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Article Article September 2nd, 2021
Delivery • Justice • Legitimacy

Storytelling for Systems Change: Early insights from communities and storytellers

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"I work w/ communities who are engaged in inspiring systems change work. But they don't tell the stories of their work. I want to understand why & support them to tell their stories more effectively" Teya Dusseldorp @DusseldorpForum

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Teya Dusseldorp from @DusseldorpForum & @theasnow from @CPI_foundation have been speaking to people working in & around community-led systems change initiatives to understand the challenges & opportunities to storytelling. Read this article to learn.

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A backbone team member asks "how do we start to tell our stories in a way which frame the system and transformation? And what would that mean for all of our storytelling?" Get in touch to share ideas, thoughts or questions!

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“I work with communities who are engaged in such inspiring systems change work. But they don’t seem to be telling the stories of their work. I want to understand why, and support them tell to their stories more effectively” Teya Dusseldorp, Executive Director of the Dusseldorp Forum, observed in a conversation late last year, catalysing a project between the Dusseldorp Forum, Hands Up Mallee and the Centre for Public Impact, to explore what we’re calling Storytelling for Systems Change.

We know that community-led place based initiatives are modelling new ways of working - shifting away from top down, program-focussed approaches towards an approach grounded in systems thinking and community-led innovations. We also know that these new ways of working are having a profound impact for communities across Australia. Across the country we’re seeing communities and police working together in new ways in Bourke; new models of maternity and child healthcare in Logan designed with community, for community; collaborative breakfast partnerships across kindergartens and schools leading to emotional, academic and health benefits for children in Mallee; and much more.

However, while these stories of change are sitting in communities, they’re often not being told or celebrated; and certainly not in a concerted and coordinated way. We want to understand why this is, and what might be done to better enable these stories to be shared and heard.

With this in mind, over the course of the next few months, we will be exploring what roles stories play in different communities; what good storytelling looks like; what barriers to storytelling might be; and what role stories can play in supporting systems change. To understand this, we’ve spent the last few weeks speaking to collective impact backbone teams, community members who are pursuing a community-led approach to change, storytelling experts, and those working in and around community-led systems change initiatives to understand the challenges and opportunities from their perspective.

Below, we share some of what we’re hearing and learning, as well as some unresolved questions that have emerged.

We have a lot to learn from our First Peoples

We’re conscious that storytelling is a skill and craft practised by Australia’s First Peoples for millenia. Tyson Yunkaporta, who we spoke to as part of our listening phase, shared the following:

Yarning is the English term we’ve taken up for this practice, which can be quite casual, day to day. But then it can be a bigger, more ritualized thing as well. Yarning has that exchange, that flow that you find in self-organizing systems. But it’s also highly ritualized and it brings you into that state. It brings all these ontologies together and forms a lot of different viewpoints looking at the same universe. That gives you a more holistic point of view where you are all thinking-feeling together with one belly/mind.”

And another interviewee explained,

Storytelling is part of our DNA and an integral part of our structure. We just need to apply this in a contemporary setting.

We have a lot to learn from our First Peoples about the role and art of storytelling. For this reason, the project team is committed to including and centering Indigenous perspectives across the program of work.

Stories are many things

Storytelling can take many forms. Stories can be conveyed through written word, documentary, film, fine art oral storytelling, immersive experiences, and more.

Stories can also be used for many different reasons; they can be used as a form of therapy, as a way of learning, teaching, building relationships and connection, as a tool to help shift perspectives and build empathy, as a means of advocacy, as a mode of measurement and evaluation, and more. Understanding what purpose a story is being used for is critical - what a “good story” looks like varies depending on what you want to achieve.

Stories are like stars

Stories are like stars. Alone, they can shine brightly, but the real power comes when stories are combined to form the narrative constellations which shape how we understand the world and our place in it.

Stories should emerge

Good stories are created by drawing on many sources of information including people’s voices, evidence and data. Good stories emerge from deep listening, rather than retrofitting what we’re hearing to fit the story we want to tell.

Often when professional storytellers are engaged to listen and tell community stories they spend a very short time with the community. Iterative storytelling - where the storyteller is embedded along the journey - produces richer, truer insights.

Stories about systems change can be hard to tell

There are so many parts of the system involved in community-led place-based work and it’s the sum of all these parts that is driving change. We are used to stories that are linear - with a beginning, middle and end - but the stories of these communities don’t fit that mould.

What does great storytelling look like when the change we’re describing is characterised by an entanglement of new relationships, new ways of working, new mindsets, and portfolios of many small, community-led initiatives? An interviewee from a backbone team summed it up well when she asked,

How do we start to tell our stories in a way which frame the system and transformation? And what would that mean for all of our storytelling?

What do non-linear stories of systems change look like? And how do we support them to be heard and understood?

Stories as sensemaking tools

Stories help people make sense of the world and their place in it. As well as supporting people to make sense of the past, stories also provide the foundation for creating new futures. This sentiment was powerfully captured by an interviewee from a backbone team who observed, “We talk our way into our futures - we look back to look forward.”

Stories contain incongruities

Storytelling is also not about distilling a single truth. Stories can - and should - reveal and hold tensions and different perspectives. Stories should celebrate successes, as well as exploring what hasn’t gone well, and why.

Stories require vulnerability

Telling stories requires rawness and vulnerability. It is therefore critical that any storytelling process provides a sense of safety for those who are sharing their stories.

There may also be instances where stories of trauma, pain or hardship are not yet ready to be told. One storytelling practitioner advised that it is critical to, “tell stories from scars not wounds.

Stories must preserve dignity

Where stories are told by someone other than the person whose story it is, it is critical to ensure that stories are collected and told in ways which preserve dignity, agency and nuance.

Even where stories are being used for advocacy - where the audience may be a busy Minister or funder - the desire to tell a powerful, emotive story must always be secondary to the imperative to tell the story authentically, and in a way which preserves and honours the voice that sits behind it.

Stories as a collective endeavour

We’re used to stories being oriented around individuals, but stories about community are a collective story. How might we move storytelling away from focusing the local hero to focus more on stories of collective action? How might we support the shared creation of stories?

Good stories connect with the heart; not just the mind

Stories support people to connect with what they’re hearing at the level of emotion and engaging affect, rather than logic and reason. As a practitioner who works closely with place-based community led initiatives observed,

I’ve only really seen people’s mental models shift when they are immersed in the work/ the place/ the feeling… Stories that capture the heart. How do you create moments of that?

Stories need to be heard

For stories to have an impact, they need to be heard.

Who they need to be heard by depends on the purpose of the storytelling endeavour. A number of the people we’ve spoken to have highlighted the importance of sharing stories of change within and across communities as a way of energising, empowering and encouraging connection between community members; others have focused on the need to get these stories heard by people in positions of power.

Regardless of who the audience is, we know that there is a difference between listening and hearing. How do we tell stories in ways which encourage the listener to go beyond hearing to seeing and connecting to a different view?

Where to from here?

We’re about half way through our listening phase, and have already learned so much. People are challenging our framing and expanding our thinking. There are both strong patterns emerging, as well as inconsistencies we’ll need to navigate.

In a few weeks, we’ll be hosting an online workshop where the project team, together with some of those we’ve spoken with already, will come together to do a sensemaking and imagination session. 

We’ll spend half of the workshop reflecting and making sense of what we’ve heard through the listening phase. We’ll then spend the second half of the workshop generating ideas, where participants will be offered inspiration to encourage them to think as creatively as possible about what might be needed to build the capacity and confidence of those involved in community-led systems change work to tell compelling stories.

We are hoping that this will be Phase 1 of a bigger project, where Phase 2 will translate the insights into practical action.

We intend to keep sharing our learning from this Phase as we go. In the meantime, if you have any ideas, thoughts or questions about this project, we’d love to hear from you.


" the end, stories are about one person saying to another: This is the way it feels to me. Can you understand what I’m saying? Does it also feel this way to you?” Kazuo Ishiguro

Share your ideas, thoughts or questions

We intend to keep sharing our learning from this Phase as we go. In the meantime, if you have any ideas, thoughts or questions about this project, we’d love to hear from you.

Get in touch

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