The Gift of Narrative: Whose is it to Bear?

In the last few weeks, I have had the incredible gift of being immersed in storytelling!  It has been a remarkable experience, and I have learned lessons, great and small, simply from submitting myself as a listener with no agenda other than to know the teller more deeply and to glean from what I hear, nuggets for my journey to L!VE!


Our Communities First Association (CFA) board meetings recently consisted of “Impact & Insight Surveillance”; essentially a series of people who have experienced the CFA community telling their own stories of impact and insight to the board, revealing the vast richness of intersectionality in ways to mobilize and multiply asset-based community development.


Additionally, CFA recently co-sponsored, along with Chicago Foundation for Women, a women’s book and writing retreat in which a diverse group of women writers shared of themselves, cultivated their voices, and examined how culture, community, and process inform when, where, and how we use our voices, particularly as women of color.


Finally, as a national executive director who deeply values my role as a local practitioner as well, through the coaching and conversations experienced both one-on-one and in the context of events and panel discussions, I have heard about what people fear, what makes them laugh, the soundtracks to their lives, and the topics that “get their goat.”


And now that I have, a new question had emerged: who owns the story and to what extent, now that it has been shared?  Well, it seems that the simple answer is that the one who told the story is the owner of it.  However, there were in many cases, also other people who were a part of the story as well.  Do they hold any ownership?  To what extent?  And now, just as the teller took the liberty to tell it, though it certainly, at minimum, also belonged to other people, do I now have that same level of ownership and privilege to share, albeit from the perspective of, “Today, at the cafe, I experienced a story that went like this…”  It is, in this case afterall, also my experience.  The question is, am I now free to tell it, to some extent, to any extent, as what I have now “experienced.”


As writers, leaders, and ones who are passionate about community, culture, society, and relationships, we must consider this question.  Not doing so belies a sincerity and authenticity in the telling of any narrative that is remote at best, a hot bed for exploiting the stories of others and inappropriately co-opting another’s narrative, dismantling the richness that emerges when one is empowered to share one’s own story.


But where does one end and the other begin?  And if I have been immersed for an extended period of time in a culture, a story, not originally my own, is it ever acceptable?  Do I ever come to a point in time when I am free to own it, to share it, as any and all participants, even as those who were born into it?


And what if my objective is to celebrate the story, the people in it, the culture the narrative exudes?  What if my goal and intent is authentically to share what is beautiful and remarkable about the narrative?  Might I become so debilitated by the potential to do harm that I wind up not sharing the story at all?  Is the “not-telling” in this case as celebratory, as admirable, as honorable, or more, than having told it, running the risk of being deemed self-serving, exploitative, “co-optive?”


A conundrum to be considered, indeed; one that deserves our grave consideration, attention, and discernment as we do and share lives and stories with others.  And while I do not pretend that each case does not come with its own nuances, predilections, and circumstances that bear weight in the balance of how to approach narrative ownership and dispensation, having mulled this topic over with a couple of authors and a few more community developers, here are some guidelines that were brought to bear:


  • At minimum, seek out the perspective and where appropriate, the permission of all primary parties to the narrative and uncover if they share your perspective or not on how whether or not they do will have impact on anything/anybody else
  • All good stories are to be told in their good and proper seasons.  Beyond the content, is the timing of the narrative/message most suitable?
  • Will the relationship you have with story stakeholders sustain your telling of the story?  Consider the relationships and what they can handle; the only thing more important than the story is the relationship from which it emerged.
  • Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, in her 2009 Ted Talk, warns us of the dangers of a single story.  That said, simply put, there is often more than one way to recount the same incident.  How will another’s telling, either before or after yours, affect your telling or the perception of it?
  • Are you the best person to tell the story, and if not, are you gracious enough to foster an opportunity for the one who is most appropriate to the do the telling?


These five factors are ones to be explored and considered as one discerns ownership of narrative, of voice, and of the empowerment of voices.  And while this piece does not gift wrap a solution and deliver it with a tiny little bow, it does equip its readers to consider who owns what stories when, and how we might share them towards the enhancement of collective dignity and equity.  Selah.

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