This week in our Community Media Discussion, we’ll be chatting about how sharing stories can be an essential part of the community development process that fosters greater understanding and allows us to imagine the future? We’ll be discussing what forms of stories we feel are better suited to fostering positive social change, and who the story tellers are that we look to as enduring examples of storytelling that recognises and encompasses the many threads and contributions that form an enduring story we keep wanting to tell.
One of the essential elements of community development is the ability to bring people together around common themes and ideas that define both our self and our collective interest. When managed properly, community meeting places and platforms, either interpersonal or mediated, physical or virtual, are spaces where we can discuss and articulate what we understand to be our present state of being, and what direction we might feel like heading in the future. Rather than detailing these ideas as statements of fact, processes or statistics, most of us prefer to make sense of our circumstances, and therefore our options, through stories. We incorporate stories into our lives because they are a powerful way to exchange ideas and address the barriers to knowledge and understanding that exist between people and between different communities.
Stories are a crucial component of the community development and social change process. Stories have the power to shape the way we think and feel about our worlds, and how we might interact within them. In community development practices, sharing stories and experiences helps to build trust, while simultaneously cultivating norms and expectations. Stories act as a conduit for the transfer of both explicit and tacit knowledge. Stories facilitate learning, that in turn engenders emotional connections between different people, most of whom will harbour different, if not dissimilar experiences. Storytelling, therefore, teaches us how to deal with the different individual motives and situations by improvising alternative futures through narratives that explore change.
The challenge for advocates of community development is to use storytelling in a way that can facilitate growth and support community capacity building. As community developers, we are always seeking ways to encourage divergence of thinking, in order to help foster wider opportunities for everyone to express their views and creative ideas. We live and breathe stories. We use stories as our fundamental expression for our ideas. In turn, these stories then shape the potential we anticipate that is ahead of us. If, as some believe, we cannot know the world for or in itself, then stories are one of the ways that we make sense of what we imagine, comprehend and perceive to be potential in the world.
Whatever the form stories take, people have told stories for thousands of years. To get a good sense of how important stories are in the process of community development, and subsequently for the purpose of community media and communications, we may consider an assorted set of interrelated questions and observations that might guide us. Simply put, community development will benefit if it is story-driven, rather than transaction, process or management driven. We need to recognise, if we are to engage with people successfully, that stories that we create and share, are the bedrock of community development. Stories give form to both our sense of belonging and place, to our sense of self and identity, and also to our sense of agency and accountability.
It would, of course, be desirable to bring together a wider range of voices to take part in this conversation, and identify who and what form the principal practitioners of community-focussed storytelling are and take – both formally and informally. However, it’s possible to anticipate this process by asking some initial questions, and positing outline scenarios and issues that might drive us forward. Questions that we raise now, in our initial steps, are but the first actions in a longer journey. If these questions are useful, then we might be able to turn them into a guide for the development of a community-focussed communications model that can act as an alternative to the industrial forms of press, marketing and PR breakdown of media and communications, which are clearly becoming increasingly dysfunctional.
The first question that comes to mind is to ask why stories matter? We take stories for granted, and yet we are totally immersed in a world of stories. Like fish are immersed in water. Stories are just the world that we swim in, and without them, we would suffocate. Without stories giving us structure to the patterns of life and our social interaction, we would feel adrift and dislocated. So, what is it about stories that help us to locate a firm basis on which to live and act? What do we find in the stories that we most connect with, in terms of insight and nourishment that they bring, which helps us to understand the potential futures that we are promised, or the warnings that we might heed if we are not to suffer the fate of displaced actors of the past? If we have the power to tell our own stories, moreover, does this mean that we have some control over our future? Does storytelling show that it is possible to define our own sense of agency and independence?
Stories shape the way we think. We’ve used stories for eons to help structure the way we see ourselves and others interacting in the world. Stories often depict the actions of the powerful, but they can also be a source of succour for the weak. Stories suggest that we each have a meaningful role to play, a destiny perhaps, while they can also be a warning that we are also subject to the vicissitudes of fate, however much we deny such teleological ideas. Modern Western people have generally taken on ways of thinking that suggest that we, as defined beings who we refer to as ‘ourselves’, we are the drivers of our own fate. That we write our own destiny. Unlike the Romans and Greeks, modern people tend to believe that we are no longer subject to the hubris and manipulation of vengeful, deceitful or craven gods. Instead, we have absorbed the Promethean endowment of independent knowledge, discovery and a thirst for being our own creators. But this was not always so.
Stories, on a very deep and structural level, provide us with a sense of identity, place and purpose, but to what extent do we learn from these stories? To what extent can we take these stories at more than face value? If all we do is follow plots and actions, then we may not be able to tune into the more profound meanings that come with stories. We may be blind to the archetypal forces that shape our fate. Myths and stories give form to the events that happen to us and other people. Myths and stories allow us to make sense of our world and our history. All we can hope for, however, is that we can find a key which will permit us to imagine ourselves as part of a wider and developing story. As Carl Jung reminds us, modern people at times seem bereft of these meaningful stories, and this leads to a deep sense of dislocation and dissatisfaction.
Stories, we should note, have the ability to explain how we can operate functionally in society, both as individuals and collectively. Stories tell us how we can share power, how we can develop and foster knowledge, what tools we need to make manifest to ensure we are equipped for and can sustain our work in the future. In the context of community development, our priority is always to help people to ‘tell their own stories.’ When we direct our thinking to using media and communications techniques, to develop new ways of building social capacity for change, stories are at the heart of this process. As the Bureau of Investigative Journalism reminds us, it is essential that if we are to “understand the roots of problems, and then to identify potential solutions,” that instead of solely focusing on traditional communication skills, we also need to look to systems and design thinking, i.e. holistically and ecologically, if we are ever to “innovative routes to sustainability”. In other words, cohesive and effective stories will make more sense in defining what we need to do and work on, both at a practical and a symbolic level.
Stories have no single point of origin. While we can report and depict events, simply by listing them, it is much more challenging for us to find meaning in those events, and to make sense of what is going on at a deeper level. How are matters related? How do the principal players justify their actions? What are the resonant themes that connect processes of change? Stories, it seems, are our principal and enduring way of finding the thread of meaning in a seemingly chaotic world. Stories are what help us to form an effective and functional civilisation because stories are an amalgam of many different voices and ideas that come to symbolise the interpersonal and social relationships and tensions that define us.
Even while stories can appear simple and rudimentary, they can be unpacked and explained in ways that recognise how interwoven and multi-layered a society can be. Stories often get retold many times, in many different forms. They take similar shapes and resonate across times and cultures. There is an aspect to storytelling which presents a different perspective of the world, which is important when it comes to connecting with one another. As a result, stories give us an opportunity to learn from other people’s experience because they can “shape, strengthen or challenge our opinions and values.” When a story grabs our interest and engages us, we are more likely to grasp the deeper-rooted message and meaning that it has for us. Stories go beyond what can be presented to us in simple “facts and figures.”
Stories can be told through many voices. There is a school of thinking that says that we are all part of a ‘grand-narrative,’ with overarching movements forward towards the future manifestation of our collective sense of being. Some call this history or destiny. This ‘grand-narrative’ approach, however, has not gone unchallenged. In recent times, more focus has been placed on the individual and conjoined threads of the great mass of multiple living stories. The small interpersonal stories that form the wider tapestry of interconnected and related beliefs. We are much more accepting in modern times that each of us has a valuable and unique point of view, towards which we are directed in different ways for different reasons. Rather than being seen as an undifferentiated mass or a class, we are now painting a picture of ourselves as individuals that has the potential to be an aggregation of different elements, all interacting in a dynamic field of roles and functions.
We are all part of the ongoing story of our times, and so, as different people’s points of view are represented, the range of voices we hear changes. In the West we tend to focus on individualised narration, in which the actors in a story are agents that mark their own determination, while our collective identity is less valued, but no less essential. We can address these differences in a range of narrative forms, such as literature, drama, poetry and other forms of media. If we are attuned to the symbolic role of both the individual and the collective community identifies in these stories, then we can trace and understand differences in role and function as they emerge, not as a battle between winners and losers, but as part of a process of transcendence and becoming.
Some argue that stories are defined by the dialectical oppositions and conflicts inherent in a story, where protagonists are pitted against antagonists in a battle for supremacy. This is only part of the form of narrative development that is available to us. We can also adjudge stories based on the forces of transformation and transcendence that we observe in nature, in which growth and renewal are cyclical and are made manifest through nourishment, stewardship and guardianship. Ideas of conflict and conquering are not the only ways to live our lives, though they sometimes come to dominate the themes of our stories. Resolution through nurture is equally important if less attention grabbing in modern society.
We listen to stories, then, to help us to make sense of the world by framing options and sequences according to the motivations of the protagonists. An effective story can be related in the simplest forms – speech, gestures, visual depiction. They can do this because all stories draw on something that is deep-rooted and archetypal, which continue to resonate with us across times, cultures and situations. Western stories tend to encompass the process of transformation, sometimes on a grand scale, and sometimes on a small scale. Some stories are concerned with the rise or fall of a whole people, while at other times stories are emblematic of individuals and the roles they play as helpers and assistants rather than as heroes or redeemers.
On another level, stories act as warnings that social virtues are held for a reason so that we can avoid hubris and inflation. Stories teach us about our moral and ethical potential, and allow us to examine the potential that is imminent in ways that are free from the hazards of action in the physical world. Stories help us by displacing understanding to the world of allegory and metaphor. Stories, then, are forms of collective wisdom. Stories allow us to break-down and analyse what matters both individually and collectively, so we learn what is important. No one person holds the answers, we all have a role that gets played out in a story, some marginal, some central.
Our sense of self-belief is fostered through stories, what we have endured and what we have prospered from. We tell our stories as acts of testament that we hope will endure. We borrow from the people depicted in stories, by learning from their experiences. Markers are put down and become embedded in the routine of collective life that are available to all who listen. The people depicted in a story are memorialised as archetypal roles over time. Each generation is different, but each can learn from the storehouse of wisdom.
The way a story is told is as important as what the story is about. Stories have structural and archetypal resonance, which changes slowly over time. As the structures of our stories gradually change over time, so does our consciousness. Stories are an indication of the change and adaptation that we have made to new circumstances. Because we live in a world of innovation and change, the fundamentals of telling stories remain an essential guide for continuity. We reversion and adapt the new narrative by making sense of it in the form of the old narrative forms. As we come to use different media forms to shape our stories the core concerns keep resonating – heroism, redemption, accountability, fate, nurturing, renewal. Stories are experiments that allow for the diversification of conceptual imagination which allows different perspective and ideas to be explored and shared, without the need for a ‘grand-narrative’ that encapsulates and determines all sub-stories.
Global stories can now travel around the world and can be intermixed across media in a mash-up of forms that reshape and redefine the principles on which they were founded. Collective sense-making is now becoming entwined across cultures from different parts of the world. The differences between those stories can’t be easily reconciled, nor should they be. Is the unified cultural experience of mankind a myth, or is there evidence of a more deep-rooted global collective consciousness? Individual, local and collective stories have always had the ability to captivate us. We have always shared our local and personal stories, without having to situate them in a wider context of knowledge exchange. The experiences of individuals, it seems, are increasingly recognisable as vital to a functioning society. This means that fostering the sharing of these experiences and accounts is an essential part of the emerging democratic process as we emerge into the metamodern world. As we weave our stories together, we form a collective expression of identity and consciousness, and we can trace the roots of this identity in our stories, and see the boundaries they set out for us, and transcend them as we are able.