How should we tell stories about people we’re trying to help?
Individuals, churches, missionaries, and nonprofit groups should ask this regularly. The answer is inextricably bound to the very justice we’re trying to promote. The question now has a perfect case study.
Joseph Kony recently became an Internet star through Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 campaign. Among the millions of people who watched the video, no debate broke out about the evil of Kony, who as a warlord in central Africa maimed many and made children into killers. Worldwide consensus may be near impossible, but the cruelty inflicted by one of the world’s most wanted men can do that. The common goodwill the “Kony 2012” video unleashed was encouraging. People want the best outcome for those in that region.
But a cyber-speed debate broke out over almost every other aspect of the campaign—sparking a discussion about the best policy, advocacy’s role, white man’s burden, interventionism, and the use of military force.
My prayers have been for Invisible Children’s co-founder Jason Russell’s recovery from a public breakdown and strength to continue working for justice. While I don’t focus on African policy issues, what has continued to interest me—what intersects with my profession as director of a nonprofit focused on education in Haiti—is the opportunity to think about this question of how “we” tell stories to help “them.”
To dive into this question, consider the dynamic of the Kony video and its aftermath, where two realities collided:
- The audience (that is, us) craves simplicity of message, participation in meaningful positive change, and emotional reward—at low personal cost.
- We (that is, “us” and “them”) each want to be treated with nuance and respect.
The Kony 2012 makers indisputably addressed this first reality brilliantly. Invisible Children took a risk, communicated their perspective powerfully, and started an important conversation.
For the second reality—the desire we each have to be treated “with nuance and respect”—it’s clear Invisible Children wanted people to treat them this way. They wanted people to consider the video within the context of their work, watch follow-up videos, read a Q&A, look at charts, and take their time assessing the situation. It was a fair request, because everyone deserves as much.
Whether they sufficiently did the same for people in northern Uganda was up for debate. Critiques came quickly about oversimplifying or mischaracterizing the situation, as well as disagreeing with how Ugandans were portrayed as victims to be saved by American college students. Others defended the portrayal as effective advocacy that didn’t answer all the questions but kickstarted an important movement that could lead toward more learning and positive influence on policy in the region.
We can all keep striving to better understand how to work toward justice not only with our actions, but also with how we tell people’s stories.
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Jesus’ so-called Golden Rule should serve as the overarching guide: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you” (Matt. 7:12).
If you’ve ever talked about your experience on a short-term missions trip in front of your church, tried to start a new project for disadvantaged people in your neighborhood, or raised money to help others, at some point you might have felt an uncomfortable twinge: Did I make the case strongly enough to motivate people to step up and help? Did I selfishly make myself the hero? Did I paint people as one-dimensional victims instead of as the people I know them to be? Did I overstate how much good we’ve done? I know I’ve made these mistakes many times during my 15 years in nonprofit work.
Whether as individuals or multi-million dollar Christian development organizations, we need to be accountable for how we speak about each other—particularly about those who have less power than we do.
Articulating principles of a Golden Rule for communication can help align our speaking well with our doing good, align our speaking justly with doing justice.
Principle 1: People need a clear, compelling next step
Leaving the strategy/policy debate aside, Kony 2012 did this very well. Providing a clear, simple, emotionally compelling next step that builds into a larger strategy is harder than it sounds. Child sponsorship remains popular because of how it shows the next step: Help this one child.
My colleagues and I sometimes get too muddled in program details. Speaking at a university, sometimes I’ve finished telling moving stories, but then failed to help students know what small step to take next. The next step is, after all, the most important one. (After reading some of the Invisible Children critiques, I wanted to ask: So as an American, is there anything I should do to help, or nothing—and if so, what?)
The standard for truth doesn’t get lessened, but clear next steps are important.
Principle 2: The audience is who you’re talking to—and who you’re talking about
If you don’t serve your audience, they won’t serve others. What angle interests them? How will they relate? What questions will be in the back of their minds? How can you move their hearts and minds? Not asking these questions fails both the audience and the people you’re trying to help.
But I think the audience must also be who you’re speaking about, whether they’re present or not, whether speaking about a homeless person who lives around the block or someone who speaks another language in an electricity-less village thousands of miles away.
Why? First, work for justice directly engages the issue of power and powerlessness. In our very telling of their stories, we must demonstrate justice. Storytelling is a power; we should acknowledge this. Justice, in part, means being accountable to people to whom we don’t have to be accountable. After all, the stories are theirs.
Second, this approach works better long-term. How we tell stories influences how we decide strategy and what kinds of results are prioritized (if the story is about “our” goals and not “theirs, ” unhealthy pressure builds). With communication technology, there is also an increasing chance people are going to see how we’re talking about them. Care in communication builds positively into relationships and work for justice. Overarching narratives influence real-world decisions.
Henri Nouwen wrote about the wisdom of taking one of the developmentally disabled people he worked with on speaking engagements. Because of distance and cost, it might not always be possible. Yet we should always consider the people we’re trying to serve as also being in our audience.
Principle 3: Be virally prepared
Kent Annan is author of the new book After Shock: Searching for Honest Faith When Your World is Shaken. He is co-director of Haiti Partners and also author of Following Jesus through the Eye of the Needle. (100% of the author proceeds from both books go to education in Haiti.)