Saturday, November 16, 2013


Dear Inside Stories readers,

I'm posting only occasionally here on Inside Stories. Mostly, I've been busy doing webinars and presentations about my guide on "Storytelling and Social Change" -- aimed primarily at foundations, but also useful for media-makers, nonprofits, educators and others. It's published by my organization, Working Narratives. Click the link for a free download of that guide.

I've also taken up posting every Wednesday on the Working Narratives blog, which concerns social-justice storytelling. I'll mostly be blogging there mostly, and only occasionally here at Inside Stories. So please go bookmark that page or join Working Narratives on Facebook and/or Twitter

But please do keep an eye on Inside Stories for occasional special features! Thanks for reading! 

Best regards,
Paul VanDeCarr

Monday, July 8, 2013


I'm pleased to learn about this book released last year, Living Proof: Telling Your Story to Make a Difference. The authors have just recently launched a blog to accompany the book, and it's got some cool material that expands on the themes explored in the book.

The book is a "comprehensive guide to telling your personal story as an effective advocate for your cause or organization." It will help you decide what to tell, deliver your story effectively, and give good presentations and media interviews.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013


I'm finishing up work on a guide called "Storytelling and Social Change," aimed at grantmakers but useful for activists and media-makers, too. I'll post here when it's done.

In the meantime, here are a few recent conference sessions or webinars on the same topic.

From last month's National Conference on Media Reform comes two recorded sessions. One is called simply "Storytelling Strategies for Social Change," featuring presenters from the workers' rights, anti-war, anti-poverty and immigrant justice movements. Another session is on "Shifting Culture Through Storytelling, Media Making, and Collaboration." 

And from the Ashoka Future Forum comes a webinar on "Storytelling for Movement Building," featuring two special guests from the fields of health and domestic violence prevention, and hosted by Ashoka fellow Kara Andrade, a journalist, photographer and storyteller, and co-founder of HablaCentro.  

Sunday, April 21, 2013


IRA GLASS MANIFESTO: From 2004, Ira Glass' manifesto on radio storytelling, with audio clips to illustrate his points. A strong primer on what makes for compelling stories. 

"NARRATING LABOR STRUGGLES": Here's video of an event I was sorry to miss this week at CUNY, a panel discussion called "Narrating Labor Struggles: Storytelling and Social Change."  The panel discussion addressed the question of how storytelling can build public awareness of the struggles of immigrant and low-wage workers, and included director and filmmaker Nilita Vachani, domestic worker activist Christine Lewis, award-winning poet and writer Mark Nowak, and moderator Sujatha Fernandes. Note that the panel discussion starts at 49:30 into the video, and is about two hours long. 

Sunday, April 14, 2013


“Our stories, told by us.” That’s the slogan of the Neighborhood Story Project, which has high school students and others conduct interviews, take photos, and write books about New Orleans life and culture. One of those books is Before and After North Dorgenois, by Ebony Bolding. In the following excerpt, Bolding talks about how the city newspaper "twisted our words" in its coverage of a shooting at John McDonogh High School. Buy hers and other books at the organization's online bookstore

A week later Caveman was shot in the John McDonogh gym. I wasn't there and didn't see it, so I don't know how it happened. I was sitting by the gate at my high school, Clark, during the lunch break, when an undercover cop rolled up and told us to move from by the gate because they just had a shooting at John Mac and someone had been killed. I was hoping that it wasn't anybody that I knew.

I rode the Broad bus home with my friend Brittany, and she came with me to my house. By the time we got to my house most of the television crews had gone away, but there were still many policemen in the area. We were sitting on my porch just a half a block from school when a white man with a notebook came up to us and started asking us did we know Caveman and Head. He was asking me about Head, because he knew he went to Clark. Not realizing he was a newspaper reporter, we commented on what he had asked us, but it wasn't too much. He kept asking us if we liked Head and we couldn't say anything bad because we didn't really know him that well. The truth was that I would see Caveman every time that I went by my Grandfather's house on Dumaine Street in the Fifth Ward. As for Head, I used to see him at school. I didn't have anything against either one of them. To me they were cool people.

The next day they had a big write-up about the killing that included quotes from myself and Brittany. I couldn't believe how he twisted our words around. The reporter made it like we didn't like Head and Caveman. It was a big mess, and the reporter made more drama.

After the shooting, John Mac got a bad name. Stories about the shooting stayed on the news for weeks and weeks, a big beef grew between the Fifth and Sixth Wards, and Brittany and I were caught in between. People kept asking me, "Why you said that about that boy, why you said this?" I would just tell them to mind their business, because everything you read in the newspaper is not true. The conflict got to the point that people were telling me that I should watch out, that people were going to do me something. My mom got worried about me, and Brittany's mom got worried about her, so they pulled us out of school for the rest of the year.

From Before and After North Dorgenois by Ebony Bolding (page 39). © 2005 by the Neighborhood Story Project.

Sunday, April 7, 2013


APRIL 10-11. "ENVISION 2013: STORIES OF THE GLOBAL HEALTH CHALLENGE" Envision is a partnership between the Independent Filmmaker Project and the United Nations Department of Public Information, and addresses global issues through documentaries. This year's big Envision event focuses on global health, and includes film screenings, panel discussions, demonstrations of transmedia projects, and a pitch session. The opening film is "Blood Brother," the trailer of which is above. It's all free. See the full schedule and RSVP here
APRIL 17. "HOW THE HUMANITIES AND ARTS MAKE US HUMAN." A free panel discussion on "the moral imagination and everyday life," featuring playwright/actress Anna Deavere Smith, NYU sociologist Richard Sennett, clergywoman the Very Rev. Dr. Jane Shaw of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, Guggenheim Museum director Richard Armstrong, NYU professor and dean Gabrielle Starr, and moderated by NYU professor Jane Tylus. Reception to follow. See details and RSVP here
APRIL 17. "NARRATING LABOR STRUGGLES: STORYTELLING AND SOCIAL CHANGE" The CUNY Center for the Humanities brings together domestic worker activist Christine Lewis, social critic Mark Nowak, and filmmaker Nilita Vachani to discuss how storytelling can advance the cause of immigrant and low-wage workers.The free event takes place Wednesday, April 17 at 6:00pm, and full info is on the event website. (Andreas Gursky photo from the event website.) 

APRIL 28. "THE RACE TO INCARCERATE AND QUAKER PRISON WITNESS" A slide talk and book release celebration takes place at the 15th Street Quaker Meeting House, and looks at how the U.S. became the world leader in incarceration, and how comics are part of the solution. Graphic artist Sabrina Jones -- a member of the 15th Street Quaker Meeting -- will talk about her new book, "Race to Incarcerate," a "graphic retelling" of policy expert Marc Mauer's book of the same name. The book traces U.S. drug, sentencing, and prison policy over the last 40 years -- and how it has brought us to the record rates of incarceration we have in the U.S. today. The event is free, and copies of the book will be available for sale. Details at the 15th Street website

Sunday, March 31, 2013


The Worm in the Big Apple: Housing Works Troupe SNEAK PEEK from Theatre of the Oppressed NYC on Vimeo.

UPCOMING EVENT FROM "THEATRE OF THE OPPRESSED NYC": Theatre of the Oppressed is a participatory theater method started by Augusto Boal in the early 1970s to explore social and political issues, and is now used worldwide. One technique is for actors to play out a scene of a social problem, and then invite members of the audience, as "spect-actors," to step into scenes and replay them with different choices and endings. In this video from last year, Theatre of the Oppressed NYC does this exercise on HIV and housing / homelessness. I bring this up because the troupe has a cool event coming up on Monday, April 15 at  Housing Works Bookstore, again dealing with HIV. Another event in mid-May involves LGBTQ youth. Check out the organization's home page for more information. 

BUILDING STORIES: I recently finished reading graphic novelist Chris Ware's Building Stories, a box set of 14 books, fold-outs, pamphlets and other variously formatted components that together tell the stories of the residents of a three-story Chicago apartment building. The perspectives are various: not only the elderly landlady, the bickering couple, and the lonely woman with an amputated leg, but also the building itself and a bee get the spotlight. The focus is on the amputee, and we visit her at various stages of life. You can dip into her and others' stories at any point, depending on which of the 14 publications you start with, and where you go from there. No matter what path you take, the mysteries deepen or resolve in different ways. You can only read a book for the first time once, but I'm eager to reread Building Stories once I've forgotten some of the details, and shake up the order to see how the story resonates differently. A clever double entendre with the title, as you the reader participate in "building" the stories as you go along.

Sunday, March 24, 2013


"STORYSCAPES" IN NEW YORK NEXT MONTH: April 19-21 in New York City, the Tribeca Film Festival presents "Storyscapes," five innovative examples of interactive storytelling at an installation a the Bombay Sapphire --> ® House of Imagination. The event celebrates projects that are making smart use of "new technologies and new possibilities for audience participation."

FACING TEAR GAS: Facing Tear Gas is a tumblr bog of the War Resisters League that collects and shares stories of people who've experienced tear gas. The project aims to support the WRL's campaign to ban the export of US-made tear gas, and the militarization of police in our communities.
The tumblr doesn't have so many stories, and the most recent one at this point is a couple months old. Still, it's an interesting issue, and the project seems to have many of the same benefits (builds public participation, yields stories that the campaign can use in outreach and press relations), and challenges (hard to attract good and relevant stories) as other similar projects.

FAMILY STORIES: A recent article in the New York Times says that a strong narrative can bind a family together. Researchers categorized family narratives into three types: ascending (things are getting better and better), descending (the good times are past), and the most healthy type, oscillating (ups and downs)

Saturday, March 23, 2013


Chinua Achebe, the acclaimed Nigerian author who died this week, had a few things to say about telling stories.

In the final paragraph of his most famous novel, "Things Fall Apart" (1958), a British colonial commissioner in Nigeria imagines the book he'll write about how "he had toiled to bring civilization to different parts of Africa," and "every day brought him new material." The complex lives of the villagers get reduced to a mere obstacle for colonial progress, in the narrative conception of the commissioner, who has already thought of a title for his book: "The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger." 

Years ago, I heard Achebe speak, and he cited a proverb he's fond of: "Until the lions tell their own story, the story of the hunt will always glorify the hunter." He told the lion's story. 

Elsewhere, as quoted in this New York Times obituary, he said, "There is such a thing as absolute power over narrative. Those who secure this privilege for themselves can arrange stories about others pretty much where, and as, they like."

Sunday, March 10, 2013


Here's an interview I conducted in 1999 with Dr. Kaethe Weingarten about her work as a postmodern narrative family therapist. Dr. Weingarten is a clinical psychologist, peace psychologist, family therapist, as well as an Associate Clinical Professor of Psychology in the Harvard Medical School Department of Psychiatry at Cambridge Health Alliance (CHA). She has been up to a lot since our interview, and her most recent work focuses on "reasonable hope, chronic illness and sorrow." For a full bio, see after the interview.

What is narrative therapy and how is it distinct from other models of psychotherapy? 

I don’t think anybody has got a lock on narrative; most therapies rely on narrative to some extent, and most cultures rely on storytelling to effect healing or changes in people’s lives. Postmodern narrative family therapy, which is the kind of therapy that I do, is distinguished from other forms of family therapy practiced within a modernist frame.

Family therapy practiced from a modernist perspective takes an empirical approach to problems of individuals and families. There’s now a body of literature that’s been produced over the last 50 years that a competent modernist family therapist would study and feel that there would be no problem [a family was] likely to present that [she] wouldn’t have read about or seen before. She would assume that it was her responsibility to know something about the causes of a problem and the solutions to that problem; and [further she] would consider it essential to be able to diagnose the problem. The therapist sees herself as an expert, and does what experts do.

In contradistinction, a postmodern family therapist doesn’t have an idea that the problem is an entity that the family brings into the room. Rather, she believes that through dialogue, a description of a problem emerges. That description is considered to be highly fluid, evolving, changing, changeable. Diagnosis isn’t the point; the point is helping people participate in the conversation, so that a co-constructed definition of the problem will evolve through the conversation. The expertise that a postmodern family therapist is coming into the room with is expertise in helping people participate in a conversation, and keeping the conversation going. 

Tell me more about the “narrative” in “postmodern narrative family therapy.” 

Postmodern narrative family therapy was developed by Michael White and David Epston in Australia and New Zealand, respectively. People who practice a postmodern narrative family therapy have one basic orienting belief, and that is that everybody’s life is a story, or is storied, and what gets people into trouble is when there is a dominant story that is relatively inflexible for current circumstances, and that relief comes from developing alternative stories. Often the alternative stories have elements in them [that] are marginalized or subjugated, and it requires deconstruction of the dominant narrative in order to free up enough collective space in a family for an alternative story to develop. 

There is a view that stories are always a contrivance, that they make meaning out of essentially random events. Is there such a thing as a “natural” narrative that emerges in postmodern narrative family therapy, as opposed to a constructed narrative? 

My position would be that all narratives are co-constructed through the process of conversation. If a different group of people were present, a different narrative would emerge. At the same time, I do think that there are constraints on how varied the narrative can be. So I’d probably take a more moderate position on that.  

Are you as the therapist the co-constructor of these narratives?  

Absolutely. There’s a wonderful phrase, “every question is fateful.” You can’t ask a question without it having profound effects. As a therapist, primarily what I do is listen and ask questions, and I would say that my listening is as fateful as my questioning. 

What are you listening for in therapy? 

I’m listening for content. I’m listening for the process of what’s being communicated, by whom, through what verbal and non-verbal means, at what pacing, with what rhythm. I’m listening for inconsistencies across content and process. I’m listening carefully when language stops or is difficult to access. There are times when people have a lot of difficulty finding language for their experience. I’m particularly interested in those moments, because [often they are] very fruitful places for newness to emerge. I’m listening for silences, I’m listening for absences, for what’s not being said. I’m listening for silence as punctuation, not as a gap, but as a full, meaningful, shaped moment in a conversation. 

You’ve written a lot about mothers. What are some dominant cultural narratives about mothers and their children? 

That’s been the subject of my research for the last decade, so I could certainly talk about that for a couple of days. I think the primary cultural narrative about mothers is the splitting of mothers into good and bad, and mothering practices into good and bad. I think that’s virtually universal, and it’s invariably pernicious. Mothers tend to internalize that judgmental view, and begin to code their own behavior [and] feelings as good or bad, as opposed to on a very broad spectrum—or, more importantly, as context-dependent. Another dominant discourse is around maternal selflessness, which affects a narrow band worldwide of mothers, but with very pernicious affects. The idea that a mother needs to encourage the development of the child’s self, and that when the needs of the child and the needs of the mother conflict, that a good mother is selfless. 

In your book The Mother’s Voice you talked about “radical listening,” and said that listening to mothers would help effect social change. What’s radical about radical listening? 

To be listened to carefully is an incredibly unusual experience; that in and of itself is political, and therefore radical, [in the sense of] “from the root.” In the book, I’m really talking about children listening carefully to their mothers—and not because mothers were imposing on them, which is something that I have tremendous concerns about. But assuming that the context were appropriate and it would not be burdensome for a child, I think that it’s radical because it promotes a mutuality that’s generally not experienced by people. And so if in the crucible of the family, young people are exposed to relationships of mutuality, what could be more radical for society than having its young people emerge into public life capable of genuine mutuality? 

About Kaethe Weingarten. Kaethe Weingarten, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist, peace psychologist and family therapist who is an Associate Clinical Professor of Psychology in the Harvard Medical School Department of Psychiatry at Cambridge Health Alliance (CHA). She is founder and director of The Witnessing Project, a nonprofit organization that consults to individuals, families, and communities locally, nationally, and internationally to transform passive witnessing of violence and violation into effective action. Dr. Weingarten was a faculty member of the Family Institute of Cambridge from 1982 until it closed in 2009 and it is there that she founded and directed the Program in Families, Trauma and Resilience. Dr. Weingarten has worked in Kosovo and South Africa for the last several years, addressing issues of community-wide and continuous trauma. In 2002 she was given the award for Distinguished Contribution to Family Theory and Practice by the American Family Therapy Academy.  She has over 90 publications, including six books, and her most recent book, Common Shock -- Witnessing Violence Every Day: How We Are Harmed, How We Can Heal, won the 2004 Nautilus Award for Social Change. In 2009, she was a Fulbright Specialist Scholar to New Zealand. Dr. Weingarten lectures widely nationally and internationally and maintains a private consultation practice of individuals, couples and families. Her current work focuses on reasonable hope, chronic illness and sorrow.

Sunday, March 3, 2013


The grassy knoll in Dallas, as seen from the Sixth Floor Museum
JFK FROM START TO FINISH: I'm from Brookline, Massachusetts, the birthplace of John F. Kennedy, and home to the John Fitzgerald Kennedy National Historic Site, located in the little house where he grew up. I was recently in Dallas, where I visited the Sixth Floor Museum, which documents JFK's assassination, and is located in the book depository where Lee Harvey Oswald took the fatal shots. Both sites make ample use of the recorded voices of people who knew JFK. At the birthplace, a recording of family matriarch Rose Kennedy narrates the goings-on in each room of the house, like the kitchen where little future president would eat cookies! At the Sixth Floor Museum, recordings of witnesses to JFK's assassination spoke of their perspective. I found the use of audio more affecting than video is or would be at either of the sites, as it more readily allowed me to project past events onto the present-day scene. 

"NARRATIVES OF THE 99%" EVENT THIS WEEK AT CUNY GRADUATE CENTER: This Thursday at 6:00pm at the City University of New York, Graduate Center, an event on "Storytelling and Occupy." As described on the event page: "Telling personal stories can empower storytellers, build community, and move groups to action. In the second year of Occupy Wall Street, how has storytelling moved from the encampments and assemblies to the various campaigns for housing, health care, and debt resistance, among others? What challenges do we face when documenting and archiving people’s personal stories? Join movement organizers from groups in and beyond OWS for a conversation about storytelling as tool for transformation."

Sunday, February 17, 2013


TEJU COLE'S TWITTER STORIES ON DRONE STRIKES: Teju Cole, author of the captivating novel of wandering, Open City, last month wrote "seven short stories on drones." Each story was the length of a tweet, and each borrows the opening line of a famous work of literature. For example, "Call me Ishmael. I was a young man of military age. I was immolated at my wedding. My parents are inconsolable." Click here for the full set of stories, and here for Cole's funny, musical, political and all-around pretty excellent Twitter feed. (Recent tweet: "I'm of two minds about most things, and so am I.")

DANIEL ALARCÓN'S PODCAST: Jorge Rivas says to think of it as "This Latin American Life" -- really, it's "Radio Ambulante," a radio show and podcast launched last year that showcases "compelling human stories from around Latin America and the United States." It's produced by a team of folks including novelist Daniel Alarcón, who says he hopes the show provokes listeners to think about "how stories get told, and who tells them." Each of the three episodes so far has fictional and factual stories on a theme, including "Moving," "Names," and "Miracles." It's smart stuff, and worth a listen. The website has full audio in Spanish, and some in English.

Monday, February 4, 2013


"I've been trying to figure out for years a way to collaborate with readers," says fantasy writer Neil Gaiman, of "Coraline" fame, in the video above. Now he's got his wish, thanks to a new project he's doing with BlackBerry, called "A Calendar of Tales," in which readers can text in ideas and illustrations for a series of stories that he'll write.