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Extension > Youth Development Insight > The power of storytelling to foster understanding

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

The power of storytelling to foster understanding

By Jessica Pierson Russo

We all want to feel a sense of harmony, but when prejudice and intolerance prevails within a group, harmony can seem impossible. The reasons for intercultural conflict are complex, and the task of working on solutions is daunting. But … do they have to be? What if we spent more time listening to others’ stories? What if we spent more time learning to tell our own? Would we then care more about each other’s well being?

The Humans of New York photo blog project has inspired many to tell their stories. After starting this photography project, the creator, Brandon Stanton, discovered that the stories behind the images gave voice and power to people who normally don’t have a platform for being heard. One particular story inspired the principal of a struggling New York school to stay in a job she was ready to quit out of a sense of hopelessness and instead start a fundraiser that far surpassed its goal, fetching more than $1.2 million in donations.

The power of story is recognized in many contexts—lawyers use story to convince their juries to see their point of view. Educators use stories to help students understand concepts and bring the content to life. Scientists are now talking about the power of story to help people make a personal connection to the discoveries and information they are trying to communicate to the public.  And story is also helpful for developing understanding between people about their varied experiences. As a West African proverb tells us, “The lion’s story will never be known as long as the hunter is the one to tell it.” Listen to the TED talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie called The Danger of a Single Story for a wonderful example.

Story is important because the presence of diversity is not enough. Exposure to people who whose backgrounds, experiences, and cultures are different from our own is highly important—we can’t learn about something if we don’t have experience with it. However, mere exposure can actually have a negative effect if participants begin that exposure with prejudice or ignorance and the interactions are not positive and meaningful. Participants first need to develop an openness to diversity.

So how do we get people to care? Tell a story. Tell many stories. Tell your story. Presenting facts about the dangers of global warming will never be as powerful a persuader as a real story about the impact that it is having. Then, presented with a more personal reason to care, listeners may be more open to hearing those facts you wanted them to take in. Similarly, we can provide space for young people to tell their stories and hear the stories of others. This helps them develop empathy, which has been found to be one of the biggest predictors of openness to diversity.

How do you see storytelling having an impact on young people’s ability to develop understanding?

-- Jessica Pierson Russo, Extension educator

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12 comments:

  1. Jess, loved the article from Scientific American! It raises some important points about how we can use story to help our young people become better thinkers and people who see a variety of perspectives with empathy! Tzitel Voss's workshop for our staff yesterday gave us some practical ways to do this more in our work! Thanks for the relevant post!

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    1. Thanks, Anne. Isn't it interesting also that the need for clarity is so high to begin with--sometimes we have to help people along by helping them make the emotional connection.

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  2. Thanks for generating an important conversation, Jess. Your thoughts resonate deeply with my own experience.

    I live on a block in Minneapolis with residents from many ethnic, language and income backgrounds. On the surface, we look like the ideal diverse community. But stereotypes and assumptions run rampant. The only way we've found to move past what "looks good" into real and mutual relationships --is storytelling.

    When Lupe sits with my daughter and tells her about his life (while cleaning fish in the backyard)...

    When Iqran joins me on our front steps for lemonade and a heart-to-heart about the challenges of being a big sister...

    Or when Sherry would holler for my husband to come and commiserate about missing home...

    That's when we start to learn about how different, and similar, our neighbors' experiences are. Stories can draw us together and help us to see just how unique and precious each of us is.

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    1. Erin, I love your examples. Just hearing people's everyday stories helps us gain a picture of our similarities and differences.

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  3. "...we can provide space for young people to tell their stories and hear the stories of others."

    I love this! So much of traditional education is spent directing and expecting students to quietly listen to teacher-directed lessons/content. However, teaching students how to share their stories, with each other, is at the heart of what it means to be a culturally responsive educator.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Jess! Now I want to hear YOUR story...! :)

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    1. Thanks, Tzitel! Even in nonformal education setting (like after school programs), adults forget that theirs isn't the most important voice in the room. I think you're right that storytelling is at the heart of being a culturally responsive educator.

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  4. I am fortunate to work a bit in the White Earth community. The stories I hear mix comedy, tragedy, and history so well and I always leave a calmer educator. I try my best when I teach to share stories and align them how they do it as well. Stories are such a great way to teach and learn. Stories level the playing field because they are so easy to relate to in your own context and establish an empathy.

    One other 'story' I will share about the power of stories is how I gave testimony at the MN Senate about after school programs. However, when a young person shared her first hand experience - attention was completely given to her and the elected officials and public were at the edge of their seats. Every data point I had was irrelevant afterwards.

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    1. Or maybe every data point you had was even more relevant as a result of hearing the story! As I learned from Tzitel (see her comments above) in a workshop on storytelling this week, actually, it's the story that people will remember. They won't necessarily remember the data point. However, the story is what makes the data relevant.

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  5. I love this post and the comments. I'm glad to see that Josh brought in the use of data. As an evaluator, I want to make sure that we have strong data behind our communications, but when it's time to share out, the story is what sticks with people. Allowing space for youth to tell their stories about our program can be such a powerful complement to our reporting.

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    1. Oops...I responded to Joshua's comment before reading yours--yes, as you point out too, it's the story that sticks, and therefore very important in our reporting, as well as our teaching and facilitating with young people!

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  6. Jess, I love this blog--it is so salient for this moment in our culture. When people get isolated in our "echo chambers", we no longer hear the very stories that might challenge our worldviews and crack open the door of our understanding and empathy. I love the quote (whose provenance is somewhat unclear), "An enemy is someone whose story you do not know." I think as educators one of the best things we can do is to create opportunities for sharing stories.

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    1. Yes, I love that quote--part of the premise being, if we knew the "enemy's" story, perhaps we could see them as less of an enemy.

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