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Only 9 days before the start of DVAM 2019...

Storytelling as a Tool for Raising Awareness & Inspiring Action

by Patty Branco, Senior Technical Assistance & Resource Specialist for National Resource Center on Domestic Violence

“Storytelling is at the heart of what we do as advocates and movement builders. There’s a story behind why we started doing this work, a story that keeps us going, a story that connects us, and a story that will bring others along.” – Movement to End Violence
 
The telling of stories is in our human nature. From visual stories such as the cave paintings of prehistorical times, to oral stories passed down from generation to generation by word of mouth, to today’s digital stories, storytelling has always been a part of human interaction. Storytelling reflects who we are and allows us to recapture, record, share and make meaning of our lived experiences.
 
But what do we mean by stories? Stories are our personal accounts – “what we survived and how, what these experiences mean to us, and what we know now that we did not know before” (Blanch, Filson, Penney & Cave, 2012). Whether transformative or inspirational, factual or fictional, sad or happy, personal stories are about one’s feelings, ideas and perceptions about events. Combined, individual stories become the story of a people or a group, helping us understand the world. For example, the beautiful “story cloths” of Hmong women (pictured right) depict a story of collective trauma, representing these women’s experiences during the Vietnam War and their flight to Thai refugee camps.
 
“Storytellers tell many different types of tales: myths, legends and folktales (from many cultures), fairy tales, true tales, tall tales, old tales, new tales, funny tales, sad tales, and anything in between.”
 
 
Creating Unity & Inspiring Action
 
Our stories are powerful organizing forces that helps to connect people despite their cultural differences. They are the “basis for history, art, religion, politics, philosophy, and more, reflecting the ways in which we are uniquely separate, while revealing our interconnectedness” (Blanch, Filson, Penney & Cave, 2012). In this sense, storytelling is also the foundation upon which the movement to end gender-based violence has been built and sustained. The stories of survivors and advocates are the very threads that weave together our movement – at the local, state and national levels.
 
While storytelling, in and by itself, cannot solve the complex problem of gender-based violence, the telling and hearing of these stories play a critical role in promoting cultural transformation and propelling social change. For individual survivors – those who are ready and able to share their stories – storytelling can be an important part of healing from trauma (Story Center, n.d.; Herman, 1997). But in addition to helping trauma survivors organize and reclaim control of their own experiences, storytelling has the power to deepen people’s understanding of gender-based violence. As survivors and advocates tell their stories, they raise awareness of the issue, shedding light on its magnitude, the societal barriers survivors and their children face when accessing help, and opportunities to strengthen services and support for those in need. Storytelling can be valuable in expanding narrowly conceived notions of what victims “are like” (Roeder, 2015). It can also help connect survivors in important ways to the larger intervention and prevention efforts in their community and across the country, as well as help make shifts in system responses and policies to better meet survivors’ needs (NRCDV, 2011).
 
Listening thoughtfully to the accounts of survivors and advocates can be a powerful way for all of us to stand with others in their pain and healing, struggles and triumphs. In this sense, the “trauma story” works not only to heal the survivor, “but also to teach and guide the listener – and by extension, society – in healing and survival” (Mollica, 2006). Hearing directly from survivors about their experiences and the impact of violence on their lives can inspire and energize others to act. “Sharing personal stories can communicate that it is possible to move beyond the circumstances of one’s life. It sends a message of hope: If you can, I can!” (Blanch, Filson, Penney & Cave, 2012).
 
The Power of Marginalized Voices
 
Whether shared across dinner tables or in a conference room, via visual arts or spoken word poetry, stories from survivors and advocates can help create unity and inspire action, bringing individuals together to confront gender-based violence and other forms of oppression. Of particular importance in advancing our social justice work is creating space for and amplifying the voices of individuals from traditionally marginalized and oppressed groups, including Native Americans and people of color, non-English speakers, immigrants, Muslims, incarcerated survivors, Deaf people, people who are trans-identified, gender non-conforming, lesbian, gay, or bisexual, and people living with disabilities.
 
Because the history found in textbooks, mainstream media and “official records” is predominantly the narration of the dominant group – told by white, affluent, heterosexual, cisgender, able-bodied voices – historically, storytelling has been a powerful tool for marginalized groups in naming their struggles, seeking healing and fostering social change and justice. For example, storytelling has been an integral part of the history of people of African descent. As Vanessa Jackson states: “From the griots of ancient African to the sometimes painful lyrics of hip-hop artists, people of African descent have known that our lives and our stories must be spoken, over and over again, so that the people will know our truth” (Jackson, n.d.).
 
Not only is storytelling effective in transforming stories of victimhood and oppression into stories of survival and inspiration for collective action, storytelling is also a tool that is accessible to everyone. As storyteller Rivka Willick reminds us, if we can communicate on whatever level, then we can tell a story. She also notes that we do not always have to look for our most dramatic or powerful story to tell: “Sometimes a very small story is tremendous and exactly what we need” (Willick, n.d.).
 
“(…) the telling of our stories enables us to name our pain, our suffering and to seek healing.”
– bell hooks, Sisters of the Yam (1993)
 

 
Supporting Your Storytelling Efforts
 
As we lift up and honor the voices of survivors and advocates through storytelling, a variety of tools are available to support our efforts. StoryCenter supports individuals and organizations in using storytelling and participatory media for reflection, education and social change, offering case studies, articles, workshops and more. Mid-Island Storytellers – a British Columbia-based group promoting the art of traditional storytelling in oral form – offers helpful tips, including The ABCs of Storytelling, to nurture and inspire new and seasoned storytellers. A recorded webinar series is also available from Move to End Violence shedding light on the ways in which storytelling can support our efforts towards racial justice and liberation.
 
“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you.” – Maya Angelou
 
Still, we know that telling one’s story is often difficult, especially for trauma survivors. “Women who wish to make their stories of violation and abuse public are often met with retraumatizing reactions such as blame and doubt, rather than empathy and belief” (Roeder, 2015). Thoughtfully planning for survivors’ safety and overall wellbeing as they tell their stories is critical. For survivors considering sharing their story with the public, the guides From the Front of the Room (available in English, Spanish and Arabic) and Speaking out from Within provide guidance to help maximize physical and emotional safety and ensure their overall success in speaking engagements. Resources to support advocates and survivors in talking to the media are also available (Preparing for a TV or Talk Radio Interview, Things to Consider Before Accepting an Interview Request and Media Tips for Survivors).
 
“Sometimes a very small story is tremendous and exactly what we need.” Rivka Willick
 
 
Join Us!
 
This October, join us for a series of events and activities highlighting the power of storytelling as a strategy for raising awareness and inspiring change. During the National Call of Unity: Why I’m an Advocate, speakers will offer their perspectives on the power of advocacy to create social transformation and will share their personal stories of inspiration to do this work. The Storytelling for Social Change webinar will introduce best practices for trauma-informed storytelling to help build program capacity to incorporate storytelling into prevention and awareness-raising efforts during Domestic Violence Awareness Month and beyond. Stories of Transformation Podcast Release Party: Why I’m an Advocate and/or Why I Became an Advocate will feature the personal stories of advocates representing various roles and sectors. Follow us on social media and share your inspiration at #ImAnAdvocate to help shed light on what advocacy looks like across roles, disciplines, and social change movements.
 
 “Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can't remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story.”
– Tim O'Brien, The Things They Carried (1998) 
 
 

World Elder Abuse Awareness Day: Building Strong Support for LGBT Older Adults (June 15, 2017)

World Elder Abuse Awareness Day (WEAAD) is recognized annually on June 15th. Since its inception in 2006, communities throughout the country and around the world have used this day to increase the visibility of elder abuse by raising awareness about abuse, neglect, and exploitation in later life and promoting the resources and services that work to increase victim safety and improve offender accountability.