How storytelling can change the world

“Ordinary people are smart, smart people are ordinary, decisions are best made by the people affected by them, and human beings have an almost infinite capacity for adapting to the expectations around us.” — Gloria Steinem, My Life on the Road

Women are fascinating. There are elements of our thinking and our plight that are shared, across generations, cultures, continents and ages — elements that are effectively inherent. One of those is the ability to affect and be affected by the stories of others like ourselves.

I’m reading two books right now, simultaneously: Muhammad Yunus’ Banker to the Poor and Gloria Steinem’s My Life on the Road. I’ve started doing this more often — reading books simultaneously. Many times I end up drawing parallels between two seemingly different stories, which end up being much more intertwined than I’d imagined.

I want to thank these two incredible humans for sharing their stories, because I am indebted to them for the thoughts and possibilities these stories have ignited in me. They have created movements. They both, in radically different ways, saw a fundamental problem with the way society operates and chose to change it, by changing the system.

And in both cases, it started with women.

Yunus took a bet, on what are perhaps the absolute most destitute of humans. The women of Bangladesh, barely surviving in rural villages, were so suppressed by their own religion and cultural customs that they could not leave their homes. They could not speak to men who were not their husbands. They were so bound to a life of indebted servitude that the only way they could feed themselves and their children was to rely on conniving middlemen who had created the perfect trap. They would become a customer to these women, purchasing whatever it is they made, and offer them just enough payment in return for a full day’s labor to purchase the next day’s materials and keep them alive.

Beyond the obvious criminal inhumanity behind this arrangement lies a bigger, glaring systemic issue. Why is this their only option? There are hundreds of thousands of women and families living this way, so why is there no solution for this? Perhaps just as importantly, why haven’t we heard about this problem?

Before Yunus, the stories of these women were not told because according to their governments, they didn’t even exist. They had no access to government aid, to basic rights. As well, the banking systems are fundamentally designed to ostracize the poorest members of society and keep them out of the system. These women had stories to tell, but no one to hear them. They had no voice.

Perhaps similarly, Steinem illustrates the plight of women even in so-called developed worlds who, until they fought for it, were as well not considered worthy of being given a public voice. Even now, we are fighting the system every single day to be heard. To be considered worthy. Every day, we have more stories to tell.

There’s always someone who, from the beginning of time, is oppressed by the dominant group. Where does this stem from? Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie suggests it starts with the way we raise our children. We teach these ideals from a young age — what is feminist and what is masculine. What is “normal” and what is different. According to whom? Religion, government, the media, our parents, ourselves. We’re all to blame. We let it happen, and we perpetuate the oppression of the “other.”

But something fascinating begins to happen when the oppressed gather in groups, when they begin to speak to one another, to tell their stories and to listen to others. That small nugget of realization that we are not alone, that the way the world works may be wrong rather than the way we are, that maybe it’s not us that are the problem — that is powerful.

It’s powerful enough to drive the women of Bangladesh to defy their cultural standards and take out a cash loan to start their own businesses. It’s powerful enough to drive masses of women in the largest numbers ever seen to Houston, TX to voice the suppression they’d been swallowing for so long. It’s powerful enough for abused children to speak out against their victimizers in numbers large enough that they cannot be ignored or silenced. It all starts with a conversation, with a story, with a connection.

The Grameen Bank worked because Yunus built into it a notion of small communities, of group accountability. Unless lendees found 4 others like themselves who were looking to borrow money from the bank, they would not be accepted. They were made to meet regularly, to prove need to the others in their group and ultimately to share their stories with those like themselves. It worked.

Steinem’s talking circles, the early forms of support groups and forums, were, in her words, “where consciousness [was] allowed to change.” She went so far as to suggest that, given more time, Malcom X and Martin Luther King Jr. “might have become part of the same talking circle.” Imagine the exchange of ideas and ideals if a group of likeminded men and women had sat down regularly with both MLK and Malcom X to share their stories. What a world it could have been. These talking circles, in turn, effectively led to the greatest women’s movement this country has ever seen.

Today, we’re continually engaging in digital versions of talking circles. We engage even in person, from book clubs and meetups, even to protests. Is it the same? Is it enough? Was it the novelty of being able to engage with likeminded women for the first time that made it such a compelling force?

To me, there’s something so powerful about hearing someone’s story firsthand. When it’s someone we admire, hearing their own account about how they got to where they are, the path they chose, what they were thinking or feeling as they overcame the same challenges we’re staring in the face, it really helps us to know that it’s possible to come out the other side intact, that it wasn’t all roses for those that came before us either. It’s so much easier to internalize it than it is to do with anything you hear second-hand.

As well, hearing personal stories of the plight of those that we have ostracized, those that we fear, or even just those that are different from us, makes them immediately more human. When we find some small similarity between that person and ourselves, then suddenly they become a person with a name, and a family, and a future, and a past. They become a face rather than an idea. Suddenly they don’t seem so frightening.

In a world buried in media, opinions of others and altered accounts of reality, we need to be both hunter and lion. We need to seek out more raw stories, and we need to give a voice and a microphone to those with stories to tell. This is the only force I believe is strong enough, if ignited correctly, to invoke significant change.

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