Whose story is this, anyway?

This is the last of the pieces inspired by A Problem from Hell, and it’s a theme that I’ve touched on here before–how we respectfully tread into others’ lives, in our advocacy and our direct practice, and how we must honor the stories we are allowed to know.

I think there’s some intentional appropriation of others’ narratives, which came up in And Their Children After Them, too. Agee, the original author in whose footsteps the book follows, was described by the subjects of the book as though he “didn’t talk with them. He didn’t even talk down to them. He talked at them, as if they were objects” (p. 39). He never sent them a copy of the book, and it was a long time before they were even aware of its existence.

To protect themselves in an inherently exploitative relationship, the families hid much of themselves from the author and photographer. That way, they retained some ownership rights to their own stories. As the now-grown children explained, “There was a lot that they didn’t show and he never learned”. Largely derided by the author as simple-minded, their careful deceptions prove that they were considerably smarter than he assumed (p. 56). Still, as people in positions of relatively little power, in society, they had little recourse when a stranger wanted to tell their story.

And, of course, the terms of the telling were far from equitable. The author, while he didn’t get paid much for the work, got other rewards–prestige, attention…and those who laid out their lives and their hardship got nothing. As one family member recognized, “She went home to a job in a textile factory that does not pay in one month what the picture of her would sell for in that Birmingham gallery” (p. 175).

But it’s not always about such opportunistic exploitation.

Sometimes, I think, it’s a neglect (not benign), born of paternalism, that, while perhaps more understandable, is no less harmful. Like the anecdote that the UN Press Office did not initially translate its press releases into Serbo-Croatian during The Hague proceedings following the Bosnian genocide (p. 497). So, in other words, that people were unable to understand the process that was supposed to bring restorative justice, for themselves and their people. Because it wasn’t a priority to make sure that they could.

I encountered this quite a bit in some work I did last summer, exploring the advocacy capacity of the ‘healthy eating/active living’ network in the Kansas City area. Some of the grassroots groups–neighborhood organizations working in communities of color, faith-based groups organizing African Americans, coalitions representing Latino immigrants–stated that they perceived that others wanted to claim that they were working with them, to be able to take credit for any advances made, or even just to give themselves additional credibility for trying to engage these priority populations. But, often, that doesn’t include really sharing power, or building structures that put affected individuals at the center. One neighborhood group told me that ‘on the grant applications, everyone’s our friend’, even if that doesn’t always yield fruitful partnerships.

Of course, our sincere hesitation about taking over others’ stories cannot mean that we cease to tell them. One organization I was working with was reluctant to use clients’ stories in their advocacy because they said it would feel like ‘using’ them…but, then, their advocacy freely incorporated composite stories (because all advocacy needs narrative), which can have the tendency to aggregate and distort individuals’ stories, in ways that are no less alienating.

The answer, instead of hiding behind a veil of anonymity, is to change our processes.

We need to make it clear that people continue to own their stories–and to receive proper credit flowing from them. People should be encouraged, and facilitated, to do their own tellingwe don’t need nearly as many ‘spokespeople’ as we think we do, on others’ behalf. And we need to respect, and acknowledge, people’s needs to be selective about which stories are told, and how, and why.

We need to treat stories as carefully as though they were our own.

While always–ALWAYS–remembering that they are not.

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