Celebrating the power of small stories

Do you avoid the “news”? If so, you’re not alone. The most recent Digital News Report from the Reuters Institute says that “the proportion of news consumers who say they avoid news, often or sometimes, has increased sharply across countries.” Why? Many said the news “has a negative effect on their mood.”

I learned about this report via an article from Amanda Ripley, whose book High Conflict helped me understand a great deal about our world. (It is so powerful, in fact, that Simon and Schuster is sharing it for free during July in hopes it will help us all have more constructive conversations.)

“I’ve spent the past year trying to figure out what news designed for 21st-century humans might look like — interviewing physicians who specialize in communicating bad news to patients, behavioral scientists who understand what humans need to live full, informed lives and psychologists who have been treating patients for “headline stress disorder.” ….When I distilled everything they told me, I found that there are three simple ingredients that are missing from the news as we know it.”

Those three things, she said, are hope, a sense of agency (“how we convert anger into action, frustration into invention – self-efficacy is essential to any functioning democracy”), and dignity.

“What does dignity look like? Shamil Idriss, the head of Search for Common Ground, which works to prevent violence in 31 countries, explains it simply: “To me, it’s the feeling I have that I matter, that my life has some worth.” In journalism, treating people like they matter means, most importantly, listening to them ….and writing about people as more than the sum of their circumstances.”

Photo by James Wainscoat on Unsplash

“The world will get better when people understand problems, threats and challenges, and what their best options are to make progress,” says David Bornstein, co-founder of the nonprofit Solutions Journalism Network, which has trained over 25,000 journalists to do solutions stories all over the world.

I’ve known about solutions journalism for a long time, because I’ve been collecting these kinds of small stories of change for almost two decades.

For me, it began when I was studying Human Security and Peacebuilding at university two decades ago, and found that alongside the theories of ‘failed states’ and ongoing conflict, there were all kinds of different stories that were too often ignored. Stories of what was working. Stories of solutions. Small stories. Maybe people thought they were just too small, or ‘anecdotal’ – a word the academic world uses far too cavalierly.

I’d been doing community revitalization work in conflicted areas for a while, and I was looking for explanations. But too often, I found I was getting analysis of why things didn’t work – not analysis of what was working, and why. I started collecting these stories, and eventually, I developed a research proposal to look at two places that had rebuilt after terrible conflict, one in Africa and one in Europe.

And what I discovered was that people had done it by themselves, even if sometimes with the shared wisdom of outsiders, by learning how to talk to one another again. At the smallest levels first – family, then friends. And eventually that grew, and grew, and in one case, led them to take back their independence as a country and rebuild from scratch. And in the other, to form a legislature that safeguarded the rights of all ethnic groups and rebuilt their community by taking apart an older, more corrupt system and creating one that was accountable. It wasn’t easy, for either. But it started with small stories, shared by individual people. Small stories that hardly anyone in the outside world paid attention to.

When I taught a fieldwork course in human security and peacebuilding at university a few years back, I assigned small groups to research particular areas of Africa by looking for the small stories – of peacebuilding, of community development, of human resource development, of ingenuity. I found that younger students took to this assignment with gusto; older folks, especially men, found it a lot more challenging. 

This is an up close and personal portrait of a starfish. Because it is so small and unassuming, hundreds of people walk past and ignore it every day. This picture shows how brilliant tiny things can be and what you can see if you decide to stop and take a look. Samuel Bordo on Unsplash

Why were they looking for such stories, some asked. Where should they look for them? Because, I explained, this will give you ideas for projects and approaches that grow from a local context, rather than being developed from the top down – approaches that are neighbour to neighbour, not expert to novice.

Why Don’t They Get More Attention?

Last year, I started to wonder why small stories didn’t get the attention I thought they deserved. I had started this blog, Hopebuilding, to share some of them. (Back in 2006, I’d created a wiki to share them – unfortunately it got hijacked by some bad digital actors which now bounce you to other sites, so it’s no longer useful.) 

And when the AMED journal, e-Organisations and People, set a theme of “From Ego to Eco”, I sent in a proposal for an article about why this was. And I did some serious thinking.

I concluded that it was because we’re in a time of paradigm change – the industrial society that replaced our agricultural one is running down, but the sustainable society that’s replacing it is only visible now through all the small stories of sustainability. 

You might want to have a look at the article, “What’s next? The small stories that are shaping a new sustainable narrative”.

“The new sustainable future that is emerging all around us is not easy to see because it is made up of thousands of small stories that emerge from the grassroots even as our societal narrative seems to be stuck in a much different, and older, big story,” I said.

“The challenge is recognizing the new overall narrative which those stories are shaping – and that is the value of the ‘doughnut economy’, the ‘circular economy’, ‘biomimicry’ (design from nature), the ‘ecosystem services‘ perspective, and now, the ‘green vortex‘. These meta narratives create frameworks that allow the small stories of achievement to be seen as building blocks, rather than as blips, and situate the ‘what doesn’t work’ side of the ledger in a more holistic context.”

The ‘two loops model’ developed by the Berkana Institute gave us a model for how to see this – the old system that is running down, the many small experiments that are popping up everywhere, and the bridge we can build about the transition from the old to the new. “And that means seeing and sharing the small stories of sustainable achievement as guideposts for the future rather than temporary respites from a bleak picture.”

It’s A Wider Conversation

I have come to think that this is wider than just a conversation about sustainability. It is a conversation about who we are as people, and how we find ways to live and work together even when we hold differing points of view.

I have developed my own small circular approach. I scour all kinds of publications for the small stories of achievement, and I submit them to KarunaNews. I also help with summarizing stories, because people often feel so overwhelmed by the news that they are prepared to read just a one paragraph summary rather than a long story. 

This is a great exercise, because I have to read the whole story carefully in order to summarize it. It has improved my writing, as well as my thinking. I often find myself becoming curious, and doing more research that leads me to write a Hopebuilding post. Because so often the small stories are effectively the tip of an iceberg. Where did this idea come from? What issue does it address? Why does it work? Can it be scaled up or replicated? And then I share the KarunaNews summaries on my Facebook feed.

You can do the same thing, and help us change the picture of what ‘news’ is. Look for what’s working in your community or region. Become curious about why it’s working. And then share the story with everyone else.