The Power of a Story

We are living in a moment of upheaval: a global pandemic and economic downturn, a contentious election cycle, a growing and widespread confrontation with centuries of structural racism and violence. This moment is in many ways a fork in the road. It could further fuel division and hate — or could lead us towards greater equality, equity, dignity, and cohesion. We see these dynamics playing out already. The pandemic and accompanying economic downturn have fed dangerous narratives and scapegoating targeting already marginalized groups. At the same time, we’ve seen people respond to the pandemic by coming together in mutual support and aid. Following the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and George Floyd, we see a reckoning with structural racism and police brutality in America on a new scale, and with it the profound potential for systemic changes. And yet we also see this being met with militarized force. 

The path forward is in no way marked by inevitability. It is marked by the choices we make and the actions we take.  As someone who has spent the last decade working to understand the role of communication in dividing societies and laying the groundwork for group-targeted violence, I believe the stories and ideas we amplify and use to take action will play a defining role in how we emerge from this moment. 

The stories we tell and the ideas we accept both mirror and shape our collective reality. They help define who we are, where we belong, what is expected of us, who we feel compassion towards, what events mean, and who bears blame and responsibility.  History teaches that narratives that blame groups, portray them as threats or as less than human, and those that narrowly define an “us” in need of protection at any cost pave the way towards division and violence and are used to justify oppression. It also teaches us that when confronted with these narratives and ideas, the words and actions of leaders of all types – emerging, long-standing, formal, informal – matter. Research and history suggest the need to mobilize messages and stories that create positive social expectations, that model compassion and address fundamental grievances and inequities, that showcase collaborative action and agency, and that create a broader version of “us” rather than sinking into us/them divides.

In this moment, we each have the chance to examine and re-examine the stories we’ve been told, those we’ve told ourselves, those we share and those we reject. We each have a role to play in recognizing and counteracting narratives that promote hate, division, and violence, and in actively choosing to use our voices and support and amplify the voices of others towards equity, justice, dignity, and connection. The stories and ideas we choose to hold onto through this time of uncertainty will be critical in shaping our collective future.


Rachel Brown
Founder and Executive Director, Project Over Zero

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