Can Stories Really Create Impact?

We live in a time when creative and transformative stories are more urgent than ever.

The US government is again threatening to shutter the National Endowment for the Arts, The National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. This is not just the elimination of federal programs – this is the public silencing of independent American and global voices. Even if these programs somehow get a reprieve, the policies of this administration are reminders that freedom of expression, religious freedom, journalistic freedom and human rights are under attack.

Wendy Levy, The Alliance for Media Arts and Culture
thealliance.media

Wendy’s creative work takes place at the intersection of storytelling, innovation, and social justice. As the Executive Director of The Alliance for Media Arts + Culture, she is focused on facilitating collaboration, innovation, strategic growth and social impact for the global media arts field. Previously, Wendy was a Senior Consultant at Sundance, helping develop the New Frontier Story Lab and the Sundance/Skoll Stories of Change Program. Wendy directed the MacArthur Foundation-funded Producers Institute for New Media Technologies, which was the first public media Innovation Lab in the US. She began her career in film as the Festival Director for the Film Arts Festival for Independent Cinema at Film Arts Foundation and as a Board member of the San Francisco Cinematheque. Her first short film premiered at Sundance in 1997. Wendy is the recipient of the Princess Grace Statue Award for distinguished contribution to the media arts field.

Artists and producers take personal, political and economic risks when they shine a light on untold stories. They step forward with their unique conviction and point-of-view to uncover secrets, open our imagination, honor the lived experience of others, and expose truth. This can be dangerous – artists and journalists are being bullied, attacked, detained, and arrested here and around the world. The risks can be mitigated through vibrant collaborations and partnerships with community organizations – working together to tell stories with their communities, not for them – and insuring that the process is protected, just and inclusive.

Most artists in American culture have to fight and scrape together a decent living however they can find it; I was a waitress for over 25 years to support my creative work. As filmmakers, it is a privilege to be able to tell stories. Even though we might not come from the communities with whom we work, there is often a deep and indelible connection that emerges from years of collaboration. The filmmakers I know are committed to leaving the places where they work better than when they got there. So it’s ironic to me that so many global development projects ignore the very real contributions of artists when funding is distributed because a vibrant creative community is often a leading indicator of civic participation, engagement, resilience and abundance. Imagine the impact if artists were funded to work together with peers across sectors – scientists, engineers, city planners, technologists, humanities scholars, architects – to solve social problems. Check out how Mexico City does this in Laboratorio para la Ciudad.

So, what can you do to deepen your social impact with storytelling? Here are my top five suggestions for creating the conditions in your organization where storytelling is an integral part of your impact model. Remember that while it is tough to prove that the telling of any single story leads to a particular change (attribution) there is an abundance of evidence that a culture of storytelling creates the conditions where change happens (contribution). Culture shifts policy. Stories shift culture.

These ideas have emerged over time from my work with The Alliance for Media Arts + Culture, The Sundance/Skoll Stories of Change Program and the Magnum Foundation’s Photograph, Expanded initiative. I thank all the really smart producers, visionary community leaders and inspired artists with whom I’ve been lucky enough to collaborate. We honed these ideas together:

  1. LIFT UP STORIES THAT COME FROM EXPERIENCE: The most powerful stories are told by the people who live them. Enable your skilled program staff to elicit stories on multiple platforms (audio, video, photography, text, code) from the community as part of their job, and provide creative and technical support to enable the sharing and distribution of those stories. This may take some internal capacity building; The Alliance for Media Arts + Culture has a vibrant Consulting Producers Network and can help you find the right experts, creatives and labs to support your efforts. Email me at wendy@thealliance.media if you’d like to work with us.

  2. THINK STRATEGICALLY ABOUT STORIES: Take the time to think strategically about the stories you tell: Why this story? Why now? Who is the best person to tell this story? What is the best way to tell and share this story that would reach and inspire your intended audiences? Is there an ask at the end? Is it too heavy-handed, or does it fulfill a real need to participate? Hatchforgood.org can help guide you through this process.

  3. KEEP TRACK OF YOUR STORYTELLING: Stories are cultural data. Research the digital and analog options for collecting data on the distribution and impact of your stories, and then do it. You can gain untold insight from the analytics of how your stories spread in the world and across the internet, and by surveying your audience, you can connect to and leverage them in the future. Ask them how your story made them feel, and if they were inspired to change their behavior. Listen to what they say.

  4. EMBRACE INNOVATION AND OPENNESS: Technology is changing fast and it’s exhausting to chase it. So don’t. Instead, devise partnerships with creative technologists and artists who are building and testing new tools and platforms; make sure the stories you want to share provide meaningful content for the emerging platforms that are relevant for your communities. Also, be open to how your stories come to life in the world – we often call this being platform-agnostic. Identify the most powerful and urgent stories, and THEN figure out the best way to tell those stories in collaboration with staff, experts and your community.

  5. ALIGN YOUR STORYTELLING PRACTICE WITH YOUR SOCIAL PRACTICE: If you are committed to social justice, you value inclusion, equity, diversity and equal opportunity for all. Creative impacts can only be meaningful and lasting if the process of storytelling and art-making also reflect these values. Hold your community to account on questions that help you manifest a just and authentic process. Are only white folks running the project? Are women in positions of creative leadership? Who is accountable for the final project? Is the production hierarchical, or is a truly collaborative process embedded in the workflow? Are youth voices engaged in a meaningful way? Whose stories are being told, and by whom? Asking some of these questions and listening to the answers will help you build a resilient and beloved community. Stories live here. Imagination lives here. Democracy and justice lives here.

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