Context and Purpose
In early 2011 a proposal to develop an iron ore mine in the Penokee Hills in northern Wisconsin was first brought to the public’s attention. From the outset there has been a polarized debate often framed as a simple conflict pitting the promise of jobs and economic development against the environment. By July of 2011 when the debate had heated up, I began to get a sense that there were a lot of people who were feeling impacted by the mine proposal but didn’t feel like there was a forum where their voices and values would be heard. I was following the informative hearings and the political discussions, which are essential to the process, but I felt like the community also needed something additional, a process that might guide toward a vision of shared values.
My hope was to promote a third way beyond the polarizing approaches by “design[ing] a project that would sharpen an understanding of the complexity of the issue and allow people to see beyond polarizing positions and toward an understanding at a level of core values and basic human needs.” I knew that there is something about this somewhat remote place that, in spite of its economic challenges, draws people in and keeps them there. From either side of the mine controversy, it seemed that people would call this a place that they cherish. With that hypothesis as a guide I began a video project called Voices of the Penokee Hills which originally went live on You Tube in October of 2011. After the first couple of videos were up, people began to reach out to me to say thanks for offering a place where people could tell their stories. With intuition and the people in the community as my guides, I had stumbled into a Story-Telling Project. In the process of sharing stories about place–by describing what we cherish–it seemed that we might also have been envisioning possibilities for action.
Almost two years later at the Summer Peacebuilding Institute, in a class called Narrative for Healing, Conflict Transformation and Community Organizing with David Anderson Hooker, a light blub went off in my head. I could use the theoretical framework from the course to unpack what had emerged intuitively in the Voices of the Penokee Hills project and look for new ways to use the story-telling process as a tool for community organizing. As David was giving a demonstration on approaches for coaching people to generate a story that is succinct, captures our interests and communicates a sense of values, I recognized suddenly that this is what I had been trying to do with the Voices of the Penokee Hills project. There is one video that I shared with David because it resonated as an example of what he demonstrated in class.
There is a specific point in the video, the 2:38 mark, where David said, “that’s it. You could cut it right there. That’s the kind of story you could take to the EPA.” That brief exchange inspired a new direction for the Voices of the Penokee Hills Project. First from a theoretical point of view, I would explore what it was that this storyteller had conveyed and how could I better understand the storytelling process? Then from a practical and aesthetic perspective, I would hope to develop a collaborative method for coaching people to tell an engaging, focused and unedited stories from the heart.
Why Story Telling? A Theoretical Framework
There is still a mine proposal lingering in the Penokee Hills and there are many people actively involved through education and community building, in the political process and by exercising treaty rights. There are, however, also people interested in being involved who may not be finding a venue or a space where they feel like their voices are heard. I hope to offer new tools grounded in a theoretical framework in order to offer that space.
While I was doing the earlier version of the Voices of the Penokee Hills Project (VPHP) many people told me that they wanted to be involved in social action related to the mine proposal but they weren’t finding an outlet that fit their personality profile or style of interaction. For example, Theresa Fish of Washburn, Wisconsin, stated during a collective poetry writing session, part of the original Voices Project, “It is really important for me to be here tonight because I have a really hard time vocalizing things, especially my thoughts and feelings about important issues and this is a really important issue” (see video at 1 minute 30 seconds). This poetry writing session was an intervention at the culmination of the research project, previously mentioned, about the stories of the places that we cherish.
Why does storytelling let people feel like they are involved and how does that apply to the format of our policy decisions? In an article from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, “Listeners as Co-Narrators” (2000), the authors, Janet B. Bavelas, Linda Coates and Trudy Johnson, describe two experiments based on the collaborative theory of narrative story-telling. They studied listeners and their effect on storytellers. The results “strongly support [the] view that face-to-face dialogue is distinct from monologue or written text because it includes micro-social processes of coordination and collaboration…. Even in highly asymmetrical dialogues, speaker and listener roles are not fixed and separate. Rather, their relationship is reciprocal and collaborative, in that the narrator elicits responses from the listener and the listener’s responses affect the narrator. In spontaneous storytelling, the interlocutors interact together to produce the narrative” (p. 951). I think that when people feel like they are participating in a collaborative process, co-constructing a story, they get the sense that change is possible–that they can, as Freire would say, write their own history.
In the Marshall Ganz 2008 article, ‘What is Public Narrative?’, he says that “we are in the midst of an unfolding story, in which we are the authors of the outcome.” To become the “authors of the outcome” we need to learn both how to tell our stories and listen in the stories told to us. This is not always an easy task, especially when we want to tell our story and are ignored. During a January 2013 public hearing on a new Wisconsin mining bill, Scott Griffiths, Mayor of Washburn, Wisconsin said midway through his testimony said, “the public officials have already made up their minds [about the mining law]…I can tell because you are not listening to me.” Some people have the confidence and composure to call the public officials out on their behavior, as Mayor Griffiths did on this occasion. In most cases though, when people feel as though their voices are not being heard or are disrespected they are less likely to take the risk of sharing a story publicly. Here is another example for our elected officials not listening to the voices of the people with respect and consideration. While one senator is commenting on legislation in a committee hearing, other senators are openly dismissive.
Having listened to hours of public testimony I have begun to notice something interesting; in some cases when a person would finally make it up to the microphone after waiting up to nine hours to tell their story, they would circumlocute around a point and never really land or convey their message effectively. As I listened, I would hear the passion in their voices and I would understand the intention of their testimony but the story would often fall flat. I would say to myself, “come on… you got it…you are so close” and then BAM their time would be up! The environment of these public hearings is very adversarial and the time to speak is short. This sets up an unsafe venue where the collaborative element of storytelling is completely absent.
In “Listeners as Co-Narrators“, the authors describe that a “collaborative model assumes a constant reciprocal influence between narrators and listeners…a responsive listener would improve the narrative…an unresponsive listener would dampen the narrative” (p.950). Perhaps this could explain why the speakers at the hearings are often derailed as they testify. The “listeners” are not listening.
Giving testimony at hearings is just one of many ways in which people have become involved in this social action. The Penokee Hills Education Project organizes itself around public education about the risks of large scale mining in the Penokee Hills. The Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Ojibwe are exercising their hunting, fishing and harvesting rights in ceded territory at the LCO Harvest Educational Learning Project in the Penokee Hills. Citizens are also lobbying and writing to their legislators and organizing community educational events. Yet there are still some people who don’t feel like they can find a voice in any of those outlets. Why? Perhaps some of these outlets, testimony and lobbying, are conducted with the language of politics and the courtroom where the written text and monologue are the “prototype for all language use” (Bavelas, 2000, p. 941). Persuasive language and argumentation are appropriate for certain contexts, but there are also important dimensions of the human experience that they are unable to convey. Storytelling, on the other hand, is based in genuine dialogue where “narrative is a joint activity and does not belong to either speaker or listener alone. Dialogue is not simply information transmission between individuals but is a reciprocal process of co-construction” (Bavelas, 2000, p. 951). Storytelling imbedded in a dialogic process can convey values and emotional experience. It also opens a space for creativity and the generation of unexpected ideas. Whereas persuasive language and monologue are ordinarily one sided and tend towards a deepening of the divide.
When stories are engaging, they have power and potential to move people to act. We all know great storytellers who capture our attention and make us want to listen. So what it is that makes a story engaging to the listener and capable of moving people to join together for action? Marshall Ganz in his 2007 article, “Telling Your Public Story: Self, Us, Now” says, “by telling our personal stories of challenges we have faced, choices we have made, and what we learned from the outcomes we can inspire others and share our own wisdom. Because stories allow us to express our values not as abstract principles, but as lived experience, they have the power to move others”.
In a former position as a recreation therapist working with young women we would ask each of them to write and share a story of her life’s path. In this collaborative process we would also share our own experiences, the challenges and choices of our lives. Through this cathartic experience we would find our own wisdom and inspire each other. The storytelling process was one of the most powerful tools we used with the young women, because it was a forum that created connections and generated energy for action—energy for change.
As Ganz says, “story telling is interactive, a form of social transaction, and can therefore only be learned by telling, and listening, and telling and listening” (2007). This is true with cultures in which stories are passed down from one generation to the next where the community has an oral history. I am suggesting that we bring ourselves closer to a culture that shares and listens to each others stories with articulation and engagement.
Through the process of sharing our stories we express our most deeply held values and when we are listening with intention we discover what inspires all of our choices. “Narrative allows us to communicate the values that motivate the choices that we make…[it]is not talking “about” values: rather narrative embodies and communicates values. And it is through the shared experience of our values that we can engage with others, motivate one another to act, and find the courage to take risks, explore possibility and face challenges” (Ganz, 2008, p 15).
In summary the three key elements of telling an engaging, moving public story are:
•A story of self- why the person was called to what they have been called to do.
•A story of us- an articulation of the values of the community.
•A story of now- the challenge this community faces, the choices it must make and the
hope to which the community as a “we” can aspire.
With this theoretical framework as a background, I would like to explore why the video I mentioned above, April Stone Dahl’s story, is so moving in the first two and half minutes. She tells a story of her family and their connection to the land. She shares about the relationship that she and her family have built with their neighbors and the connectedness they all share with each other. Finally, she tells about the challenge that the community faces about the water, “if I can’t drink this water, who else can’t drink this water. And then I immediately just started thinking about the women, the children and the people all around the world, just think how thirsty they are and just think how thirsty those people have been for a long time.” This is the story that I carry with me in the fight to protect the Penokee Hills. This is the story that has inspired a new direction for the Voice of the Penokee Hills Project aimed toward co-narrating our stories, stories of our selves, our place, and our aspirations. All together this is the story we all share.
Creating the time to engage with each other is not always a priority in our busy lives. Very often we have truncated conversations that trickle off and are left unfinished. If we could create even a hybrid space were we use social media to facilitate those connections that our busy lives don’t allow, perhaps we could learn the tools of storytelling and practices of participating as engaged listeners.
The theories of change for this new direction in a video story-telling project is multi-layered:
• If “dialogue is not simply the transmission [of words] between individuals” but a “reciprocal and collaborative process” (Bavelas, 2000, p. 951), then we must create a space in which sharing and listening will be comfortable and safe–encouraging each other to take risks, visualize possibility, and take action.
• By setting in motion a coaching process that elicits a story of self, a story of us and a story of now, we will guide the storyteller toward a narrative that will engage and inspire listeners toward reflection and action, to “reclaim our capacity” to articulate and “translate our values into action” (Ganz, 2008).
• By using video as a tool in the coaching process we can create opportunities for storytellers to rehearse their skills and focus their narratives on the core of self, us and vision. By playing back and listening together we will create the conditions where listener and narrator collaborate in a co-constructed story.
Method and Process
Drawing from the key components of public narrative, the story of self, us and now as described above, I have done a pilot project coaching storytellers toward speaking of their own experience from the heart. I am using video to give feedback, to highlight the role of the listener and to eventually share the story with a wider audience through social media. For this pilot I invited individuals with whom I had work in the original Voices of the Penokee Hills Project. I invited them to tell their story and gave them a little pre-coaching prior to the recording. I asked them to consider telling a story of self, a story that “communicates who I am—my values, my experience, why I do what I do” (Ganz, 2008, p.1). Then I asked them to consider how the story of self relates to the story of the community, a story that “communicates who WE are—our shared values, out shared experience, and why we do what we do” (Ganz, 2008, p.1). And finally a story that communicates what we are called to do right now, “a story of now transforms the present into a moment of challenge, hope and choice” (Ganz, 2008, p.1).
For the first two videos we gathered on a Sunday afternoon, shared food and conversation in preparation for the storytelling. As we drew closer to recording the stories we focused our conversation on the intention of the project. We talked about storytelling as a “social transaction,” about how stories articulate our shared values and how we hoped that with this project we might engage others toward action. The time spent building safety and comfort helped open a pathway toward a storytelling process that tapped into the heart of the matter. We also talked about the importance of being disciplined in our message. We reminded ourselves that our aim is to bring people together around shared values, like healthy vibrant communities, and that we will be best served by avoiding speech or argument that could be alienating.
In addition to being intentional about preparing the storytellers and creating the space we also had to be attentive to the aesthetic aspects. We needed a location with good light and sound conditions and a landscape that supports the story.
To get the storytellers started, I suggested that they could begin by talking about what had brought them to the place, what is important about their relationship to the community and their own heartfelt vision for the challenges of the present. Joy Schelble went first and did a first run of about nine minutes. The first run was already beautiful and full of wonderful morsels, but I had explained that the process would involve reviewing and doing as many takes as needed to distill the story to its core in a version of 3-4 minutes. Together we played back the first take and among the four of us present, we began to see a theme emerging around Joy’s lifelong relationship to nature. After having identified those morsels and having agreed on the emerging theme, we did a second take and right away we felt like she had nailed it. Listen here:
Joy’s story begins by telling a story of her childhood. Nature could hold and transform the stress that she experienced as a young child. She describes being outdoors in the woods as a way to “re-charge.” She goes on to share a vision of nature as a place that all of us should be able to go to for re-connection. Finally, she discusses how the talk about a mine has inspired many people to get back into the woods and reconnect. If there is hope that emerges from the conflict before us, it is in that reconnection to the place where we belong, to that something that is at our core.
Kathy’s story tells about how she moved to the shores of Lake Superior as a young adult; how she felt an energy that she did not completely understand but recognized immediately as something powerful. She goes to share how after becoming a teacher in the local public school, she began to learn more deeply about the history and culture of the place that she and her family had come to call home. As her students became her teachers, she began to understand the source of the energy—it comes from the people and their long history of a relationship to the lake. Her vision for the future is about continuing to learn from those traditions and to honor that relationship.
In Leo’s story the theme of a deep relationship to the water begins to emerge as a way to express community values and a vision of the future.
Eric, as an historian and a social sciences teacher focuses his narrative on an often forgotten concept of rights that encompass land, community and history and frame a perspective on values for a shared future.
A few weeks after the storytelling session with Joy and Kathy I followed up with them to find out how they felt about the process. Here are their words…
“I had other plans for our talk, a few more facts and figures, more proof. It turns out that the truth lies in the hearts of those of us who crave the wild places, the cold water, the humility of winter. I am grateful for the opportunity to share my reason for being here. I was comforted and surprised by my words and later embarrassed that there wasn’t more striking metaphor, more poetry. I guess it is all quite simple. We were pulled together to have these conversations. We know the importance of the water and of this place, we hold the awe. I broke through some chains by letting the words out. I know now I speak like a babbling brook, with time and growth, my words will swell like an ocean, a big ol’ inland ocean that you both helped me understand. Together we will protect this place.” Joy
“I really love what you are doing. I think you have a good way of helping folks feel comfortable telling their heartfelt stories of why we love this place and why the Penokees need to be protected. Before the process I had thought about many things I could talk about with you, but I ended up talking unscripted, telling my own story. It wasn’t what I thought I’d be saying that day. It feels vulnerable putting feelings out there, not something I tend to do, but you have a good way of putting people at ease. I bet what you are collecting is beautiful. I hope you find many personal voices out there, connecting them as one.” Kathy
I see Voices of the Penokee Hills 2.0, the Penokee Hills Education Project, LCO Harvest Educational Learning Project , Midwest Environmental Advocates and many of the other people working to protect the Penokee Hills, as a disturbance in the system, a dissipative structure. Margaret Wheatley, in “Leadership and the New Science” describes, “things in the environment that disturb the system’s equilibrium play a crucial role in creating new forms of order” (p.19). In an article “Leadership Lessons for The Real World” she writes that “this is a world that knows how to organize itself without command and control or charisma. Everywhere, life self-organizes as networks of relationships. When individuals discover a common interest or passion, they organize themselves and figure out how to make things happen. Self-organizing evokes creativity and leads to results, creating strong, adaptive systems. Surprising new strengths and capacities emerge.”