If you’d talked to my high school self, the one who was convinced my life would be full of monkeywrenching and chaining myself to trees, she would be surprised, and perhaps even disappointed, that I ended up in the communications game. If you’d talked to my mid-twenties self, the one who was agitating for climate justice and green jobs, the reaction may have been similar. Where is the action in this communication? Where is the change?
My five year old self, though? It would have made perfect sense to her. How does anything change, except through telling stories? I remember that age, feeling most at home in the embrace of a weeping willow at the creek three blocks north of my house. I felt such gratitude to my “tree mom,” safe and cradled in her branches. I remember blank confusion and horror when I first heard the stories of mass deforestation in the Amazon, my young mind making the immediate connection between far away trees and those near and dear, fearing for the kids there that relied on their tree moms, too. I knew what was happening was wrong. My love for my tree mom and the stories of forest destruction politicized me at a young age, setting me on my current trajectory. How does anyone take action, except that there’s a truth too devastating or illuminating to ignore any more? Through Line Break Media I get to return to this childhood wisdom.
Whether it’s a direct lived experience or one that is being related via words, image, movement, or notes, story is how humans make sense of the world. This very phrase may read as faddish or new-fangled. Let’s admit it, “story” and “storytelling” has become somewhat of a trend, particularly in marketing, philanthropy, and the non-profit sector. But don’t be fooled. Stories are a wisdom of childhood because stories are a wisdom of humanity, ancient and innate, blooming in the marrow of our bones and the soles of our feet.
It’s particularly ironic that some of the same institutions previously bent towards flattening language into menus of uniform jargon now embrace this language of “storytelling.” I wonder if that can truly be the case. Stories are meant to transport you; stories for social justice are meant to unsettle and unseat. The mainstream of the current storytelling trend doesn’t acknowledge that not only is storytelling deeply human, but the communities who have most cultivated storytelling and used it most strategically to foment social change are the ones most marginalized by that very mainstream.
Writing this, I sit at a particular confluence myself. As a human, I’m a creature of story; as the daughter and granddaughter of German immigrants I grew up on story; as a child in a physically and emotionally violent family I used the reading of story to escape and the writing of story to process. But then I went to school, and I did really well. I was great at soaking up the verbal cues from books and teachers, decoding what instructors really wanted and writing essays and later reports to suit the demands of academy. My personal writing voice got replaced by a sort of detached, supposedly objective-sounding vocabulary and cadence. Without me really realizing it, my edge was being polished away.
One of the reasons storytelling continues to catch on as a trend in institutions, nevermind the aforementioned well-developed traditions and narrative strategies of people historically marginalized by those same institutions, is the almost-too-late realization that the professionalized social justice movement drank too deeply from the cup of academia. Facts and data compute, but without story, they don’t connect. Analysis can reveal, but without a narrative, it’s not retained. It’s time to balance the kool-aid flavors.
So here I am, back at this confluence: a child of story, a young adult of institutional academia and all the systemic oppressions that carries along with it, and currently a communications professional working to reconcile both within myself, and within a larger movement that I hold very dear. I know that this cannot be done without giving credit where it is due. I would not have personally re-realized the power of story without leaders like LaDonna Redmond, Louis Alemaheyu, and Beth Zemsky pointing the way. I, and Line Break Media, also owe much of our approach to authors such as Malkia Cyril and the Center for Media Justice, Jen Soriano, Makani Themba-Nixon, George Lakoff, the Center for Story-Based Strategy, and Ricardo Levins-Morales. There are many others that we have worked with that will be acknowledged in future writings as we continue our work with them. It is no coincidence that the majority of these practitioners are leaders, thinkers, and activists of color.
Finally, let me return to the title of this opening blog post: story as a starting point. Line Break Media identifies with the notion that stories can shape our idea of what’s possible, can throw restraints off our visions and allow us to articulate our dreams. This articulated imagination is crucial, and it’s just the beginning. There is a whole lot of work to be done, much in telling stories, much in living them, much in building them and making them concrete, and much in fighting for them. Story is the starting point; let’s keep moving from there.