Monday, November 16, 2009

What's your story?

I've always been interested in politics...ever since I was a little girl. I even majored in Political Science for awhile in college - until I succumbed to that age-old "wisdom" that asked, "What kind of job can I get with this major?"

I think my passion for politics comes from the fact that I felt in my bones that all was not right with the world. I had an interest in understanding why that was and trying to make things better. During my childhood, no one ever thought I'd accomplish much (ie, make money), but deep inside I had the feeling that all of those expectations were missing some potential that had yet to be recognized.

Eventually that desire to find out how I could contribute to fixing what's wrong in the world led me to a career in family counseling at a program for runaway youth and then to become the Director of a small non-profit where we work with youth who are starting to get in trouble at home, at school, or with the law. I've been blessed with the reality of living out my dream to change the world - not on a grand scale, but in a very real way right here in my own community. Every day I am humbled and grateful for that opportunity.

Over the last couple of years, those of us in this organization have realized that its not enough for us to continue to try to help heal the wounds of young people (and their families) who are constantly being beaten down and left out by the culture in which we live. We think its time to begin to ask that culture to do what we've been asking youth to do for so long...take responsibility for yourself and change.

That shift has prompted us to expand how we look at things and learn some new skills. One of the people I've been learning from is Marshall Ganz, lecturer in Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School and the community organizer who played a major role in developing Camp Obama. Ganz cut his teeth in community organizing by being involved in the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi and then with Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers in California.

I recently read an article by Ganz titled Why Stories Matter: The art and craft of social change. In it I think he has some lessons for all of us whether we're organizing in our own community or trying to pass health care reform. In addition, I think he helps us understand more about who Barack Obama is and what he's trying to do.

The initial question Ganz asks is how we motivate people against inertia.

How do organizers master urgency to break through inertia? The difference in how individuals respond to urgency or anxiety (detected by the brain’s surveillance system) depends on the brain’s dispositional system, the second system in the brain, which runs from enthusiasm to depression, from hope to despair. When anxiety hits and you’re down in despair, then fear hits. You withdraw or strike out, neither of which helps to deal with the problem. But if you’re up in hope or enthusiasm, you’re more likely to ask questions and learn what you need to learn to deal with the unexpected.

This certainly puts some context to the idea of "hope." Its not just some nebulous emotion. Its what motivates us to ask questions and learn...the very basics of beginning the process of change.

But as Ganz goes on to say, we can't just walk around telling people to be hopeful. So what do we do?

I find his answer to this question fascinating. But it should come as no surprise given that most every religious and moral leader in history has employed the same strategy. We instill hope by telling stories.

In a story, a challenge presents itself to the protagonist who then has a choice, and an outcome occurs. The outcome teaches a moral, but because the protagonist is a humanlike character, we are able to identify empathetically, and therefore we are able to feel, not just understand, what is going on.

A story communicates fear, hope, and anxiety, and because we can feel it, we get the moral not just as a concept, but as a teaching of our hearts.

Ganz then outlines how our own stories are the root of how we engage others in a movement for change. First of all, we tell the story of self - our journey that is a unique testament to our own challenges, obstacles and crises. Secondly, we tell the story of us - what it is that we share that binds us together. And finally, we tell the story of now - the tension that exists between the way the world is and the way we want it to be. That tension is what calls us to act.

In another article I read by Ganz, the example of a story of self, us and now that he used was Barack Obama's speech to the 2004 Democratic Convention (link to youtube, transcript here). If you have a few minutes, watch that speech again with these three elements of story in mind. It gave me a whole new understanding about why that speech launched Obama as the national leader of a movement that eventually led to his Presidency.

Ganz sums up the art and craft of social change this way.

Our goal is to meet this challenge, to seize this hope, and turn it into concrete action. After developing our stories of self, then we work on building relationships, which forms the story of us. From there we turn to strategizing and action, working together to achieve a common purpose, learning to experience hope—that’s the story of now.<...>

Paul Tillich taught us that the work of justice requires power, and for power to become justice requires love. All three are intimately related. We cannot turn our love into justice without engaging power. Justice is not achieved without struggle. It’s not achieved without mobilizing power. Organizing is about mobilizing power.

The power that we need to create change is collective power. We'll realize that power when we tap into the story of self, us and now that leads people from inertia to hope to action.


  1. Hey NL -- so good to see you posting again. I was getting concerned, though the time I have to participate on blogs has been reduced.

    I like how you use this to organize and review your thinking -- the power of writing and reflection. You also open your thoughts to the world. Good for you.

    I would like to think about what you have written and read the links, however, I don't know when I might get to respond. Please note that I always contemplate what you write about.

    "Hope" can seem such a namby-pamby kind of word - no energy, very passive, sometimes equated with "wishing." An Emily Dickenson quote helped me consider "hope" a bit differently, something personal:

    "Hope is that thing with feathers that perches in the soul and sings the tune without the words and never stops... at all."

    I can understand how stories would flesh out the word/concept of hope, adding depth and meaning to attach one's personal experiences to, leading to a personally constructed understanding. This is how we build our world.

  2. Its so good to hear from you Tampopo!!!

    Yeah, I haven't been posting much here lately, but my plan is to correct that...we'll see how it goes.

    I LOVE the Dickenson quote!!!

    It now goes in my mind with one of my favorite songs - One Flight Down by Norah Jones.


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