A Story for Social Change
Half a century after the civil rights movement, civil rights still are not a reality for all Americans. Many of us still long for a day when all peoples and cultures in the United States and indeed, the world over, are appreciated, valued, and respected, with equal access to health, wealth, education, and the other human and civil rights. In order to make this a reality, I call upon all white Americans such as myself to examine the ways in which we participate in our culture’s marginalization of people of color and learn as much as we can about how to stop participating in it.
The history of anti-racist activism in Americans of European heritage extends to the days of slavery and beyond, when some white people saw that despite others’ claims to the contrary, human exploitation and the denial of some peoples’ humanity would leave deep and lasting wounds in our country. No matter whose side our ancestors were on, when they arrived on the American continent, whether they fit in when they came or struggled to assimilate themselves into the Anglo-Saxon mainstream, this history of resistance and commitment to justice belongs to all of us, and we can join it at any time.
As liberal white people, we tend to reinforce comforting beliefs that the racism operating in this country is separate from ourselves, that we have nothing to do with it. I remember growing up being vaguely aware of racism as a sort of undercurrent in our society but never as something in any way related to myself, until one day two years ago I had an experience that hasn’t left me since. I was at a meditation center I frequented regularly at the time. A particular woman who I knew was a member of the center was there that day, who was black. Most of the people who frequented the center were white. I remember this woman as tall and dignified, dressed like a man in jeans and a flannel collared tee-shirt. In the comfortable, elegant community room that day, I became aware that I was not relating to her the way I related to the other white people: I was experiencing an overload of mental activity regarding her, though I could not at the time make out the contents of my mind or hear what my thoughts were saying. I was aware of my discomfort, yet fearful she would notice my awkwardness, panicked at the certitude it was wrong for me to feel this way, and all the while trying to appear on the surface as if nothing out of the ordinary was going on with me.
I couldn’t verbalize what this experience was about at the time, but the racial element was clear enough to me that when I saw a pamphlet in the very same meditation center on a program called UNtraining White Liberal Racism, I took it. Without telling anyone I knew, I applied for the program. I didn’t know what was happening to me or how to talk about it, or with whom. No one around me had ever really talked about racism, especially not in a personal way, other than my mom referring to some of my grandmother’s comments as racist. Come to think of it, though, it’s because of my grandmother that I knew what racism sounded like: it sounded like an elderly woman who lived in a charming apartment complex with a swimming pool, whom I adored visiting, exclaiming how unbelievable it was that a woman who was black had the nerve to apply for a job in the office where my grandmother worked when this woman pronounced the word “ask” as “ax.” My grandmother vociferated on and on about this affront to the English language as we drove along the straight two lane highway between fields outside of the quiet city of Woodland near our state’s capitol; if we had suggested to her that her reaction came from a bias against black people as well as the widespread belief amongst whites that only her version of English was acceptable, she surely would have denied it, but it could only have been so.
But if I knew at the time that was racism and I didn’t agree with it, then how could I possibly be finding racism in myself so many year later? For that’s surely what that reaction I had to the black woman in the meditation center was. It wasn’t hatred or dislike that I felt, yet it was still a problem, and it interfered with my ability to relate to this woman as she was. And relating to people as they are, not through any lens or film of preconception or judgement, was my goal in life – that was why I meditated and went to hear Buddhist teachings, so that I could perceive the world straightforwardly and act appropriately and move beyond my fear of others. And then there was the wider reality – the community discussions that started happening within this meditation community, the revelation that people of color didn’t feel welcome, that although they came seeking what the white people sought, and tried to make a place for themselves, they eventually often gave up and left, disappointed. An insight formed in my mind that there was some link between my experience of confusion in the presence of that woman, and the reason why people like her didn’t stick around. Furthermore, I knew, if I as a white person had experiences like that, I couldn’t be the only one.
So I came to the UNtraining seeking answers. And what I found there was more than I could have hoped for. Through the program’s preliminary offerings – monthly workshops with a small group of other white people committed to breaking down the barriers racism had formed in them – I learned a lot, but most of all, I learned of the possibility of a community founded on self-learning and an understanding of white conditioning and how it functions, as well as how our deep-seated personal insecurities and beliefs come into play. This is what allows me to believe in the future of our country.
The practice of writing personal stories can be very useful, as they play an important role in leadership and in galvanizing support for a cause (Ganz, 2009).
As Woodside (2010) explains, stories contain indices, details other people can connect to their own experiences. I tried to include these details in the above story by describing the specificity of events – the car ride with my grandmother though fields outside of Woodland, the way the woman was dressed in the meditation center. I think I could do even more, adding temperatures, smells, lighting, and other details.
The next element of a story, the inciting incident of “why and how life changes” (Woodside, 2010, p. 535), is the profoundly destabilizing experience I had in the meditation center, which threw into question what I thought I knew about racism and its relation to myself.
The last part of a story, where the protagonist tries to restore balance, coming into conflict with reality in the process, and struggles with obstacles both internal and external, is not as clear in what I wrote above, and I think I could do better. I do think I touched on some obstacles in my own understanding of racism that were put into question by my experience.
The resolution of the story comes when the protagonist eventually finds truth in some form, which I certainly did at a certain point during my participation in UNtraining workshops. The protagonist’s actions in the process reveal his or her unconscious essence, which I would say in this case is my ongoing quest for truth and true communion with other human beings.
Stories can be used as a form of branding, and a very useful one in that they are the perfect vehicle for communicating values, the baseline of any social change organization’s brand (or any social change human’s brand). Kylander & Stone (2012) clarify that a brand is not so much a logo, catchphrase, or name but rather, “a psychological construct held in the minds of all those aware of the branded product, person, organization, or movement” (p. 38). In personal terms this brings me to thinking of the difference between outward appearance and inward values in terms of communicating who we are. Integrity exists when the outward appearance in an expression of the inward values. This is not doubt why I have never managed to wear makeup consistently: even though I think it makes me look much better, and even though marketing and social pressure make me think that I ought to wear it, my inner value of showing up exactly as I am and not hiding my faults or blemishes, as well as that of putting all my waking hours into productive and useful pursuits, keeps asserting itself and interfering with my attempts to portray a prettier-than-life face to the world.
Storytelling as branding is incredibly helpful for garnering support and raising money, as shared by Ganz (2009) and Fischer, Wilsker, and Young (2010). Development or fundraising works hand-in-hand with marketing and communications to tell an organization’s story. I do see myself someday occupying a role in an organization where I would be engaged in fundraising - even if I were not to continue as a development professional, leadership in any organization would be foolish to leave the fundraising entirely to those hired for that purpose. This is especially true because I am more likely to be drawn to working with a public service nonprofit than a private service one, which as Fischer, Wilsker and Young’s 2010 study finds, would most likely rely heavily on contributions.
Branding for the person or organization oriented towards social good needs to be part of participatory strategic planning process, not a top-down decree (Kylander & Stone, 2012). Policing the brand is antithetical to nonprofit missions of community involvement and empowerment, so brands need to be built on a clear understanding of the values of the various stakeholders involved, including employees (Stride & Lee, 2007). In personal terms, the top-down decree could be symbolized by capitulating to mainstream values or social pressure to be a certain way that’s different from the way you really are. For organizations, the process can be further complicated by the amount of people involved, but the same concept of needing to discover and articulate who you really are applies. The good news is that as humans – and groups of humans – we are never alone in who we are. We do not need to necessarily adapt to the way others want us to be; we simply need to find those to whom our true self appeals.
But finding our true self – finding what’s real – can be a bit of a process, especially when we have to sort through our culture’s limiting, conflicting messages. Sometimes we end up trying on identities to see how they fit, usually with little success. Similarly, Kylander & Stone (2012) and Stride & Lee (2007) share that brand can’t be all talk with nothing behind it – the quality or values have to back it, and these are part of the brand. The value system is fundamental. This reminds me of the way adolescents try on different personas. Brand is built off who you are, not the other way around, because you can’t change who you are! And this is true of organizations like it is of individuals. Internal identity must be aligned with external image which much be aligned with the mission (Kylander & Stone, 2012). Not being aligned, or trying to be something you’re not, is painful and exhausting. Part of the process of growing up is realizing who you are and renouncing trying to be or appear as something else.
I find that knowing who I am is quite liberating. When I know who I am, I don’t get confused when others project inaccurate identities on me. But when others misunderstand what I’m about, it could be that I’m not doing a good job of projecting who I am (my fault), or it could be that others are unable to see me (their fault). In other words, if your brand does not reflect the image held in the minds of stakeholders, it could mean there is something wrong with your brand (Kylander & Stone, 2012), that you’re trying to project something you clearly aren’t, or you haven’t done enough to express who or what you are.
I remember a time when I was quite young, perhaps ten years old, when a man I didn’t know referred to me as a “little girl.” I responded angrily that “I am not a little girl!” I was probably aware that technically speaking, I was a little girl – I was a girl, and I was young. But I think I was responding to what I perceived as disparagement in his voice, his perception of me as young, female, very blond at the time, and therefore perhaps, in his mind, physically and mentally weak. It seems unlikely that this person would have called me a “little boy” had I been one. It was crystal clear to me at the time that this perception clashed with who I knew I was, my own feelings of determination, strength, and biting intelligence that just didn’t quite know how to express itself yet.
Therefore, just as important as it is for an organization to find a way to appeal to funders, clients, and volunteers alike (Pope, Isely, & Asamoa-Tutu, 2009), it is key to find the right populations to target for those relationships and not invest in people who don’t have the ability to understand you. We know that there are like-minded people out there; those are the people to whom we need to express who we are (our brand) in order to build the partnerships to carry out our vision of social change.
Originally written on April 14, 2017 for a graduate course on organizational sustainability.
Ganz, M. (2009). Why stories matter. Sojourners magazine, 38(3), 16. Retrieved from: https://www.amsa.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/Why-Stories-Matter-Marshall-Ganz-Sojourners-Magazine.pdf
Pope, J., Isely, E. & Asamoa-Tutu, F. (2009). Developing a marketing strategy for nonprofit organization: An exploratory study. Journal of Nonprofit & Public Sector Marketing, 21(2), 184–201.DOI: 10.1080/10495140802529532
Kylander, N. & Stone, C. (2012). The role of brand in the nonprofit sector. Stanford Social Innovation Review, Spring, 36-41. Retrieved from: www.ssireview.org
Stride, H. & Lee, S. (2007). No logo? No way. Branding in the non-profit sector. Journal of Marketing Managemen,. 23(1-2), 107-122. DOl: 10.1362/026725707X178585
Woodside, A. (2010). Brand-consumer storytelling theory and research: Introduction to a Psychology & Marketingspecial issue. Psychology & Marketing, 27(6), 531–540. DOI: 10.1002/mar.20342
Fischer, R., Wilsker, A. & Young, D. (2010). Exploring the revenue mix of nonprofit organizations: Does it relate to publicness?Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly,XX(X), 1-20. DOI: 10.1177/0899764010363921