Storytelling & Community Planning: What Even a Single Story Can Do

It was an honor to participate in yesterday’s  Community Matters conference call on Storytelling for Community Planning  to share  some of the reasons why we should weave storytelling into community practices and how.  I particularly appreciated hearing from Betsy Rosenbluth, Orton Family Foundation’s Director of Projects on methods  and approaches her team uses in Heart & Soul planning and from the participants who asked important questions and shared their inspiring storytelling and community work.  I just wish we could have heard from everyone and had time to delve into each topic in more depth!

One important question that surfaced had to do with helping people tell stories they are afraid to share–how to make sure everyone feels safe participating in a story project.  We discussed ways to ensure the ethical, respectful, empathic embrace of storytellers, but in that short time could do little more than touch upon some main points to keep in mind.  A truly excellent resource for anyone working in trauma stories is the Center for Digital Storytelling’s Silence Speaks.  Also check out Thaler Pekar’s posts for PhilanTopic.


Past & Present Stories to Serve the Future

Another question focused on refugee stories–where to find resources and training.  A couple of places to start are displacements and Finding Voice and Patient Voices; also, the UN Refugee Agencyhas some powerful digital stories by refugees.

I was pleased, too, that Phil Stafford of Elderburbia blog brought up the risk of story sharing sinking into nostalgia for an unrecoverable past.  We discussed the line between learning from the past and privileging it–we need the past stories, but if we’re working on change projects, we need to nest them –and make sure we gather varied perspectives on that past–within the larger portrait of the now as we work toward the future story.

It is clear from the enthusiastic response  that storytelling is moving out of the corners and into the center of the community empowerment room.  People are eager for training, resources, examples and a community of practice.  Here’s to Community Matters for helping to make that happen!  I’m hoping folks will stay in touch.  The podcast will be released soon, so look for it on the Community Matters site.

Here is the story I shared at the beginning of the call:

By way of introduction I want to share a story with you.

Heading HomeOn a plane to Montana where I was to teach a workshop on storytelling for community foundations this past October, I was seated next to a college student, Shelby. In that little exchange as we buckled our seat belts, I learned she was from Montana and going home for vacation from study abroad.  What luck–here I was heading to a place I did not know well, and right next to me was a local expert.  And so instead of burying myself in my book on Montana, I turned to her (visions of Paris, Bombay and Beijing dancing in my head) and asked, “Study abroad?  Where?”

“North Carolina,” she said.

When I shared that anecdote the next day with the 75 people gathered for the workshop–many looking mighty skeptical about the connection between storytelling and community foundation work–they roared, smiled  and murmured, indeed that would be abroad.

It was a moment of cultural bonding, of sharing a common context—of belonging—they recognized Shelby; they recognized themselves. They connected through her story.

And they began to connect with me, a newcomer.  All in that moment.

Sharing a story—authentically and respectfully—draws listeners close to us and allows trust’s tendrils to grow between us. And to plan together for our communities, we have to listen to each other; we have to trust each other.

But the story didn’t end there.  I asked Shelby if she was looking forward to going back to Montana.

She lit up and said, “Oh yes!  I love my home town.”

“What do you love about it?” I asked.

“Oh, our ranch—it’s beautiful.  And the people—everyone is so close.  And the town—we have a movie theater that sells hot pizza!”

Shelby's ranch

I asked if she would share a story to illustrate what the place meant to her.  She thought for a moment and then over the next few minutes told the story of  early spring calf branding on the area ranches.  She painted a verbal picture of people cooking,  herding,  branding, and the strapping high school lads wrestling the calves.  Ranch people or not, everyone showed up. They worked and ate together, laughed and swapped news.

Through that one story Shelby taught me many things—holistically and memorably–about life in her town: her community’s values and her own perspective, potential divides and tensions, as well as assets and capacity that might go unnoticed as such.  She was a bundle of local knowledge.  And teaching me through story made the details STICK.  I will never forget the images of those boys let off from school to wrestle calves or of women cooking together in ranch kitchens.

In asking each other for specific stories of what works and how in our communities, what challenges and what helps us, we build the foundation for working together on tough issues. We are heard. All our points of view, our knowledge, our experience matter.  As we share local expertise and information—we build community intelligence and trust and energy and vision.

But that’s not the end of Shelby’s story—a shadow crossed her face as she added: “But it’s changing so fast.  Even in the time  I’ve been in college, things have changed.  The boys no longer want to help out.  Kids aren’t connected to this place—they’re heading to the cities and even out of state. They’re leaving.” She shook her head.

“Do you want to return home after college?” I asked.

“Oh yes, but I won’t be able to—I’m training to be a schoolteacher, but I’ll have to go to a bigger place.  No jobs in my town.”

“What would change things, make the future brighter in your town?”

Community Story Dance“Wow, no one has ever asked me that. Well, we need more job opportunities, sure,” she said. “But we also need to feel that our town is special, as special as anywhere else. Instead of everyone on phones and computers, we could do things together and talk about what we want to save.  Like our movie theater or our ranching life.”

Shelby’s story contained seeds of important information for future planning. She dared imagine a different future and even in that plane ride was plotting possibilities.

But no one in her own community had ever asked for her story.

Imagine what might happen in that community if the youth gathered with their elders to share and collect and discuss stories about what they celebrate about the community– past and present– and what they envision and need for the future? What if change projects started in story?

It’s pretty simple.

waiting for folksTo engage people and build relationships and gather local knowledge, her community can conduct one-on-one STORY INTERVIEWS of each other such as I conducted on a plane—formally in story booths or via community radio or through email or on video, or informally around town—the post office, the movie theater, the barber shop, in homes. And then share those stories. People in her town  can hold STORY CIRCLES around a kitchen table or at large community events about discovering and articulating community values and vision. Simpler yet, the town can weave storytelling into existing community events or hold monthly story cafés that move from neighborhood to neighborhood centered on topics folks have proposed.

The stories can be collected and honored through publication (in a book, online, on the air, in a video screening or a theater production)—they can then serve as the catalyst for dialogue and discussion and planning.  Her community can study the stories for the information they contain—assets and values, resources and perspectives, possibilities and challenges.  And they can be embedded in the townscape through murals or kiosks or mobile-phone tours.

The storytelling and resulting stories become an effective way to bring people together across generations and traditional divides  to puzzle out and create the future.

Stories connect us to one another.

Stories reveal deep truths and essential information.

Stories stick.

The great news is that we are all storytellers—we’re all Shelby– and so with some good project planning, storytelling efforts can be quite easy, quite natural to launch in any community with powerful, enduring effects.

And that workshop group? Well, here’s one skeptical participant’s story:

I must admit that when I saw the chunk of time for “storytelling” on the agenda, I thought the time could be spent in a better fashion.

But I was wrong.  I learned so much and thoroughly enjoyed experiencing the power of storytelling.  And now, [our] Community Foundation has a success story as a direct result.

Last week, I received a last minute call from a lawyer supportive of the CF to be at a Old Timers and Pensioner’s meeting  because the group was disbanding and wanted some place to spend their $35,000. 

I was faced with a group of retired miners who didn’t understand that as a 501c3 they could not divide the money amongst themselves.  After the legal issue was resolved, the discussion began as to where the money should go….some wanted to send it to a charity out of town. 

So…I told them a story.  I told them about my Dad working on the hill for years, how he loved this community and wanted to give something back; how he would have enjoyed being in their boots and have the opportunity to give.   I also brought up the C heiress and wouldn’t it have been wonderful if Mr. C would have started a foundation [here] years ago?

Anyway…the story telling worked its magic and the entire amount was given to the CF.

I treasure what was learned as a result of the foundation Retreat and wanted you to know how valuable your work has proven to be.

There you have it: the power of even a single story.


  1. Thanks so much to Barbara for joining the call and for such an eloquent explanation of why and how to bring storytelling into communities! CommunityMatters has just posted a follow-up blog with the Podcast of the recording, so we hope others will come listen in.


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