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Justice Means Changing the Stories We Tell Ourselves

An Interview with our Vice President of Brand & Storytelling

Authors: Allison Jones, Vice President of Brand and Storytelling

Common Future’s work is centered on justice. But to get there we all need roadmaps and some of the ones we currently use aren’t very good. That’s where storytelling comes in. Narratives about how to create a world we haven’t seen yet are powerful tools for the work of justice. We spoke to Allison Jones, our Vice President of Brand & Storytelling, about how she approaches this essential and very complex task.

Let’s just start with the very broad question of the role of storytelling for justice in your work.

Allison: So I think storytelling has a couple meanings in my work. The first is basic, the use of narrative as a communications vehicle. People connect with stories more than they do with a list of data. Often the best way to package the things we want people to know and understand is narrative. But then there’s the other parts of storytelling, the stories people tell themselves about the state of the world — why things are the way they are — and then the stories that people tell themselves about what has been and what is possible.

For folks who get involved in justice work, you have to start asking, is this really the only way to do things? How do I learn more about my own history or other communities who’ve been involved in this work? The role of storytelling becomes less about being a vehicle for messages and more about reshaping how people are seeing the world and their role in it. So you get to the stories of your community, your people — how communities keep their legacies, but also how you understand your own history. It’s really about understanding and connection at the end of it.

So getting into a little bit more detail, what are some of the narratives around justice that you have run into in your work that you think need to be reevaluated? How is Common Future doing that?

Allison: With stories around justice, the narrative tends to come down to who’s responsible. And then from who’s responsible, what can actually be done to address the issue. So if the story is that poverty is a result of bad choices, people not trying hard enough, then the solution is for people to do better, or to provide them with more access. What’s interesting about those two stories is that even though one says it’s your responsibility, and the other says society needs to give folks more opportunities, it’s still very focused on the individual.

I want the storytelling to go deeper. Why don’t people have opportunities in the first place? If we address that, maybe we get to a better sense of what it actually means to provide opportunities, not just to them, but with them. That’s the side that we’ve come down on at Common Future.

What does it look like to shift the narrative away from the individualism you described?

Allison: It’s about looking at how that individual got there in the first place, and then what does it look like for every institution around that person to make a different set of choices, so that that person can actually make a different set of choices? It’s asking folks to expand who is an actor in the story, that it’s not just one person making a decision but a chain reaction of many institutions.

That being said, the challenge all social justice organizations face is that with this approach, it’s very easy for a story to become overwhelming. The benefit of the individual story is that you can see where you can plug in with a donation or writing a letter. If it’s about structural injustice, it gets complicated. Even I sometimes get stuck on how to take this very complex story of structural actors and still empower folks to feel like they can have a say or actually make a difference in it.

You’re describing a category of narrative — individual versus structural responsibility. Are there any specific stories or narratives that Common Future is trying to change?

Allison: I think our character-based lending pilot is a good example. Many people argue that our economy is broken, and that’s why so many people are excluded. But we think the economy is working just as intended. The overwhelming majority of funding goes to white folks, and decision making around finances is done by white folks. So to change that we need to develop new models that show what’s possible when people of color have not only access to funding, but decision making around that funding.

It’s not “We’re going to give you the check and tell you what to do.” It’s “You determine where it goes and how it’s used.” It’s showing people an example of how we could get to a more inclusive society where everyone has access and control over resources. We’re shifting the story by creating a new one through our work. Not just writing it or telling it, but actually putting it together ourselves.

You were talking earlier about the challenge of activating people around the narrative of complex structural issues. What other pitfalls or challenges do justice-oriented organizations run into around storytelling, and how do you navigate those at Common Future?

Allison: A part of it is who’s telling the story. I’m the VP of Brand and Storytelling, which involves formal storytelling and messaging. But as an organization we’re always asking, how are we making sure that our messages are actually reflective of the people we’re supporting? How do we make sure that they tell the stories themselves, whether it’s in the form of writing or interviews? What we don’t want to do is limit the ability of folks who are on the ground, doing the work every day, to access their own stories and their own vehicles to tell them. We don’t want to feel like we are speaking for them or act as a barrier to them telling stories.

We want to leverage our platform so that these folks can tell their stories, whether it be interviewing them and making sure their stories are front and center, or passing along a media opportunity that’s better for a network leader. It’s about being intentional in uplifting people on our platform and directing outside people to them.

Who has influenced your thoughts on storytelling?

Allison: One that comes to mind is Unapologetic by Charlene Carruthers. There’s a chapter in it about reimagining our history and our legacy that’s entirely about storytelling. I left that chapter feeling that storytelling is about sharing the fullness of our communities while offering critiques and deeper understanding of how the world works. If you aren’t familiar with the people who’ve come before you, or organizations that exist alongside of you, then you seek out that knowledge. It’s not just a checklist of how to have a good comms strategy. It’s about how we’re grounding our storytelling in each other and history. That’s powerful.

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