Storytelling and Power: 4 Things I Learned as a Communications Philanthropist at AMC 2017

Published on Jun 15, 2017

“Stories are sites where power can be built and sites where power can be contested.”–Alicia Garza, co-founder of Black Lives Matter

USA- Michigan- Detroit

“Telling stories of transformation is symbiotic with transformation itself.” —Claudia Garcia-Rojas and Maya Schenwar during their Feminist Transformative Justice Writing Workshop

The Opening Ceremony of #AMC2017 in Detroit featured a video clip in which native Detroiters argued that Detroit isn’t an “up-and-coming” city, as common narratives those not native to Detroit perpetuate about it seem to suggest, but that it’s a city that’s always been thriving. The video clip set the tone for the entire conference, sewing together themes about storytelling, truth, representation, and power that workshops and plenaries throughout the conference echoed. As a communications person at a progressive LGBTQI philanthropic organization, those themes resonated powerfully with the work I do and with the work Astraea does. Here are four of the most important lessons I learned:

  1. “Guard your data the way you guard your heart.”—Micha Cardenas, the “Hold Your Boundaries: Making Digital Security Accessible” project

    Data is critical to storytelling and building narratives.
    LGBTQI people of color are routinely and disproportionately surveilled by the state. In their “Surveillance as a Primary Tool of the Stalker State” workshop, the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition shared how local institutions like the police collect data on people of color, using it to generate lists of suspected gang members and criminals—sometimes even tagging children less than a year old simply because of their race, socioeconomic background, and relation to other suspected gang members and criminals. By keeping these lists and using them to detain immigrants and criminalize people of color, this data helps the state perpetuate the narrative that people of color are predisposed to be criminals, and therefore merit careful surveillance and wrongful privacy invasions. Data that is presented as “objective” has an uncanny ability to bend and alter “truth” and change minds, whether it’s used in the service of justice or injustice.
  2. “The act of telling your story, or of letting your story be told, is a revolutionary act because with those stories, we not only interrupt the structures that force us to suffer in silence and isolation, but we also allow theories of violence to become human.” —Monica Trinidad, Truthout, “Personalizing Our Resistance to Domestic Violence”

    Fair, accurate, consent-based storytelling is empowering storytelling.
    In their workshop on “Visual Resistance,” members of Bay-Area-based Design Action Collective shared what designers can do to select photos of those impacted by an issue and any related imagery responsibly. Photos that represent those depicted in an empowering light do much more to disrupt harmful narratives than photos that feel exploitative, after all. At the “Visual Resistance” workshop and throughout the conference, speakers also emphasized the importance of consent and the need to consult those depicted in photos or written about. In a Feminist Transformative Justice Writing workshop, speakers Claudia Garcia-Rojas and Maya Schenwar discussed how victims of domestic or sexual violence—especially women or femmes of color—often become subjects of articles that use only police and court documents as evidence, in an effort to be “objective” (read: to write from the cis white straight man perspective). Rarely do they have the opportunity to safely speak out for themselves or to work with reporters to ensure the media is accurately representing their side of events.
  3. “Knowledge isn’t power. Power is power.” — Malkia Cyril, Director of the Center for Media Justice

    In the wrong hands, storytelling can and has been used to create oppressive narratives.
    During AMC’s Data and Power plenary, Sadie Barnette discussed her “State Surveillance and the Black Living Room” project, which turns documents detailing the U.S. government’s years-long surveillance of her father, a former member of the Black Panthers, into art. As she described the project, she noted the role that storytelling played in the state’s surveillance, sharing anecdotes about the day police broke into her father’s home and arrested him just so they could take a mugshot to use on posters and in surveillance documents. Barnette stressed that although her father walks free today, many of the Black Panthers who were also under surveillance during the same time period were either killed or are still incarcerated. Surveillance and criminalization are key ways the state maintained their narrative that the Black Panthers were criminals—even if Black Panthers knew that such surveillance and criminalization were wrongful and indicative of a larger narrative that criminalizes Black bodies.
  4. “Stories are the medicine we need.” —Thenmozhi Soundararajan, Dalit activist

    Sharing counter-narratives is a key way to challenge oppressive groups and institutions and seed long-term change.
    The conference also made it clear that narrative and storytelling are not just important tools oppressors use to perpetuate power structures that benefit them, but that they are important tools activists can use to challenge those narratives. Mariella Saba, a member of Astraea grantee partner Familia: TQLM who presented alongside the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, discussed the Coalition’s Our Data Bodies Project. Through the Project, people of color whom the state has surveilled and criminalized speak out and share their stories, disrupting the narrative the state perpetuates—namely, that people of color are predisposed to criminal activity, and therefore must be controlled and surveilled. Saba discussed the Project’s mission to wake the public up to the state’s wrongful surveillance methods and to support people of color as they share their own narratives and truths.

The conference underscored the value of one of our most important communications strategies at Astraea. Because we are a philanthropic organization, we are tasked with not only telling our own story as Astraea, but with supporting our grantee partners’ efforts to tell their stories on their own terms. Sometimes this looks like sharing the articles, videos, and other media they produce on the web, but oftentimes it also looks like holding gatherings like our regional CommsLabs convenings all over the world. At these gatherings, we work alongside activists and technologists to cultivate the tools and skills activists need to keep their data safe and tell their stories strategically and effectively, recognizing that not only do they know their stories best, but they know best how to tell their stories. At our 2017 Fueling the Frontlines Awards in LA, our Executive Director J. Bob Alotta noted that Astraea, “moves money from where it purposefully is to where it purposefully isn’t.” AMC highlighted that shifting power looks not only like moving money, but shifting who has the power to tell stories and control what we see culturally as “truth.” At Astraea, we’re proud that shifting storytelling power is one of our most important strategies for supporting the work of our grantee partners.

Written by Astraea Communications Officer, Kim Kaletsky