Why we need to listen to multi-layered stories

The cover of Kerry Hudson’s ‘Lowborn,’ which features a young girl playing in a paddling pool with two other young children
The cover of Kerry Hudson’s ‘Lowborn’

I’ve recently finished reading Kerry Hudson’s ‘Lowborn,’ which is a brilliant book on her experiences of poverty. The narrative moves backwards and forwards from her experiences growing up to her reflections in the present day.

The structure of the book means that there’s no singular view of poverty or its effects. Hudson is both her experiences and her dreams. And as the book progresses, she narrates her journey through childhood to when she goes to university and starts a new life.

The danger of a single story

After reading the book I happened to listen to an extract of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk on the ‘The danger of a single story’ as part of the TED Radio Hour podcast on The Gratitude Chain. Turns out this is one of the most popular TED talks of all time and I am *massively* late to the party.

We hear about the first time Ngozi Adichie meets her room mate at university in America:

“My American roommate was shocked by me. She asked if she could listen to what she called my ‘tribal music,’ and was consequently very disappointed when I produced my tape of Mariah Carey… My roommate had a single story of Africa: a single story of catastrophe. In this single story, there was no possibility of Africans being similar to her in any way, no possibility of feelings more complex than pity, no possibility of a connection as human equals.”

As I listened to the extract, I couldn’t help but reflect on Kerry Hudson’s own complex story. She bares her soul on so many aspects of her life. It’s perhaps obvious for someone who works for a social care charity to pull out a reflection of an experience of working with social workers, but this quote shows the importance of understanding the multiple strands of people’s identities:

“I had been brought up to believe that social workers were do gooders who were out to get you, to be treated with suspicion at best. Now I felt nothing but empathy and respect for the difficulty of these women’s work.”

Seeing the whole person leads to the development of understanding. By contrast, reducing people to a single story causes an over-simplification of someone’s life. It means that we never get to grips with what really matters to people. From a delivery perspective, we design services based on the linear metrics of a single story that are important to us as organisations, and we miss out on what’s really important to people.

For relational services, we need relational service design. We need to make the case for evidence that reflect people’s lives, not the outcomes that organisations need to gather. The way that we count outputs provides a defacto purpose that moves us away from what people really want and need. To get back to that, we need to understand the power of the multifaceted stories that make up each of our lived experiences.

As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says:

“Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanise. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.”

Words to live and design by.

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Dyfrig Williams

Dyfrig Williams

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Cymraeg! Music fan. Cyclist. Scarlet. Work for @researchip. Views mine / Barn fi.