(Regular contributor Thaler Pekar helps smart leaders and their organizations find, develop, and share the stories and organizational narratives that can rally critical support. In her last post, she shared seven tips for finding stories in your organization.)
Typically, stories have a beginning, middle, and end. They are set in place and time. They feature characters who struggle with choices and consequences. They hinge on conflict and its resolution. The listener/viewer/reader can hear/see/comprehend that something has happened to someone.
One of the most ubiquitous storylines is the hero's journey. This is the mono-myth found in every culture: an individual sets out on a journey, encounters a challenge, and returns changed. The hero's journey is a story of personal or community transformation. It is the story of Jesus and Luke Skywalker, of Rosa Parks and César Chávez.
It is also the story with which philanthropy and advocacy is most familiar. In the quest to secure funding and other types of support, the stories we use are usually chosen for their effectiveness in illustrating a preferred solution to a defined problem.
Exhale, a community-based organization working to transform the way in which abortion is discussed, abstains from pre-selecting a single version of a hero's journey. The organization isn't interested in sharing a piece of reality; it wants to share the chaotic, muddled mess that is reality.
The Millennials, Abortion and Religion Survey (46 pages, PDF), a recent poll conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute, found that, on the issue of abortion, Americans hold "complex and sometimes contradictory views, and grasping this complexity is critical for understanding the dynamics of the debate." According to the report,
Seven-in-ten Americans say the term "pro-choice" describes them somewhat or very well, and nearly two-thirds simultaneously say the term "pro-life" describes them somewhat or very well. This overlapping identity is present in virtually every demographic group.
[Similarly], majorities of Americans simultaneously say abortion is morally wrong (52%) and that it should be legal in all or most cases (56%)....
Of course, real life is complex. Decisions are made across a continuum that runs from absolute clarity to muddled confusion. Jean Luc Godard observed that, "Sometimes reality is too complex." And, Godard added, "Stories give it form."
Because Exhale is eliciting stories from women and men whose experience of abortion varies widely, what it hears is simultaneously encouraging, disturbing, and surprising. By asking for authentic stories, Exhale's Talkline allows people to talk in a respectful and non-judgmental space about things that are otherwise difficult to discuss in the sharply polarized public debate over abortion. That the discussion occurs at all is only because Exhale is willing to embrace the chaos that results from welcoming and respecting all voices and all stories.
Aspen Baker, who helped found and now leads Exhale, explains: "Our approach is humanizing; it is not a policy approach." The message that emerges from this chaos is that women's voices should be heard and respected. "People who care about women who have had abortions can help us take control of our own narratives so that they don't become just one more tool in the cultural war," says Baker.
Indeed, being "pro-voice" means being anti-predetermined story. The people who work with and support Exhale understand that embracing reality is the only authentic choice for those advocating for sustainable conflict resolution and a more peaceful social climate. Imagine if more advocates let go of their fear of being surprised, contradicted, or losing control and looked to solicit and share stories that didn't necessarily fit predetermined agendas. In their representation of the complexity of reality, the resulting stories might appear to be chaotic. But the odds are excellent that out of that chaos, profound insight would follow.
(Illustration: "Journey of the Goddess," Kay Singleton Keller)
-- Thaler Pekar