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.

Community & Network Mapping


“First, we see what we have — individually, as neighbors and in this place
of ours. Second, we know that the power of what we have grows from creating new
connections and relationships among and between what we have.
Third, we know that these connections happen when we individually or
collectively act to make the connections — they don’t just happen by themselves.”
~John McKnight “Community Capacities and Community Necessities”

“Community building strategies should respond to important features of the local context, not just generic principles about being inclusive or building productive relationships… Because meaningful change requires leverage that “multiplies” the force of your strategy, a savvy scan of the local context is vital as an input. Relationships are time consuming to build and sustain, some are more important than others for accomplishing particular objectives, and strategies grounded in a realistic assessment of organized interests and patterns of influence are more likely to pay off. Beyond generic trend spotting, a variety of tools for mapping the local civic structure are available—but not yet widely or systematically used to build better civic strategies in community development.”
~ Xavier de Souza Briggs “Networks, Power, and a Dual Agenda: New Lessons and Strategies for Old Community Building Dilemmas”

“Maps are more than pieces of paper. They are the stories, conversations, lives and songs lived out in a place and are inseparable from the political and cultural contexts in which they are used”
~ Warren, 2004 qtd. in

leaf map


Last week I wrote about the need for deep listening in community-building work and how storytelling-as-process is all about listening.  In this post I explore another critical lesson: the more we do in our communities to understand who we are and how we connect with one another, the more effective our actions to build capacity, foster participation, and affect change from within. Common sense, yes? But in our excitement to bring about positive, urgently needed change, we often leap into dialogue or action and overlook the crucial ongoing foundational work that is, after all, also action. And then things can stall.  Or break down. Or leave some folks behind or out.  Or we burn out. Or we waste community potential and squander promise.

For storytelling projects to build lasting trust, to reveal community values and to help move it to action, we need to understand as much about our community as possible. For community building to be truly inclusive, truly participatory, we work together to identify the inhabitants/members/constituents, not merely by name and address, but also by affiliation and connection to others through  formal and informal groups and associations, neighborhoods and workplace.  We take another step by getting to know our connections through identity as revealed by expertise, experience and  interest.  We explore where people gather, why and when.  We discover such things as who loves to fish.  Who collects mementos of the region.  Who grew up here, left and then returned.  Who gathers at the local barber shop. Who likes to take photos. Knits. Cares about the old stone buildings in town. Caretakes the wisdom from past generations. We come to understand the vital links, both strong and weak, that tie us to one another and to this place.  And in so doing, we make it possible to work together to build a strong, healthy future for our community.

And so to do storytelling well in community-change work, we do more than share our stories, more than capture and archive them. A crucial piece of the storytelling-for-change puzzle doesn’t, at first glance, have anything to do with storytelling.  It has to do, rather, with visuals more than words, with drawing and arranging and then naming.  It has to do with maps and mapping. Map Stories of Philadelphia

The participatory community mapping movement grasps the power of community members making their own maps of place and space.  We’re naturally eager to place our stories within the context of geography: and digital tools make it easy to embed our stories into maps of place and maps into our stories (such as in Cleveland Historical-one of many examples of historical narrative & mapping using tours and mobile apps– Biddeford Maine’s Heartspots or MapSkip or the Center for Digital Storytelling’s Placemeant Project in Ukiah, California)–examples of stories incorporated into digital maps abound).  Or we can sit together and make maps with pen and paper, as Crayon your Community does. Indeed, I use geographic maps in many of my storytelling exercises– participants draw maps, or locate story hotspots on maps, or create future-vision maps.

Map of Online Communities

D’Arcy Norman’s Map of His Online Communties

But there’s another sort of mapping essential to community-building. With sticky notes on walls, and with computers, we map relationships, identities, networks, capacity, assets, third places and sacred spaces: what people care about in the community and how they interact in it and with each other.  We use simple maps community members draw and assemble by hand–of the ways they use local resources, say, and their  connections–both formal and informal–within the community and to resources beyond the community.  We use digital mapping and social network analysis tools to help uncover patterns, connections, dislocations, opportunities and challenges we had not noticed or clearly understood.

This sort of mapping is being used to study almost every aspect of the world. What’s fairly unusual is participatory mapping of these relationships– mapping our community connections together as part of the participatory change process.

Group Community Connections Mapping Exercise

The group process of relationship mapping helps us to build trust and a shared understanding of one another–sitting next to one another, comparing maps or our perception and experience of those maps and what they represent and reveal– can shake us from our ruts of thinking.  Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, in his new book, Thinking, Fast & Slow (Slate has a fine review) reminds us of the near impossibility of escaping our own biases by ourselves: “It’s easier to recognize other people’s mistakes than our own.”  We fall victim to “our excessive confidence in what we believe we know, and our apparent inability to acknowledge the full extent of our ignorance and the uncertainly of the world we live in.”  We rely far too much on first impressions and “place too much faith in [our] intuitions,” Kahneman writes.   With these human tendencies in mind, we can embark on collaborative processes across a community that reveal a variety of viewpoints, experiences, and perceptions, and yes, biases. Weaving mapping into the connective tissue of storytelling, dialogue and art-centered approaches grounds the conversation, the vision, the planning in the complex reality of what actually exists in our community and who we are.

Mapping does even more–

Mapping builds enthusiasm for a project  as it provides almost immediately a powerful view of a community.  Early project mapping and analysis reveal gaps in a community’s knowledge of the pressing issues or of an organizing committee’s understanding of the full community as well as groups and individuals underrepresented in the project formation.

Mapping saves time by locating stories, storytellers and story catchers, and story-sharing opportunities. By identifying and synthesizing the interests and allegiances within the community, mapping points to story themes located in place or micro-community or issue. Mapping informal groups by interest, such as knitters or gardeners or hunters, can bring people into the project who might not otherwise participate.

Mapping provides a nuanced, deep view into a community by revealing interactions within and between formal and informal groups, associations and institutions.  It locates leaders, both those known and those unrecognized, and the people who connect groups, who have a long reach into the community.  Anthropologist Karen Stephenson defines the roles of crucial people identified through network mapping:

Hubs are the people who know the most people. They facilitate expansion of the network, trading (for example, the exchange of favors), and the rapid dissemination of information. Gatekeepers occupy a critical path. They are often the only bridge between an important part of the network and everyone else. They make a network stronger, in part by helping people focus and move things along. Pulse-takers are called on by other significant connectors, often for their judgment or insight, and they help the group maintain its integrity and perspective. They are invaluable in times of turmoil.”

Simple relationship map shows where connections could be woven

The Pathways through Participation report from identifies five crucial community roles revealed by mapping:  Leaders, Catalysts, Initiators, Consolidators, Helpers, Organizers as well as the role of gathering spaces:

“The maps themselves and what the participants said about the maps proved to be particularly rich, complementing significantly the information gathered during the area profiling stage. The sites of participation identified helped the researchers to find some key places and spaces where participation happens locally, which helped them target certain sites and organizations to recruit interviewees.”

Maps can reveal gaps between groups and individuals that can be addressed as pointed out by Network Weaving.

The maps, if updated  and analyzed continuously and in relation to one another, continue to highlight the reach of the project, the authentic engagement of the full community’s participation, as we build an effective evolving portrait of the project as it proceeds.

So why not dispense with storytelling altogether and just do extensive mapping and network analysis?  We need maps, yes, but alone they provide an incomplete picture, for as Herman Melville wrote, “It is not down in any map; true places never are.” Stories fill in the gaps, provide the detailed images, the narrative, the full, nuanced picture. Storytelling can do its magic when it stands on the foundation of  deep knowledge of the many ways a community is itself.  Together, mapping and storytelling can weave a complex but clear picture of a community while forging new connections and building trust.

Community Map in Davis, California

Useful Resources in Participatory Community Mapping

UMap: ” a clearinghouse of information on how to conduct community mapping with and for children and youth growing up in urban areas to promote social action and neighborhood change. Maps tell stories about places and people’s connections to those places. uMAP is a unique civic engagement model that allows communities to use maps to share what they know about where they live. uMAP brings youth and adults together in partnership to give voice to youth perceptions and improve the quality of life for all citizens.”

Ushahidi: ” We are a non-profit tech company that develops free and open source software for information collection, visualization and interactive mapping. “

Global Giving:  Stories plus maps (Using Ushahidi)

Natural Borders: James Kent Associates use human geographic mapping in their Discovery Process.

M.I.T.’s Timenesia : “Many communities suffer from “timenesia”: a lack of awareness-of and interest-in their own past, present and future. They don’t showcase their rich past, aren’t aware of their neighbors different takes on their present, nor their hopes for their shared future.’s goal is to overcome this problem by enabling communities to awareness, engagement and excitement via hyper-local guided tours featuring residents’ voices, pictures, and text about the past, present and future. ”

More and more studies examine the impact of network mapping and social network analysis on communities and networks.  Here’s an example:   LLC Social Network Analysis Project Final Report Microsoft Word file

“LLC, through its Community Seed Fund, recently supported four members of the Community (Bruce Hoppe, Meredith Emmett, Dianne Russell, and Odin Zackman) to test the usefulness of this methodology in different network contexts. The team produced a very informative summary about the outcomes of this project. One of the more interesting findings was that network maps can be a valuable tool for generating group reflection about itself. The study raised the question about which networks would find this a valuable tool and which might not. There is some indication that those networks that have a clear purpose, are more bounded and formalized, and that have outside funding, may be more motivated and interested in using network maps to deepen t understanding of themselves as a network. Another interesting lesson learned is that the interpretation of network maps is full of complexities. There is no single interpretation of what the maps mean. This means that the maps can lead to many interesting conversations. The summary does a nice job of specifying and evaluating the outcomes of the three projects that were part of the study. It provides valuable guidance to others who may consider undertaking an SNA of their leadership networks. In addition, the report analyzes the three networks along 11 dimensions. These will be helpful to you if you are looking to better understand the networks you are part of regardless of whether you use SNA or not. While our understanding of networks is still very much evolving, SNA is a promising tool to help us “see” leadership networks.”

Media Engage’s Mapping Tools:” Mapping is a great way to identify local assets, networks and opportunities in your community. Using data and some free tools available on the internet, you can create a visual display of key community organizations, partners, and even related issues. For a taste of what mapping can do, check out our new tools created for The Takeaway radio stations.”

NetMap: “an interview-based mapping tool that helps people understand, visualize, discuss, and improve situations in which many different actors influence outcomes . By creating Influence Network Maps, individuals and groups can clarify their own view of a situation, foster discussion, and develop a strategic approach to their networking activities. More specifically, Net-Map helps players to determine what actors are involved in a given network, how they are linked, how influential they are, and what their goals are.”

Beth Kanter’s Description of Network Mapping for Nonprofits

Good Practices in Participatory Community Mapping (.pfd)  Geographic mapping


Overview of Rural Participatory Appraisal–List of Tools, including network analysis and mapping tools

Mailana’s network mapping tool tool is super easy if you have excel or Google spreadsheets.

Many Eyes  has an easy-to-use network mapping tool  Easy, free  Mind-mapping tool that can be used for simple network maps.

Gliffy for drawing simple network maps

Tutorial on geographic mapping of assets using Google Earth:

Mapping Examples


Video of a Project in Venezuela to have the community members map their ancestral lands

Mapping As Political Practice for Argentinian Youth

Photographer Erik Fischer Uses Geotags to create Maps that Reveal Sites on Interest in Cities

HistoryPin: “Historypin local projects aim to start something that local people and partners continue for many years to come, building the record of local history on and bringng people together to enjoy it.”

PhilaPlace: “Explore the City of Neighborhoods through maps, stories, photographs, and documents, and share the story of your PhilaPlace.”

Mapping Memories: Experiences of Refugee Youth in Montreal

It is more difficult to find good examples of participatory community network mapping outside of academic papers as often the information is sensitive.  Here are a couple:

Asset Mapping through a Participatory Rural Appraisal: “The DCS (Design for Community) Lab at Srishti, put together a team of designers from different fields, to work with a community of potters in the south of India in order to help the indigenous artisans learn how to plan their production and business needs more efficiently.”

Nancy White’s  Network Mapping Exercise

A simple, introductory mapping exercise I have done with community groups, and Orton Family Foundation’s Community Network Analysis chapter (.pdf)