I vividly remember a tale my mother told me about a young Afghan woman desperately wanting to get her university degree.
When we write stories, we can imagine a new world. A better world. This change may only seem necessary for people who suffer from stigma or prejudice. However, with our value-laden language, we have created a world full of labels that has become limiting for us all. Whether we realize it or not, when some people cannot show their true colours, we are all bound to be reduced to stereotypes and risk dehumanization. Powerful actors in the social change field have played an undeniable role in creating false dichotomies and divisions. The helpers and the helpless. The heroes and the victims. Or worse, the righteous and the fools. How can we change this narrative, so people break free from restraining representations? And how can authentic storytelling inspire meaningful change?
The Partos Community of Practice on Inclusive Communication is determined to find answers to these important questions by bringing together a diversity of changemakers from the international development sector to reflect on old, current, and new narratives in the field. Together, these changemakers are creating a common language that is ethically sound, morally justifiable, and free from the colonial mentality that, to this day, negatively impacts the people we aim to support. Spaces like these play an important role in shaping our stories. How can we do it right?
Spaces shape stories
Although we could argue that everyone has the power to raise their voice in this social media era, these platforms are often counterproductive and reproduce power structures and stereotypes. When driven by the number of ‘likes’ and ‘followers’, people tend to share messages that are either socially acceptable or click-bait material of the extreme. However, we should not underestimate the audience. People can recognize the authenticity of messages. How, you might wonder? Some words signal truthfulness, for example, among other features of a story. Also, the narrators’ words are compared to their actions (and actions do speak louder). Finally, the space in which a story is shared plays a big part in its effect on audiences. Most of the high-status spaces are traditionally governed by more powerful actors in the social change field. They have a big audience and shape the dominant narrative by often portraying the target group either negatively (e.g., as victims of circumstance) or positively (e.g., as masters of their own fate). Negative stories are aimed at producing a moral shock to increase donations. However, it can discourage funders in certain settings and spaces. Positive stories aim to create a sense of efficacy needed to mobilize action for social change. However, it can disregard systemic issues. These simplistic, one-sided, flattened representations have major ethical repercussions and long-term harmful effects. Stories do not only mirror reality; they can also become a common belief when repeated often enough. But in this alarming practice also lies the solution.
Authenticity creates empathy
The most authentic stories are told by people with lived experience and, therefore, a wealth of knowledge of a social cause and emotional connection that comes from grassroots involvement. Therefore, first of all, traditionally more powerful actors can provide space for these voices and amplify their message. Secondly, impactful stories always need to have a vivid, multi-dimensional protagonist with a complex and multilayered identity to whom audiences can relate. Usually, this type of writing shows contradictions that create more appealing and truthful characters. Finally, many different characters and personalities can take centre stage to highlight the diversity within target groups. To provide an example close to home, instead of presenting ‘refugees’ as a homogenous group, we can share the story of the Naimi family from Kandahar. A family made of loving parents, brothers, and sisters who have different talents and dreams. They all sought asylum and found refuge in the Netherlands after the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, but these individuals are not the same. To be authentic in our storytelling, we must provide full accounts of their distinctive characters in the narratives we construct without resorting to labels and one-sided categories. We want people to own their own stories and support the story-creation process by asking ourselves: can I relate? Because an impactful story creates not sympathy but empathy.
Imagination is everything
Our role as changemakers is to imagine the seemingly impossible. Stories have the ability to help us break free from man-made constraints and open our eyes, minds, and hearts. As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, I still vividly remember a tale my mother told me about a young Afghan woman desperately wanting to get her university degree. Being the first female in her tribe to study in the capital of Kabul, she needed the permission of her male relatives to travel. In this story, the young woman’s own mother played a vital role in convincing her father and brothers to ignore the opinions of other villagers and support her ambitions. These powerful female archetypes, all with their own hopes and fears, made a long-lasting impression on me. This story inspired me to get my own university degrees and support the dreams of women alike whose identities are being challenged. This is just one of many examples of how stories create awareness and shed light on possibilities for change on a personal and community level. Therefore, we cannot measure the mobilizing power of stories by the sheer number of donations raised. We cannot use images to merely create a moral shock or provide simplistic solutions to complex problems. If we let our writing be limited by only pragmatic notions of social change, we will miss the true impact of storytelling: envisioning a just and equitable world for all.
Asma Naimi PhD
Assistant Professor, Writer, and Social Entrepreneur
This column is based on the upcoming Storytelling for Social Change Guidebook, a collaboration between Changemaker Studio and Shortway Productions. The guidebook shows how storytelling is essential to create awareness about societal challenges and to make an impact by combining insights from ancient methods, groundbreaking artists and the latest science on social movements.
 Naimi, A., Arenas, D. (2019) Social Enterprises and Societal Change: Mobilizing through Framing, Academy of Management Proceedings
 Naimi, A., Arenas, D., Kickul., J. (2020) Too Emotional to Succeed: Entrepreneurial Storytelling in a Prosocial Setting, Academy of Management Proceedings.
 Naimi, A., Hehenberger, L., Clewett, K. (2020) Humans at the center: How social entrepreneurs with a migrant background are making a difference