Unlocking the Transformative Potential of Storytelling

by openDemocracy  and Joanna Wheeler  /  March 26, 2014  / No comments

How storytelling lead to personal and political empowerment in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

United Nations in Bosnia and Herzegovina

A UN soldier part of the UN Protection Force in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina meets a family in a predominantly Serbian village near Knin. Photo: John Isaac/UN Photo via Flickr

When people connect to political issues through personal stories, they see them in a different way. They don’t just see democracy in the abstract, they see ‘my democracy.’ The transformative potential of storytelling is written into the fabric of our lives.

“Daddy, do you think that they are better than us? My answer was, there is no ‘they’, just as there is no ‘us’, not in this sense.

It is not that the people of some country are somehow better than people of our country; it is that the system they live and work in, the state they have built over the years, decades, centuries even, is better than ours. It’s not about genetics, it’s about the work that’s put into the building of a system, by everybody, on every level” (Zoran Petrović).

Each community has its own traditions of storytelling, from elders sitting around the fire to the latest story hubs on social media. We hear stories every day, and we tell them every day: to friends, partners, children and grandchildren. Stories are everywhere. It’s clear that they are used to make meaning and communicate with one another, but how do stories contribute to personal and political transformation, to democracy and social justice?

Zoran’s story comes from Bosnia and Herzegovina, where I helped to lead a collaborative process with citizens’ groups and government employees throughout 2013 as a trainer, facilitator and researcher. My role was to support a process that used technology to help people tell their stories about their experience of local governance. We called it creative citizen engagement through storytelling.

Stories can be transforming for the storyteller as well as their audience. Part of the strength of this approach lies in its deeply feminist framing: that the ‘personal is also political’, and that stories can show us this connection.

“I became a citizen with all my individual rights, obligations and responsibilities, in the true sense of the word.”

Zoran’s story, for example, moves between his own ‘colonial mentality’ and the shortage of accountable leaders in the political system of his country:

“I remember the first time I heard a term ‘colonial mentality’. I was 22, working for the United Nations in my hometown of Doboj, and I overheard a discussion of two colleagues. One of them argued that people of their country were not able to govern themselves and that they would be better off if the colonizers came back. The other one disagreed.

Looking at my country today, 15 years later, I see a country that is beautiful. Still, sometimes I have a feeling that there is something wrong with us, people of Bosnia and Herzegovina, that we are not able to find politicians that can lead us properly, that we cannot change anything: that we are a colony. The feeling eventually goes away and I see this desperation as a way of putting the blame for our situation on someone else.”

The process of telling a personal story is often hard. It has corners that you cannot see around, and the ending can surprise you. In a storytelling process like this, creativity, play, movement, and expression are used to disrupt established ways of thinking and talking – to shake people up and see what comes out when everything settles back down again.

People often end up by telling a story they did not expect, and in the process they create and share a spark in the darkness – a kernel of truth that exists inside their own experience.

The storyteller combines images, sounds and their own narration using digital technology. Crucially, it is the storyteller that decides how their story will be used and where it will be shown.

Telling a story in a safe space can be cathartic, revelatory, healing and empowering. It can also be unsettling, uncomfortable, and painful. A collective process of creating and sharing stories becomes a crucible that helps to resolve these conflicting emotions.

Darjian Bilić’s story is a good example of this process at work:

“I used to be different. I’d get up in the morning, without a goal, I’d have my coffee and head to work, silent, avoiding the news, hiding from information and the truth, and I justified it with the wish to remain at least a bit normal. As if I opened myself a big enough umbrella under which I could hide, hoping that it won’t be me who’s… stabbed, mugged, beaten up, fired…

I can’t say the change happened all of a sudden, overnight, but what I do know is that I am better today, I feel better. I stopped littering, I am not quiet anymore about injustice and lies; I speak out, loud and clear, about the problems around me; I stopped blaming others for the condition of my body and soul; I took responsibility for my actions; I became a citizen with all my individual rights, obligations and responsibilities, in the true sense of the word.

When somebody asks me where it all happened… I simply say that it all started in my head. I became the change I wanted to see.”

Individual stories like this one open up a personal connection between different people. The audience can respond with empathy because the storyteller shares their emotions. When these stories concern issues of injustice, exclusion, democracy and human rights, different insights are generated – much more powerfully than when the same questions are presented in the abstract. The reader can feel the different dimensions of the issue through the head and heart of another person, and put themselves in their position, at least for a moment. Creative forms of expression can illuminate deeper democratic truths.

This can be extremely useful in policy-making processes where decision-makers are far removed from the realities they seek to address, and where the perspectives of real people are often drowned out. Stories don’t offer answers. They invite the audience to make their own meaning, and this is part of their power.

Democracy and social justice are nothing if not collective endeavors, so how are connections made between personal stories and the shared narratives of social action?

A sense of recognition and empowerment is part of what makes someone a citizen who is able to act on their own behalf. Personal storytelling can help to build these capacities. But the transition to shared narratives requires something else: a way of connecting personal stories to collective issues which are political, in the sense that they address relations of power.

“Stories may not provide all the answers, but what is gained through their telling is important for social justice and democracy.”

The people I worked with in Bosnia and Herzegovina did this by undertaking a power analysis of their stories, and using the results to choose themes for collective narratives on the future of democracy in their country. I worked with the group to use digital video and digital editing to generate these stories. The participants made short films together (like this and this), which aimed to prompt dialogue and debate around democracy in a context where both are often absent. They used the confidence and insight they gained from their own stories as the basis for telling a shared narrative targeted at those in positions of power in local authorities.

Kakofonija / Cacophony from MDP Inicijative Doboj on Vimeo.

Generator promjena / Generator from MDP Inicijative Doboj on Vimeo.

When people connect to these political issues through personal stories, they see them in a different way. They don’t just see democracy in the abstract, they see ‘my democracy’ – ‘what it means for me, in my life, and in the lives of others who I know.’

Danjiel’s story makes this clear.

“I’m a lesbian and gay rights activist and part of the association ‘Queer Montenegro’. We have proposed the initiative to draft and adopt legal solutions that would lead to recognition of same-sex families in Montenegro, marking the beginning of the struggle for the right I don’t have, for the family I don’t have.

After I had come out to my friends as gay, I told my mother as well. That sparked the first serious issues in our relationship. Soon after the everyday insults she started attacking me physically a couple of times. Instead of receiving support from her I got complete rejection. After a couple of years of us living together, one day I decided to leave our home and start a new life.

Everyone needs a place where they belong and a place where they return to every day, and where someone who loves them waits for them at home. Now I have a new family which I chose, a family made of all of my friends and the man that I love who’s with me in every moment and ready to support me and to comfort me for the anxiety generated by my work. Thank you! That is the family I must fight for.”

Stories may not provide all the answers, but what is gained through their telling is important for social justice and democracy. They connect us to issues and to one another through the power of a narrative and the experience of empathy.

Using stories to promote empowerment and social justice isn’t easy, but the transformative potential of storytelling is written into the fabric of our lives.

This article was originally published by OpenDemocracy on March 17,2014.

Over the past 17 years, Joanna Wheeler has worked consistently with a commitment to increasing the voices of those less heard through citizen action. She is a researcher, facilitator and trainer in participatory processes, including creative storytelling approaches. She is currently based in Cape Town, South Africa, with the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal.

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