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Communicators must wield the power of storytelling ethically

The first story that made a big impression on me was The Hobbit. My dad read it to me when I was a kid. Adventure. Bravery. Purpose. Giant spiders. The story really stuck with me, and it was the first time I recognized the power of a story. 

Nonprofits and foundations use stories to help audiences understand issues, see themselves in our work and spur people to act – whether that’s signing a petition, joining a rally, supporting a bill or donating. At Spitfire, we help our partners gather, tell and share stories in powerful ways to achieve their goals and spark change. 

But as Bilbo learned, power – in the form of a ring or a story – has consequences. That’s because stories are not only powerful – they are power. When we tell stories, especially stories about other people or groups of people, we are wielding power; the power to decide what kinds of stories are told; the power to decide who is the hero and the villain; the power to evoke pity or show the power of communities. 

I learned this acutely when I was the communication director for a mental health advocacy organization in San Francisco. Our mission was to improve California’s mental health system so that kids and young adults get the care and supports they need and deserve – especially kids in public systems like foster care – to live healthy, fulfilling lives. 

I partnered with young people to push for policy change and to end stigma against mental illness – something that I related to deeply as someone who has had a lifelong struggle with an anxiety disorder. I learned a lot about the power of storytelling – the benefits and the risks – from the young people we worked with, which influences how I think about storytelling as a public interest communicator to this day. 

This created my foundation in practicing what I now know as ethical storytelling: the practice of considering who benefits, who is harmed and who is part of the story collection, writing and sharing process.

Here’s an example. Consider this news headline like this one:

What emotions does it evoke? How does it make you feel? 

Sadness? Concern? Pity? 

Most likely, the intention behind this story was to educate audiences on an important issue and to encourage them to take action to improve the foster care system or support the kids involved. But, in my experience, stories that solely focus on people’s trauma without offering additional context about the systems or social issues at play, often make young people who have experienced similar issues feel triggered and further stigmatized. And while these stories could inspire a donation, action spurred by fleeting and shallow feelings like pity or sympathy are less likely to lead to real, systemic change. 

Also, consider what happens when a young person featured in a story like this applies for a job or submits a college application. Given existing stigmas about people with mental health conditions or young people in the foster care system – how could this story impact their chances at landing their dream job or getting into their top-choice college?

Let’s take it one step further. 

What does this story make you think about parents or caregivers whose kids are in foster care? 

Empathy? Probably not. More likely you feel anger or judgment toward these kids' parents. 

Many kids end up in foster care because their family is going through a crisis and need support. But we often only hear about the most extreme stories that villainize parents without providing additional context. If these are the only kinds of stories you hear, how would you design the programs and policies that impact parents whose kids are in care? Would programs focus on keeping families together and providing asset-based supports to parents struggling to make ends meet or get treatment for an unmet mental health need? More often than not, the answer is no. Instead, many states take a punitive approach that can further traumatize children and families. 

We see that play out in another example of a story about the foster care system:

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This New York Times article highlights the ways in which the foster care system has been weaponized against poor, Black and Latinx families – adding critical context to a story that is often flattened and devoid of nuance. It tells the story of Maisha Joefield who, exhausted after a long day of work, put her daughter to bed and then got into the bath. Her daughter, Deja, woke up and wandered to her grandmother’s house down the street. She was found by a police officer, and what would have been a scary incident in a white, well-resourced community, turned into a years-long fight for Maisha to regain custody of her child who was placed into foster care. 

Both of these articles include real stories of people impacted by the foster care system, but the ways in which the stories are told and thus the outcomes they can engender are very different. 

As communicators for social change, we need to tell more stories like Maisha’s that are strengths-based and represent individuals as complex people with dignity – not just the worst thing that’s happened to them. Better yet – we need to pass the mic and create opportunities for individuals and communities to use our organizations’ platforms to tell their own stories in their own words. 

When we do share stories as part of our work, we need to provide context about the systemic issues at play to help educate our audiences about an issue and lay the groundwork for meaningful change.

What if Maisha’s story and other stories like it that humanize people and showcase the systemic issues at play that can impact parents and whether their kids are put into care were the dominant narrative about the foster care system? How would we as a society support kids and families? How would the world look different? 

These are the kinds of questions we have to ask ourselves as storytellers for social impact. At Spitfire, we’ve made an intentional commitment to ethical storytelling. A shift that many in the nonprofit sector are embracing – and is long overdue in a sector that has historically been led by white, cisgender people who (good intentions aside) often share stories about BIPOC communities to raise awareness or money for a cause without recognizing the harm those stories may cause.

So how can you ensure your organization is practicing ethical storytelling? Check out our blog about practicing ethical storytelling for some practical how-tos that you can apply to your own work. 

Together, we can rethink how we use stories in our work – but that requires wielding the power of storytelling in thoughtful and revolutionary ways.

This entry was posted on Thursday, April 14, 2022 at 08:56 am and is filed under Ethical and visual storytelling. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.