Storytelling as a Pathway to Equity: Leading Together 2021
Like many of us in the philanthropic sector, I have, over the past year, been to more than a few webinars and conferences on philanthropy’s role in advancing equity. It can often feel like we’re all following a standard script. We acknowledge that racism exists, and has in fact existed for a while; we acknowledge that philanthropy has traditionally perpetuated injustices; and then we conclude that we must fund communities of color. We’re often too scared of saying the “wrong” thing or the “radical” thing to go any deeper than that.
Day 2 of Leading Together 2021 was markedly different. I signed off after a day of Zoom sessions on hard topics with a noticeably warmer, more open heart--not something that I can say happens often! The theme that kept showing up for me was the importance of storytelling in working towards equity and racial justice: retelling the stories and histories that shape both our present conditions and the future towards which we’re heading.
The day started with Paul Di Donato from the Proteus Fund inviting each of us to put aside our fears and show up authentically, and simultaneously putting his words into action by bravely sharing his personal experiences with issues of race, gender, and sexuality. “The time to talk about race and equity is now,” he said. “This is bigger than any of us or our emotions.” The other speakers in the plenary session, “Committing to Equity and Inclusivity: Moving from Words to Actions,”were Natosha Reid Rice from Habitat for Humanity International and Eddy Zheng from New Breath Foundation. They both shared a similar spirit of radical honesty, expounding about how their various identities have shaped their experience of the world, and of the philanthropic sector.
As Natosha said, this work of equity is really about “acknowledging the humanity of each one of us and providing brave spaces of dignity to experience that humanity.” Through each of the speaker’s daring vulnerability and storytelling, the first session did just that. It was an honor to witness these three brilliant philanthropic leaders, each representing perspectives underrepresented in philanthropy, in all of their brilliant humanity and dignity. The experience demonstrated to me the importance of starting with storytelling in our work. That includes storytelling with grantee partners and with communities, and also with colleagues and peer funders. We need to understand the perspectives each of us bring to our work, and how we learn from each other to create a shared vision for the future.
As Eddy shared, “We aren’t safe until we understand that our liberation is tied to each other’s.” Learning and listening to the truth of our histories allows us to engage in “personal revolution, for the purpose of collective revolution,” he added. In this way, radical storytelling paves the way for the inner transformation required of every one of us to show up for our collective liberation.
Later in the day, Mutale Nkonde of AI for the People shared her reflections on not seeing herself in any stories for most of her life. In this session, “Digital Dependencies, Discrimination, and Democracy: What are Philanthropy’s Roles?”she described her experience growing up in the UK and receiving an education of “selective storytelling,” learning all about the conquests and achievements of British colonizers around the world, yet never learning about the history of her own Zambezi people. Working as a journalist for years, she realized that she and her people were not often allowed to be the “main characters” of political narratives that centered white, Western people. If we are to build a world where we are centering our collective humanity across race, gender, region, etc., we must learn to honor all people’s stories.
Sabrina Hersi Issa from Be Bold Media also reflected on the importance of storytelling for imagination. As she put it, “We need to be able to collectively imagine a new world if we are ever going to get there. We need to be able to look at it together, and then build it brick by brick.” She also discussed how radical imagination forces us to really look at the future, far beyond philanthropy’s standard timelines of two or five years, to consider how we want our actions to shape generations and begin to work for the truly long-term.
I’m walking away from day two of Leading Together with a deeply felt sense of the power of story as a strategy for advancing equity. Storytelling helps us experience each other’s humanity and build relational trust, internally as organizations and externally with grantee partners; it helps us reckon with the often-hidden truths of our past and of what needs to heal; and it helps us imagine a future of collective liberation.
How can each of us create more spaciousness for storytelling in our work? Part of it requires letting go of internalized, white-dominant cultural norms of “efficiency” and “productivity.” Being with each other, truly seeing each other and feeling each other’s humanity is exactly what the task of advancing equity requires of us.