We’re all storytellers (and why it matters)

Photo by Stephanie E. Buck

“What struck me was this: She had felt sorry for me even before she saw me. Her default position toward me, as an African, was a kind of patronizing, well-meaning pity. My roommate had a single story of Africa: a single story of catastrophe. In this single story there was no possibility of Africans being similar to her in any way, no possibility of feelings more complex than pity, no possibility of a connection as human equals.” – Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie

In Ms. Ngozi Adichie’s 2009 TED Talk she addresses the danger of a single story. Most of us who work in international development and storytelling recognize these dangers. We have seen the effects of media coverage (or lack thereof) of wars and poverty that project this single story of catastrophe in non-Western nations. We have seen patronizing charity campaigns that paint a flat narrative of helpless people waiting for a white savior. And we have seen how these narratives dehumanize people and ultimately hurt development.

But we also know that things are changing. And we all have a part in that.

Whether you work in communications, program management, research, monitoring and evaluation, advocacy, or some aspect of fundraising, you play a role in making sure that many stories are told.

It may seem strange to think of yourself as a storyteller, but that is exactly what you are. If you are writing a donor report or proposal, you are telling a story. If you write a blog about your organization’s or partners’ work, you are telling a story. If you are evaluating data, you are searching for a pattern so that you can tell a story. If you are trying to raise money or advocate for a cause, you are telling a story. If you are directly implementing programs, you will inevitably tell those stories at some point. If you work with others so they can tell their own stories, you also play a role as a storyteller.

All of these things play into a larger group of narratives so that we can challenge the power of the single story, and so we can create better partnerships for change.

Many of you have great sources of knowledge and deep understandings of the context and projects. You have built relationships with people who have moving stories. You have a fantastic opportunity to share those stories in your daily work and/or to let people and communities tell their own stories.

As a development practitioner/student/professor/journalist/human being, you have an opportunity to contribute to more diverse narratives. You can help lend nuance and complexity. You can amplify the voices of the people with whom you work. You can make sure that there is not one story that empowers the few and disempowers the many. You can help so that the single story does not become the only story.

We can start by remembering who the real protagonists are.

Ngozi Adichie aptly made the connection between stories and power: “Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.”

We all play a part in repairing that broken dignity. We are all storytellers.

Photo by Stephanie E. Buck
Everyone has a story.
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