My partner recently met a corporate marketing executive whose job title is Storyteller, and last year, I attended a large, over-produced storytelling conference where I was consistently seated with executives from airline companies. I could count the number of non-profit attendees, academics, and artists I met on one hand. This isn’t surprising. For the world of branding and marketing, storytelling has become important because a company’s identity or story helps it differentiate its wares in a saturated market. When you have six different computers that all pretty much do the same thing, a company’s story — say Apple’s story of rebellion and individuality — matters as much, if not more, than the product itself.
But that’s not what I’m interested in. Marketing is not storytelling, not in the way I see it. Marketing is about inventing or growing insecurities in people in order to sell them a product. Storytelling for me is about connecting with people at a human level and working together to recognize, break apart and rewrite the stories in our world. It is about speaking back and speaking together, not simply receiving narratives.
In social justice movements, provoking narrative shifts has always been important, and in every corner of the world, communities challenge mainstream narratives that support domination and marginalization. In this tradition, I work as a storytelling advisor help Greenpeace staff, volunteers, and also impacted communities recognize and analyze meta-narratives which only support entrenched powers, and co-build strategies for countering these destructive narratives.
Viewing storytelling through the work of social justice and environmental justice work, storytelling as an act contains “several layers of optimism” according to the editors of Telling Stories to Change the World: (1) the necessary imagining and realizing that there is both a voice and a listener for the story, (2) that stories can have a transformative effect for the teller, and (3) that stories can even remake the world. Storytelling — at its core — is activism.
Such possibilities for storytelling in the public sphere have facilitated the formation of communities with political power and mass mobilizations. One of the biggest movements in the last two years, #MeToo, is built upon the simple notion of personal storytelling. In 2018, we saw some of the biggest stories center on the extraordinary testimonies of women survivors: Dr. Blasey Ford and Larry Nassar’s trial come to mind immediately. Millions in the US listened to the words of these women who spoke of their experience, who demanded us to believe them and to enact a better world. In response, their stories dislodged countless more stories.
Now, if you look at the results of these movements alone, you may wonder how much storytelling can really impact — in terms of brute outcomes — the world. After all, Kavanaugh was sworn in and the world continues to be a buffet for misogynists. But it’s a mistake to look only at the end as a way of judging the approach. We must still ask ourselves who are the stories for? Are they only for the oppressor?
More and more, I’ve come to believe that we must tell stories to survive, heal, and build our own communities for the long term. Yes, these stories may eventually fall upon the oppressor’s ears (maybe even provoke a new consciousness), but it also necessary to tell stories directly to those who already understand, and who maybe haven’t seen or heard their experiences reflected in mainstream society.
Often in my work, when I ask who people wish to speak to, I hear: Everyone! This is the understandable ambition of a group of people who want to stop climate change and literally save the planet. To focus the direction, I will talk about power mapping and target audiences, evoking marketing lingo, which is actually sensible sometimes.
But what I really want to talk about is Toni Morrison, arguably the greatest living English-language writer. At best, I might understand about fifty-percent of what she’s put down on the page. The reason is that she’s not writing for me. She’s not playing tour guide of the Black experience for the average American reader. Rather, she’s writing with a precision and lucidity that speaks directly to her own community. Yet this doesn’t stop people like me from enjoying and valuing her work — in fact, its this very integrity of intellect and artistry that makes her work precious and, yes, transformative to people around the world.
Playwright Rhiana Yazzie illustrates this same impulse in the latest Fiction Non Fiction podcast where she speaks about making work specifically for Native people through The New Native Theatre. From Romani literature to trans literature — a thousand new and necessary stories are being crafted right now. Material changes for these communities will and must come sooner or later as a result of the accumulated collective efforts and shifting wider circumstances. But in the meantime, we must refuse the dehumanizing and destructive stories put upon us. We must tell stories to express and assert our own humanity.