Storytelling for systems change: insights from the field
We tend to start stories at the beginning. But sometimes, the beginning isn’t the best place to start. So we’ll start somewhere in the middle, with a question that really gets to the essence of this story — “How do we tell stories in a way which frames the system and transformation?”
This question wasn’t asked by us; it was asked by Abigail Graham, Director of Education and Innovation at Latrobe Valley Authority. And it feels fitting that this question wasn’t crafted by us because, really, this isn’t our story. This is the story of the backbone teams, community members, organisations and storytellers we listened to as we tried to understand why the powerful stories of systems change, which are sitting in communities, aren’t being adequately heard or celebrated either within or beyond the community.
So perhaps now feels like a good time to loop back to the beginning. This story began with a question around how stories could be used to more effectively communicate the impact of community-led systems change work. This question catalysed a partnership between the Dusseldorp Forum, Hands Up Mallee and the Centre for Public Impact, designed to deepen our understanding of what might be needed to support those engaging in systemic change agendas to have their stories both told, and heard. And this partnership has culminated in a report — “Storytelling for systems change: insights from the field.”
What we’ve learned
We have learned through this project that stories can be used to change the system as well as to evaluate, understand and showcase the change that is occurring in communities. Stories can be used to encourage new perspectives, to build understanding and to challenge traditional power dynamics. Stories can also be used as a form of healing. As Kylie Burgess from Burnie Works shared:
“We’re actually talking about creating transformational spaces. Storytelling is just a tool. This is sacred work… we’re talking about healing for transformation. If people are transformed through the process of sharing stories, workers are transformed, systems are transformed.”
We have learned that stories can take many forms. Stories can be songs, sculpture, food, as well as embodied experiences. Rona Glynn-McDonald from Common Ground explained that stories can be “songlines, dreaming, law/lore, protocol, and a living archive.” We also heard that stories can be collective endeavours — centering the voices of many, rather than the individual.
We have learned that great stories privilege the voice of the story-holder; are resonant, clear and relatable; and are guided and bound by agreed protocols. However, we have also heard that technical, structural and institutional barriers can get in the way of good storytelling. For example, as Kerry Graham from Collaboration for Impact explained, stories of systems change don’t neatly fit within the standard approach:
“We’re trained to respond to linear stories where there’s a problem > action > solution. These stories don’t fit that formula.”
Gathering insights for action
The purpose of this story, though, was not just to collect insights; it was deliberately action-oriented. And so, through our conversations, we’ve gathered a range of practical but ambitious ideas around how to enable those involved in community-led systems change initiatives to tell compelling stories about the nature and impact of their work. Examples include:
- Creating Communities of Practice and mentors for community storytellers
- Building understanding of storytelling traditions across different cultures and demographics
- Understanding effective ways to weave together qualitative and quantitative insights
- Building storytelling skills in backbone teams and communities
- Working with funders, government partners, and community members to value different ways of telling stories.
Some of the ideas relate to the supply side (how to generate better stories), while others focus on the demand side (how to increase the likelihood that the stories are heard). The fact that both sides of this equation need our attention and energy is a key insight from this work. Fiona Merlin from Hands Up Mallee captured the essence of this challenge with a powerful question:
“How can we tell stories in ways which encourage the listener to not just hear, but actually connect to a different view?”
As we close this chapter of the story and open a new one, we are looking for partners who are interested in supporting this work. We now want to take some of these ideas and apply them in practice, to help us learn more about how stories can be used to enable and celebrate community-led systems change work.
If you’re interested in becoming a co-author in the next stage of our story, we’d love to hear from you.