Storytelling with Dignity

This article is geared towards all the self-declared “mission nerds,” non-profit professionals, and everyone who tells stories. We tell stories all the time, whether to show the impact of mission work, raise donations, or communicate an example of how something works. However, we must be mindful of exactly how we portray someone’s story. It’s so easy for us (in the missions and non-profit space) to fall into the trap of exploitive storytelling. That is, using the stories of families and those we serve in a way that only focuses on their short-comings and serves our end-goal. 

Exploitive storytelling often happens without the writer’s knowledge. An unconscious bias that slips its way into the finished work. It’s a byproduct of the writer taking in someone’s story and then using it to fit their narrative or their end-goal. For example, if our goal is to raise donations then we might be tempted to cherry-pick only the worst parts of someone’s story to evoke pity, guilt, and sorrow onto potential donors. Not only does this create a toxic donor relationship, but also a distorted view of the people that are getting help. Overtime, exploitive storytelling creates an unconscious structure of haves and have-nots. The donors have what the families lack and the non-profit staff are the answer. Such a culture isn’t healthy or sustainable for anyone! 

Some telltale signs of exploitive storytelling are that it invokes pity, but not empathy from the reader. That the story being told results in the provision of help or services, but not respect or dignity. Exploitive storytelling only focuses on a family’s short-comings, differences, and problems just to invoke a reaction from the reader. That reaction could be donating, volunteering, or something else. The reader may come away with a sense of absolute superiority, which just feeds into the unconscious structure of haves and have-nots. Exploitive storytelling results when we tell someone’s story incorrectly, incompletely, and through our own lens. 

Unfortunately, Doxa has been guilty of exploitive storytelling. Something we continue to work on to this day, in communicating our work honestly, transparently, and completely. Many other non-profits struggle with this, too. One advantage that Doxa has, though, is that thousands of people have been down to Tijuana to see the impact first-hand. A picture is worth a thousand words and evokes something more than just reading a story. 

So how can we move away from exploitive storytelling? And towards stories that are not just honest, but complete and honoring. 

The very first step is a recognition that we are just as broken as the people we serve. Our brokenness may look different, but to think that we aren’t broken or are better is an inaccurate understanding. As a side note, this recognition will also help to avoid white-savior complex. Which is so easy for us to fall into, especially when we’re engaged with projects that have large generational impacts such as house building or education scholarships. (by the way, if you haven’t heard of white-savior complex before, feel free to Google away and maybe we’ll dedicate a future article about how Doxa actively discourages it) 

A second safeguard against exploitive storytelling is maintaining a close connection with the people we serve. As an organization, Doxa puts volunteers on the front lines thereby letting each person’s eyes, ears, nose, and touch do the storytelling. This is also why all of Doxa’s programs are led by Mexican nationals. All Doxa staff, except one, are Mexican and live in the same neighborhoods where we conduct house building, education, and community programs. Every recipient of a house or scholarship is qualified and stewarded along by a Doxa staff member. That relationship is maintained long after the house gets built and throughout their involvement as a scholarship recipient. 

Finally, there is an even simpler way to avoid exploitive storytelling. That is if we’re not comfortable with the families reading their own story as we would publish it, then don’t do it. Running the finished stories through this lens is a simple check and balance against exploitation. 

So how can we achieve telling stories with dignity? The answer doesn’t mean just avoiding hard or sad stories altogether. Pain, sorrow, and brokenness are part of our world and have a place in stories. I would venture a guess that these things are also part of our own stories, in at least one way or another. 

Keeping the people we serve at the center of the story is a great way to build in dignity. This means just being a conduit for their own words and voice. To the maximum extent possible, just translate their words and let their own voice shine through. This preserves the authenticity of voice and guards against the storyteller being the author of their story. Additionally, we need to fight to urge to interpret their story; and thereby, subtly changing the meaning. As the writer for stories, we need to develop the mantra of less is more. 

Another important characteristic of storytelling is balance. Telling stories with dignity means telling the entire story, not just the parts that you want the reader to react to. This means showcasing the strengths along with the weaknesses. It is far too easy to see the people we serve as just a bunch of weaknesses, short-comings, and problems that need solving. This mentality is toxic and isn’t putting anyone in right relationship. 

Instead, we should focus our stories on how the help or service will enhance the strengths already present in the community or family we serve. This means that our help is not the main show, but an added benefit that has ripple effects and builds upon local strengths and capacities already present. That our programs complement what is already going on in the local community. This type of approach is also related to the Asset-Based Community Development model, which looks at communities through the lens of what they already have rather than defining them based on what they lack. 

The art of good storytelling is rare. When a story is told with dignity and respect, it not only honors the family but also engages the reader. It doesn’t have to be one or the other.

For further reading on exploitive storytelling, check out the following two articles.
Are Your Nonprofit Organization’s Stories Dishonoring the Families You Serve? by Dani Robbins
How Can Nonprofits Move from Exploitative Storytelling to Justice-Oriented Storytelling? by Debi Jenkins