Transformative storytelling meets people where they are

Transformative storytelling meets people where they are

By Joanna Wheeler


Over the past decade, I have worked with creative narrative-based processes in what has felt like a dizzying array of contexts, and with many different people.  From community-based activists from townships in Cape Town confronting violence, to peasant associations in remote Northern Mozambique trying to improve governance and conditions in their villages, to municipal employees and citizens in small towns in Bosnia and Herzegovina trying to make their society better….I’ve also run storytelling processes with people from six to seven countries together–Mexico, Russia, Egypt, India, Uganda, Kenya, Bangladesh, Guyana, the UK–every process of storytelling has been unique.

Sensitive facilitation is crucial fortransformative storytelling

I’m listing these examples because working in these contexts and with people from diverse backgrounds (in terms of their levels of education and literacy, social positioning, perspective on the storytelling process, etc.) has taught me a lot. I have learned, from each place and each person, something new about how storytelling works for different people. Working in such a range of contexts has forced me to give attention to how storytelling needs to start with people where they are – to how it needs to meet them where they are, and invite them in – not force people into a particular modality or mode of expression.

While it is true that every society has its stories and its own traditions of how stories are told and retold, it is also my experience that these ways of storytelling vary tremendously. Along with storytelling traditions, modes and practices, I have learned about the importance of a nuanced and careful awareness of what enables creativity and how much this can vary.

If we consider that transformative storytelling approaches involve multiple dimensions (clarity and purpose in story crafting, visual representation of meaning, depth of expression and emotion, technical capability to knit these elements together, etc.), then we can consider different examples of how creativity enters into each of these elements. (Read this for more about how and why these elements can come together.)

In some places, such as working local NGOs in Lichinga, Mozambique, I learned that as children, people were punished for drawing while at school.  Drawing was considered a waste of time and precious resources, in a context where there is little to no paper, pencils, or chalk.  For those who have grown up with this experience, thinking with visual symbolism is extremely difficult. Most people in this context tend to choose very literal images to represent elements of their stories; they struggle to represent emotions, metaphors, or anything that is not literal.  For this kind of group, then, the storytelling process must offer other modes and techniques to help them connect to and express their stories:  dramas spring to life where drawn images fall flat.

Compare this to working with a group of committed social workers and activists from a local NGO in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  For this group, poetry and metaphor flowed out of every word, sentence and image, often swamping the story, itself.  Initial scripts for their stories were 5 times the length needed, and every word was heartfelt.  For this group, long detailed feedback discussions with peers and structured collective discussion in a story circle helped to find the important and embodied details of the story in between the poetic flourishes and curlicues.

Working with Sonke Gender Justice and community activists from townships in Cape Town on the topic of how they confront violence strained the storytelling process through the sheer weight of emotions and trauma that each person faced.  In a context like South Africa, where experiences of everyday violence are pervasive, persistent, and brutal, the storytelling process required careful facilitation, space and time in order to deal with the emotions that emerged in a productive way.  In a similar way, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, after a history of years of war and autocratic government, one of the hardest steps for storytellers was to accept that being creative was ‘allowed’.

The diversity of these and other experiences with transformative storytelling had made me think about my own education and positioning—about the modes of expression that I find comfortable or disconcerting; and about how best to judge when to use different approaches as a facilitator.  This kind of work asks a lot of everyone involved—from participants to facilitators to audiences.  It is not without risks. The ultimate and relative success of any particular process depends to a large extent to the many, many adaptations and adjustments made to the context and group.  I am trying to be deliberate about ways of storytelling that start where people are. This means that there is no manual. Instead there is the awareness, sensitivity, and experience of the facilitator; the willingness of the storytellers to work together; and, careful attention to the context and what this context means for how people tell their stories.