Stories, Culture, & Social Change

nonprofit day 2010August 31, 2010 – Opening Remarks to CompassPoint Nonprofit Day
By Miho Kim, Executive Director, DataCenter

When I first learned about storytelling being the theme for this year’s Non Profit Day, I was excited.  And then, this question crossed my mind.  “Will I be expected to share my own story in front of all these people I don’t even know, in a professional setting, at a conference, of all places?!”  And then I didn’t like the theme so much any more.

I tell my stories all the time.   In fact, I consider myself pretty proficient in telling stories and in listening, and being the holder of stories shared by elders and others. But, that’s not something I don’t do much in my professional capacity or in professional spaces.  I was intentionally not bringing that powerful tool called storytelling actively into my professional spaces.

Clearly, there is a pretty big gap between where storytelling lives and where it doesn’t live in my life; but, I think it’s also reflective of where it exists in the larger society as a whole, and certainly within the social change sector as well.

Perhaps that was why CompassPoint wanted to frame storytelling in the context of social change?

At DataCenter, we believe in moving methods like storytelling–stories that are indigenous to communities which can generate their own knowledge, from the margin to the very center of our social change vision and strategies.  We see the social science methodologies as the currency particularly at the policy-making table, but we want to make room at that table for storytelling as one way of ensuring community participation in decisions that impact their lives.  We call this work, democratizing methodologies.

Throughout the years, we’ve seen countless community organizations speak to their city councils, key policymakers and other decision-makers – and used storytelling as a means to pitch their demands to decision makers, only to be told: “Wow thank you, that’s such a powerful and moving anecdote” (meaning they can’t use that information); or, “So where is the evidence” (which you’ve just shared! in story form); to, “Well that’s just YOU talking” (like you’re a fringe voice); and last but not least, “That’s funny.  The study by university of so and so doesn’t state that as an issue in your community” with a touch of skepticism.

And that’s when many of these organizations approach DataCenter for research support– right after they’ve hit this kind of wall in their change efforts.  The thing to note is, in these instances, stories are naked and not adequately protected and shielded from the elements, and they can be treated in less-than ways or just appeal to the emotional body of the listening audience, and not yield the political leverage that you need to move that audience to making the decision in your community’s interest.

This is the backdrop to DataCenter partnering with domestic worker women first in NY, then CA, who had waged state-level campaigns to pass legal protection for this vulnerable and mostly invisible workforce. Through our partnership, the domestic workers set out to generate the most accurate data set to be created on this historically informal, fragmented and underground industry, not only to fill the data gap in our institutions from the census to the Department of Labor – but to use them to substantiate their arguments, and equip their life stories to withstand the inevitable scientific scrutiny.  Also, they effectively leveraged the political legitimacy that comes with social science data to elevate their authentic voices in advocacy efforts.

The base building, which is particularly critical in a multi-year grassroots-led campaign such as this one, benefited greatly through sharing of stories.  What’s great is that storytelling, unlike social science, doesn’t discriminate.  Every one’s life is a story in itself.  It doesn’t mater if you have a college education, have powerful connections, or what you’ve done in your life.  You have a story.  A method of generating knowledge can’t get more participatory and democratic than storytelling. So we designed the documentation projects to allow for a lot of storytelling – from design of the research instrument, through the analysis process and beyond.
And I’m happy to share with you all–literally just an hour ago today–Governor Paterson of New York signed into law a landmark legislation, The Domestic Worker Bill of Rights.  It’s the first of its kind in the nation, guaranteeing privately-employed nannies, housekeepers, and elderly caregivers in New York benefits such as paid leave, overtime and protection from discrimination. Their victory is an enormous step towards achieving greater racial and economic justice, and brings our world one step closer to the one we want to be.

One lesson is that when it comes to deploying our stories as political ammunition in decision-making, they deserve to be well-protected from the elements, if not repackaged into a format that speaks to the audience at the policy-making table. This example of domestic workers is but one possible way to harness the power of stories and take them all the way to the governor’s office unscathed.  In fact, they were truly honored and valued, winning the hearts of so many people along the way, they became a force for political change inside a dominant institution historically dismissive of stories coming from marginalized communities.

It’s not about social science vs. storytelling, a battle of methodologies.   It’s about integration of all methodologies afforded us in ways our voices can traverse the vast terrain of knowledge with all kinds of information to ultimately meet our ends.
In Texas, one of four states in the country where Anglos are a minority today, Rice University professor Stephen Klineberg said, “every single institution in this state was built by Anglos for Anglos.  And they will all have to change.”

I think he would agree that there needs to be better ways of integrating community voices than ever before.   The success of the very institutions depends on it. The public health sector across the board is also recognizing this need and investing more and more into promoting academic community partnerships and other ways of tapping into community voices.

I think what we’re hearing is a growing clarion call far and wide–to move storytelling from the margin to the center in all arenas of our society beyond the comfort zone of our communities.   That path may not be paved just yet, and there will be many bumps along the way . But, we do have a choice of embracing this journey together–perhaps starting today.

As demonstrated in the case of domestic workers organizing, marginalized communities can build their own power in the most holistic sense–the kind of power that’s politically empowering, and also culturally and spiritually nourishing .  Then, we will have nothing of our whole beautiful selves to chuck at the door anywhere we go, and our society will be more conducive to the sustainability of grassroots community leadership into the future.