Using storytelling to make a million people take action: 5 key takeaways (Ep2)

How do you convert emotion into actions? How can the power of storytelling help people learn? How can you get people to get into a mindset where they’re prepared to take action on something they care about? We’ve pulled out the 6 top takeaways from Simon’s conversation with Daniel Hunter, Global Training Manager at 350.org. 

Daniel Hunter storytelling

About 350.org

350.org uses online campaigns, glossaries organizing, and mass public actions to oppose new coal, oil, and gas projects, and build one hundred percent clean energy solutions that work for all. Their network extends to millions of people in over 188 countries.

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Here are our 5 key takeaways from the episode

1. Convert emotions into action by having specific goals and targets.

“One reason I think the youth climate strikers have been so successful is because they’re coming out of frustration, despair, anger, some hope, and some very honest assessment of how dangerous these times are. So, movements speak to feelings. That’s one of the things that holds them together.”

“But of course, that isn’t enough. People need a direction. In the organizing parlance we talk about targets; you want to have a goal, you want to have a target, you want to have someone that rather than just an expression of “Something should change, and we hope someone will do it.” It’s a statement that “We want this person or these set of people to make different policy changes” or changes in behavior. So, for 350, we really targeted to sets—which has largely been the fossil fuel industry, which is an industry that needs to die, simply put, so that’s one target is the fossil fuel companies. And specifically, we want to move governments who have been incredibly slow and flat-footed on this.”

“One of the other things in terms of your question of what makes a movement fly, is having that sense of goal and target that we’re unifying around.”

2. Create an infrastructure where every individual matters, instead of using single-person events as examples.

“… Most of us have been taught very bad thinking about how movements operate—a lot of myths. For example, in the U.S., we teach Rosa Parks and her action where she refused to sit down at the back of a bus, and that that sparked off a local and eventually national movement for ending segregation in the United States. So people learn that a kind of movement myth that single-person actions are how movements jumpstart. But it’s not actually the truth. The truth is more complex. It’s that Rosa Parks was already an established organizer and someone who’d been in activism herself, and that there’d been a team of people who’d been thinking about organizing a bus boycott for some time. And, in fact, several other people before Rosa Parks had sat down on buses and been arrested under similar circumstances, and the movement itself had chosen not to pick up those people. One was an unwed mother, and they felt that wouldn’t be a good image to put out there; another was a young woman who was very direct and quite hot-tempered, swore a lot, so they were worried about her as well.”

“The reality of movement organizing is that it isn’t done by a single hero. It isn’t done by one single large mass mobilization. And in all of these, we have some myths that I think limited an individual’s sense of what they can do. So, that groundwork happens when people develop local campaigns, where they create infrastructure that allows people to work together on some shared progress.”

“…as a starting point, I want to get people thinking about a strength that they already have, a skill that they’ve got that they didn’t even know they had, or a time that they were successful, or even just an initiating starting point of something that they can kind of lean on. Campaigning involves so much feeling of being ineffectual, so I want to work with the part of people that has some sense of, “I can learn, I can grow, we can adapt, we can change.” As opposed to the part of them that says, “It’s hopeless, I can’t win”—you know, that feels stuck. We also teach people hard digital skills and it’s a similar thing.”

3. People learn by the specific.

“I think one of the great mistakes of classical educational theory is, you know—if I’m going to teach about nonviolence, I come in and I talk about the theoretical consequences of nonviolent direct action, about the pillars of support, about the various campaign structures, about etc. etc. I go into the theory and I lay it all out there. But people don’t learn that way. The reality is, people learn by what’s next to them. They learn by hearing an example of—when you were a kid, Simon, you already knew how to do nonviolent direct action. Every child has already done it. So, I would teach by asking you, “What’s a time when you stood up to your parents, where you got them to do something even when they didn’t want to do it? How’d you try doing it, even if you weren’t successful?” Everybody’s got that story as a teenager or eight-year-old or five-year-old, that they’ve tried to get someone to do something by using whatever tools they had available to them—even if they didn’t have traditional power. That’s the heartbeat of nonviolent direct action.”

“And now, we’re in a territory where I’m talking about it in your context. So, that’s the challenge of distributed education, is how do you teach a board concept when you may not have high familiarity with someone’s particular context? That’s certainly some of the challenges we had when we were developing the online courses that we’ve been creating.”

4. Use storytelling to speak to what people care about and get them into the mindset of action.

“We’re storytelling creatures… One thing we thought to ourselves was, how can you ask a question—as you say, prod—someone to dig into their own life experience a little bit? The relationship most of us have with a computer isn’t, “I come to my computer in order to be highly thoughtful and collective.” It’s a place where I watch a movie, or play a game, or read someone’s else’s thing. So, our starting point was—as much as possible, we wanted to start each online course with something that would elicit from people a position, a thought, a reflection on something that they did. In some of the courses we developed, we just straight up asked people, “What’s a time when you blank blank blank?” And we’d ask people, “What’s a time when you tried standing up for yourself and were successful? What did you do?” We asked people a series of questions: “What did you try?” “How would you categorize your technique?” So we gave six different categories and tried to give people some options, just as a way to increase the probability that someone actually is thinking of a particular time. So we’d be working with that story. Even though the computer didn’t analyze that story, didn’t even listen—we didn’t have to record it—we’re trying to get them to interact with their own story.”

“As soon as you’re telling your story, we’re already in the territory. It’s then just a matter of trying to weave together the pieces of what someone’s story is, as closely as we can, so that we can get to “the theory,” or the models. The theory that I teach with is the experiential model, which is we start with an experience. Reflection is actually what you may or may not have done, which is thinking deeply on “How did I make that choice?” “What were the emotional complications?” etc. etc. etc. Reflection, even in successful stories of campaigns, could always use more reflection.

And then, generalization is bringing in concepts, language—I introduce the language of civil disobedience… Then, I would move to application, where we would then, for example, plan together.”

5. Avoid the belief that knowledge is what makes action impossible.

“And that’s the other thing. People don’t have to know about nonviolent direct action theory in order to be doing it. Therefore, we don’t want to create a belief that the knowledge is what makes it possible. The thing that makes it possible is your feeling, “I don’t want that, and I’m willing to take a risk in order to make that not happen anymore.” That, the cultivation of that feeling—that resistance, that unwillingness, that willingness to take a risk—that feeling more than anything else is the heartbeat of what we rely on to make change.”

Daniel’s work with Eucidat

In other cases, we were a little bit less overt in our strategy. We had a course that we developed called “Having Climate Change Conversations.” This course is about how do you get people to talk about climate change in their own life, in a more effective way? We had people start by sharing “What are some of the strategies that you’ve tried already when you talk about climate change that we know don’t work?” I believe we said things like—“I reference polar bears and faraway places that people have no personal relationship to.”  Or, “I use lots of scientific mumbo-jumbo.” Or, “I make sure to not get emotional in any way shape or form.” Or, “I etc. etc. etc.” We just had people click little checkboxes—there are little icons to go along with them—but they’d check little boxes on what are the different things you have done at one point in time.

having climate change conversations elucidat

Then we say, that’s fine, we’ve all done some of these things and sometimes, actually, they might be the right thing for the right group. But, as we’re learning more about climate change communication, we’re finding out these things don’t really work so well. So, let’s try out some different strategies… That’s our intro. And again, what we’re trying to do is we’re trying to set people up by recalling something that they’ve already participated in, that they can be connected to the content so that they’re bringing themselves to the table. Because my belief, as an educator, is the more people are authentic, the more effective my teaching can be.

Daniel’s book:

Strategy and Soul, Daniel Hunter

“So I’m an author myself. So I’ve written about organizing activism through storytelling. I bring people through a whole campaign in a book called Strategy and Soul, which tells the story of a local campaign that I was involved with around the development issue of casinos.”

Daniel’s book recommendations:

Facilitating Group Learning: Strategies for Success with Adult Learners, George Lakey

“And another book, from my mentor, called Facilitating Group Learning: Strategies for Success with Adult Learners is more the pedagogical underpinnings of experiential cycle… George’s book is a little more storytelling and weaves in examples from more contemporary activist education—but applicable to learners of all kinds.”

Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire

“The experiential methodology that I use is rooted out of the work of Paulo Freire, who is a brilliant educator in Brazil, who is working with an oppressed group and wrote a book called Pedagogy of the Oppressed, which is kind of a classical text in my field. That one is a bit more on the academic side.”

Join the conversation!

You can join us on Twitter @Learn_at_Large to keep the conversation going using the hashtag #LearningatLarge, or email me at simon@elucidat.com with thoughts, suggestions, and questions. We’d love to hear from you so don’t hesitate to get in touch.

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