Storytelling is a powerful tool for organizing
We sat down with our Advocacy Manager, Seth Bush, again this month to catch up on what he’s learning at PA Walking College. As a recap, Seth was accepted into the 2023 Pennsylvania State Walking College Fellowship Program through America Walks and AARP. As such, we’re following along with him as he grows his skills to advocate for people who walk and roll in our communities.
Seth’s big takeaway this month is that anyone can be an organizer! If you see a problem, and you’re willing to bring others together to do something about it – you’re an organizer! In the interview below, we also got into the specifics of how storytelling can be used as a tool to win campaigns. Check it all out below, along with some helpful resources, and learn how Seth and organizers like him are called to action.
Q: Can you give me an overview of the past month’s themes and why they’re important?
The first is The Power of Public Narrative
It’s a tool developed by Marshall Ganz from the United Farm Workers, who is now a Harvard professor. The power of public narrative is a vital skill that uses storytelling to illustrate not only why people should join your cause, but how they already have the power to take action, and what they can do to contribute to the movement. It has three components:
- Story of Self – The Morals/values/experiences that you personally had that helped you to see the importance of taking action.
- Story of Us – Where are we together collectively at this moment? What are the challenges we’re facing that we have the power to change if we work together?
- Story of Now – What’s the action we need to take together and why is it urgent?
These three stories told together make up a PUBLIC NARRATIVE that can be applied in a variety of contexts to educate, agitate, and activate other advocates. A public narrative can be especially powerful when talking to new people at a bike/ped committee meeting or event. When one or more leaders tell the story of why they’re there, what they’re doing together, and how new folks can help, it can be inspiring and empowering. Stories are like mirrors that help people see themselves in the movement, right alongside someone they just met, with an opportunity to contribute to something greater than themselves.
Especially when facts & figures alone won’t do it, you need a good story that speaks to the heart. Overall, we are storytelling creatures! We love a good story.
Cultural Competence and Health Equity in relation to community organizing and active transportation
As an organizer, I have my own culture, lived experience, and unique perspective. It’s important to recognize that this all shapes my world view. Meanwhile, everyone else has a different world view, different needs, and different experiences. Cultural competence is the SKILL SET of being able to set aside our own preconceived notions of how things work, and come to a common ground and understanding. This is especially useful when we find shared needs across race, age, ability, and various identities. It’s especially important for people like me who are a part of the dominant culture (i.e. white, straight, cis-gender, able-bodied men) to take a stand and build this cultural competence because the world is built for us and we aren’t often asked to consider the diverse experiences of others unless we actively seek it out.
**1. Don’t multitask.**
**2. Don’t pontificate.**
**3. Use open-ended questions.**
**4. Go with the flow.**
**5. If you don’t know, say that you don’t know.**
**6. Don’t equate your experience with theirs.**
**7. Try not to repeat yourself.**
**8. Stay out of the weeds.**
**10. Be brief.**
WHAT is organizing? This is all about movement building, leadership, and organizing. If you’ve ever wondered what advocacy really is and how to do it, check out the resources linked here in this blog.
An organizer is somebody who gets together with others and says, “Hey, we have a problem here.” Someone who brings people together to address problems, to work together. Someone who is identifying what other peoples’ skills are, and helping them find a place in the movement. They are able to identify and delegate tasks based on the skills of others. A good organizer has a birds eye view, but isn’t a micro manager. It’s somebody who is empowering others to take the lead. With that, you can see it as the ultimate goal of an organizer is to organize themselves out of the job, lol!
Another good lesson learned here: a good organizer is someone who people look to and say “thanks for helping us win this campaign.” Whereas, a great organizer is someone who makes the community say “WE won this campaign.”
Planning Advocacy Campaigns
This involves shaping campaigns and what that looks like. Setting clear goals that are inspiring, visionary and achievable + Getting a good sense of who has power to make decisions to get the thing we want, and who influences those decision-makers.
This has to do with understanding where to put your energy & prioritize. Using the “Spectrum of allies” tool, this shows us that we must focus our energy on the people on the fence. We really don’t need to spend as much energy on the active opposition or even the active allies, we need to focus on helping the people who sit in the middle to make a conscious decision to join our cause. It’s about crafting messaging to target that “silent majority” and motivate them to speak up and take action in support of our goal.
Q: Do you have any interesting resources to share with us for this month?
Another good takeaway… Sometimes it can feel like you’re shouting to the wind. But rest assured, you’re not! An example of small efforts accumulating and making a real change is this article about a Georgia woman who worked for years to campaign for removal of a highway that served no purpose other than to fracture a Black neighborhood. When The White House announced their infrastructure plan, they singled out her seemingly “small” campaign and made it an example of their priority to invest in removing unnecessary highways like it across the country! The lesson is this: KEEP GOING, even if you have to get creative and try tactics you never thought you’d try.
Q: How might these skills translate to real world change (in PGH or beyond)?
I ponder… is it the job of our cities, of our elected officials, to make our streets safer and make it better for their residents to get around safely? Well, YES, DUH. But the planners and engineers often don’t live where we live. They might have studies and reports, but they don’t intimately know the way PEOPLE use our streets like we do. If we don’t organize to show the people responsible for our streets what we know we need, then they won’t give us the time of day. Not because they’re purposefully ignoring us, but because they’re constantly pulled in a thousand directions or don’t have the resources. We must organize and demonstrate to them why they need to pay attention and invest in making our streets safe for people, not just cars, so they find the time and the resources to make the changes we need. We need to make the case for them to make safe streets a priority.
Overall, it’s about taking these skills of how to look at all the things of what we could put energy into and choosing what specifically to focus our energy on. What’s most the most strategic use of our energy that both gets the change we need and builds capacity for future changes? Organizing shows decision-makers what to focus their attention on. The skills of being able to focus a campaign and then to create a set of actions or tactics that would move us closer to our goals are critical. To tell compelling stories to bring people with us, and then having the skills to identify those peoples’ strengths in a way that is useful so we can build power together to WIN campaigns that transform our streets. By winning those campaigns, we build power to then win more. And so on…
The cultural competence part is vital to recognize that our solitary perspectives aren’t going to work for everyone. Cultural competence is about bringing people together and sorting through all of these perspectives in order to find solutions on common ground. Because if we don’t do that, our solutions will be leaving people out of the conversation. We want EQUITY such that everyone has what they need to thrive.
Finally, if more Pittsburghers who see problems decided to talk to one other person about that problem, and then together identify one simple action they could take towards a solution – this would make a huge difference. The minute you do that, you’re an organizer!
Thanks, Seth, for sharing your knowledge with us once again as you continue your learning at PA Walking College! Stay tuned next month as we learn more about this curriculum and how it will be put to use in our community.
In the meantime, check out BikePGH’s brand new awareness campaign to spread awareness of an issue we absolutely need to address: drivers parking on the sidewalks. Click here to learn more.