I’m reading two great books about the power of story as an organizing tool in social change struggles. One is smartMeme’s RE:Imagining Change (a guide for activists on story-based strategy), the other is It Was Like a Fever: Story-telling in Protest and Politics by Francesca Polletta.
Amongst other subjects, both Polletta and smartMeme discuss the problem of “victim stories” for social change agents. Social change organizations understandably try to mobilize to address an injustice by showing the real-life negative impact of that injustice. Victims of the injustice tell their stories (or their stories are told) often emphasizing victim status – purposely or not – with the hope of appealing to people’s sense of compassion and mobilizing a popular response.
The problem though is that victim stories usually don’t work very well for challenger movements to challenge power relationships. Instead of mobilizing people, they tend to reinforce the existing power structure – in part by reinforcing the idea that victims are in fact powerless.
SmartMeme encourages change agents to tell a story that instead casts challenger movements as empowered and sympathetic protagonists, who are attractive in large part because they are seen as winners or on a winning trajectory (usually in an insurgent kind of way). Polletta discusses situations where social movement organizations have successfully done just that (e.g. Rosa Parks’ refusal, or the lunch counter sit-ins), and also discusses examples of when movements have presented their “main characters” as victims – which characteristically hasn’t worked very well.