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Storytelling and the Dangers of Disbelief

Social innovators can benefit from embracing complex characters and stories.

We all want to be heroes; it is how we make sense of our role in a challenging world. We want to think of ourselves as resilient—as solution providers and problem solvers. But seldom is the path from bad to good, or from suffering to redemption, clear and easy. The reality is that our lives are highly complex. And our professional work as social innovators is nuanced.

Making effective and efficient investments toward sustainable change is therefore difficult. Philanthropic enterprises and nonprofit sectors are comprised of interconnected, fluid networks. And when it comes to the economic and political systems, regions, and nations in which these sectors operate, complexity certainly scales up!

Perversely, battling that complexity can leave us too tired to effectively communicate. As a shortcut, people often say things that they think others want to hear. We eagerly and easily consume stories that fit well-known patterns, with familiar villains and heroes. But making assumptions in comprehension can shortchange real understanding.

Two recent news stories are prompting my continuing encouragement to embrace complex characters and stories, and look beyond the hero’s journey: Cambodian anti-sex-trafficking activist Somaly Mam resigning from the board of the organization bearing her name, following reports of inconsistencies in her personal narrative, and the recent publication of The Witch-Hunt Narrative: Politics, Psychology, and the Sexual Abuse of Children by Ross E. Cheit, which questions whether our current approach to personal claims of child abuse actually dismisses victims. Just as determined and myopic prosecutors might sway children, might journalists and funders sway NGO leaders and aid recipients to deliver sensationalized tales?

Here is an excerpt from Emily Bazelon’s review of the Cheit book in the New York Times:

But what if the skeptics went too far? What if some of the children were really abused? And what if the legacy of these cases is a disturbing tendency to disbelieve children who say they are being molested?

I, too, fear that healthy skepticism may morph into blind distrust and an unwillingness to engage with nuanced personal stories. Obviously, we lose a great deal if we deny the uncomfortable-but-true stories that are taking place all around the world.

Let’s take a moment to remember that the best stories are both aspirational and reflective. Stories help us imagine the future we strive to create. Authentic stories about our lives and lives similar to ours help us assess and understand what has worked, what has continued to work, and what we can improve. Especially in the social sector, stories provide concrete meaning to otherwise ephemeral theories of change and offer tangible understanding of impact that we can’t otherwise illustrate. And the stories that tend to resonant most deeply are the ones that reflect the realities of our messy lives.

In a terrific Cosmopolitan article, “Somaly Mam Is Only Part of the Problem,” journalist Jill Filipovic asserts:

[Mam’s] story offers a troubling look at the perils of donor-driven nonprofit aid work and the challenges journalists face when covering trauma in unfamiliar places.

In fundraising, as in journalism, personal stories are effective tools—they encourage empathy, and they blend a series of complex social, political, and economic issues into a tight, relatable narrative. Charities and nonprofits know this and structure their fundraising efforts accordingly. Heart-wrenching personal stories and aesthetically pleasing if affecting photographs illustrate brochures. Organizations invite major donors and journalists to visit clinics and support centers and bring out clients to share their experiences. Journalists get stories and spread the word about some good being done in the world, and the organization gets good press, which leads to more donations; donors see their dollars in action and feel a personal connection with the people they meet, which means they give even more. … Stories also require people to tell them, and when it comes to traumas like rape and torture, it’s easy for both nonprofits and journalists to get into murky ethical waters.

The best and most ethical fundraisers and journalists know that real life and authentic stories about life in the real world are multi-layered. They know how to find and map stories against complex landscapes—listening, too, for voices and stories that others aren’t hearing. Good journalists seek all voices that meaningfully contribute to the presentation of an authentic story. And they know that heroes do indeed exist among us.

As social innovators, we want to be heroes, and we know that our pathway to heroism isn’t simple. We live most of life across a rainbow of experience and relationships, and determining who and what to invest in, how to build a field, and how to innovate is difficult. This is the rich and fluid tapestry on which we attempt to make professional and personal decisions. Social innovators in particular can source tremendous understanding, if not empathy, from acknowledging and reflecting on this cacophonous and seemingly divergent mash up of experiences. 

Imagine if we were to bring this level of understanding of our own lives to how we ask for—and listen to—other’s stories. An authentic story requires an interested, trusting listener and an environment conducive to sharing. I often instruct listeners in storysharing exercises to listen with their whole selves—to listen as if they have never before met the person to whom they are listening or heard the story they are about to hear. That requires a level of openness and vulnerability to be moved by what they may hear, and a willingness to connect and empathize with the storysharer.

Let’s continue to remember, ask for, and listen to all of the messy, multi-layered stories that help us hear and truly understand everyone. 

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