Storytelling is an artistic form of expression—a tool we use to convey a moment or experience in a meaningful way. We use stories in our lives every day, yet less often is storytelling recognized for its powers in the field of social change and activism. The stories we tell matter. They matter not only because we are engineered as humans to find ways to share our experiences with others, but because it is our duty as social change actors to challenge the everyday stories, the ones we take for granted.
Too often we edit our stories to fit a version of the world that is easier to digest. This does nothing for our progress toward a better understanding of humanity, but instead reinforces unexplained and unquestioned stereotypes. Those stereotypes may exist for a reason, but it is a dangerous practice to take stereotypes at face value. The people we dehumanize this way become a thing—an object, no longer a being worthy of sympathy or empathy from others. The more stories we distort for ‘easy digestion,’ the further we position ourselves from the humanity of poverty, and thus from action and change. The individualized voices of those living under the guise of such labels as ‘welfare mother’, ‘poor’, or ‘bum’, are what inevitably give us the power to break free from these destructive assumptions.
The Roles We Play project is a beautiful example of the merging of storytelling with social change—‘a collection of photographic portraits that explores the roles played by those living in poverty within their families, communities, and society at large.’ It is a project that displays stories of triumph and confidence through images and words that force us to dispel common notions of what it means to be ‘poor.’ As Robert Walker of the University of Oxford commented, the Roles We Play ‘flies in the face of the negative images and stereotypes of people on low incomes which ignore the multi-dimensionality of people’s lives.’ This is where storytelling becomes activism—when the labels of poverty are repaired and reinvented, replaced with philosopher, helper, ambassador, poverty defender, proud mother.
In just a few weeks, people all around the world will come together to commemorate the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty on October 17. Since 1987, on this day, we highlight the everyday faces and actions of those who are fighting to end poverty and especially of those that live that fight. It is yet another moment where stories become actions. Gathering in community centers, neighborhoods, homes, and even the United Nations, we bear witness every October to the experiences and struggles of people living in poverty. We listen and collect stories which remind us to acknowledge the efforts that those in poverty put forth every day towards building a world which truly ‘leaves no one behind.’ The people the world so often distills into victims of poverty have the opportunity to represent more than just suffering or pain as they share their visions of hope.
These projects recognize the power of storytelling and through my reflection on them both, I have come to understand the meaning behind ‘the stories we tell’ in a new way. When we ask people to share their stories, it is not a light-hearted request. We are not journalists asking questions for an interview, nor are we therapists looking for the source of turmoil. Rather, we are activists alongside activists, working with the best materials we have at our disposal—our shared human experiences. It takes a great deal of strength and courage to tell a story that challenges the very notion of the role society has defined for you, to willingly expose your vulnerability. I want to applaud the work and bravery of the members, friends, and volunteers that have made the Roles We Play and October 17 a reality. It is essential that we continue to work together to create spaces where people may dare to stand up and expose shame, discrimination, and stereotyping for what is—bad storytelling.