Why are personal and collective stories important for social transformation?

Transgender activists in India work together to build their story towards acceptance: Praxis 2013

Transgender activists in India work together to build their story towards acceptance: Praxis 2013

Each community has its own traditions of storytelling, from elders sitting around the fire to the latest story hubs on social media. We hear stories every day, and we tell them every day: to friends, partners, children and grandchildren.  Stories are everywhere. It’s clear that stories are used to make meaning and communicate with one another, but how do stories contribute to personal and political transformation, democracy and social justice?

Stories can be transforming for the storytellers as well as their audience. Part of the strength of this approach lies in its deeply feminist framing: that the ‘personal is also political’, and that stories can show us this. People often end up by telling a story that they did not expect, and in the process they create and share a spark in the darkness – a kernel of truth that exists inside their own experience.

In creative visual approaches to storytelling, stories are built through a process of combining images, sounds and their own narration using digital technology. Crucially, it is the storytellers who decide how their story will be used and where it will be shown.

See more on ‘how’ to do creative storytelling in terms of both personal and collective transformation here in section 3. What are the methods for creative storytelling?

Personal stories open a personal connection between different people.

The audience can respond with empathy because the storytellers openly share their emotions. When these stories concern issues of injustice, exclusion, democracy and human rights, different insights are generated – much more powerfully than when the same questions are presented in the abstract. The audience can feel the different dimensions of the issue through the head and heart of another person, and put themselves in their position, at least for a moment. Creative forms of expression can help illuminate deeper democratic truths.

This can be extremely useful in policy-making processes where decision-makers are far removed from the realities they seek to address, and where the perspectives of ordinary citizens are often drowned out. Stories don’t offer answers. They invite the audience to make their own meaning, and this is part of their power.

Democracy and social justice are nothing if not collective endeavors, so how are connections made between personal stories and the shared narratives of social action? 

A sense of recognition and empowerment is part of what makes someone a citizen who is able to act on his or her own behalf. Personal storytelling can help to build these capacities. But the transition to shared narratives requires something else:  a way of connecting personal stories to collective issues which are political, in the sense that they address relations of power. When people connect to these political issues through personal stories, they see them in a different way. They don’t just see democracy in the abstract, they see ‘my democracy’ – ‘what it means for me, in my life, and in the lives of others who I know.’

See more on how to transition from individual visual storytelling approaches (digital storytelling) to a collective process (participatory video) in section 3.2 of the guide.

Stories do not provide all the answers in the search for personal and political transformation, democracy and social justice, but what is gained through their telling is important for understanding how and why change happens. They connect us to issues providing a deeper and more nuanced understanding, and to one another through the power of a narrative and the experience of empathy which provides a catalyst for social action. Using stories to promote empowerment and social justice engages with the complexity of processes of social change and their transformative potential is written into the fabric of our lives.

Reference: See more on ‘Unlocking the transformative potential of storytelling’ in Joanna Wheeler’s Open Democracy article