Storytelling for the Common Good? Learning from Brown University

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Alex Braunstein of the Swearer Centre for Public Service and GCU’s Julie Adair.

Stories matter. As children, they can teach us right from wrong. As adults, they can too. They take us beyond our own limited experiences and allow us to walk in the shoes of others – building knowledge of unknown places and understanding of diverse peoples. The telling of these stories is an art-form in itself, one that places the lived experience alongside facts, discoveries and innovations and has become increasingly popular as a communication tool in modern life – as witnessed by the rise of phenomena such as TED talks and Humans of New York. These stories spark our curiosity, engage our empathy and remind us that change is possible.

But can stories be used to create social change? Alex Braunstein, from Brown University’s Swearer Center for Public Service, certainly thinks so.

“At Swearer Center…we can use stories for community-building. Storytelling can play a big role in empowering communities and creating a more just world.”

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Alex introducing us to the Storytellers for Good programme

Alex visited GCU earlier this month – a connection made possible by last year’s Ashoka U Exchange, an international consortium of universities recognised for their contribution to social action and entrepreneurship. She highlighted GCU’s overarching mission for the Common Good as a draw for her and relished the opportunity to share her experience of establishing and managing ‘Storytellers for Good’ – a flagship programme at the Swearer Center for Public Service.

The Center was established almost 30 years ago and became one of the first formal university center’s dedicated to public service across the US. Their aim is embedded within the University’s mission to “serve the community, the nation, and the world” and does so by examining the ways through which social movements can be sparked by stories.

The ‘Storytellers for Good’ (S4G) programme enables students to be trained in a range of digital media skills whilst telling valuable stories with social impact from across the local community. It serves not only the Brown community but also acts to firmly embed the university within its locality, linking up students, academics, alumni and local people around a common theme of social good. In 2014, the Center launched ‘Swearer Sparks’, an online platform where these stories can be collected, collated and shared on and off campus. The project is based around three core principles of storytelling: “Is it accessible? Is it relevant? Are we inspired?”

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‘Out on the Wire’ by Jessica Abel – exploring the narrative techniques behind some of the most famous radio stories and podcasts.

Within this programme, Alex highlighted the position of the storyteller as key. Staff and students across the Center are continually re-examining their own role within the narrative and conceptualising the potential models and routes of impact from their storytelling. Alex used the example of ‘Humans of New York’ – the social media phenomenon (and recent New York Times Bestseller) – as an excellent demonstration of what she dubs the ripple effect model, whereby a narrative is told to a storyteller and then gradually ripples out to many others – the storyteller is, in effect, in control of the dissemination and flow of the story. This was contrasted with the example of ‘Cowbird’ by the Pine Ridge Community Storytelling Project – a project based around the notion that the story should be told by the people themselves, in their own unedited voices. In this model, the emphasis places the formal or ‘expert’ storyteller in a facilitating or co-producing role and puts the power and control back into the hands of the community. Alex underlined this dichotomy as representing an important dilemma for any researcher interested in the use of storytelling as a method through which traditional academic outputs can be disseminated in a more creative way to a wider audience. She acknowledged the difficulties inherent in this way of working – co-producing knowledge is never easy – however, this is task that the Swearer Center is challenging itself to meet.

Going forward, Alex outlined the Center’s ambitious plans for the future which coalesce around the notion on linking stories to action. Through the development of a ‘Spark Up’  section of the Swearer Sparks site, Alex and her colleagues plan to better illuminate the pathways through which students, staff, alumni and the local community can become involved in the work of the Centre. This addition will also aim to showcase available resources and programmes in one centralised location, link stories to calls for action and opportunities to become involved.  It is the hope that through this, the Center can gradually start to build a professional network for social change.

Through GCU’s underpinning commitment to the Common Good, and our recently established digital storytelling platform – Common Good First – perhaps we can not only build on the lessons and experiences shared by Alex last month, but become leaders at utilising the art of storytelling for social change.

Many thanks to Alex for taking the time to visit us in Glasgow and sharing her stories with us. For more information on the Swearer Centre for Public Service visit their website or the dedicated Swearer Sparks page to find stories from across the Brown University community. Looking forward to building more connections at next year’s Ashoka U Exchange.

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