Tell a story; start a movement

I’d like to have been in the audience for Marshall Ganz’s lecture for the 2001 meeting of the American Sociological Association. I’d have been listening intently when he said, “story telling may be what most distinguishes social movements from interest groups and other forms of collective actions”.

Somewhere in my wandering around in the huge digital library that is the Web, I stumbled onto the draft of his paper, “The Power of Story in Social Movements”.

Cesar Chavez

Cesar Chavez understood the power of storytelling (photo courtesy of Wikimedia)

The title stopped my quick clicking from one site to the next. Intended for an audience of peers, the paper satisfies the need for academic language to make the text believable. But it also tells a story.

The bulk of Ganz’s lecture is the story of La Causa and the role of stories in framing the movement, as well as inspiring and energizing supporters. From the beginning, the leaders of the National Farm Workers Association wove the elements of their struggle into a narrative line. Weekly meetings were not just serious discussions of burning issues. They were celebrations, relating the week’s events through theater and music.

The 300-mile march to Sacramento, to pressure Governor Brown to intervene on behalf of the farm workers, became one of the movement’s defining stories. Ganz writes, “The march was story telling in action, words and symbols. It enacted an individual and collective journey from slavery to freedom.…This cultural dynamic infused the NFWA with significance for farm workers, Mexican-Americans, students, religious activists, and liberal Americans far beyond its political reach or economic influence as a community organization.”

And that’s the key, isn’t it? We can be serious and sincere and committed to social justice. We can march, sign petitions, serve meals in soup kitchens, raise money to educate African children, and volunteer in shelters. As important and satisfying as our actions may be, they will not lead to change without a compelling story.

The march became one of La Causa’s compelling stories. What stories will transform the cause you care about from interest group to social movement?

Marshall Ganz is Lecturer in Public Policy at the Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations (John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard). He cut his social-justice teeth working with Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers. It was only after many years as a community organizer that he returned to Harvard and earned a PhD in sociology.

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DazyDayWriter - September 13, 2010

What stories will transform the cause you care about from interest group to social movement? That’s a great question! My graduate work was in sociology, so causes and social movements are words dear to my heart. But, you’re right, it’s the story behind the cause that generates momentum. When I worked with nonprofits (development and fundraising), we talked a lot about the importance of “story” … because that’s what so many donors and supporters want to know about. What is the organization’s story — why is it important, urgent, compelling? I’m not sure, but I think we remember stories better than we facts, data, and impersonal information. We crave the emotional fabric of something … we want our hearts invested in the process. My two cents! Great topic, Cathryn.

storyroute admin - September 14, 2010

Beautifully articulated response, Daisy. We can hear impressive or horrifying statistics, but I think we open our hearts when we see their relationship to people whose stories we hear.

Andre Yap - September 16, 2010

Bravo Cathryn, and Daisy! Thanks for pointing out Marshall Ganz’s The Power of Story in Social Movements. He put theory into good use in the grassroots organizing model for Barack Obama’s winning 2008 presidential campaign. When I am ready to go into public sector work, I always thought I would make a stop at Harvard’s KSG – I hope Professor Ganz will still be there.

For now I so believe in storytelling that I’ve molded an entire company around it!

Andre Yap
Ripple100 The Storytelling App | Agency

storyroute admin - September 16, 2010

And thanks to you, Andre, for introducing me to Ripple100, which anyone wanting to know more about storytelling’s application to organizations, business…life…will want to follow.

C. Lee McKenzie - September 20, 2010

I had the privilege of teaching a workshop for young writers this summer; my first ever teaching experience with grade school children. I’ve always taught at the university. And what an experience it was. Their task was to write a story with a character who wanted something very badly and couldn’t have it. When they shared their stories each one revealed such wonderful insights into their young lives and their amazing awareness of their world. My point in making this comment is this: the power of storytelling is there from a very young age just waiting for the social movement or the cause to become the driving force behind it. Thank you for your blog.

storyroute admin - September 20, 2010

What a delicious task to set the children you taught. I can imagine they set to writing with heads buzzing with ideas. I’d love to have heard their stories. It was an experience with young children that opened my eyes to the power of storytelling.

For anyone reading these comments, please check out this prolific author’s Web site. The landing page is the best I’ve seen, and all through the site you know you are in the hands of a creative, smart writer.

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