The Common Good
February 2013

Storytelling and Social Change

by Eboo Patel | February 2013

The stories we tell today are simply the next chapter in an overarching narrative of hope, justice, and pluralism.

PERHAPS NO FRAMEWORK has impacted my organization, Interfaith Youth Core, more than Marshall Ganz’s approach to public narrative (“leadership storytelling”), best articulated in his March 2009 Sojourners article “Why Stories Matter.” We use it in our trainings with college student interfaith leaders and recommend it in the workshops we do with university faculty. Most famously, it was employed by the 2008 Obama campaign.

Like all effective frameworks, there is both a visceral and a heady quality to what Ganz teaches. Stories are the way human beings understand and communicate our deepest values, Ganz says, and there are three major stories that leaders must tell. The first is the story of self. This is not a selfish activity, or even one just about self-understanding (although that is certainly a piece of it). It’s about interpreting to others your reasons for being engaged in a struggle. This helps them understand your involvement and, more important, gives them inspiration and language to get active themselves.

The second type of story is the story of us. Religions, races, ethnicities, and nations tell such stories brilliantly but often do it in a way that excludes—and makes enemies of—those outside the magic circle. The challenge for the 21st century leader is to tell a story of us that includes people of all backgrounds who are fighting for the same cause. Stories of us build community out of people who would otherwise be strangers.

The third type of story is the story of now—the reason for action, sacrifice, movement, and urgency at this moment above all others.

Young people, Ganz says, are powerfully positioned to practice public narrative, to be leadership storytellers. Drawing on Walter Brueggemann’s understanding of the prophetic imagination, Ganz says youth are especially sensitive to both the world’s pain and the world’s possibility. If they can put that mix of anxiety, frustration, outrage, and hope into stories, a Moses generation will rise and the world, one activist cause at a time, will never be the same.

I know: That sounds optimistic. And 20 years into a vocation of social change, I have to say, I still believe it. The reason is implicit in Ganz’s Sojourners article and his other writing, although not explicitly called out in the self-us-now framework. Ganz’s framework is situated in a hopeful interpretation of the past, one that says the good things we enjoy today—justice, freedom, equality—have been fought for by those who went before. Now, it is our time.

Ganz does this brilliantly by, what else, telling stories. Of how he chose to leave Harvard to join the civil rights movement in Mississippi—a story of self. Of a Jewish tradition that celebrated freedom through the Passover Seder and abhorred racism because of the horrors of the Holocaust—a story of us. Of African Americans choosing Montgomery in 1955 to make a stand against segregation—a story of an urgent now.

One of the most inspiring things we teach young leaders at Interfaith Youth Core is that they didn’t invent interfaith cooperation. We and they are only part of a long tradition, beginning with the imagination of the Creator and continuing through the interfaith leadership of people such as Martin Luther King Jr., the forces of pluralism defeating the forces of prejudice.

Traditions, as Cornel West likes to say, are like the wind at our back. We are lucky that previous generations struggled to send that wind our way, and it is our responsibility to provide it to the next generation. The stories of self-us-now we tell today are simply the next chapter in an overarching narrative of hope, justice, and pluralism.

Eboo Patel, founder of the Interfaith Youth Core, writes about social justice from his perspective as a Muslim American. His latest book is Sacred Ground: Pluralism, Prejudice, and the Promise of America.

Image: Question in wooden blocks, marekuliasz / Shutterstock.com

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