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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