Tuesday Stories: What A Single Story Can Do (PART I)

Storytelling for Communities

Community Story

On Thursday I am participating in an open conference call for Orton Family Foundation’s Community Matters to discuss storytelling for community planning.  As I think about what might be useful to share with the participants, a recent story comes to mind of my time in Montana working with community foundations to find and tell great stories.   I’m sharing here the final part of that story–the follow-up to the workshop.  The rest I’ll post after the call–I do hope you’ll join us!

When I tell people that I help communities to use storytelling to build civic engagement, to strengthen connections across the community and to the world, to plan for the future, and to understand and articulate the assets, capacity, opportunities and challenges within the community, they tend to imagine that I must stand on a stage and tell stories.  It’s a natural reaction: the first image often associated with storytelling=storyteller with an audience.  Such an association is deeply engrained in us, so  I spend time painting a new picture of storytelling–collaborative, community storytelling for change.  And then the response is sometimes that it sounds fun–probably good to use with youth–but isn’t it too touchy-feely, too soft, too much in the realm of feeling to be of much use really in the tough, serious arena of solving problems and planning for the future?  Where’s the quantitative data?  The charts?  The step-by-step action plans?  Oh, we use them, too. But storytelling–pure personal narrative– has its own powerful role to play.

Indeed, at a recent workshop I gave during a statewide community foundation’s annual retreat, I’m sure many of the 75 or so in attendance had their doubts about spending all that time talking about stories and storytelling.  Storytelling is one of those approaches that you have to try out to understand and to appreciate.  But once you do?  Well, here’s what one participant in that workshop wrote recently in an email:

#2 PlaceI 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.

Yup.  That’s what a story can do: inform minds, move hearts, initiate action.  Nothing soft about that.