June 28, 2015

Reflections on Stories, Empathy, and Helping People Be Heard

“I work with stories. I don’t need to define it. I just need to do it better.” – Participant

“To find a meaningful story is simply to walk around in the world with your eyes open, listening.” – Jacqueline Banaszynski, Missouri School of Journalism
I’m at the Restorative Narrative Summit, a conference and retreat organized by Images & Voices of Hope. The organization believes “that media can create meaningful positive change in the world. Our global community includes journalists, documentary filmmakers, photographers, social media specialists, gamers and more. …It’s about amplifying the best in human nature and whenever possible shining a light on the steps we can take towards the future we want.”

The Summit opened with members of its Fellows program, which provides five journalists with a stipend to spend six months telling Restorative Narratives. These are defined as “stories that show how people and communities are learning to rebuild and recover in the aftermath, or midst of, difficult times…[These narratives] locate the opportunity in disruption and move beyond questions of ‘what happened?’ to questions of ‘what’s possible?’”

When asked what they have learned, one Fellow, Alex Tizon, offered, “It’s hard to give up narrative as central to the conflict. …I like the benevolent pressure I feel from this group, it forces me to work hard, to strive for empathy.”

Another Fellow, Rochelle Riley, observed, “It takes longer, because you have to wait for people to move forward.”

Time and patience continued to emerge as key components of empathetic storysharing.

Many participants have self-identified as recovering advertising people. There’s also a cohort of former broadcast journalists who are now therapists. Having worked in advertising myself (after going to college at 16 to earn a B.S. in advertising), I was prompted to reflect on this convergence.

I was attracted to advertising because, on 10th grade career day, we visited an advertising agency with a focus room group. Upon seeing the two-way mirror, I thought it was so cool that you could actually find out why people do what they do and want what they want.

At its core, advertising is giving people what they want. That focus group room was inviting the ad agency to listen to what participants were thinking and reflect it back to them. There is a generosity – hear me out, please! – at the heart of the work. Ideally, you can help people be heard.

Felix Richter, of Droga5, shared the incredible ads he made for Under Armour. Felix was speaking on a panel about how media can challenge stereotypes and change perceptions. In approaching the Under Armour work, he said they didn’t want to be patronizing to women – “You can do it!” – nor did they just want to tell women to exercise more.

Instead, Droga5 championed the campaign, “I will what I want.” He explained, “Advertising shows extreme stereotypes all the time, and they become accepted as true. Showing the opposite of that can help us get to the real truth.” To that end, I was delighted to see his ad featuring Gisele Bündchen, "in a raw workout, while real social comments, from both haters and supporters in response to the signing of Gisele to Under Armour just two days earlier, invade her space. Gisele remains focused, willing what she wants."

I’m guessing the cohort of reformed advertising folk were not as lucky or talented as Felix, or simply not working with adventurous clients. Our desire to be generous in giving people what they want, and allowing people to be heard, led us to journalism, arts, education, or advocacy. There is an inherent generosity in desiring to respect and reflect people’s lives back to them.

Here is Kim Cross, author of What Stands in a Storm, explaining her motivation in writing a book about a community’s resilience in the wake of the nation’s most destructive tornado event, focusing on a family that lost a child:
I wanted the reader to know what it was like for a parent to lose a child. Instead of walking a wide arc around them in the Piggly Wiggly, they would engage them.
Kim also offered a meaningful distinction between pity, sympathy, and empathy:
In sympathy, you are looking down at someone. In sympathy, you are looking at someone. In empathy, you are sitting next to someone.
Listening to people and enabling them to be heard is necessary and time consuming. Letting go of assumptions and allowing the time for people to find their voice and establish enough trust to share what they are thinking takes patience (and practice). Patience, purpose, and passion are gifts we give one another.

At the closing reflection, Jacqueline Banaszynski offered this wisdom, “You don’t have to rush just because you’re under time pressure.”

The conference is being held at Peace Village in the Catskill Mountains. Internet and phone access is extremely limited. Friday was an extraordinary day of news to be spending with journalists in almost total blackout! At the close of the day, I wept with joy and sadness – with empathy -- while going through my Facebook feed celebrating marriage equality, and the transformative power of the eulogy President Obama delivered in Charleston: 
He was full of empathy and fellow feeling… He embodied the idea that our Christian faith demands deeds and not just words; that the ‘sweet hour of prayer’ actually lasts the whole week long – that to put our faith in action is more than individual salvation, it's about our collective salvation; that to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and house the homeless is not just a call for isolated charity but the imperative of a just society.
 Empathy: the imperative of a just society.


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