Storytelling is rightly having a moment right now. It’s the way we’ve connected with one another and made sense of the world, and it’s needed now—perhaps more than ever—as we reawaken empathy and bridge divides. Many in the field of public health and across the healthy communities movement are continuing to strengthen the use of story to make visible what’s needed, and to showcase good work and progress happening in communities. At IP3 and Community Commons, we believe in the power of storytelling to spark dialogue about what’s possible, lift up the voices of people with lived experience, and change hearts and minds to transform our systems for health, sustainability, and equity. The most innovative, sustainable strategies are shared and inspired by those working on the ground. By sharing stories, we can learn from each other and spread real change for the greater good. However, some stories are more conducive to creating positive change. Below, we share what we’ve learned about characteristics of stories to catalyze positive community change.
Stories are one way that we make sense of the world. In community-change work, stories can provide a connection between seemingly intangible ideas and real, lasting change. Stories provide examples that show how ideas are translated into on-the-ground work—they inform and inspire action in other communities. Through extensive experience capturing and sharing community and personal stories, we’ve honed in on an effective approach to storytelling as a catalyst for community change:
1. Highlight stories from diverse perspectives, and from those with lived experience. Stories that share different outlooks and from those with lived experiences can more accurately reflect community circumstances, leading to better information about what’s needed in a neighborhood or community.
2. Spotlight areas of alignment and avoid polarization and either/or narratives. Rather than promulgating divisive ideas that sow dissension, we favor stories that identify areas of alignment and crossover to promote stronger coordination and cross-sector collaboration. Triangulation of multiple perspectives, sources, and narratives leads to true learnings about a community and the experiences of its people.
3. Tell the whole story. We don’t want to create false categories, and we don’t want to pit people against each other. Telling the whole story, or telling multiple stories is a way to avoid advancing false narratives or dichotomies.
“Start the story with the arrows of the Native Americans and not with the arrival of the British, and you have an entirely different story.” - Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, TED Talk, The Danger of a Single Story
4. Share stories that focus on whole-person well-being and promote systems-change. Our health and well-being is affected by conditions we experience in our communities that persist over generations. Stories that acknowledge that community conditions shape the exposures, choices, opportunities, and adversities we encounter shine an important light on multi-solving community solutions.
5. Whenever possible, pair data with stories. Personal stories give context to data, humanize statistics, and help us interpret findings. At IP3, we value data and use data daily to inform collaborative work to advance well-being, but data without context are meaningless. Stories provide important insights into the why and how behind data describing a neighborhood or community.
Share your story on Community Commons using the Lifting Up Stories link below, and explore other resources and stories to support and inspire your storytelling work.