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How to Tell Compelling Stories While Avoiding Savior Complex and Exploitation

Last month, the RVC fellows completed a training on Storytelling and Nonprofit Communication. The training was led by Nikkita Oliver, organizer, educator, lawyer, and poet. I was particularly interested in attending this training myself because of the challenges I face in attempting to share and communicate highlights and lessons learned from the Fellowship Program. Even now, as the second cohort of fellows are halfway into their first year, I am cautious of how we share the stories and complexities of each individual fellow as well as the cohort as a whole.

Nikkita began the training with a question:

How do we acknowledge our multiple identities, both the ones we claim and the ones that have been put onto us?

It was a powerful way to consider the identities we embrace and ones forced on us or the ways others see us impact our identities. The point of this activity was to understand how our identities intersect in relation to others and the world. For example, I wrote, I am the daughter of middle-class Ethiopian immigrants who moved to the United States and whose parents were regulated to working-class status. The experiences of my parents have deeply impacted my experience as a first generation person in the US. I don’t have first-hand experience of leaving behind everything I knew and moving to a new, unfamiliar land with hope and enough resilience to overcome the disdain they surely faced as Black immigrants. But I understand and have been impacted by those experiences. It’s one of the profound sources that dictates many of the choices I make, the paths I take, and what led me to commit my time, skills, and passions towards this work.

The Nonprofit Sector has a long history of exploiting the stories of the people they serve, particularly, people of color. This perpetuates racism and oppression, etc.  Known examples are the stories and images you see on TV of “the starving and dying and warring” children and peoples, particularly in Africa. The Nonprofit Sector continues to struggle with diversity amongst staff which contributes to non-People of Color telling the stories of People of Color.

The great African storyteller, Chinua Achebe, said, “People create stories create people; or rather stories create people create stories.” When we tell the stories of the people we serve we are creating people in the imagination of our audiences and contributing to their existing biases, narratives, opinions, and idea about the people in the story. We have to acknowledge this power. Words have power. Stories have power. They can be revelations for change or destruction. Achebe also said, “until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”

With that said, until there is a radical shift in social, political, and economic power locally and globally we must be cautious and tell stories that empower people and highlight the strengths, liberation, and self-determination of our communities.

Here are some guidelines and things to consider when writing or sharing the stories of the people we serve.

  • Think about how your own story (identity) or parts of your story show up in the story you are trying to share. What are the stories and identities you embrace and own? What are the stories and identities that are placed on you? What are those shared stories and experiences?
  • Is this the story that you, as the facilitator of the story, should be telling or can someone else? Are you connected, part of, or a member of this individual’s community? This, especially, is a critical question for white folks telling stories of people and communities of color, able-body people telling the stories of people with disabilities, cis-gender people speaking for and telling stories about trans folks, etc.  
  • Assess whether the person whose story you’re trying to share is prepared to share their story. If yes, ask for their consent to share. If no, are they open or want to share? If there is openness then how are you providing the technical and emotional support in allowing them to tell their own story?
  • Is their consent informed? Do they know how and where the story will be used? What content is includes?  Do they agree with the way you’re sharing how your services have impacted them? Are they able to approve changes and edits? If necessary, do you have written informed consent?
  • Ask yourself if you’re sharing their story with dignity, nuance, and with their humanity intact. Are you oversimplifying or over-sensationalizing their story? Are you prioritizing the voice of the person whose story and experience is being shared over that of the audience or the funders?
  • How can you tell the impact of your organization without exploiting the stories of the individual participants and perpetuating existing narratives about vulnerable or marginalized people and communities?
  • Are you fighting stereotypes and myths or contributing to it? Are you pathologizing them or have you provided sufficient socio-historical and political context?
  • Have you considered who this story helps by telling it?
  • By telling this story are you showing your organization as a savior?
  • Have a process for those that have told their story to have the agency to retract consent/permission. This means if you’ve used their story then they can take back their permission and consent to no longer share or highlight their story.
  • Lastly, considering putting your money behind your values and convictions and offer to compensate people for their stories. Even if they’re receiving services from your organization. The stories you’re telling are directly connected to financial benefits for organizations. It’s only right those same funds benefit them as well.

I encourage you to create your own guidelines that align with the mission and values of your organization and your personal identities. I would love to hear from you: what else can we do to facilitate or tell honest and nuanced human stories of the people we serve?


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7 Comments

  1. This article is fantastic. Thank you for putting into words a topic that has been on my mind! Ethical and respectful storytelling has to be prioritized over attaining donations. The dignity and worth of those being served must be the focus of our efforts.

  2. Thank you for writing this. As one of the few people of color that works in my non-profit, it can be difficult to explain the points you’ve made to my co-workers. My co-workers write grants and work hard to attain funding through story telling; however, these our not our stories. These stories belong the the people we serve and they are often not a part of the storytelling process. For anyone who has advice or experience talking to co-workers about this matter, I would appreciate your suggestions.

    1. Hi Rachel

      Thank you for your comment! Our organizations are often in difficult positions because, in order to get funding, we need to tell impact stories. I’m curious if you’ve been able to talk with the folks whose stories have been shared or will be shared to understand their thoughts and feelings on the matter? You may be able to make a case to your co-workers based on what the folks you serve have shared with you. Several folks have emailed me to tell me they’ve shared this post with their colleagues/team to initiate a conversation on this subject. I would encourage you to take the leap of faith to have a courageous conversation with your team. It’s hard, but worth it.

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