MAVERICK CITIZEN OP-ED

‘Tell me your story, then I’ll tell you mine’: Building bridges with empathy

By Carmel Marock, Candice Harrison-Train and Renee Grawitzky 21 October 2020

Can something as seemingly simple as storytelling provide us with the answer? (Photo: diginomica.com/Wikipedia)

A storytelling programme based on three simple steps is building connections between people who do not know each other, and addressing racial and social divides by breaking down the barriers that result in discrimination, prejudice and hatred.

Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.” – Arundhati Roy: “The pandemic is a portal”, Financial Times, 3 April 2020.

While poverty, inequality, gender-based violence, racism and xenophobia are not new phenomena in South Africa, the Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated the pre-existing fault lines around these issues. The imperative to address these challenges has never been more urgent and requires the introduction of innovative approaches to build connections between people across diverse communities. 

Can something as seemingly simple as storytelling provide us with the answer?

We started considering the efficacy of storytelling as a tool to accomplish this when Heartlines, a South African NGO focusing on edutainment-driven behavioural interventions, briefed our organisation, Singizi Consulting Africa, to evaluate its What’s Your Story? (WYS) programme in 2017. Since then, we have found that this programme, which has been rolled out in churches, workplaces, schools and communities, offers an accessible and effective way to build meaningful connections between members of diverse communities. The WYS personal storytelling programme consists of three simple steps: Ask. Listen. Tell. 

We have worked with Heartlines to explore the theory of change underpinning the programme. In the process, we have also asked many questions about how WYS would meaningfully contribute to the development of empathy and how this could be employed as a means of breaking down the barriers between people that result in discrimination, prejudice and hatred. 

Our fieldwork involved interviews with members of different communities who shared testimonies of how their participation in WYS had evidenced positive changes. This included the building of personal awareness, which allowed them to break down relational barriers and build connectedness and empathy. Individuals interviewed also credited their participation in WYS with helping them become more curious and less judgemental, and developing a greater appreciation of diversity.  

“When I look in the mirror, I used to only see myself, but WYS makes you think about others. I feel more curious and have more empathy,” said one respondent. 

“I am no longer judgemental of others. I respect people as they are. I try my best to understand why people behave the way they do and why they are the way they are. I know that there is a story behind every person’s life,” said another.  

This feedback indicates that where the personal traits associated with increased empathy are cultivated, it leads to the development of trust, communication and collaboration. 

“Before WYS, there were real tensions between people from different racial groups [in our organisation], but WYS led to shifts as people got to understand each other and gained more respect for one another,” said one of the participants. 

Research respondents also credited WYS with leading to improved relationships and the creation of working environments where people genuinely care for each other. 

WYS reflects the power of storytelling and how it not only facilitates the building of connections between people who do not know each other, but also how sharing stories can change how we see ourselves and others. What was evident from this evaluation is that storytelling is an accessible tool that can be used by anyone. All it requires is that we share our personal stories with each other in an intentional manner; that we ask others to tell their stories, and that we listen when they do. As one of the respondents said, “It brought humanity and the valuing of people. We shared joys and challenges and genuine relationships.”

We found that once exposed to WYS, 80% of those interviewed as part of our evaluation adopted the approach and started introducing it in their churches and workplaces. They explained that they chose to do this to improve relations between people in their organisations and to address racial and/or social schisms. 

As people participated in WYS, their own levels of empathy increased, as did their confidence levels to share the process with others. 

Covid-19 has brought with it a number of challenges, including – in some instances – a societal disconnect. While this may seem daunting when considered in its entirety, each of us has the ability to build increased levels of connectedness with others. Here are a few ways you could integrate the WYS approach into your life to achieve this:

  • If you are a member of an organisation that delivers food parcels to those in need, reach out to the recipients and find out how they are. Engage with them so that they do not feel diminished because they are receiving support. 
  • Get in touch with older people who might be particularly lonely at this time. This could involve forming a WhatsApp group that can be used to connect with people.
  • Create spaces in the organisations you work in or are aligned to, and ask people how they are coping with Covid-19. How are they managing with children at school? Are they worried about anyone whom they cannot see? Which aspects of this new way of life must simply be endured until we can pick things up again?

Our evaluation found that many beneficiaries saw WYS as a “powerful tool that can be effectively used to change society”. There is no time like the present to start putting this approach into action. DM/MC

Carmel Marock, Candice Harrison-Train and Renee Grawitzky are members of the evaluation team at Singizi Consulting Africa. The organisation specialises in research and evaluative studies, working in South Africa and Africa, as well as globally, with a focus on supporting organisational learning to realise change. Singizi’s work has spanned the fields of youth, gender and work (including skills development, employment creation and workplace transformation) as well as sexual and reproductive health rights.

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