Regarding Humanity Salon Recap: "Storytelling: Who Does It Well?"

A well told story has tremendous power. It can influence the way we think and feel about almost anything. And so we need to be very intentional about the way we tell the stories that shape how people imagine social movements, especially those that concern people they are likely never to actually meet.

As we start to determine exactly what these stories will look like when brought to life, there are at least two things to keep in mind right from the start: what we should, and what we should not be doing. In terms of what we should not be doing, Kurante hosted a salon a few months back to discuss the concept of Poverty Porn and its implications for everyone (directly or indirectly) involved. More recently, Regarding Humanity hosted another salon so we could discuss the other side of storytelling--How do we do it right?

To fuel the conversation, we invited three guests skilled at practicing ethical humanitarian storytelling. Mallika Dutt is the President of Breakthrough, an organization working in India and the United States to make violence against women and girls unacceptable. She approaches her work through media and storytelling, looking to produce deep culture change around her target issue. Michael Premo is currently working on the project “Sandy Storyline,” for which he is developing strategies to collect stories from anyone affected by Hurricane Sandy that is willing to contribute their tale. He then consolidates everything into an elegant and beautiful digital platform so he can share these stories in a public place that brings people together for a communal experience. Ingrid Kopp is the Director of Digital Initiatives at the Tribeca Film Institute. She invests in projects that start with the audience and approach their subject issues in ways that will create social impact. Each of the three talks about their position as a sort of hybridized role, mixing the tools and knowledge of a variety of disciplines to effect social change.

The first question posed to these participants concerned agency in storytelling. Ingrid described herself as coming from an “old-school documentary background,” and explained that there is a bit of tension between this style and the style of the types of films that she now works to create, films that incorporate the audience’s agency. However, she does not view these two approaches as a dualism, but as a spectrum; as two different ways of making film that can be blended in a myriad of ways. To add further complexity to this point, Mallika brought up a fundamental question: what is “good” storytelling? The quality of a story can be judged by many different criteria. For example, we can consider the way a it draws in an audience, or we can base our assessment on how well it upholds the principles of human rights. These are distinct metrics, but they both play an important role if we are to create stories where actors can tell their own truths. The key is to find a way to blend all these positive elements into the final product. The production’s values must be clear from the start, and every available technique for engaging people must be used to make the work effective. Good storytelling, for her, is how to use all the tools, tactics and learnings that we have and create narratives that don’t exploit or objectify people.

Next, our guests shared their opinion about this quote: “Until the lion learns to speak, the tale of the hunt will always be told by the hunter.” Michael felt that this “hits the nail on the head.” The good thing about the “democratization of technology” is that it opens doors for many people to tell their own stories. What’s important is to create the conditions for people to speak, and then to take their thoughts and help them find their way to an audience. Ingrid also liked the premise of the quote, but pointed out additional layers of complexity. In reality, there is more than just a hunter and a lion. There are actors that play their own distinct roles in this simple narrative. There are also lions hunting other lions, hunters hunting other hunters, lions going after hunters, and many recombinations of this basic relationship all within a larger system. The interesting thing about transmedia, is that it is challenging the grand narrative and exposing the nuances of complexity.

Though each speaker brought with them a different body of experience, they had in common ambiguous positions with relation to existing NGO structures. Mallika went into the media space with a human rights advocate background. When she started Breakthrough, she wanted to approach human rights from media rather than lawyering. Does her intentionality about what she’s doing and using her storytelling around define who she is? Because she does her work through and NGO, even if she creates cultural products, she is not generally seen as an artist or producer. Nevertheless, she sees herself as a culture change human rights activist. Michael also does not have a clearly defined role within NGO institutions. He works with NGOs, but still outside their established processes. The advantage of working outside is being able to be nimble and be agile. Because of it, his ability to engage people has grown over the years in a way that doesn’t fit the NGO structure. This sort of position can be problematic when it comes to definitions and labels, but it comes with its own sort of empowerment.

In closing, each of the speakers were asked to leave one line of advice for people traversing these shaky lines. Ingrid left us thinking about intention. We must be very clear about our intention and goals. The idea of boundary confusion defines her career. She is always trying to create new definitions. This is how the landscape is. If we’re not clear about the change we’re trying to create, no one else will be clear either. Mallika suggested we listen. To really listen to our hearts, ourselves, the people around us, and people we’re trying to tell a story about. Finally, Michael’s piece of advice was that story is king, not the storyteller. It’s important to remove ego from the game. Storytellers get overwhelmed by all the technology out there, but it’s most important to let the story tell itself, and our intention with what we want to communicate will dictate that.

This discussion highlighted the layers of complexity that surround the development of a well-crafted story. In order for a story about a community of people to be respectful and ethical, much more must be taken into account than just the narrative. Engagement, agency, representation, and communion are a few ideas that emerged throughout the conversation and that must be kept in mind for any project that hopes to do it well. The infrastructure for doing this sort of media work is not always already established, but it needs to be done. And more importantly, it must be done right. Be purposeful, keep your ears open, and always remember, story is King.