We Are In Between Stories

Last week I was invited to spend a day at Skidmore College, speaking to a number of classes and giving a campus lecture on the intersection of civic engagement, media reform and sustainability. For me, the common thread that weaves these issues together is storytelling. If our culture is a function of the stories we tell each other, then real change demands that we begin telling a new story. I believe that is starting to happen, but debates about the future of journalism and media reform also have to account for whose stories are being told and who is being edited out.

What follows are snippets of my lecture, woven together with a few quotes, organized around some key themes. This may be best described as some of the raw materials I was mulling over when I planned my talk.

Storytelling and Social Change

This is, for me, where it all began. Informally, as a student of social movements and more formally as a graduate student in American studies, I was keenly interested in how movements used storytelling. My focus was mainly on the environmental and land conservation movement, and so most of my examples stem from those communities.

The cultural historian, Thomas Berry, has argued: “We are in trouble just now because we do not have a good story. We are in between stories. The old story, the account of how the world came to be and how we fit into it, is no longer effective. Yet we have not learned the new story.” In fact, in many cases I think we aren’t even asking the right questions, which might reveal that new story. And this is place where journalists can help communities, facilitating discussions, bringing critical information to bear, and weaving together new kinds of stories.

Peter Forbes of the Center for Whole Communities argues that if we don’t tell our own stories about our relationship to the land, to each other, to the world around us then:

“There is increasingly one dominant story to hear and one story to tell. The developers, the clear cutters, the advertisers will be left to enact their simple story: money is more important than life…. Stories help us imagine the future differently. Telling stories is our best hope of reflecting the kind of world we want to live in and, therefore, gives us a hope of creating it.”

So I want to be clear, storytelling is not passive. It’s active, it’s powerful, and it’s full of meaning. Storytelling is a form of engagement with the world around you, and it can change hearts and minds as well as policy. We cannot create a world we can’t imagine – and stories are the engines of our imaginations.

Stories Are An Act Of Discovery

In an earlier post on “Overcoming Polarization” I quoted Robert Archibald, who wrote: “Our narratives transcend fact, for they are formed from the delicious emotional nuances of sensation: sound, smell, moods, sensuality, taste, color, shadow, texture, rhythm, cadence, tears, laughter, warmth, and coolness all experienced here, at a place on this earth.”

I’m particularly interested in the ways stories can help us find more common ground within and across difference. In the “Polarization” post I mention the long-time community organizer Chuck Matthei who argued that “facts, opinions, and value statements push people apart, stories bring people together.” When you tell stories people try to see themselves in the story; they try to relate to it. Most of us have had an experience when someone who we disagree with tells a compelling story, and we find ourselves understanding them better.

Stories articulate values that are contingent on multiple meanings, and are created in the space between articulation and interpretation. They are roomy and accommodating, whereas facts are confined and exclusionary.

Michael Margolis, writes that “Storytelling empowers, because it escapes the need to claim absolute truth.” Similarly, Hannah Arendt suggests that “Storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it.” And Peter Forbes, who I mentioned above writes, “Stories create community, enable us to see through the eyes of other people, and open us to the claims of others.”

Stories are the atomic elements of our relationships.

Whose Stories Get Heard

I found my way to media reform and media policy through a deep concern over whose stories were being told in the media, and who was being excluded. I’m passionate about getting the tools to make media and tell stories into the hands of more people, but also cognizant of the need to change the policies and structures to ensure those stories can be heard.

Technology has put more and more media tools in the hands of people, at the same time that policy is putting more and more control of the media in the hands of a few powerful corporations. It’s a troubling paradox that while the tools to make media are growing more and more accessible, control over the media itself is narrowing further and further.

In the end, for those of us fighting for the future of journalism and for better media policy, this is a fight over who gets to tell the story of our time; whose voice gets heard, whose viewpoints get recognized.

Salman Rushdie has written, “Those who do not have power over the story that dominates their lives—the power to retell it, rethink it, deconstruct it, joke about it, and change it as times change—truly are powerless, because they cannot think new thoughts.”

In his book on leadership and storytelling Michael Margolis wrote, “leaders lead by telling stories that give others permission to lead, not follow.” We might extend that notion and seek to lead in ways that give others space to tell their own stories.

Telling Stories in New Ways

The story we have been hearing from our politicians and our media is at best incomplete and at worst dangerous. The people and institutions we have relied on to tell our stories are either failing us or disappearing altogether. This moment is an opportunity to re-examine the story of our community and our country, and to give more people a voice in telling a new kind of story.

I’m encouraged by the wave of new nonprofit news efforts, and the innovative work being done at some long-standing independent media organizations, that are trying to recreate journalism in the digital age, develop new ways of supporting vital reporting, and empower local communities to tell their stories. Across the country young journalists, laid off reporters, civic minded programmers and committed citizen journalists and launching new journalism projects focused on covering the community from the ground up.

In the face of a media system that seems intent on telling one kind of story – one that is filled mostly with celebrity gossip, sensationalism, and horse-race politics that treats elections like reality TV and rarely covers real issues – these people are trying to tell a new story.

Part of telling a new story has to be telling it in new ways.

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