“Story is the sweet nectar of language. Story is the crystallizing of thought, turning it into something digestible, sweet on the heart, even when the details are hard to bear. Story is the way we dribble sweetness over the often harsh realities of life’s everyday grind…rolling what happens on the tongue until we discover the nugget of meaning, humor, heartbreak, and insight.” —Christina Baldwin
Last week provided a whopping reminder that we truly never know what tomorrow brings.
On Tuesday, I was lucky to be able to take the day off to celebrate my forty-seventh birthday. I set my out-of-office alert, slept in, enjoyed a leisurely brunch on the beach with family, and remained (mostly) unplugged and unscheduled all day. It was blissful.
The next day, I found myself standing alone at the back of an open ambulance door waiting for an EMT to let me know which hospital they would be taking my loved one to. It was surreal and stupefying.
While all is now well, it was an unnerving and lonely three-day ordeal.
That loneliness stemmed, in part, from keeping what was going on private. Virtually no one knew. Why? Because I felt deeply that what was happening to my loved one wasn’t my story to tell.
So why am I sharing this now?
Some of the most important work happening in our communities goes unnoticed or uncelebrated because it isn’t shared or talked about. Many times this is because there simply isn’t anyone on the team with the time and training to collect and tell these stories. The focus is on the work itself. More often, however, these stories are withheld out of a fear by nonprofits to get the story right and uphold their responsibility to honor the dignity and privacy of those benefitting from care, services, and support.
They aren’t our stories to tell. Or are they?
The unfortunate reality is that some of these stories are told, but they are shared in exploitative and manipulative ways. These approaches to nonprofit storytelling have become known as “poverty porn” and “survivor porn”.
Despite a growing awareness of this problematic framing, these approaches persist in widespread fashion.
So how can these stories be told responsibly and equitably? By re-framing them from disempowering, dehumanizing, and donor-centric tales to inclusive, strengths-based, and community-centered accounts. Or more simply: shift the question answered by your story from, “what’s wrong here to what’s right here?”
If you’re interested to explore this issue further, I’ve included a few links to articles by other bloggers and journalists below:
- The opposite of poverty porn: erasing clients from storytelling
- Avoiding Poverty Porn While Still Pulling Heartstrings
- Covering poverty: What to avoid and how to get it right
…and you can find many more articles and resources via a quick internet search.
Do you have a story you’re struggling to tell? Have you seen examples of poverty porn that made you cringe? Is there a successful asset-framed story that comes to mind? I’d love to hear any and all examples you may have to share.
In the meantime, don’t discount the power (and need) to share your story. To quote the late Barry Lopez, “Everything is held together with stories. That is all that is holding us together, stories and compassion.”