When it comes to challenges such as the crisis at the southern border, restrictions on voting rights and problematic policing, our culture has an empathy gap. While these issues register as major problems for people of color and people living in poverty, countless others are not moved with compassion, because they or someone they know hasn’t experienced the impact of these challenges directly.
As people of faith and social justice advocates, how can we bridge or tighten this empathy gap? One significant way is to strategically and ethically implore story in our outreach work. In the Christian tradition, the Bible is filled with parables that help to drive home important concepts and lessons.
Why is this important?
If you are seeking to draw attention to a crisis, you must take people to the scene of the crisis. They must experience it visually, physically, and mentally. Even if they are not physically present, they need to feel like they have experienced an issue directly.
Several genres of music provide wonderful examples. For example, many gospel songs lead with story. A memorable song from my childhood is gospel singer and recording artist Shirley Caesar’s “Hold My Mule.” In the song, Caesar talks about a man who was too effusive with his praise for the comfort of his local congregation. She describes how the man would dance around his very dignified church, much to the chagrin of the church’s elders and deacons. They would grab him and force him to sit down, and he’d jump up. He was so thankful for the blessings he’d received that he expressed his thanks by waving his arms, stomping his feet and running around the church. As Caesar shares the story, listeners are transported to the church. Even if you’ve never been to a church, you’ve likely been at a sporting event and watched someone who was over the top with their excitement. You can imagine what the man was doing even though you weren’t there — and perhaps have empathy for him.
That is the effect our stories should have.
I have heard preachers, rappers, country singers, and others use stories to great effect. A personal favorite is Pastor Jeffrey A. Johnson Sr. of Eastern Star Church in Indianapolis. If I am in Indianapolis, I make it a point to visit his church because I love his command of narrative. Pastor Johnson ends most of his sermons with a colorful story. The prelude to his stories features an exasperated Pastor Johnson, who often says, “OK, OK. You all still aren’t getting it; let me tell you this way …” The story summarizes his message, explains it in a way that biblical text written centuries ago cannot and uses a contemporary memorable story that the congregation can more easily relate to and recall.
If recording artists, pastors, and others appreciate the importance of stories, why don’t advocates consistently, yet responsibly, do so? Sometimes we’re amid our own crisis and can only focus on the task at hand. We can get so hurried in our work or trapped in a cycle of responding that we fail to focus on ways to truly engage our audience. Further, when we are in a response mode and fending off threats to funding or the constituencies we serve, we may lose track of the importance of identifying and centering stories. Instead, we focus on the problem at hand. We tell people what has happened, often without outlining what we’re doing to resolve it. But if a person’s psyche isn’t transported to the scene via written words, video, or pictures, you risk the individual not being able to feel deeply or be motivated to action.
In some situations, when advocates do use stories, they do so without the consent of impacted people. I recall being in a training with a social impact health organization. Faith leaders convened the meeting, and the speakers were extolling a public-private partnership that allowed them to provide health care services to a Massachusetts community. The speaker, no doubt in an attempt to document the program’s need, disclosed deeply personal information about one of the organization’s clients. The client was an older Black woman who had made her share of mistakes. The speaker was a younger white woman, who appeared to have little in common with the woman who was old enough to be her mother. The information disclosed made me cringe, not just because of its personal nature but because the protagonist in the story was not present. I kept wondering how I would feel if someone who was in my life to help me overcome obstacles shared the details of my life without me present. I asked the speaker if the woman in question had given her consent to share those details. She grew quiet and said she’d go back and double check.
To be clear, when I talk about sharing stories, I am proposing we do so ethically and with full consent. In April, the Nonprofit Quarterly published an article on “poverty porn” and “survivor porn.” The author explains that survivors are often pushed to share traumatic experiences without regard to the emotional and personal consequences of doing so. This is not what I had in mind when I began writing this article. (For information on how to tell impactful yet mindful stories, see this infographic.)
When I advocate to use story, I mean we must describe in colorful detail why an issue matters, whom it impacts, and who the third-party validators are.
To be effective, a story must tell what is wrong and invite people in. In describing what has transpired, the story must provide an entry point for broader engagement. Seldom will we try things that we do not believe we can achieve. Therefore, in telling stories, we must convince people that all hope is not lost and that they can make a difference and that the problem is also theirs for the solving.
We know stories are important. They stimulate the senses, invite people in and give purpose to our action. Since we know this, let’s use them — but let’s do so while being mindful of consent and ethics.