Stories Matter: How to Power Up Your Activism

Stories Matter: How to Power Up Your Activism

by Thaler Pekar

I remember my first feminist act. It was Spring of 1974, and I was nine years old. My mother, Sheila Thaler Pekar, had gone to a car dealer earlier in the day, prepared to purchase a car. When it came time to sign the contract, however, the dealer required that she obtain my father’s signature. Sheila had the deposit, the credit and the bank account. But, the salesman insisted, the dealership would not sell a car to a married woman without the consent of her husband.

When my mom returned home — defeated, humiliated, and very, very angry — she told me to follow her into my parent’s bedroom. She retrieved the purse in which she kept her store credit cards. In those days, it was common for a middle class woman to have a credit card – in her husband’s name – for every small, local department store. She sat me down on the floor, put a pair of scissors in my hand, and instructed me to cut up each and every one of the credit cards. As the scissors bore through the words “Mrs. Walter Pekar,” my mom passionately spoke about the importance of a woman having her own money and being able to make independent financial decisions. And she spoke about the importance of women being respected, valued, and treated equally to men.

What are you now thinking about?

Perhaps my story reminded you of a similar experience. Perhaps you were prompted to recall your earliest feminist experience, or a fond recollection of your mother. Or, perhaps it jogged a negative memory.

If I had given you a list of the attributes of feminism that I find appealing, you would have understood far less about me and why I am a feminist. And you would be at the receiving end of information, lacking in a sense of true engagement. Instead, by sharing that story, I am inviting you to join in a conversation, to search your memories and knowledge, and to create an understanding of the subject matter that is meaningful to you.

Stories matter. Stories render values concrete and distill seemingly complex issues into tangible concepts. “Feminism” is a complex, highly subjective word. The story I shared with you provides a clear and concise example of what it is I mean by the term. I could have simply told you that I learned about feminism at a young age. Instead, I showed you and offered you a take-away story about the evidence.

And your story matters. By sharing your story, you are inviting your listener to think of her own relevant experience. My story doesn’t matter as much as the story you have recalled or created for yourself. You will not act based on my story; you will act based on your own. As an activist, you are focused on moving people to take action. The best way to move someone to action is to connect emotionally with him or her. And the best way to trigger that emotion is to connect to an existing memory. Stories make a connection between the rational and the emotional. In doing so, stories become conduits that make advocacy messages meaningful and move people to action.

Sharing Begets Engagement

By sharing your story you are also modeling how your listener can, in turn, share her experience and prompt others to continue the process. The most powerful advocacy is interpersonal; we are more likely to believe and act on information that we received first hand.

Storysharing is crucial to activism because it is co-creative. (I find “storytelling” transactional, implying a giver and a taker. I prefer the term “storysharing,” which acknowledges mutuality and the fact that story begets story.) Only after I share my story, inviting you to share yours, can we create a new story together. This is the process of true and sustainable engagement. True activism cedes ownership of an issue, let alone a conversation. Stories invite participation. And activism is about sustaining, not squashing, conversation.

When you share a story,
you prompt your listeners

Good activism is about providing solutions to problems and creating a better future. You either inherently know, or have learned, that you can’t just walk up to someone and say, “Have hope.” Nor can you simply provide a story about the importance of hope or what a better future looks like. Activism demands that we enable people to find, believe and share their own stories.

Think of an issue for which you are advocating. What experience prompted your involvement? Has there been a moment when you thought, “This is exactly why I am advocating for this issue?”

Share those experiences through story. When you share a story about why you are involved in activism around an issue, you automatically prompt your listeners to think of why they are involved.

My career began with me alone in my apartment, yelling at the television. It was NJ, 1989, in the midst of a gubernatorial campaign between a pro-choice and an anti-choice candidate. A news report featuring the two candidates debating a woman’s ability to make her own decisions left me screaming aloud. The news segment was immediately followed by an ad from the National Abortion Action League (now NARAL Pro-Choice America). I picked up the phone, dialed NARAL’s toll free number, and asked, “What can I do?” “Start a local chapter,” was the response, and I did. That chapter grew into a powerful organization encompassing a full reproductive justice agenda. And that led me to leave a lucrative job in publishing, take a two-thirds pay cut and become a professional political organizer.

What about you? What moment sparked your activism? How might you have sparked another’s activism? What’s your story?

Organizations Have Narratives, Too

If you are involved in organizational activism, how does your story connect with the larger story of the organization? How might the stories that your story elicits be shared in support of the organization and your cause?

Think of the organizational narrative as the Big Story behind the organization. Organizational narratives are made up of lots of small supporting stories. And they are sustained by finding and sharing new, small supporting stories. For example:

Growing up, Gloria Wilder simply rocked back and forth in class – but her Bedford Stuyvesent Brooklyn grade school teacher tied her to the chair each day. She went on to earn a scholarship to Howard University, a masters degree from George Washington University, and a medical degree from Georgetown University. Gloria wanted to serve a community much like the one in which she grew up: impoverished, and lacking in accessible, quality health care. She became medical director of The Children’s Health Project of D.C.,, a mobile health care unit that provides pediatric care to almost 2,000 patients each year, in the slums of Anacostia, the most dangerous neighborhood in our nation’s capitol.

As Communications Director for The Children’s Health Fund, I often shared Gloria’s story, including with O, The Oprah Magazine, which ran a feature on her. Gloria’s story embodied the narrative of The Children’s Health Fund: a “big” story about an organization that innovated, that turned giant recreational vehicles into roving pediatric clinics, and was tenacious in delivering health care to the most underserved communities in our nation. Gloria’s story is not just a story about poor kids not getting care – lots of organizations can tell that story. Nor is it simply a story about a poor kid who got care and succeeded – lots of organizations can tell that story, too. Most importantly, Gloria’s story embodied the big narrative about The Children’s Health Fund; by sharing Gloria’s story, we shared a small, supporting story about innovation and tenacity. (Today, “Dr. Gloria” continues her commitment to providing care in communities struggling with the injustice of poverty. She has opened a comprehensive pediatric practice and is building the Core Health and Wellness Center in the heart of Anacostia.)

hope and action

Similarly, New York Appleseed expands access to educational opportunity, good jobs and fresh food through sustainable solutions. They do this by leveraging the skills of volunteer lawyers and other professionals in solving problems of inequity and unfair distribution of resources. The stories that New York Appleseed deliberately shares do not start with a New Yorker unable to access financial, educational or legal resources and opportunities. The authentic stories of New York Appleseed start with lawyers and other professionals recognizing systemic problems and collaborating to bring about pragmatic and sustainable solutions.

Story is now even more important to activism, given the multitude of communication platforms. Your audience is distracted and fragmented, and one strong narrative continually communicated across platforms, through smaller stories, is necessary for prompting and sustaining engagement, hope and action.

Thaler Pekar is the principal partner of Thaler Pekar & Partners, LLC. She is a leading voice in the communication of organizational narrative and helping smart leaders find, develop and strategically share stories. Thaler facilitated the opening plenary of the most recent Smithsonian Institute Conference on Organizational Storytelling. She also contributes to the Stanford Social Innovation ReviewPhilanthropy News Digest and NeuroCooking blogs.

Also see: Filming Against Odds: Undocumented Youth “Come Out” With Their Dreams by Anne Galisky in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.

Also see: Food for The Soul: Poetry That Pierces Injustice by Sarah Browning in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.

Read the Cafe for new and updated stories.