Do you remember the last time you heard a story that really stuck with you?
Maybe it was something you read in the news, or a first person account from someone you know. Maybe it was a movie, a book, a parable, or an oral history.
Every day this week my Facebook and Twitter feeds have been flooded with posts about conflict, progress, and issues near and far. Some are well-balanced, many well-researched, and most are educational to some degree. But the articles and images that stay with me after I've put my phone down are those that tell a story. I remember those pieces that introduced me to a character, that spoke to my identity, my values, and my passions. This is tough to achieve with mere facts and figures; I crave faces, names, places, and narratives. News and evidence educate me, but stories lead me to action.
"I crave faces, names, places, and narratives. News and evidence educate me, but stories lead me to action."
Stories are a language we can all relate to. Yes, some of us learn best through numbers and facts, but most of us connect more quickly and deeply to emotions, to values, and to human experiences. I could explain my passion for LGBTQ rights with stats about disproportionate rates of suicide, abuse, and homelessness, but I’m more likely to win you over by talking about the kind of life I want for my amazing brother Danny, or about my courageous sister-in-law, Danice, who recently left her job as a youth pastor so that she could marry my sister Beth. I could advocate for a poverty reduction plan by talking about the evidence for a guaranteed annual income, but I’m more likely to tell you about Lori- who was nearly finished a university degree when her baby got sick and she could no longer attend school or work.
The Upstream team recognized long ago that, while the research to support upstream action on the social determinants of health is in abundance, this information is only beginning to shape our public conversations, our election platforms, our education curriculum, our public health practices, and our policy decisions. We need something more if we're going to inspire people, to convince them that this matters.
Cognitive scientist George Lakoff provides some insight as to why this is the case. Generally, we’d like to believe that “The truth will set us free,” and that, since people are rational beings, all we need to do is point to the facts and they will reach the right conclusions. But according to Lakoff, “we know from cognitive science that people do not think like that. People think in frames…mental structures that shape the way we see the world. As a result, they shape the goals we seek, the plans we make, the way we act, and what counts as a good or bad outcome of our actions.” (Don’t Think of an Elephant, Chelsea Green Publishing, 2004).
“Just speaking truth to power doesn't work. You need to frame the truths effectively from your perspective.” - George Lakoff
Most of us struggle to accept truths that do not align with the way we already view the world. Lakoff states that “If the facts do not fit a frame, the frame stays and the facts bounce off.” This is why reframing is such an important part of our purpose here at Upstream, and why we are so interested in the power of storytelling.
At Upstream, we use the parable of the river to explain how we hope to change the conversation about what we want as a society, and how we can achieve it. We frame this conversation around the goal of true health for all people, and to get us there, we focus on ‘upstream,’ or root-causes of well-being (the social determinants of health). But how can these frames take hold and compel people to shift their thinking about what’s ‘good for us’? As Lakoff reminds us, “Just speaking truth to power doesn't work. You need to frame the truths effectively from your perspective.”
"Stories can help us navigate the tumultuous waters of social change by providing real-world, nuanced narratives. They help us to articulate our challenges and our choices, and through this they have the power to connect and motivate us."
Speaking truth effectively means knowing, and owning, your perspective. Stories can help us navigate the tumultuous waters of social change by providing real-world, nuanced narratives. They help us to articulate our challenges and our choices, and through this they have the power to connect and motivate us. Storytelling, as a social change practice, is about using personal examples to share our passions, to contextualize our issues, and to connect to each other through common values.
Of course, this isn’t rocket science. We all know that to hit home a point, you need compelling examples. In practice, however, storytelling is surprisingly difficult. We don't often think of our own experiences as 'stories', with a clear beginning, middle and end. Hilary and I recently completed a leadership training program that features a session on the power of storytelling. Using a model from the sociologist Marshall Ganz, we learned to shape a personal experience as a means of engaging others and leading them to action. It was a real challenge for all of the participants, but ultimately, an extremely enriching experience. Here’s what Ganz has to say about the power and purpose of storytelling:
"We use analytics to figure out how to act. Through narrative, we learn why we must." - Marshall Ganz
“People organise in response to injustice, not inconvenience. But where do we get the courage? We learn to tap into the emotional – or moral – resources we need to act through stories: accounts of such moments and their outcomes. Families, faiths, cultures and nations teach through stories. Because we can identify empathetically with protagonists, we experience emotional content that can move our hearts to act, not only learn lessons informing our “heads” how we “could” act. We use analytics to figure out how to act. Through narrative, we learn why we must.” (Marshall Ganz, “We can be actors, not just spectators,” NewStatesman, 2012).
Upstream is currently exploring various ways to engage in storytelling with our community, and train community members to ‘speak truth from their perspective’. This is not only a valuable tool to have in any social change toolkit, it’s also key to spreading the word about the social determinants of health. We want all Canadians to know that the primary factors that shape our health are not medical treatments or lifestyle choices but rather the living conditions we all experience (The Canadian Facts, 2010). We find the science behind this pretty compelling, but we are working to tell stories that help this message resonate with all Canadians.
As such, we’re thrilled to be hosting a Digital Storytelling Workshop next month with experienced facilitator Frances Ravinsky from Community Works. Frances will be working with participants to discover and craft short, personal stories of our own. Her storytelling work is guided by the work of the Centre for Digital Storytelling, and we can’t wait to dive in.
We are really looking forward to having Frances here, and hope to keep this conversation about storytelling alive with those who are interested in upstream thinking. Tell us your thoughts in the comment section, and hey, maybe share a story or two!
Until next time,
Rachel is a founding member of the Upstream team and currently serves as the organization’s Director of Operations. She has been an active member of her home community of Saskatoon for many years, and recently completed the Next Up leadership training program. She lives in Saskatoon with her partner, Wing Go, and keeps busy with soccer, photography and singing with her band, Gunner and Smith.