Wednesday, April 27, 2022

For Those Who Are Tired, Frustrated, and Discouraged

Molly Jong-Fast has done us all a favor by identifying what made the speech by Michigan State Senator Mallory McMarrow so powerful. Unfortunately the title - "Democrats Need to Stand Up for Themselves" - didn't do her piece justice because her analysis went much deeper than it implies.

McMorrow proved that rebuttal can be done effectively—and she succeeded because her rebuke rested on a personal narrative.
Here's the advice Jong-Fast got from McMarrow:
Whatever your personal story is, tell it. Don’t lead with a long policy paper. People vote for people that they trust, and you have to build that trust first, and you don’t do that with a policy paper. You do that with a story about who you are and who they are and what you have in common.

I'm going to drop the speech in here so that you can listen to it again to see how McMorrow did that. 

In writing this piece, Jong-Fast took her own advice and told the story about why McMorrow's words resonated with her personally.
I learned it myself in 1997, in the Lily unit of Hazelden Rehab, in Center City, Minnesota. I was a 19-year-old drug addict trying to kick cocaine and alcohol and everything else. I showed up at Hazelden wearing heavy, dark eye makeup, my bag filled with controlled substances, convinced that no one had ever felt the way I felt. The next four weeks in Minnesota taught me the power of narrative, because the stories I heard from the other people there saved my life. Again and again, people told me their stories, and again and again, I related to their loss, their hardship, their loneliness...It was these stories that convinced me that I could get sober too. And I did. I’m not sure I could have without the power of the first-person narrative.

The first time I remember thinking about the power of stories was back in the 1970's when I read a couple of novels by the Catholic priest, Andrew Greeley. I was just beginning to think through some of the questions I had about religion and the stories he told resonated with me at an incredibly deep, powerful level. When criticized for his writing, Greeley responded by saying that there is a reason why, in the New Testament Gospels, Jesus rarely engaged in discussions about theology with the Pharisees. Instead, he told them parables. 

In 2008, when I became fascinated by Barack Obama's presidential campaign, I began reading about Marshall Ganz, who had been hired to develop "Camp Obama." Ganz, who teaches community organizing at Harvard, learned his craft by being involved in the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi and then with Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers in California. He writes and lectures on the topic of why stories matter.


To summarize, I'm going to start where Ganz ends.
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.
In a world of inertia and cynicism, how do we mobilize power in the fight for justice? 
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.

But you can't just go around telling people to be hopeful. We do that by telling stories. 

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.
Interestingly enough, Ganz says that storytelling is natural for all of us, but we go to school to learn how to NOT tell stories. So sometimes we have to get back to the basics of how we've been motivating each other for centuries. He also says that when we start conversations by talking about issues, that is what divides us. Our stories are what unite us and lay the groundwork for discussions about issues. 

It was Ganz who first explained to me why the speech Barack Obama gave at the 2004 Democratic Convention resonated so profoundly with the people of this country. As another example, I'd point to an exchange between Joe Biden and Rev. Anthony Thompson that took place at a town hall in Charleston, South Carolina right before the 2020 primary in that state. Conventional wisdom is that Biden's overwhelming victory two days later can be attributed to an endorsement from Rep. Jim Clyburn. I would suggest that this response played a major role.


Senator McMorrow is part of a long tradition of people who have used their own personal story as a way to mobilize power in the fight for justice. She's still at it.

Personally, I'd like to thank her for reminding me of the power of story and for sending out a dose of hope to those of us who've been feeling tired, frustrated, and discouraged. If you need a little more, here's a story that might be just what the doctor ordered.


  1. This is why the GOP wants to defund schools. They don't want this kind of direct resistance. It shows how pathetic they are.

  2. Nancy, your article displays the best known means of teaching a 'foreign' language to beginners, as well as teaching language to youngsters. It's the 'story-telling' model that provides vocabulary, context, continuity, and most importantly, the possibilities of expanding on the initial skeletal terms of such a lesson. There is such a transformation in learning between rote memorization and expansive language usage. I loved to find my students building on the connections in a story, expanding their story's vocabulary, and actually taking risks to enhance their learning. Got me (and them) away from the 'right/wrong' message of education into some real-life uses. What does this have to do with your article? The messaging in a parable, in a personal story, are so much more powerful and lasting in contrast to the cut-dried policy talking points. Sen MacMorrow's powerful speech probably gained more traction with her immediate audience and with her 'virtual' audience because of her 'story's' import and the audiences' finding ways to identify with her message. Now, for the Dems to begin to exercise this kind of powerful messaging in their own stories. I can't wait.


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