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‘The thing people don’t always want to realise is that stories have great power whether they get told or not.’ – Will Willingham
Grasping the power of stories to prompt action affects how big your impact is.
Take global poverty. It’s still here. The 15 years I have spent working with NGOs around the world and communities across Africa and Asia have convinced me that poverty’s persistence has something to do with the story we all tell ourselves.
We may not consciously verbalise this story, but we live it. It informs how we approach people in need. And, perhaps unexpectedly, it shapes the story they then tell themselves.
The World Bank asked 60,000 people – all living in poverty across 60 countries, what poverty meant for them. Turns out the story they’re living differs from the story many of us have told ourselves they’re living.
If their story is often one of humiliation and absence of power to change, and if our story reinforces that, then poverty will persist.
I sat with a man in Tanzania who’d had a bio-mass stove installed in his mud-home by a US NGO. A gold plaque on the stove recorded their generosity. He showed me how by shoveling in animal dung he could enable a gas flame for cooking.
He said the stove reassured him that he was not alone – which gave him peace because he knew he needed help. He knew he couldn’t beat poverty himself. His story – one of humiliation and absence of power – was being compounded by the fact that someone else had provided the stove for him. He felt inadequate.
And there begins the cycle of poverty.
My son sat his GCSE’s last year. How I engaged with him told me – and him – a story of his potential to pass. We lived out that story – doing everything we could to support him with his revision. What we didn’t do was get him an earpiece to transmit answers to him during the exam. If we’d done that (or attempted to) his own story might have changed, his self-belief dented and his long term prospects damaged.
A good friend and colleague, Angela Zamaere-Smith, is Director of Partnerships & Programmes at All We Can. She’s helped pioneer a defining model for the sector, which is radically changing the story in some of the world’s poorest communities. This ‘Partnership Approach’ is driving real, transformative change for people living in some of the world’s poorest communities – and changing the story at the same time.
This World Storytelling Day, ask yourself what your own story about poverty is: then join us in rethinking it.