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Storytelling: Sowing the seeds of change through sharing

Storytelling: Sowing the seeds of change through sharing

The growing importance of storytelling in social justice

Image above: Audience listening to a story at a Behind the Label live event

As someone who works in the area of social policy in Australia, Morgan Cataldo is keenly aware of the growing importance of storytelling in social justice. In her first article as LCJB17 winner for the Pacific Region, she looks at the power of storytelling and the essential ingredients for a great story.

I can’t help but notice a rising trend around the use of storytelling – that it is becoming “a thing to do” in traditional and online marketing efforts – working to strengthen organisational brands through moving their audiences with the use of emotive and shareable content.

So, how do we uphold storytelling as a way of “building a person” rather than just simply a tool for ‘building a brand?’ How do we ensure that there remain opportunities to share our lives in ways that are raw and honest, rather than polished and rehearsed?

Knowing that the personal is very much political when it comes to social change and in swaying public opinion, I’ve found myself curious about whether the genuineness of storytelling can be sustained despite its popularity, and what the key ingredients might be in ensuring that this is so.

The power of storytelling

"Storytelling is the oldest art form there is and I believe it goes deep to our core as human beings," says Zac Wone, a Kabi Kabi and Australian South Sea Islander man who is involved in a number of community organising movements.

"Storytelling is, of course, universal across cultures, but particularly [important] in Australia where we are blessed to have the oldest living societies in the world – that have continued through the millennia in large part due to the storytelling tradition. This tradition was, and continues to be, used to impart knowledge and wisdom on how to live with the land and each other.”

Activist Zac Wone surrounded by protesters

Zac Wone speaking at a rally

When people share with one another, it can be a transforming experience for both the teller and the receivers.

“Everyone has a life. And lives are more than just events or incidents,” says Christine Yeung, a psychologist and the Founder and Chief Story Hunter of Beyond Story.  This organisation brings people together from different backgrounds to increase understanding and empathy through storytelling and arts.

Christine adds, “Storytelling helps to bring these things out in people and works to build more authentic and empathetic relationships. There is so much lacking in this world and we must look beyond what’s on the surface. I think it’s through storytelling that we find common ground.”

Challenging stereotypes

Marie Chung is the Founder of Behind the Label – a not-for-profit that shares stories to challenge stereotypes.

She feels that storytelling is about “me connecting to you, human to human. It takes away the assumptions and offers us what is real and raw, creating an opportunity to build relationships on the foundations of trust”.  

She also believes that “storytelling stops us from misjudgement – allowing us to see beyond the individual and look to the flaws in our systems of support that have forged diverse and unjust pathways".

Story telling workshop in a room

A workshop at Beyond Story

Storytelling  in advocacy

One of Zac Wone’s roles is as National Convenor for Labor for Treaty – a grassroots organisation for Australian Labor Party members and supporters who believe it’s time for the Australian Government to make Treaties with the First Nations people of Australia.

Zac believes storytelling is a “vital part of the Treaty campaign”.

“We need to be given the space to be able to tell our stories and for settler Australians to be able to listen openly and without defensiveness.”

He explains, “The challenge is in getting the mainstream community to understand this and accept a more honest version of history. Only then can we start to address the legacy of that history through something like a Treaty.

“People inherently relate to stories. They can teach lessons. They can inspire us to reflect on our inner and outer worlds and to make change on a personal level, as well as struggle for social change.

Key ingredients for storytelling

Here are some key ingredients to keep in mind for your own storytelling and advocacy work:

  • Authenticity – being true to who you are in your sharing. People can tell when you’re not!
  • Curiosity – being genuinely inquisitive about the person(s) you are speaking with
  • Expertise – knowing you are the expert in your own experience, not other people’s
  • Integrity – working with integrity at all times, particularly when telling another person’s story
  • Patience and tolerance – understanding it takes time for people to open up and trust, it should not be forced
  • Practice – knowing clearly what your story is and practicing your ability to share it as a key part of leadership
  • Safer spaces – creating and cultivating spaces of non-judgement where people feel safe to reveal who they are
  • Why – knowing your whys! Not only your own why about what you do, but also the why behind asking someone else to share  with you.

Whether it be within your own community or outside of it, there are some core features to consider when telling your story – or supporting someone else to tell theirs.

“The sharing of joy, whether physical, emotional, psychic, or intellectual, forms a bridge between the sharers which can be the basis for understanding much of what is not shared between them, and lessens the threat of their difference.”

Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, 1984