose stories are featured. 

What became clear from “The Challenge of Stories” and the conference, is that concern with ethics, and care for the storyteller, has to encompass the entire process—from conception, to storytelling, to story sharing and beyond. There are no easy answers to ethical storytelling and no universally agreed standards, but a basic starting point is a commitment to seeing and treating storytellers as inherently valuable in themselves, as people, rather than merely sources of good material. 

There are a number of resources available to anyone seeking further guidance—in addition to Cooper’s and Polletta et al.’s articles, this paper by Sam Gregory of Witness provides a good discussion of ethical considerations related to storytelling in video advocacy, and Thaker Pekar provides a good overview in Part 1 and Part 2 of her roundup on ethical story-sharing. Safer Storytellers, supported by IRIS and the Rory Peck Trust, outlines a range of practical measures donors can take to support the safety of journalists, documentary filmmakers and their sources. Over the past few years a range of resources, discussions and case studies have also begun to pave the way towards clearer ethical frameworks for documentary filmmakers and producers. New resources emerge regularly—such as this guide to ethical storytelling on GBV from the Irish Consortium on Gender Based Violence. 

But what is the connection between ethical storytelling and narrative change? This connection comes across strongly in Africa No Filter’s publications How to Write About Africa in 8 Steps: An Ethical Storytelling Handbook and the more recent one Why Change the Way We Write About Africa: A Storyteller’s Guide to Reframing Africa. Both publications point out that unethical storytelling helps perpetuate harmful, stereotypical narratives (as is so common in global coverage of the African continent), and that ethical storytelling is a prerequisite to social justice-aligned narrative change. This is storytelling that is complex, nuanced, and respectful. It is conscious of—and seeks to remedy—power imbalances, enables people to speak for themselves, and highlights agency rather than relying on pity.  

This connection may seem self-evident but it is often ignored. How often do foundations and nonprofits talk about the need to “change the narrative” about particular groups of people, while describing those same people in language that is disempowering and focused on deficits (as the likes of Trabian Shorters have pointed out)? Think also about the many times individuals or whole groups have been silenced because they do not conform to a preferred narrative being advanced by relatively more powerful members of a stigmatized community seeking widespread acceptance—such as the history of marginalization of trans people during Pride.

A rigorous attention to ethics may seem to make narrative change for social justice even harder than it is already: it makes story gathering and sharing more complex and time-consuming; it may mean including “inconvenient” voices that complicate simple messaging, for example. Yet narrative change does not only happen through what we say but also through what we do. 

How we treat people, how we treat our stories and the people to whom they belong, is a powerful narrative in itself. 

Brett Davidson | IRIS

Narrative Strategist

Brett is a narrative strategist with deep experience in health equity, with a particular interest in the role of storytelling, popular culture, and arts activism in bringing about social change. Through his company Wingseed, he works with foundations and nonprofits interested in using the power of narrative and creativity for social justice. Brett is also the Narrative Lead at International Resource for Impact and Storytelling (IRIS), a donor collaborative for philanthropy focused on strengthening civil society through narrative strategies and creative moving image storytelling for impact.

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