On that October day in 2008, Felipe Matos (now Sousa-Rodriguez) didn't plan to come out to the world. What he wanted was to help a friend, Gaby, whose undocumented family faced deportation. So Sousa-Rodriguez joined an immigration rally outside the Homeland Security office in Miami, with law enforcement watching. He had a near-perfect academic record in college, was president of the student government, and was the first person in his Brazilian family to become fluent in English. He had a lot to lose. But when someone handed him the bullhorn, there was only one thing he could think of to do.
"I am undocumented," he said. "Come and get me."
Sousa-Rodriguez broke the rules and rewrote his own script, at great risk. His action forecast a major change in immigration movement strategy: undocumented youth using their own stories as political tools.
Thousands of "Dreamers"—as these immigration activists are called—have since followed in Sousa-Rodriguez' footsteps, giving rise to a national shift in which undocumented people have begun to control the terms of the debate. For them, storytelling is a tactic, an act of civil disobedience. In the last few years they've organized national "Coming Out Days," testified before Congress, and posted videos of their stories on social media. In 2010, Sousa-Rodriguez and three other young activists—including Gaby—walked 1,500 miles between Miami and Washington, D.C., in support of the Dream Act, wearing shirts that read, "Undocumented? Everyone has a story ... but not all are heard."
Dreamers who came out transformed themselves from stereotypes or projections into fleshed-out characters with wounds and hopes and universal values. It's easy to discount someone you've never met, whose story you've never heard. But, as Sousa-Rodriguez says, "It's a lot harder to look in someone's eyes and say, 'You don't deserve human rights.'"
Storytelling is a universal human instinct; indeed, we're hardwired for it. But increasingly, social movement strategists and leaders from across the spectrum—from immigration rights to marriage equality to climate justice—are making narrative a core part of their strategy.
Stories help us develop the "emotional muscles" that enable us to bypass our fear.
"Movements enact stories," says Marshall Ganz, a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School and founder of the Leading Change Network. Ganz experienced the power of story firsthand while working as an organizer in the civil rights movement, and with the United Farm Workers in California. Both movements were rooted firmly in faith traditions that provided a strong narrative framework: Moses leading his people to freedom, for example, or David and Goliath. Most contemporary social movements are more secular—but, says Ganz, even in an age of digital activism, the fundamental need for community and story is still there.
So Ganz took lessons from 30 years in the field and created a method for strategic storytelling he calls "public narrative," which he's been sharing with leaders all over the world. It's a way of connecting one's personal story to a larger narrative framework. Public narrative has three main parts:
- Story of Self: What do you care about, and why? How have you responded to challenges?
- Story of Us: What are our common experiences and values?
- Story of Now: What are we called to do, right now? How can we take action together?
"One of the important parts of strategy is figuring out motivation," says Ganz. Why do we care about an issue? The answer is rarely logical; it's deeper than that, and comes out of who we are and the experiences we've had. Storytelling helps answer that question—and when we answer it, Ganz says, we're able to tackle problems with "courage, risk-taking, and creativity."
Public narrative is one approach among many that represent a broader shift in social movement thinking—one that prioritizes story and relationship, aimed at connecting people to their source of passion, to shared identity, and most of all, to hope.
Sousa-Rodriguez told his story in three words: "I am undocumented." It was in many ways an act of desperation, but he found that it also gave him a sense of agency and power. For the first time, he was the one telling his own story.
"You cannot divorce strategy from story."
He also found that, in addition to feeling liberated, he was now actually safer. Undocumented people, he says, live with the ever-present fear that "the government could come, kick down the door, and no one would know." Going public with his legal status plugged him into a network of allies that provided support and legal resources. "I knew that there were people willing to fight for me."
Michele Rudy has been organizing undocumented youth since 2002, and has worked with both Ganz and Sousa-Rodriguez to train thousands of Dreamers in public narrative. Story was always important, she says, but the introduction of public narrative was "revolutionary"; it provided a structure for story to be used more intentionally. Rudy encourages participants to tell a "Story of Self" in which they're the protagonist rather than the victim, and to focus on the choices they've already made in response to challenge. The Dreamers "took it and ran with it," she says. "It became the basic foundation for any organizing training."
Ultimately, though, personal narrative isn't for the benefit of the individual. It's for the group. Dreamers soon realized that storytelling could also be used "to move people and inspire people," Rudy says. It strengthened the immigration movement's sense of identity through shared experience—and their commitment to one another through shared fate.
Sousa-Rodriguez ended up coming out twice: first as undocumented and soon after as gay. It was the experience of the former—the freedom, the relief from fear, and the support—that helped him come out about his sexuality. Now, he's legally married and, with the help of his husband, hopes to get a green card this year.
Hope Wood, like Sousa-Rodriguez, drew on public narrative when she came out of the closet to her conservative family. She now uses it regularly in her work with the New Organizing Institute, but her first experience actually doing it herself was during the Obama campaign. It hooked her—not only on electoral politics, but also on storytelling. She went on to bring public narrative to the fight for marriage equality in her home state of California.
"There's never been a culture that hasn't told stories."
Wood says that the traditional message to LGBTQ activists was to keep your own story quiet: "Don't talk about your families, don't show pictures of your kids." The passage of California's Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage, was a major blow that prompted a reevaluation. "We said, 'No, we have to tell our stories. This is who we are,'" says Wood. Since then, "the fight for marriage equality has so opened up because we started telling our stories."
Working for the Courage Campaign, she helped create more than 40 "Equality Teams" across the state: community groups that continued to organize in support of LGBTQ rights, but also to heal and recuperate after the Prop. 8 loss. Sharing stories with each other in the team trainings was a particularly transformative part of the campaign. "It's actually creating something new in the room," she says. "I call it love—but I think that's a scary thing for people to talk about." Whatever you call it, this new dynamic that emerges when stories are exchanged is a resource that's been ignored because it's not quantifiable, Wood says. "But when we're able to create those spaces of love, of connection, of belonging, we're able to have a stronger commitment to one another."
"Story of Self" helped California LGBTQ activists form a stronger "Story of Us." But there was something missing. "There wasn't anything that kept us moving together because we didn't have a broader shared purpose," Wood says. Ultimately, she believes that the post-Prop. 8 marriage campaign wasn't as effective as it might have been if they'd had a specific endgame with measurable goals. The lesson? "You cannot divorce strategy from story."
Individual stories get woven together to create a story of the group, which in turn becomes the story of the movement as a whole—and that includes, critically, the action the movement is called to take.
In the climate justice movement, the urgency is clear, but the overall narrative, the "Us" and the "Now" are harder to pinpoint. Western environmental narratives have often gone something like this: Too many people are using too many resources and producing too much carbon. Unless we take drastic action right now, we're headed for a catastrophe.
When we tell our stories, we make ourselves into our own heroes rather than somebody else's victims.
Patrick Reinsborough is a co-founder of the Center for Story-Based Strategy, which works with organizations and movements to articulate their narratives—and translate them into action. According to Reinsborough, our national environmental narrative has other problems besides being based on fear: It's been told largely by white men, it has relied more on data than on story, and it fails to present the possibility for a hopeful alternative future. We need stories about solutions, he says. Not consequences.There's only one thing that gives this story urgency: fear. But fear rarely leads to action—and often it leads to apathy or inertia.
Reinsborough says that the new stories are being told by those who are most affected by climate change and pollution. He points to organizations like Black Mesa Water Coalition, which works in the Navajo Nation in the Southwest to create a "just transition"—away from fossil fuels and toward home-generated clean energy, all while preserving Navajo culture and economic independence. The key, as Reinsborough says, is not just to protest—to say "no"—but also to say "yes" to alternatives.
Wahleah Johns, who grew up on the reservation, which is economically dependent on the five coal plants that surround it, has been leading the Coalition's solar energy project. She hopes that, one day, the Navajo Nation will be able to produce enough of its own clean energy to power not just the 18,000 homes that still lack electricity, but also to sell excess power back to the grid.
Members of the Navajo Nation are already experiencing the effects of climate change. It's hard to ignore a drought when you don't have running water. The story that's been handed down to her people is one of victimization. In order for them to buy in to the possibility of change, they must begin to see themselves instead as the agents of that change—and they must be able to visualize an alternative. "We have to see a solution, see it real. We don't have a lot of examples of what a real transition could look like," Johns says.
Her work represents a different kind of climate change story: one of solidarity, action, and hope, richly detailed in its vision for the future, and articulated by those who are most at risk and whose voices have traditionally been silenced.
The stories of these groups—undocumented immigrants, LGBTQ, and indigenous people—have often been told for them by the people with power, those who make laws and own newspapers. Now, just as the new storytellers are stepping to the fore, they also have access for the first time to the global audience of a digital world. But taking control of the broader movement narrative requires first amplifying individual voices.
Facing any new challenge is scary. Stories, as Marshall Ganz says, help us develop the "emotional muscles" that enable us to bypass our fear. In a story, the protagonist encounters a challenge: a dragon, the sudden loss of a parent, a storm at sea. As Ganz puts it:
...and that's when everybody leans forward. We feel what's happening ... and learn something emotionally about how to access hope and solidarity. That's the core thing that's happening in a story. That's why there's never been a culture that hasn't told stories—there's never been a culture that hasn't needed to have resourcefulness and courage.
Storytelling is power. When we tell our stories, we make ourselves into our own heroes rather than somebody else's victims—heroes who can slay the dragon, cope with grief, and ride out a stormy sea.