Storytelling as Social Change

by Nieve Mooney    


     In my life as an activist and a scholar of feminist theory, I’ve always been drawn to using the personal as a tool for social change. I don’t remember anymore exactly where this sentiment came to me; probably it was an accumulation of moments, but I can surely credit some of those moments to one of my favorite writers, Rebecca Solnit. In her essay “Grandmother Spider,” she tells us that “the ability to tell your own story…is already a victory, already a revolt.” [1] It was clear to me when reading this that storytelling is a way of imbuing a kind of power that seeks to make space for nuance in the act of resistance. Through the telling of our own complex stories, we can open depths of understanding and empathy between people. I’ve felt an innate connection to the power of storytelling for a long time, but it was through my work with Rasa that I began constructing the evidence to support what I felt must be true.

        For many of us, we take for granted the ease with which we can tell our own stories. Simply defined, the act of that storytelling is “someone relating to someone else something that happened.” [2] It is a ritual we have all engaged with, as we are all uniquely positioned to tell our own stories about what has happened to us.

     This telling and retelling is a discursive power; I’ve witnessed it in the case of people who were married as children telling their stories as a way to advocate for legislative change or in the case of women talking about their experiences with abortion to family members in an effort to shift their perspective on the issue. It’s such a fundamental power, but it is one that can be stolen when an individual’s story is less likely to be read as legitimate because of their status as a person of color, as an immigrant, or as a person charged with a criminal offense.

       So why is it so important to still focus on the individual? The feminist theorist Emily Bent writes that “feminist standpoint theorists…have the expressed goal of shifting the other from object to subject.” [3] This express goal in academia finds its way into real life quite easily, as it means working with individuals not as objects whose stories are more compelling in the hands of others, but as subjects with the agency to tell their own stories. If we decide to work in this way, it means we are acknowledging that , marginalized people will always best understand their own experiences and the power structures oppressing them, and they should be given the express agency in communicating those oppressions to the people who would purport to be invested in effective change.

        Doing storytelling in a way that centers the experience of the teller is, for me, ethically necessary, but it is also strategic when that storytelling has the goal of social change. In my work for Rasa, I’ve been able to dive into the world of neuroscience, which is decidedly out of my “right brain” comfort zone. It took a lot of googling words I didn’t understand, but it turns out, yes, stories really do make a difference in decision making situations. The neuroeconomist Paul Zak who studies empathy says that “when you tell a story and make a point, you make an emotional connection. When you make an emotional connection, you and your story are memorable.” That might sound obvious, but he has found that the neuropeptide oxytocin can be synthesized when a listener hears a deeply character driven story. Oxytocin is associated with empathy creation, and his research shows that when the synthesis occurs, people are more likely to negotiate and work towards a common goal. [4] Storytelling is then a way through which we may build bridged empathy and become more capable of reaching out over what may seem like vast differences.

        I’ve found Rasa’s work so necessary because it is an organization with the fundamental goal of making accessible the effective methodology of persuasive storytelling. I feel grateful and excited by the notion that the activism and theory I feel drawn to is foundational to the work Rasa does. It is work deeply rooted in social change, especially for those facing incarceration; the ability to tell an empathetic story is too often the difference between life and a kind of figurative death that, for different reasons, can then become literal. As Rasa works to center the most marginalized individuals, it is work that relies on tenets of intersectional feminism, especially as the fastest growing incarcerated group in the United States are African American women and girls.

     Whether Rasa works directly with an individual or works to train someone who will use narrative in their defense, it remains true that the individual always already has a full understanding of their own stories. What matters is learning how to make those stories rhetorically compelling to a judge who hears thousands of stories a year. That means that the work does not fall only on the individual, but on whomever is defending them, first to listen, and then to effectively communicate their story in a way that compels empathy and humanity.

[1] Solnit, Rebecca. “Grandmother Spider.” Men Explain Things To Me, Haymarket Books, 2015, p. 71.

[2] Senhei, Jessica, et al. “Dreams of Our Grandmothers: Discovering the Call for Social Justice Through Storytelling.”Storytelling, Self, Society, vol. 5, no. 2, 2009, pp. 90–106. JSTOR [JSTOR]. 93.

[3] Bent, Emily. “Girl Rising and the Problematic Other.” Feminist Theory and Pop Culture, edited by Adrienne M. Trier-Bieniek, Sense, 2015, pp. 89–101. 91.

[4] Zak, Paul J. “How Stories Change the Brain.” Greater Good, Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, 17 Dec. 2013.