The Task of the Storyteller

“Certain kinds of trauma visited on peoples are so deep, so cruel, that unlike money, unlike vengeance, even unlike justice, or rights, or the goodwill of others, only writers can translate such trauma and turn sorrow into meaning, sharpening the moral imagination.”

Toni Morrison

What is the role of storytelling in our work?

When we think about stories in the world of nonprofits, it’s usually limited to communicating about our work, identifying new audiences, or decorating our reports with images or illustrations. Sometimes we may add testimonies. But this is not storytelling.

Our role mostly consists of collecting evidence of horrors perpetrated against children and turning them into statistics in order to build the arguments for policy or legal change that we hope will prevent their recurrence. This is of course a necessary element in achieving long term change, but there is often a disconnect between facts and meaning.

You can throw as many facts as you want at people, it doesn’t mean anything will change. As Hannah Arendt wrote, “factual truths are never compellingly true. … Facts need testimony to be remembered and trustworthy witnesses to be established in order to find a secure dwelling place in the domain of human affairs.”

This is the role of storytelling. We need to appeal to the moral imagination, to give meaning. 

None of this is new, of course. Yet what we mostly see in our field, especially among organisations that work on children’s issues, is not so much storytelling as marketing, a specific kind of marketing that induces what Chimananda Ngozi Adichie calls “patronizing well meaning pity.” 

While pity might make people open their wallet, its long term impact is insidious. It reinforces the power imbalance, it perpetuates stereotypes of victimhood, it suggests we can throw some money at poor people/children/women and the problem will be solved. It also reinforces the division between them and us, it points to how we are different, not how we are the same, just in different circumstances. It dehumanises us all.

This practice has to stop. Even in those circumstances where we may add a personal testimony, we often retain control of their story, so that their story validates our work. “It is the storyteller, in fact, who makes us what we are, who creates history,” Chinua Achebe said. 

We have to become storytellers in order to tell different stories. And we have to tell these stories differently.

In doing so we open to a new way of seeing, of understanding, and of questioning. It’s about offering a way of experiencing something, not just of being told what is or what is not. Importantly, this is how we can begin contributing to a new collective history that, as Achebe said, “appeals ultimately to generations and generations and generations.”

So what is storytelling? In her animated essay, Maria Popova tells us storytelling is not about providing information, rather it helps us understand what matters in the world, “[it] invites an expansion of understanding … it plants the seed for it and makes it impossible to do anything but grow a new understanding — of the world, of our place in it, of ourselves.”

The challenge is to find balance in the stories, so that the storyteller and the person whose story we tell is still the narrator of their own story, something Achebe wrote about extensively. “Storytelling has to do with power. Those who win tell the story; those who are defeated are not heard. But that has to change. It’s in the interest of everybody, including the winners, to know that there’s another story,” he wrote.

As storytellers, bearing in mind we are always telling someone else’s story, and this story never ceases to be theirs, no matter how well we tell it, how can we change this power imbalance?

Words, Veronica Yates and illustration, Miriam Sugranyes