Telling Stories to Change the World: Global Voices on the Power of Narrative to Build Community and Make Social Justice Claims
reviewed by Four Arrows aka Don Trent Jacobs - October 16, 2008
Title: Telling Stories to Change the World: Global Voices on the Power of Narrative to Build Community and Make Social Justice Claims
Author(s): Rickie Solinger, Madeline Fox and Kayhan Irani (Eds.)
Publisher: Routledge, New York
ISBN: 0415960800, Pages: 263, Year: 2008
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The editors of this collection of twenty-three essays from around the world declare that narrative, drama, drawing and other forms of story-telling can help mitigate injustice. The evidence for this declaration and their titles assertion about the power of narrative to build community and make social justice claims is revealed not so much in project outcomes as it is in the energy of the stories themselves and their emotional impact on the reader. This is not to say that the reader does not learn about some proven results of a story project. For example, in Chapter 12, Drawing Attention to Darfur, contributor Annie Sparrow tells the story of how drawings by young children who witnessed the horrors of genocide firsthand ultimately led to educating, connecting and inspiring people to participate in the struggle for Darfur (p.128).
Although there are many modern books on the power of story telling that are therapeutic or helpful in business or education, this book is unique with its international emphasis on a variety of social justice issues. The combination of diverse topics from across the globe - from prejudice against people with disabilities and LGTBQ youth to prisoner abuse in the U.S. and suicide in China - reminds the average reader of just how interconnected we all are and how much we fail to remember this fact. This combination, plus the authentic voices telling the histories of their pro-active story making projects, makes for a presentation not often seen in books of this genre. For example, in another important and somewhat similar text, Echoes from the Poisoned Well: Global Memories of Environmental Injustice (Washington, Rosier, & Goodall, 2007), the editors collected essays that examined environmental justice struggles around the world and their impact on marginalized communities. However, the chapters in Echoes expose problems, and although often in story form, they do not really offer story-telling projects per se from the viewpoint of an affected participant, as does Telling Stories to Change the World.
The diversity of the selected essays and their common threads that, as I said, remind us of our own connections to them, contribute to the power in this book, but so too does the organization of the chapters into meaningful themes. The first six stories comprise a section entitled, The Language of the People Was Born: Stories in the Service of Healing, Tradition, Cultural Vitality, History. Eight stories are presented in Part II, This Needs Urgent Attention: Stories in the Service of Protecting, Defending, Building Audience and Allies. Part III presents five contributions about Weaving Freedom into New Tongues: Stories in the Service of Challenging and Transforming Beliefs. And Part IV concludes with four essays relating to the power and limits of stories to affect change. Such organization would be especially useful in using this book for academic courses.
As in any anthology, readers will like some chapters more than others. Some chapters are inspirational, others might frustrate or infuriate, and still others merely describe some way to reveal injustice through a planned intervention such as digital story-telling in the classroom. The final section might also satisfy more analytic interests about story-telling in general and how this form can be both stronger and weaker than other modes of communication.
As for myself, Ill mention one minor shortcoming that is a critique of the book or its editors as much as it is of Western education. Telling Stories makes claims about the power of story-telling for social justice and seems to imply that this is a new phenomenon in spite of the fact that Indigenous cultures have known for thousands of years that story-telling can help assure that a community stays healthy and in balance. They write, for example, We have puzzled over why now? Why has narrative become so useful a tactic for making social justice claims? (p. 8). The publishers back-cover description reads, Together, these projects demonstrate the contemporary power of stories to stimulate engagement, active citizenship, the pride of identity and the humility of human connectedness. As an American Indian author, I am overly sensitive, perhaps, to the unwillingness of Western literature to acknowledge the contributions of Indigenous wisdom and would like to have seen something about their use of story-telling. Nonetheless, it is an oversight easy to forgive, especially since several of the books contributions are from Indigenous authors. Also, the editors are correct. There is no doubt that people are returning to story-telling today to help solve the worlds problems. In fact, as revealed in my recent text, The Authentic Dissertation, many scholars are now using story-telling for doctoral level research for the same reasons (Four Arrows, 2008).
It is difficult to underscore the importance of books like Telling Stories to Change the World. Indigenous Peoples are now revealing prophesies about an immanent end to dominant systems that are based on greed, corruption, materialism and an artificial separation from Nature, the very things that cause social and ecological injustice. They tell us that the forthcoming transition to a more balanced world will be less painful if we can awaken to what is happening sooner rather than later. Similarly, grassroots organizations are springing up in communities, rural and urban, around the world to foster a more balanced perspective. Books like this one remind us that we are all related and that an arts-based dialogue that allows oppressed people to tell their stories can help with this awakening.
Four Arrows, aka Jacobs, D.T. (2008). The authentic dissertation: Alternative ways of knowing, research and representation. New York and London: Routledge.
Washington, S., Rosier, P.C., & Goodall, H. (Eds). (2006). Echoes from the poisoned well: Global memories of environmental injustice. New York: Lexington Books.