By Melissa Wrapp, doctoral candidate in Anthropology at UC Irvine
July 7th, 2020
In her 2009 TED talk, Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie warns of what she calls "the danger of a single story"— when a single narrative comes to dominate one's imagination of what exists and what is possible. As a child, Adichie explains, she thought "literature" had to be about blonde-haired, blue-eyed children because storybooks from the UK and the US were the only ones available for her to read. When she came to college in the US, her roommate couldn't fathom that Adichie, an African woman she imagined to be impoverished and "tribal", knew how to work a stove and listened to Mariah Carey. "Show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again," says Adichie, "and that is what they become."
The "single story" strips people of their full complexity as human beings. Yet, in a data saturated world, full of seemingly infinite options for entertainment, storytelling, and connecting across the globe, how does one tell a story that stands out without recapitulating tired tropes? How can storytellers of all kinds (whether they are authors, grant writers, or academics) use narratives to inspire without creating new patterns of exploitation?
In the midst of a long summer of pandemic-induced cabin fever and Zoom meeting fatigue, it is hard to imagine taking inspiration in much of anything, let alone... another Zoom meeting.
On July 7, the Sparkpoint OC Team, comprised of OC United Way and Abrazar representatives, participated in a 3-day Virtual Train-the-Trainers workshop with the Institute for Money, Technology & Financial Inclusion (IMTFI) at UC Irvine where attendees acquired skills in effective coaching as well as tools to showcase success stories in their program. SparkPoint OC, a program of OC United Way, offers one-stop financial empowerment centers throughout Orange County where hard working low-income residents can access a full range of free services, including one-on-one financial coaching to assist them with creating a step-by-step plan in increasing income, managing credit, building assets over time, and increasing financial literacy knowledge.
The SparkPoint OC financial coaches/case managers, are all too familiar with the challenge of connecting virtually. Though they were already seeking more effective ways to coach and manage their casework, when the coronavirus pandemic struck SparkPoint OC joined the rest of the world online, where navigating tough topics like money management became even trickier.
An important part of SparkPoint OC financial coaches/case managers work is to capture and share client financial empowerment success stories, so Day 1 kicked off with a workshop on Storytelling for Impact facilitated by community advocate and consultant Debbie Lacy. Lacy is the founder and CEO of Eastside for All, a race and social justice advocacy organization. In addition to coaching speakers, she herself has spoken at TED events.
From the start, Lacy showed one way to break down the barriers to connecting through virtual platforms: naming the struggle. Participants joined the workshop through computers with video, and without video, as well as through the phone; some commented verbally, while others commented in the chat box, and still others listened quietly. It could have been awkward. But Lacy did away with formalities — acknowledging the difficulty of focusing amidst the pandemic, the movement for Black lives, and the daily challenges already facing low-income communities — before delivering a moving reading of her family's origin story in Mexico and journey to the US. Her modeling of unvarnished openness in turn allowed workshop participants to candidly comment on storytelling techniques that resonated with them.
The coaches/case managers from SparkPoint OC were deeply concerned with the challenge of "teaching versus preaching", or conveying the experiences of their clients in a way that imparts the urgency of their organization's mission ("teaching") without coming across as overly moralistic ("preaching"). There are many methods one can use to tell a compelling story, which Lacy highlighted through unpacking the structure of her personal origin story.
- Dive deep into a particular moment, for instance, and immerse the audience in rich details to transport them to that time.
- Let the twists and turns of the plot surprise (or delight, or sadden...) as one leads people toward their message.
- Link the story to the broader historical context to situate an audience, allow them to connect what they are hearing to their own experiences, and see the bigger picture.
One participant remarked that using details such as describing the colors of the clothes in the story helped put them in her (the narrator's) shoes. "It was relatable," another participant observed, "We understood it even if the exact scenario didn't happen to us. Your story relates to events that happened with my family, so I got the emotions... it drew me in."
However, the SparkPoint OC coaches/case managers know that drawing people in itself can have its pitfalls. They questioned: as a nonprofit with limited resources, how do you balance the need to get "dollars in the door" from donors without misusing the stories of your clients? After long journeys with clients through financial hardship, how do you tell a story that is concise while still being impactful? Lacy cautioned the participants not to be another system in someone's life that is taking advantage of them and their stories for a gain that is not about them, their communities, and their families. Storytelling, be it in a newsletter, an annual report, or a fundraiser, is also an opportunity to amplify critical voices within the community that will challenge preconceived notions of their experience.
Then, everyone got a taste of the excitement, and vulnerability, of the spotlight. With Lacy's guidance, participants worked through brainstorming about a crossroads, loss, or significant change in their lives. Building up from drafting out moments that comprised that experience, participants then told their stories in Zoom breakout rooms, as Lacy jumped from room to room offering tips. There were moments of squeamish surprise, like when one participant described breaking her arm as a kid and watching it "turn to spaghetti". And there were sobering meditations on the parallels between anti-Black racism in Orange County and the experiences of Latinx residents decades earlier. To end the day, workshop participants gathered once more, and reflected on the constraints of templates, as opposed to "the heart" they were seeking to capture and convey in storytelling. And although the SparkPoint OC coaches/case managers will continue to grapple with the gap between simple forms and the complexity of their clients' lives, at the end of the first day of the workshop their team proved one technological barrier obsolete—an inspiring Zoom conference is possible!