Storytelling for social change

by Cynthia J. Starks on January 16, 2013

An excellent article in the February issue of Sojourners magazine discusses “leadership storytelling” – or public narrative – as a vehicle for social change.  The author of the article, Eboo Patel, founder of the Interfaith Youth Core, says there are three major stories that leaders must tell.

The first is the story of self. Patel writes, “This is not a selfish activity, or even one about just self-understanding (although that is certainly a piece of it). It’s about interpreting to others your reasons for being engaged in a struggle. This helps them understand your involvement and, more important, gives them inspiration and language to get active themselves.”

The second type of story is the story of us. “Religions, races, ethnicities, and nations tell such stories brilliantly but often do it in a way that excludes – and makes enemies of – those outside the magic circle. The challenge for the 21st century leader is to tell a story of us that includes people of all backgrounds who are fighting for the same cause.  Stories of us build community out of people who would otherwise be strangers.”

The third type of story is the story of now – “the reason for action, sacrifice, movement, and urgency at this moment above all others. “ Patel cites Marshall Ganz, who wrote a previous Sojourners’ article on this topic, suggesting that young people – who “are especially sensitive to the world’s pain and the world’s possibility” – as being uniquely positioned to be leadership storytellers.

Patel writes, “Ganz’s framework is situated in a hopeful interpretation of the past, one that says the good things we enjoy today – justice, freedom, equality – have been fought for by those who went before. Now, it is our time.”

Patel writes, “Ganz does this brilliantly by, what else, telling stories. Of how he chose to leave Harvard to join the civil rights movement in Mississippi – a story of self. Of a Jewish tradition that celebrated freedom through the Passover Seder and abhorred racism because of the horrors of the Holocaust – a story of us. And of African-Americans choosing Montgomery in 1955 to make a stand against segregation – a story of an urgent now.”

Patel continues, “One of the most inspiring things we teach at Interfaith Youth Core is that they didn’t invent interfaith cooperation. We and they are only part of a long tradition, beginning with the imagination of the Creator and continuing through the interfaith leadership of people such as Martin Luther King, Jr., the forces of pluralism defeating the forces of prejudice.

“ Traditions, as Cornel West likes to say, are like the wind at our back. We are lucky that previous generations struggled to send that wind our way, and it is our responsibility to provide it to the next generation. The stories of ‘self-us-now’ that we tell today are simply the next chapter in an overarching narrative of hope, justice, and pluralism.”

Indeed they are, and as speechwriters we have both the opportunity and the responsibility to tell them. And ain’t it grand?

Be Sociable, Share!

Leave a Comment