Questions of Civic Proportions: Stories that Carry Us Forward

(And have nothing to do with who the President is)

Shellee O'Brien
Jun 5 · 7 min read

John Dickerson made a simple statement on Slate’s Political Gabfest. It sounded like a public service announcement:

There are narratives about who we are in the U.S. that have nothing to do with who the President is.

These other narratives have their sources of power, difficulty, and all kinds of complications too. They have room for us to act. They offer storylines where you can stop watching someone else, where you can imagine yourself jumping in and taking part.

We look for stories like this when putting togheter our Questions of Civic Proportions email, but then spend most of our days watching one guy’s Twitter feed with everyone else. Politicolor’s commitment to a more civic perspective requires coming up for air and appreciating these other stories of who we are.

This last week, we offered three questions that show how these other stories help us see across space and time. That’s how you keep a civic perspective.

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Without these other narratives, we might forget our own capacity for sorting through complexities and make sense of them. By focusing on one guy or the latest outrage, we lose our connection to the stories that give us strength and carry us forward.

The word “narrative” seemed so big when Dickerson used it in that single sentence. From anyone else, the word would solicit skepticism. Office holders, candidates, lobbyists, and issues organizations all aim to control the narrative today. That’s a strategic win and proof of messaging swagger. Dickerson’s quick side comment pulled the word out of all this muck. He made it possible to see it again and to remember that these narratives belonged to us before they became the playthings of political operatives.

So, what’s the difference? What do these big narratives have that the marketing strategies only imitate?

In 2003, The Poynter Institute asked journalists: “What is narrative, anyway?” The response ranged from the sort of technical specifics you would expect to colorful allegories, “Narrative is the dirt path that leads us through the impenetrable forest, so we move forward and don’t feel lost.” (Wade Rawlins, Raleigh News and Observer).

A narrative works by offering movement, direction, and purpose.

Bob Barker, who writes for the Los Angeles Times, offered an answer with an even bigger idea, “‘Narrative’ means any technique that produces the visceral desire in a reader to want to know what happened next.”

That’s the mark of engaging a story. You want to know what happens next. You connect to the purpose and imagine yourself as the enterprising American that finds the path.

So, when did you first imagine yourself to be part of the larger story of the United States?

I can’t escape hearing the Hamilton soundtrack here, and I haven’t even seen the production! You can find meaning for your own story by interweaving it with the larger project of the United States:

“Hey yo, I’m just like my country
I’m young, scrappy and hungry
And I’m not throwing away my shot! “

(From “My Shot” by Lin Manuel-Miranda)

With a powerful narrative, you can connect to a shared mission and the greater purpose of a political community. Later in the song:

“But we’ll never be truly free
Until those in bondage have the same rights as you and me
You and I. Do or die. Wait till I sally in
On a stallion with the first black battalion”

What story made you want to “sally in” and be a part of it?

I wanted to go to the moon. The idea of Americans as explorers, boundary breakers, and scientific geniuses had me thinking about what I could do to be part of this story. The USA would escape the bounds of gravity!

Think on the question for long and you’ll discover the power of Dickerson’s reminder. The possibilities keep coming.

Consider the story of civil rights activists as fearless champions for our highest ideals, and investigative journalists as truth-seeking detectives. We have stories of Generals who stood strong against Fascism and rebuilt Europe. We have today’s innovators working to unlock the power to restore health to the human body and (hopefully) the planet.

These narratives need air time, too. We’re just the people to do it. We know that greatness lies within these bigger stories of who we are and can imagine that “history has its eyes” on us. 😉

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What can we learn about the stories we know once we uncover the stories we attempted to deny?

You may have seen the Washington Post article about the Statue of Liberty’s origin story. A French abolitionist organized the gift to celebrate the end of slavery. Early renderings of the statue included broken shackles in her hand. Slow fundraising required opening up the story to “freedom” more generally. With Reconstruction disrupted and dismantled, Jim Crow ruled the South by the time the statue arrived in the United States. That sad juxtaposition might be the best way to understand the country at that time.

This month, we have the opportunity to correct a less familiar story. As we mark the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, NYC has plans to honor two transgender activists with public monuments. Many efforts to tell what happened there have excluded the drag queens and transgender patrons at the bar that night. As recently as 2015, filmmakers had white gay men playing the lead roles. Getting the details right in both these stories help us see the reality that change moves slowly and often occurs through the risks taken by the most marginalized.

How do our stories help us to see across time, space, and even bureaucratic silos?

In the L.A. Times’ review, they say “‘The River and the Wall’ is a border crossing worth taking.” The film documents a team trekking across 1,200 miles of the southern border. They have faith in the people of the United States and want to make it possible for them to see that part of the country with their own eyes:

“With its intense focus on the natural beauty of the constantly changing environs and the myriad wildlife that inhabit what the majority of Americans tend to only think of as a desert, this is one documentary that should be required viewing for anyone and everyone on both sides of the “build the wall” conflict.”

Following this strategy of opening up more of the story, activists in Texas took home a win at the end of this year’s legislative session. Lawmakers made provisions for the “Sugarland 95.” These recently discovered remains were likely the victims of the state’s convict-leasing system. The support of the legislature means the site will become a public cemetery, and activists hope this will help people see how racial inequality persisted long into the modern era. Contributing to that narrative, Ava Duvernay has a new Netflix series where the story of the Central Park 5 shines light on the racial biases that continue to shape our justice system.

How do stories help us see ourselves within a narrative that’s bigger than our own?

In a recent piece for The Guardian, author Rebecca Solnit takes the longest view available. She puts today’s protests in perspective with movements from 200 years ago and the efforts that might shape our future. In “Every Protest Shifts the World’s Balance,” she shows how attempting to see a timeline of it all helps us escape a limited view of how change happens. We focus on stories of “violence and brute power” and miss:

“the great power of nonviolent uprisings and those other moments when individuals become a civil society on its feet… It also ignores how the most important battle is often in the collective imagination, and it is won in part by books, ideas, songs, speeches, even new words and frameworks for old evils. “

These extended and connected timelines create opportunities to engage our collective imagination, whatever the medium. A moment last week might help us see how this collective imagination works to weave individual stories together in powerful ways. In Chicago, the Pulitzer board awarded Aretha Franklin the Special Citation honor posthumously. Jennifer Hudson attended the ceremony to perform “Amazing Grace” in tribute to the late singer. This award makes Franklin the first woman to receive the award since it was established in 1930. The Pulitzer board cited “her indelible contribution to American music and culture for more than five decades.”

Student journalists from Marjory Stoneman Douglas also received awards that day, and Hudson spoke to them backstage. She shared her own experience of losing her mother, brother, and young nephew to gun violence. Hudson told the students, “the only way we can ever make a difference is for those who have not experienced it, to look from the perspective of those who have. And that’s when the change will happen, you know?”

Our stories represent this collective imagination and serve to show us how we can shape the future.

When you sit across the table from a friend this week, don’t just commiserate over the news. Use these Questions of Civic Proportions to start a conversation that includes one of your favorite stories.

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Politicolor is a civic-learning community that connects the civic-minded through the ideas that make self-government possible. We serve an engaged citizenry and promote civic curiosity.

Shellee O'Brien

Written by

Creature of community; Idea gatherer; Citizen-at-large approaching the work of an engaged citizenry like the future depends on it. Founder,


Politicolor is a civic-learning community that connects the civic-minded through the ideas that make self-government possible. We serve an engaged citizenry and promote civic curiosity.