Hearing the Stories within the Stories
It’s easy to revert to big narratives and much harder to let small, surprising, and telling stories emerge.
People often say things that they think others want to hear. This is one reason I am reluctant to recommend convening formal focus groups; participants usually have the convener’s thesis nailed and respond within the expected frames.
Stephen Kahn, M.D., of the Abundance Foundation told me that one of the reasons he loves being an emergency room doctor is because he gets to hear patients’ stories early in their medical journey, long before they have figured out how to tell stories in a way that gets them what they want from a hospital—whether it is the attention of a specialist, more time, or medication. Stephen believes that he is hearing authentic stories filled with emotional details that might best help him help the patient.
All over the world, people often try to “sell” philanthropists compelling stories in exchange for monetary support. My colleague Victoria Ward of Sparknow has warned me of the particular difficulties in gathering stories in developing nations. In regions accustomed to infusions of international aid, Victoria describes the establishment of an exchange economy: Over time, some aid recipients become so familiar with the common narratives that most effectively and efficiently attract funding that they eagerly offer unsurprising stories—containing little or no insight—to outside donors and researchers.
I was recently confronted with a similar phenomenon while developing a story—both in writing and on film—for The Atlantic Philanthropies about its work in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland is a deeply divided society, and the education system reflects the level of separation between Protestant and Catholic communities (more than 90 percent of children attend religiously segregated schools). The Atlantic Philanthropies is supporting a shared education program, and I was working with them to find and develop a story focused on how the program raises educational outcomes through mutual collaboration.
In the shared education program, all schools—regardless of pupils’ background—have the opportunity to improve through teachers sharing expertise and peer learning. All academic boats, so to speak, are lifted. Because schools share resources, their costs are less. Intercultural reconciliation is a byproduct of shared education.
The problem is that a reconciliation economy has emerged in Northern Ireland. A large amount of international funding is available to support the bringing together of Catholic and Protestant communities. So when I asked educational leaders and parents for their experiences with shared education, I immediately heard stories about children from different religions becoming Facebook friends, going to McDonalds together, and attending each other’s birthday parties. I also heard stories about students not caring whether teachers were Protestant or Catholic.
These are all important stories, and they are stories that mark significant cultural progress. They support the common narrative of reconciliation in a torn region, and they are the stories that the educators and parents thought I wanted to hear.
But I was looking to elicit something different—something smaller, perhaps, something more nuanced and less grand. And yet I wanted to honor each person’s story and respect how the stories of reconciliation marked both professional and parental success. It’s easy to constantly revert to the big cultural narrative and much harder to let the small, surprising, and telling stories emerge.
So the story elicitation took longer than I originally anticipated. The interviewees and I shared stories about family and established trust; I listened to everyone’s stories about reconciliation and progress. And then, having established the context in which we were working, I was able to say: “Yes, I am hearing your immensely powerful and important story, and I would like to shift and narrow the focus over here.” Together, we had to find and develop the small stories of achievement within the larger narrative of reconciliation.
We scheduled the film shoot and explicitly instructed the videographers to portray the physically segregated city of Derry/Londonderry but to avoid a focus on conflict. The first cut of the video, however, came back with a divisive opening image. The Dublin-based director, it became apparent, also had his own, deeply ingrained idea of how to tell a story about Northern Ireland.
Discussion and edits followed, and we ultimately produced a beautiful short film and written story, focused on how shared education promotes academic achievement for all. Reconciliation is an important, though secondary, result.
It would have been easy to produce a story about shared education contributing to the greater narrative of reconciliation in Northern Ireland. It was harder to find, and focus on, the story that sat just outside of the larger cultural meme. Our hope is that this small story will inspire others to share similar stories in support of shared education. Inviting such new conversation—and, as a result, sparking insight and ultimately sustaining action—requires hearing the small, hidden stories within and alongside the big, familiar ones.