When Numbers Aren’t Enough

Statistics rarely get under our skin, but stories do. Paul Loeb offers advice for catalyzing social change.
Oregon worker's stories, photo by greenforall

"Powerful stories can break us beyond our isolated worlds," says Loeb.

Photo by GreenForAll.

While I was on a recent radio show, a student called in from a campus "Rally Against 1070," that challenged Arizona's draconian immigration law. The rally was a great idea, part of the public outcry that's needed. But I wish they'd called it something like "Rally Against the Show Us Your Papers Law." Headlining it with a bill number gave people nothing to respond to emotionally.

Over nearly 40 years that I've spoken out on various causes and written about citizen movements, I've come to believe that people work for justice when their hearts are stirred by specific lives and situations that develop our capacity to feel empathy, to imagine ourselves as someone else. New information—the percentage of people out of work or children in poverty, the numbers behind America's record health care costs, the annual planetary increases in greenhouse gases—can help us comprehend the magnitude of our shared problems and develop appropriate responses. But information alone can't provide the organic connection that binds one person to another, or that stirs our hearts to act.

The most successful activists know the power of stories to move people's hearts, so weave the richness of personal example into their arguments.

Powerful stories can break us beyond our isolated worlds. "They link teller to listeners," writes Scott Russell Sanders, "and listeners to one another." They let us glimpse the lives of those older or younger, richer or poorer, of different races, from places we'll never even see. Showing us the links between choices and consequences, they train our sight, "give us images for what is truly worth seeking, worth having, worth doing." Stories also teach us, Sanders suggests, how "every gesture, every act, every choice we make sends ripples of influence into the future."

This means that we are more likely to challenge homelessness if we hear the testimonies of individual people living on the street. We will work to overcome illiteracy after gaining a sense of what it's like to be unable to read. We need to know how many thousands of gallons are leaking out each day from the Louisiana oil spill—that gives clues to the magnitude of the disaster. But we're more likely to act on it if we can envision what actually happens as the oil begins to poison the shrimp, oysters, crawfish, and pristine beaches we've long taken for granted. Psychological studies of those who rescued Jews during the Holocaust found they differed from their peers in their ability to be moved by pain, sadness, and helplessness.

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Concrete stories can help us engage the world's troubles without becoming so overwhelmed that we despair of ever being able to change things. As psychologist Joanna Macy reminds us, "information by itself can increase resistance [to engagement], deepening the sense of apathy and powerlessness." Stories about particular individuals and specific situations usually have the opposite effect. By giving seemingly overwhelming problems a human face, they allow us to act from a sense of loyalty to specific people, communities, or places. Responsibility in this view becomes not an abstract principle but a way of being and connecting.

Of course our culture has plenty of false stories. So we need to ask whether the examples that stir our hearts—or those of our political opponents—are accurate or whether they're manipulated inventions, like the talk of government "death panels" or Obama as Manchurian Kenyan. A recent Harris poll found that 45 percent of Republicans believed Obama was not born in this country so had no right to be president, and 57 percent believed he was a Muslim. That's a stunning indictment of Republican elected officials who know that those beliefs are absolute nonsense, but (with a few exceptions like Lindsay Graham) have been conveniently silent on them, perhaps because they like stirring up the Tea Party base.

But that doesn't negate the need to get beyond arcane policy prescriptions to tell the examples at the core of the issues we care about. It just means we need to ensure our stories are accurate. We could even say that whichever side gets their stories out to frame public discourse will likely win any given political battle.

Stories Help Us Connect

Stories motivate through a sense of connection, whether we encounter them first hand or retold by others. A Long Island teacher named Carol McNulty felt inspired to take a stand after watching a video of a brown-eyed girl, in a documentary called Zoned for Slavery. Though only fifteen, the girl had worked for two years making 56 cents an hour sewing clothes for the Gap and Eddie Bauer in a maquiladora, a factory inside a free-trade zone in El Salvador. Her 18-hour days left little time for eating, sleeping, or even going to the bathroom. She had to buy her food from the company store. Attending high school was out of the question, though she said shyly that she'd like to someday. The factory bosses prohibited workers from talking with each other, and when some of the bolder ones tried to organize, they were fired.

"I saw such a look of helplessness," Carol explained. "My own children's eyes are so bright and cheerful. Hers were equally beautiful, but so beaten down and clouded by despair. It's wrong for children to live like that—undernourished, without hope, literally chained to machines. She was just one young woman whose life was so blocked. If you multiply that by all the others, it's horrendous." It angered Carol that a child could be this abused for greed.

So every Saturday for two months Carol and her husband stood in front of a nearby Gap store, braving biting winter rain and freezing snow, and joined by a dozen others. Like citizens picketing the chain's stores throughout the country, they handed out literature and talked with customers. They helped promote a Long Island visit by a group of young women who worked in the factory and were touring the U.S. to tell their story. In the face of a growing public outcry, the Gap capitulated, pledging to ensure that contractors allow independent monitoring by churches and human rights groups and free access by unions. The campaign had won at least a beginning step.

Inuit elders, photo by John HasynWe Are Hard-Wired to Care and Connect
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Like the organizers who worked to tell the stories of the maquiladora workers, the most successful activists know the power of stories to move people's hearts, so weave the richness of personal example into their arguments. If particular institutions are exploitative, ecologically destructive, or otherwise oppressive, effective activists don't rely on mind-numbing rhetorical labels to arouse concern. Instead, they describe precisely how the institutions damage people's lives or degrade the environment. They frame policy proposals not in terms of arcane acronyms, bill numbers, or implementation details, but particular consequences. They continually link their arguments and visions to narratives that can touch people's hearts.

I saw this when Oregon state employees, who were predominantly female and universally underpaid, began fighting for a living wage. Their unions started the campaign by hiring experts to draw up more equitable pay schedules. The resulting task force surveyed every category of job, then presented an elaborate report in the most neutral technical terms. At the request of top-level managers, they added more data. Eventually the study became so unwieldy and abstract that ordinary workers felt it had nothing to do with their lives, or their gut sense that their labor was undervalued. "Most of those affected couldn't even talk about the proposals," recalled the economist who chaired the task force, "because they didn't know the language, all the personnel-oriented, management-oriented terms. It left them completely out of the discussion." Lacking popular understanding or support, the effort collapsed of its own weight, dead on arrival at the legislature.

Then the unions shifted strategy, arranging for public-sector employees to speak for themselves to the media, community groups, and their elected officials. They posed simple but very telling questions: Why did women who took care of children at university daycare centers earn less than workers monitoring animals at local private research labs? Why did public sector secretaries earn less than mail carriers? Why did nursing home aides earn less than entry level workers at insurance companies and banks? Testifying before the state legislature, they explained that their jobs mattered greatly to them, as well as to the community. Then they asked the senators how much they thought they earned. Holding up pay stubs as proof, they shamed the legislators with the reality of their economic plight: Some made so little for full-time work, they needed food stamps to get by. The union won pay raises and other concessions that made working conditions more equitable. It triumphed by letting their members tell their own stories, in their own words, and by so doing going to the heart of their cause. 

Copyright © 2010 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin's Griffin.

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