Posts Tagged ‘Storytelling’

Please read the whole article on Talking Points Memo


Back in 1986, the abortion rights movement was facing the conservative backlash to the social movements of the 1960s and ’70s. Reaganism was in full effect. So was the War on Drugs. More people were subject to arrest and imprisonment, sparking the beginning of mass incarceration.

In Arkansas at that time, feminist activists faced a daunting political challenge: a proposed constitutional amendment to declare the rights of the unborn. Given the increasing hostile conservative political climate, the activists sought to make their message mainstream and palatable to Southern voters.

Slate journalist William Saletan documented this calculation in his 2004 book, Bearing Right: How Conservatives Won the Abortion War: leaders sought to connect the right to an abortion with white southerners’ fears of outside attempts “to confiscate their firearms or bus their kids to black schools.”

It worked. Using the message of privacy and choice, the feminist coalition won — narrowly. This win marked the first time an abortion victory was due to alignment with a conservative political agenda. Saletan points out how this anti-government “keep your laws off my body” approach created a “mutant version of abortion rights as a viable alternative to the feminist, egalitarian version originally envisioned by pro-choice activists.”

One can win the battle and still lose the war. Nevertheless, the “pro-choice” label—conveying the right to privacy and a righteous stand against government intrusion — stuck. It has been the defining message of the abortion rights movement ever since.

The old dichotomy of the culture war is dying.

It’s time to chart a new path. While Planned Parenthood may not have been in the lead, their shift does signal an important cultural moment. The true test for them, and anyone else who seeks to shape the future of the abortion conversation in our country, is whether we can create a new, more respectful public narrative.

Imagine what becomes possible if we successfully move far beyond the prevailing question: “which side are you on?”

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*This was first published on the blog for Exhale*

At the age of 19, Shaka Senghor shot and killed a man. “But,” he says, “that wasn’t the end of my story, it was just the beginning.” He spent two decades in prison for murder, nearly half of which were in solitary confinement. He is just one of the 90 percent of people in prison who will eventually return home to their communities.
Senghor’s opportunities and life after prison are deeply impacted by the way our culture chooses to embrace or marginalize people whose behavior is judged as wrong. In his recent TED talk, Senghor describes his hope that our nation can “embrace a more empathetic approach to incarceration” instead of just locking people up and throwing away the key. Anyone, he believes, can be transformed if we create space for that to happen.
Humans have a remarkable capacity for empathy.
And yet, when Zerlina Maxwell, a political analyst and media pundit, revealed on national television that she is a survivor of sexual assault, she was publicly attacked and criticized. As most survivors know, despite the fact that rape is the crime, it is the victims who are often blamed for what happened to them. “You were drinking, what did you expect?” were the first words Maxwell heard after she told someone she had been raped. The more people she told, the more questions she got about what it was she did wrong to warrant this man’s bad behavior.
As anyone who has shared a stigmatized story knows, it’s common to be on the receiving end of blame, shame, pity and attack. Yet, because the voices and experiences of people who live with stigma are critical to changing the way our culture addresses our most pressing social issues — from mass incarceration to sexual assault — advocates must prioritize supporting those on the leading edge of culture change, the people who publicly share their personal stories.
Ethical storysharing is a model that ensures a storyteller’s needs and leadership are supported and her rights respected throughout a storytelling process, especially one designed to make a public impact. Approaching storytelling through the eyes of the storyteller opens doors for meaningful connections and engagement across differences with audiences.
Last year, Exhale put our ethical storysharing model to the test. We supported five leaders who traveled the nation to share their personal abortion stories, reaching over 350 audience members at 19 colleges, universities, churches and community organizations in 5 states. Independently evaluated by Learning for Action, results from the survey’s showed an increase in empathy for women who have had abortions:
• 88 percent of audiences felt more prepared to hear diverse and complex experiences with abortion after the workshop.
• 83 percent of audience members felt a connection to the women who shared their experiences with abortion.
• 88 percent of audience members heard a new perspective about women’s experiences with abortions.
• 97 percent believed that the workshop was respectful of diverse experiences.
Something else happened, too. Comments from audience members showed that many of the people who normally feel excluded from conversations about abortion felt welcomed to participate:
• “It made me feel at ease to learn that men have a role and a place in all of this that is respected and appreciated.”
• “I am personally pro-life and often feel shut out or judged because of my opinion. However, I could one day be in the same position and respect everyone regardless of political stance.”
• “I was surprised by the speakers’ compassion, empathy and sensitivity to those who oppose them.”
We discovered that the secret sauce to generating empathy wasn’t just in the stories that the women told, but in their unique ability to role model empathy before an audience. When the storytellers faced judgment, instead of defensiveness they offered their understanding. By treating others the way they would like to be treated — respectfully and with empathy — they showed that talking about abortion, even with strangers who share different values and beliefs, doesn’t have to be a divisive act. In fact, abortion can be the subject that brings people together.
This is the true purpose of why we share our stories: to create human bonds powerful enough to change the world as we know it. Personal stories alone can’t humanize taboo topics, but empathetic leaders can.

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*This first appeared under Inspiring Voices on The Women Take Over*

There are few things I enjoy more than the discomfort and ambiguity that comes with discovering a new dilemma. When I find a one, I know that opportunity, invention and change are right around the corner.

I first learned about the power of dilemma after I had my abortion and was surprised to find that the only places that provided emotional support came from those who advocated against abortion. There was nothing available from the other side. That dilemma showcased a previously unmet need and I saw the opportunity in the obstacle: to build a place of nonjudgmental support. I co-founded Exhale, the nation’s first organization designed by and for women who have had abortions, with a mission to change the social climate from one of judgment and shame to one of support and respect.

Fourteen years later, because of Exhale’s services and the broader social impact of our mission, thousands of women and men have found the comfort and connection they need after abortion, and more advocates and organizations across the entire political spectrum are doing their part to promote emotional well being after abortion. (more…)

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*This was first published on Storycenter, the blog of the Center for Digital Storytelling*

“We are wary of listening to stories that we think are being told to manipulate our emotions or push us to believe a certain way,” said Francesca Polletta, author of It Was Like a Fever: Storytelling in Protest and Politics in a phone call with me last year. “On the other hand,” she says, “ambivalent stories, stories with no clear moral agenda, invite the listener to imagine themselves in the story. True engagement happens when the listener can see multiple outcomes for a story and is able to come to their own conclusions.”  (more…)

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*This post first appeared on the blog for MAG-Net.org, the Media Action Grassroots Network, a project of the Center for Media Justice.

After an abortion, women who want to connect personally with others who share their experience face incredible social and political challenges, such as stigma, judgment and manipulation. They risk losing their job or straining relationships with friends and family.

Yet, the desire to share stories and feel connected to others who understand is so strong that a woman will take great risks with the hope that her voice will be heard and that she will no longer feel alone.

At the recent National Conference on Media Reform, Malkia Cyril of the Center for Media Justice spoke in a workshop on how to use mobile phones for social change. She shared with us that technology is so much more than a tool for organizing or politics.  When a woman living as an inmate in a federal prison pays $7.00 every time she calls home to hear her daughter’s voice; or an African immigrant in New York pays $5 for a phone card he’s promised will give him twenty minutes with his family back home, only to have his time cut short after 5 minutes, technology becomes a matter of human dignity. Malkia reminded all of us attending the workshop that we love technology because “we love to connect.” We call, text, tweet, and email not because we love our gadgets, but because our gadgets help us meet a deep, human need for personal connection.

Exhale, an organization created by and for women who have had abortions, uses technology to facilitate connection and communication between women who have had abortions; and to shape public conversations about our personal experiences with abortion. Our pro-voice programs offer women who have had abortions the opportunity to speak for themselves – to tell their own stories, in their own words and in the forums of their choice – and feel heard with dignity and respect. (more…)

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Exhale has learned a lot about storytelling around abortion and we have had the chance to work with some fantastic mentors and experts on the topic of stories.  We’ve all gotten together to offer a panel at the South by Southwest Interactive Festival in Austin, Texas next March. It’s the place to be! (more…)

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I have been following Baratunde Thurston on Twitter for months. He’s hysterical. Web editor of The Onion, co-founder of Jack & Jill Politics and an expert on things like “How to be Black.” I was already in Austin, Texas attending South by Southwest Interactive, so when I saw that he would be a featured storyteller at the Fray Café, I made sure I was there.

Imagine my surprise when Baratunde asked the dozens of us squashed into the Red Eye Fly bar to not record or tweet what he was about to share. His story was personal. He didn’t want it to leave the room. This, coming from a King of Social Media with over 21,000 followers on Twitter.

I was intrigued. Here was a public figure who had decided to share something personal in a public forum but with some very clear parameters for how public.

At Exhale, we’ve been asking the women we work with a lot of questions about the kinds of private and public forums they would like to share their personal abortion stories. We want to know what kind of forums feel the most supportive, respectful and empowering. We have learned that there is a whole spectrum between private and public, from a confidential talkline or private online space to small facilitated discussions and public conferences, not to mention the publicity of online networks and social media. These “super public” forums, like Twitter or YouTube, as Baratunde refers to them in the interview, are the least likely places for women to choose, even when they are open to other kinds of public storysharing. We have found that each person has their own comfort level with the kind of forum that feels right to tell their story. Each person is unique.

Baratunde told his personal story. Everyone in the room felt the story. We were surprised by it and moved by it. We related. We saw ourselves. We admired his courage for sharing.

I met him briefly after he got off the stage and later, I emailed Baratunde and asked him to share his motivations for telling his personal story in a public forum, and about his request to get the details off of Twitter. Here is what he said:

Me: At the Fray Café you were a featured storyteller and you decided to tell something very personal about your life. You asked people not to record it or tweet the details. Yet, you still told the story in a public forum. Can you describe what led you to tell the story?

Baratunde: “Well, the story began when my wife told me she didn’t want to be married anymore, and the rest of the story kind of wrote itself. In all honesty, I didn’t think I had anything else worth sharing at Fray. I perform and speak publicly all the time, but rarely on such a personal, intimate subject. The first Fray Café I ever did I told a five minute story about my mother’s passing, and that was very emotional. But generally speaking, I don’t talk about my super personal experiences in public.

With this story, however, I couldn’t let it go. 2009 was a major year for me, high and low, and this was the low part, and I had gotten to a place where I was cool with it and was finally ready to share beyond my close group of friends. As the Fray event approached, I tried to think of other things to say, but I couldn’t. So I stayed up all night thinking and typing and talking the story out to see if I could make it fit into the 15 minutes.

This story was the truest thing I could have shared, so that’s why I chose it.”

Me: How did you feel afterward? Were you glad you did it? Did you have reactions you were surprised about in yourself or others?

Baratunde: “I felt exhausted, relieved and a little shaky afterward. I can’t stress enough how unlike me it is to share something like this, so while I have years of stage experience which prevent my nerves from getting rattled, I really had no idea what to expect. When it was over, a woman came up to me and gave me a big hug and a kiss and said I had helped her. I wasn’t expecting that. Then other people shared similar comments.

People are used to me making them laugh. Some are used to me making them think. Few are used to me making them feel. So this was a new experience for them and for me. I also felt like I had completed some important stage of the healing process by physically getting the story outside of my body. Even though I had shared such detail with close friends, they are so close that it sort of doesn’t count. By telling the story to strangers, I really was able to let go of some of the residual pain and trauma I’d been carrying.”

Me: Would you have told the story if you knew it would be videotaped and put on YouTube? Why or why not?

Baratunde: “I probably would not have told the story “super publicly” like that. My ex-wife and I are on good terms, and while what I told was my story, it’s also hers. I wanted the freedom to tell the truth from my perspective without unfairly putting HER business out there. I don’t think anything I said was mean or slanderous, but I just didn’t feel right about (potentially) telling the entire world all these things. Unlike most of my public appearances, I’m not interested in that story blowing up and getting lots of YouTube hits. I’m not interested in being KNOWN for it. I don’t want it to become a Comedy Central special. I told the story mostly for myself and found out after that others got something out of it too. But the idea of people streaming and live-tweeting and uploading this personal, intimate tale felt like a violation of her, of me and of the story itself. You have to FEEL it. Being in the same physical space provided that respectful atmosphere. YouTube, I think we can all agree, does not.

Me: Do you plan to tell this story again publicly? Why or why not?

Baratunde: “I’m not sure I need to tell that story in that way publicly again. What I have done is find a way to work a small portion of the story into a joke for my standup routine, and I imagine as time passes, I’ll integrate more of this experience into my overall story. But the idea of doing the same thing with the same intensity in the same way kind of feels like having a successful surgery and then doing it again just because the first surgery was so awesome.”

Thank you Baratunde Thurston!

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