I was raised in a family of storytellers. My dad and his siblings hold the stories of past generations and tell them (and retell them) joyfully and in vivid detail. When my mom gathers with her sisters, their stories are punctuated by peals of laughter and I am taken back to my childhood where those sounds instantly brought security and comfort. My family’s stories are entertainment, an oral record of our history, and a vital part of our education—they teach us about the values and beliefs that our ancestors wanted to be shared forward.
The value and gift of stories afforded me by my family and community are the most important tool I use in organizing. “Tell your story!” “Your power is in your story.” “Systems change hinges on our ability to articulate our story.” These are the messages of grassroots organizing—what we are told to do in order to change hearts and minds. But it’s often easier said than done. Storytelling is a deeply personal act. The emotional labor of organizing is often held in that vulnerability of sharing one’s own story.
Here at Center for Health Progress, we know stories have the power to make and sustain structural change. The Affordable Care Act, the #MeToo Movement, and the Movement for Black Lives provide some sharp examples of the ways in which narratives have brought significant systemic change. Stories make or break systems, prop them up and bring them down. It’s so important to us that we tell stories that don’t simply reinforce the false narrative of personal responsibility but call to account failing structures and leadership. Transforming a system is really about transforming the relationships between people who make up the system, and stories are the means of that transformation!
We recently put storytelling into action in our new documentary short film, The Essentials. This film features immigrants telling their own stories of pain, power, and perseverance in a time and system that is rigged against them. Through their powerful and vulnerable words, we can understand each of our places in the world in new ways, as well as our ability to change it. We can see the systems, which helps us act systemically. Their stories are a direct route to our emotions, and therefore important to our decision-making. Hopefully these stories will unite communities and engender empathy across differences. If you didn’t catch the film at its premiere last month, I hope you’ll join us for the public release next week! It will go live on YouTube at 10am on December 10, and at that point and at any time after, you’ll be able to view it and share it from there. And please do share it far and wide! I hope the stories in it will help you feel hope and possibility even in the face of all this year has brought.
As I take some time this month to mourn the fact that seasonal holidays are coming and going without our family gathering to eat, play games, and revisit important stories for the younger ones, I’m also keenly aware that I am no longer just passively inheriting stories. There are so many opportunities we all have to create and share our stories on a daily basis. As movement-builders, our work is to get the right balance between structure and openness, creating stories that both build community and encourage others to actively reflect their own story. We need to develop new processes of collective storytelling to help us navigate these turbulent and polarizing times. We must work together to tell our stories and build a better world so that “living happily ever after” exists both on and off the page.