The power of story-telling
- Nicolette Naylor
- 20 Nov 2015 12:38 (South Africa)
If we’re going to speak about the power of storytelling then I guess I should tell a story—or rather, my story. I grew up under apartheid. At school and at play, everything I heard and saw confirmed the superior nature of whiteness. As a seven-year-old, whether I was reading the story of Cinderella or Little Red Riding Hood, or playing with my Barbie doll (which at that time came in one shade: white), the heroines looked nothing like anyone in my school or my township. And so that standard became everything I hoped to be: hair blowing in the wind, green or blue eyes, perfect white skin with rosy cheeks. It was everything I was not, but there were no brown or black-skinned heroines or dolls or stories. In fact, it was the evil witches who were portrayed as dark-haired.
The power of the stories I read as a child reinforced what it meant to feel ugly and excluded. But as I became politically aware, I started to question my childhood heroines and their ilk. I read Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, and it became okay to verbalize my wish to smash the white-faced Barbie doll into little pieces. That book changed my life and transformed my thinking. Thanks to Morrison’s writing, along with that of Zoe Wicomb, Tstisi Dangaremba, Miriama Ba, Alice Walker, Chinua Achebe and others, my reality became more real. On the pages of their books, I recognized the self-hate, torment, pride, and complexity of brown-skinned girls like me.
Exposed to a multitude of stories—or balance of stories, as Chinua Achebe writes about—I discovered that there was no single story of women or girls in South Africa or on the continent. And there was no single story of what is feels like to grow up in apartheid South Africa. Just like there is no single story of the African continent. Africa cannot be reduced to a place that is simply “rising,” nor a place plagued by poverty and corruption—a helpless, hopeless continent.
So my story about a little girl’s dreams is about more than one child’s experiences. It’s also a story about how I located myself within a cultural narrative driven by race, class, and gender, where the stories I was told justified and perpetuated the entrenched discrimination and exclusion I experienced. When I discovered alternative narratives, I experienced an awakening that enabled me to interrogate what was happening around me. These different kinds of stories are what spurred me into action and activism.
My own story affirms that the creative spirit is inseparable from the human spirit, and that the transformational, uplifting power of storytelling is essential to democracy. Stories, including those told through the media and investigative journalism, have the power to change the way we see things. Think of the power of an image of police standing over dead mine workers in Marikana. The power of the story of Agu, the child soldier in Beasts of No Nation. The power inherent in a photograph of a drowned child, challenging our understanding of migration.
How can stories—told through a range of artistic and media practices—address issues of justice? From literature and visual art to performance and abstract expression to journalistic narratives, what forms can these stories take, what does it take to tell them, and how can we uncover and elevate stories we haven’t heard before? How can we make sure that we are not telling a single story—that we are truly capturing complexity? How can we maximize the impact of social justice stories and ensure that they are widely accessible, valued, and discussed, and that storytelling fuels change? And most importantly: How can we ensure that the social justice conversation becomes part and parcel of the business media conversation as well?
At the Ford Foundation, we talk a lot about inequality. And when we do, we mean inequality in all its forms—not just economic, but social, political, and cultural, inequality that is at the root of nearly every problem we face, from climate change to rising extremism. When we talk about inequality, we are talking about the systems and structures that are built to serve the interests of the few. Since we don’t consider inequality a singular problem built on a single story, we know there are no simple solutions. But one important way we’ll address inequality is through creative means: through journalism, speaking truth to power, and the power of storytelling. It’s important to question the ways we both idolize and demonize the media, and to start interrogating how power, corporate capital, the state, and inequality are ingrained in the media—and how media can be mobilized for social change beyond profit margins.
We continue to advocate for creative visionaries and seek new ways to support them. But too often, we see creative visionaries being forced to justify their contributions solely in economic terms. Certainly, it is not easy to quantify the so-called “impact” of a journalist, musician, dancer, painter, graffiti artist, or filmmaker. The stock exchange does not put a price on creativity and storytelling. And in this climate, where we see journalism being commodified and commercialized, and where “creativity” sometimes means developing sophisticated methods for selling data to advertisers, that might be a good thing.
Yes, storytelling and journalism are part of an economic engine. But the global storytelling community is—and should see itself as—much more than an instrument for generating and analyzing data. Storytellers are catalysts. They are change-makers.
Today, we are immersed in a sea of visual media and technology. If something doesn’t fit into 140 characters or less, it’s not newsworthy. Research by Pew has found that today’s young people pack 11 hours of media content into an average of seven and a half hours in front of their devices. That means they consume a staggering 1.6 hours of media every hour. By definition, much of this consumption is passive. Empty calories. Too often, we look at our screens without engaging, in any meaningful way, with what is on them. Isn’t it time to demand an observer’s active participation in a story?
Cultural innovators and storytellers are straining to differentiate themselves, struggling to cut through all the noise. We talk about the Internet and technology leveling the playing field, and being a powerful force for reducing inequality. But you can’t insert technology into inequality and expect it not to produce inequality.
It has become all too easy to create homogenous masses out of the major players in the journalism and the stories we consume: We speak about the government, the students, the police, the media. About the whole of Africa. But the last time I checked these groups were made up of many complex individuals, and Africa was made up of many complex countries. So why do we so often tell stories based on a single narrative, drained of complexity?
Going forward, we must engage with the complexity. We must challenge cultural narratives that undermine freedom of expression, that denigrate and distort Africa with a story about pity and poverty. We must engage cultures that silence the voice of investigative journalists, where speaking truth to power can lead to exclusion, imprisonment, or violence. We must acknowledge and disrupt cultures of silence, especially when they value money above people’s individual aspirations, and their worth.
The imperative for all of us is to fully and truly engage social justice within our work as storytellers, journalists, media professionals, philanthropists. This means engaging with storytellers as independent disrupters of injustice and inequality—not as tools for generating profit and business.
I think often of a quote from Salman Rushdie, who says, “Those who do not have power over the story that dominates their lives, the power to re-tell it, re-think it, deconstruct it, joke about it and change it as times change—truly are powerless because they cannot think new thoughts.”
Whether we are young girls playing with dolls, or editors steering major media organizations, we must ask ourselves who has power over the stories that guide our lives and our times—and how we can challenge and broaden those narratives that would render our world as a place so much less rich and complex than we know it to be. DM
This is an edited version of a talk delivered at the Bloomberg Africa Business Media Innovators event held on November 11, 2015.