Racial equity work calls us to imagine new possibilities and different realities from our own because what we need and require does not yet exist – we need to create it, together. It calls us to disrupt mainstream narratives and present more dynamic and vibrant stories of the Black and brown communities we aim to serve. Therefore, storytelling should be crucial to any racial justice organization’s mission.

Over the past several years we’ve been able to shift our strategies to create more space for the equity, reimagination, creativity and agency required to shape and share dynamic stories that disrupt the false narratives of white/dominant culture and present a shared vision for what a “new normal” can be. Below are some lessons we’ve learned about what it takes to do so in a way that honors the people we aim to serve and the values our work is grounded in.

Storytelling for reimagination

We’ve been fortunate enough to use storytelling as a tool for reimagining at Living Cities. An example of a story that we’ve been able to share that encourages us, as Living Cities staff, but also our audience to reimagine an America with closed income and wealth gaps, is A Day In a Life: Imagining a Country without Racial Gaps Infographic. In the infographic, readers are invited to follow Sasha and her family through their day while interacting with “historical truths” that highlight why her story isn’t yet our lived normal. When I was creating the infographic, I went through several iterations of the storyline. Initially the story fell very flat– I had trouble pushing myself to imagine what the most fruitful life for Sasha could even look like. Collaboration with colleagues and asking for input from diverse staff at the organization helped identify how I could create a life for Sasha that was thriving, equitable and safe. For example, I initially pictured Sasha as an employee at a tech firm because there is an underrepresentation of Black women in the STEM field. A brainstorming session with a colleague called me to consider: Why not give Sasha a position in leadership? Suddenly, my blindspots were showing. It was difficult to imagine prosperity that is not often showcased or given attention. The single story and image of C-Suite professionals is usually that of white men. How many Chief Technology Officers (CTO) in our country are Black women? [A quick Google search can prove that there aren’t enough.] I decided to intentionally give Sasha the CTO position in the storyline because in a world without racial income and wealth gaps, Black women would have enough equal opportunity that there may be more representation of Black women in the STEM field.

Addressing blindspots in our narratives and storytelling

It’s our responsibility as storytellers to address those blindspots and make sure that as we evolve in our work and storytelling– we are checking for those blindspots at every turn and pushing ourselves more, each time to reimagine and think bigger because the solutions we need do yet exist and won’t unless we create them. And those solutions have the power to be brought to life through the visions and stories we put forth.

Since then, I’ve been working to be intentional about all of the content I produce and publish– asking questions like:

  1. Are the images and metaphors we’re using representative of diverse populations we serve?
  2. What narratives are we trying to address in our work?
  3. Is our content leading with our shared values? And are we bridging those values specifically to race?
  4. Does our content explicitly link to systemic obstacles and ultimately racial economic justice?

Using your agency to put forth dynamic stories.

For people of color especially, it can sometimes feel like a risk to present a story that disrupts the norm or even presents a different version of what normal could be. In my experience, I was very nervous putting out an infographic that is based upon a Black same-sex couple. Not because I thought it was wrong or too different, but because our dominant culture does not embrace those differences. However, I came to the realization that those differences will never be embraced as long as we continue to present a narrative that is more palatable and in line with that dominant culture. Take the risk and use the bounds of your role to challenge our dominant cultural narratives that are one-dimensional. Do not silence yourself. At the same time, employers should also be aware that it is necessary to give creators and storytellers on your staff the creative space to put these practices into action in a way that feels safe.

Storytelling has the power to shape the narratives we hold true; if this tool is used irresponsibly – it can exclude narratives and create single, one-dimensional stories about groups of people which may actually be harmful. Furthermore, as storytellers if we don’t feel we have the agency to put forth these powerful stories that disrupt the problematic narratives that permeate our dominant culture, we can be doing a disservice to ourselves, the audience we aim to move and the communities we aim to serve. Storytelling at the intersection of racial equity has the power to shift our narratives if we allow ourselves to be courageous enough to disrupt the status quo.

In the next blog on our internal learning, storytelling and results work, we’ll be offering tactics for being more vocal in storytelling.

Banner Graphic: Change Now! by Pete Railand