Emily recently undertook work experience with Movement for Change. Here she reflects here on the power of stories to create social change.
Once upon a time, as a literature studying undergrad, I believed passionately in the compelling power of stories. Many of life’s dilemmas have been solved for me by seeking advice from the pages of my favourite novels. Example. Deciding what to wear for a recent event I attended in Bath, could easily be sorted by a quick flick through Jane Austen, the natural ‘go to’ for any questions pertaining to social etiquette in that beautiful Georgian city. More meaningfully, the force and energy of words and characters, cadence and clause, can evoke compassion for others, induce reflective internal dialogue and conjure imaginings about a different kind of world. Stories deliver a sensation unparalleled. They are a potent catalyst.
Within the remit of community organising, employing the power of stories is useful in primarily two ways. Firstly, stories create empathy, a fruitful and proven campaign technique. Attempting to take action on holistic concerns like poverty, or nebulous concepts like inequality, can seem daunting and unachievable. Instead, stories enable a macro issue to be made relevant at a micro level. Rather than speaking in general terms, discussing the hundreds of thousands affected by the current climate of economic recession – which often makes the listener feel overwhelmed and disempowered to help – a story humanises statistics. It can draw on people’s own day-to-day experiences and reference points. More poignant, is learning about a particular Sure Start centre that has been forced to close in a local community. Or hearing about Marian, a single mother, aged twenty seven, who lives on a nearby estate and can no longer afford childcare for her eighteen month old toddler. The sequence of an identifiable character faced with a challenge is a digestible formula which the listener can empathise with. This type of relational story telling drives collaboration, which in turn leads to action. By facilitating community leaders through training rooted in narrative, Movement for Change has successfully achieved a number of positive outcomes from founding Residents Associations through to installing safer road crossings for children.
Secondly, stories allow us to get to know each other better. Telling stories about ourselves – an oral tradition that pre-dates the written word – can enable us to find common ground with others, which in turn creates stronger grassroots networks, mobilised and willing to become involved with people they feel connected to. Much of the philosophy employed by Movement for Change in their community organising strategy draws on the idea of a personal meeting between community leader and community organiser, known as the 1-2-1. These sessions are used to push beyond the name, address and occupation of an individual – to reach past their socio economic credentials – in order to explore what drives them, what makes them tick. Employing stories to share details of our past – the moment when you became politically active or a juncture that awakened you to try and make change – forges stronger connections and a deeper understanding of people’s political and social reasoning. Example. Rather than turning up to a meeting at her local branch and vaguely muttering about wanting to help others, Elizabeth Bennet could tell a personal story about how a turbulent relationship with a wealthy man activated her political conscience when she realised that income inequality – a prolific social injustice – can act as a barrier to happiness. It is a truth universally acknowledged after all, that the British public cannot help but be enthralled by a best seller.
A few chapters later in my own life, having now studied politics as a postgrad, I am thrilled at the exciting prospect of uncovering the venn diagram lozenge where my two disciplines overlap. Community organising is a fertile ground, achieving tangible results on issues that really make a difference, where stories and politics can harmoniously exist. Putting people’s stories back into politics, returns politics to the people.