This is the first part of a three-part series on storytelling for community organizing.
Indigenous communities have used stories for teaching and passing down information for thousands of years. Today, science is catching up and starting to understand the importance of storytelling.
Storytelling isn’t just a better way to connect with your audience: It also improves their retention of your presentation. “The data shows that all audiences retain emotions and stories better than facts and figures.”
I believe that to be a good organizer, it is important to use storytelling. I’ve used stories to break logjams, to explain concepts that are difficult to understand and to help with fund-raising.
When I was first starting to work with a multiracial group in rural North Carolina, I brought a group of whites and Blacks together in the same room. I had placed the chairs in a circle, but people ended up moving their chairs to opposite walls, dividing themselves by race.
I didn’t know what to do.
But falling back on the power of stories, I asked each person to tell a story of what they wanted for their children. As people began to share, they realized they had the same concerns, fears and hopes for their families. The logjam broke. They became animated and engaged, and began to move their chairs closer together.
That was the beginning of one of the largest multiracial organizations in the South at the time.
To get people comfortable telling their own stories, one exercise I use is called “The Three Stepping Stones.” It involves people identifying three stepping stones, or life events that have brought them to working for social justice today.
I started using it when I faced a logjam of my own.
Some time ago, I was asked to lead a workshop for media communicators at the last minute. As I drove to the gathering, I wondered why I had ever agreed. I had no idea what I was going to do with these experienced communicators.
I arrived in a panic but then I saw a garden filled with river stones. I gathered a bunch of stones in my shirt, intending to return them all at the end of the workshop.
When the group came into my workshop, I asked them each to pick three stones and to think of three stepping stones, or life events, that brought them to the work they were doing for justice. Then people went into small groups of four, with 15 minutes each to tell their stories.
Afterwards, many people talked about how powerful it was for them to hear each other and to tell their own stories. One woman asked if she could take the stones home with her to tell these stories to her husband of 30 years and her family. She had never shared her powerful, life-changing events with them.
Telling each other our stories is one of the most powerful things we can do to organize deeply and profoundly. It reinforces the importance of our work in a way that people can connect to and understand.
And just for the record, I did return the stones to the garden at the end of the workshop, though minus several stones people had took back home with them!