Beyond Policy to the Personal: How Public Narrative Can Create Impact

August 12, 2014
by Myrdin Thompson, RESULTS U.S. Poverty Organizer

“It was a dark and stormy night…”


Are you compelled to want to read further or do you expect another cliche story about, well, what happens on dark and stormy nights, and might not be interested in engaging any further in the narrative.

Probably the latter, which is why it is more important than ever before if we want our story told that we need to re-think how we are telling it. At RESULTS we believe that we have the power to end poverty. That collectively, by understanding the data that drives our public policies and partnering it with personal stories, we will be able to help our elected leaders and community members make better and more effective decisions that will benefit all of us. But telling a personal story is often difficult, even under the best of circumstances, because we too have been influenced by the what policy is practicing to believe that our voice isn't valuable or valued.

Recently on a joint training call conducted in partnership between Meredith Dodson of RESULTS and LaNae Havens, a formerly Circles Leader who is now a volunteer with RESULTS in Albuquerque, participants listened to and discussed how sharing one key personal moment about what it is like to live in poverty can change the entire narrative and dialogue concerning poverty. For example, we continue to urge Congressional leadership to protect and strengthen tax credits (such as EITC and CTC) for low income families because we know that these provisions kept 10.1 million Americans out of poverty in 2012, half of them children. And while many politicians will say “according to the data” families do not spend these tax credits wisely, ask any family struggling in poverty what they spend these savings on and you will learn it isn't a new television or vacation, it is on the basics: heating, shelter, automobile maintenance, clothing for their children for school.

As LaNae Havens pointed out to her congressional leaders during the recent Hill visits as part of the RESULTS International Conference, she budgets for basics on what the tax credits will help her obtain. Tires for her car are not a luxury, but a necessity. And an expensive one at that. Without the tires, she will have to make more trips to a mechanic to offset the continual wear and tear on her car. Without a car, she then becomes dependent on either the help of others or public transportation. Have you ever made a trip to the grocery store and transported those goods via a city bus? It isn't easy, and one trip can in fact become two. What about trying to get to a child's school event? Having an unreliable vehicle creates a stigma or an assumption by others that you are unreliable. Not having a car means potentially being late to work, or other important activities. So while policy makers want to slash these credits, it becomes crucial that we share why making these cuts creates a larger problem, and in fact, may continue to move families closer to the fiscal cliff and not further back from it.

The key here is that LaNae was willing to share her story. It was poignant and impactful. Not having something means something. Making these cuts means families will have to make cuts in budgets that have already been cut so deep that there realistically isn't anything more to cut.

After sharing her story with us on the call, she was willing to listen to our feedback about how she can craft her story to have greater impact.

For all of us, including LaNae, we need to know the basics: who, what, when, why, and how. Who is our audience? The details in our story (but not the story itself) may change depending on with whom we are speaking. What are we speaking on? If it's Child Tax Credits we need to emphasize that these tax breaks help us help our children. When are we speaking? Do we have less than five minutes in an elevator or a half hour one-on-one? The more time we have means that those details can be expanded. Why are we speaking? Because this policy is personal. To LaNae, to Circles and RESULTS members and volunteers, to the millions of families who would be impacted by not protecting these provisions. And finally, how. How we speak, how we carry ourselves is as important as the words we speak. Yes, we are passionate about these issues, but not passionate to the point where we don't listen to others who may have a different point of view. We speak with kindness and care, and how we behave when we are not spoken to in the same way, speaks volumes about who we are, as well as who the speaker is.

The final take away from this training was that our voices have value and worth if we, ourselves, consider them valuable, and as a result, they will be value-added to any discussion about data and public policy. Practice your story. Speak it often and with different people. Listen to what they say in response and be open to changing the how of what you do, but not the “why” you do it.

Your narrative may not start with “it was a dark and stormy night” but it needs to start with something.

It needs to start with you.

For more, see our PowerPoint on telling your story using “Public Narrative” and I don’t miss LaNae sharing her experience of the RESULTS/REF 2013 International Conference.

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