A personal reflection by visual storytelling facilitator and C4D Network member Tamara Plush of the 2016 ‘Narrative Matters’ Conference held in Victoria, Australia
Communication for Social Change is a story: A structured narrative that winds its way upwards from the lived experiences of people too often unheard in mainstream society. It is a once upon a time action to champion stories that can examine and influence situations of inequity and injustice. Using CfSC is my passion to strengthen the voice and impact of other people’s stories – providing training and tools for people to connect their own lives to those who most need to hear their stories.
Today, however, is different. I have my own story to tell; and I am hopeful you will listen. You are facilitators of stories, sharing a bond with those who spoke and attended the Narrative Matters Conference in June 2016. The participants came together from around the world to explore how narrative research transforms peoples and communities; a story we know so well in CfSC praxis. I want to bring you into the passion of the conference in a way only stories can.
In Victoria, Steven Lewis—former UN Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa and key speaker at the conference—challenged us to listen rather than look away from tough stories. He shared heartbreaking tales that truly matter for shifting political and social landscapes of inaction. He reminded us that great actions often come from a single story: a woman reacting to the “severe impact” of an assault on the Stanford campus in the USA; young boys from Central African Republic describing sexual abuse by French UN peacekeepers; a teenager’s story detailing a brutal gang rape in Brazil. Steven’s talk, and the conference itself, reinforced that not only do stories matter, but we have a responsibility in how stories are shared, listened and responded to. As Hanna Meretoja from the University of Turku, Finland, articulated: Narratives are “practices of interpreting human being in the world.” Through cultivating the “sense of the possible,” narratives provide a “continuous process of (re)orientation.” In other words, people’s lives change beyond a story’s telling. They also change from the response to the stories they share.
My motivation to attend the conference was a quest. I sought insight into practically applying my PhD research on participatory video and citizen voice. I wanted greater knowledge on the links between research, narrative and social change. I hoped to learn about the transformative power of specific practices and methodologies. The conference met these goals. However, my greatest discovery did not come from panel discussions or keynote speeches. Rather, it occurred when telling my own story in a workshop on “Narrative Métissage, an arts-based method of enquiry that interweaves personal stories.”*
You see, I have always served a facilitator of stories; rarely experiencing the telling of my own story in a facilitated environment. In my practice, I know that narrating lived experiences can leave people feeling both empowered and exposed. To go through this as a storyteller is a lesson that can only be lived. The Narrative Métissage workshop showed how story can engage and expand understandings of self; and the vulnerable risk of sharing.
In development contexts, there is a demand for authentic stories: powerful, moving stories that get at the raw, traumatic experiences of people living through conflict, poverty, marginalization and injustice. People’s real struggles, we know, can motivate donors, institutions and politicians to action. As CfSC practitioners, we believe in the potential of stories. But as my own experience reminded me, we have to hold people’s stories gently; both in their telling and retelling. Here the workshop aligned with my strong belief in listening and dialogue as a catalyst for change. Stories can ignite recognition in the the lived experiences of others as a pathway for greater understanding. For me, this empathic connection is at the heart of why narrative practice matters; especially for people whose voice has been systemically ignored or silenced.
In truth, the story I will share is not one of great trauma in the classical sense, so you may not know why it shakes my soul. This is why context matters; both in the visible story and the story behind. We must remember that sometimes the listener needs to both hear the story and the story of the story to be able to meaningfully respond. For only I can truly know that embodied in my story is my search for place after a decade of expat adventures; the pain I felt for my country when the Sandy Hook shooting happened while I was living abroad; and my connection to the gay community through a lifetime of close friendships and solidarity activism. To prepare you to listen, you need to know that I moved back to the US a month before the Orlando shooting, which occurred amidst my own flurry of anxious reconnection to my homeland. Until I sat down to write in a flustered burst of inspiration, I didn’t know this was my story. But now that it is exposed, I find it is mine to give. I want to share it with you to remind myself and others in CfSC praxis that stories have a great power: The power to help, hope, shape, influence, harm, heal, connect and transform. Thank you so much for reading. Thank you so much for listening.
Narrative Métissage workshop theme: Standing Outside
I am standing outside my country; for ten years now seeing the American flag fly over the embassy of where I live. I am listening to the news over the exhaust of thousand motorbikes pushing themselves around and around Hoan Kiem lake in Hanoi. The staccato honking blends with the sound of gunfire rapid over the airways. Too many motorbikes in the streets. Too many guns in my country. I am glad to be standing outside America near the temple, and the tourists and the belching haze.
I am standing inside my country; for two months now seeing the American flag fly half-mast outside the courthouse where I live. I am listening to the news of a hundred gun fires and the quiet of the street in my country, as people hide behind their fears and misunderstanding. I feel removed, unsettled and ungrounded in the presence of such stories in my country. I reminisce about the temples, the tourists, and the haze.
I bought a motorbike on Saturday in my country; a scooter like the one I rode in Brisbane, Hanoi and Dar Es Salaam. It is red like the stripes of the American flag, like Vietnam’s communist star, like the Union Jack flying free; red like the blood of too many young men and women dying last week in this country from the staccato gunfire too many call freedom.
I will ride my motorbike tomorrow to see if I will once again feel my country. I will say blessings in the temple, embrace the tourists, and try to fight through a blocking haze that keeps me standing on the outside; tomorrow. I will ride my red motorbike down the quiet of the streets under the waving flags; tomorrow. I will ride my red motorbike inside my country, embracing my own definition of freedom – Tomorrow.
* Narrative Métissage workshop facilitated by Dr. Catherine Etmanski, Dr. Kathy Bishop and Brian Dominguez from Royal Roads University