Unlocking the transformative potential of storytelling

Thea ShahrokhThea Shakrokh

“When people connect to political issues through personal stories, they see them in a different way. They don’t just see democracy in the abstract, they see ‘my democracy.’ The transformative potential of storytelling is written into the fabric of our lives.” Joanna Wheeler

Joanna Wheeler, until recently research fellow in the IDS Power, Participation and Social Change team, talked about Unlocking the transformative potential of storytelling in a recent Open Democracy article. The following summary is edited from Joanna’s Open Democracy post.

Joanna explains how people can understand democracy differently when they connect to political issues through personal stories. They don’t just see democracy as an  abstract concept, they see how it is relevant to them on a daily basis. Although stories may not provide all the answers, she emphasises that what is gained through their telling is important for social justice and democracy. They connect us to issues and to one another through the power of a narrative and the experience of empathy.

In 2013, she and Tessa Lewin helped to lead a collaborative process with citizens’ groups and government employees IDS partners MDPi and OneWorldSEE. They designed and supported a process that used creativity and technology to help people tell their stories about their experience of local governance (pdf). They called it ‘creative citizen engagement through storytelling’ and the examples bring to life the transformational power of stories. Telling a story in a safe space can be cathartic, revelatory, healing and empowering. It can also be unsettling, uncomfortable, and painful.  A collective process of creating and sharing stories becomes a crucible that helps to resolve these conflicting emotions. Furthermore Joanna’s insights provide an interesting reflection on how connections are made between personal stories and collective issues which are political, in the sense that they address relations of power. Read more about Participatory Visual Methods  and the work in Bosnia Herzegovina on participatorymethods.org.

Wider conversations on storytelling at IDS
In a previous blog, Hamsini Ravi, at that time a MA student at IDS’ MA in Participation, Power and Social Change course, sums up the learning from one of the sessions on ‘Reflective Practice and Social Change’ and lists the ways in which stories can have unforeseen impact.

Julia Day, Deputy Director and Head of Communications at the STEPS Centre based at IDS, explores the power of simplicity in storytelling through ‘Photovoice’, a participatory approach by which people combine narrative storytelling with photography, which is being used by their project partner Shibaji Bose, for the STEPS Centre’s Uncertainty from Below project.

The Participate Initiative engaged a series of participatory visual processes using digital storytelling and film to portray development issues through the stories and perspectives of those affected by poverty and marginalisation. These processes use multiple forms of creative media (images, film, audio, design, drawing, drama) in conjunction with participatory research processes to articulate, distil and communicate powerful messages.  For more information see their homepage  and the Work with Us online exhibition.

Thea Shahrokh is a Research Officer at the Participation, Power and Social Change team at IDS working on the role of visual methods in social change initiatives with Joanna Wheeler over the past 18 months..

Read more blogs by Thea Shahrokh:

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