Harnessing the Power of Narrative for Social Change

Few would argue with the idea that stories represent a universal human activity across history and cultures that has served many different purposes. Bruno Bettelheim believed that through narrative human beings come to know themselves better, becoming more able to understand others and to relate to them in mutually satisfying and meaningful ways. I have been a member of the Virginia Tech Institute for Policy and Governance Community Voices team for several years now, as we invited a number of local, national and international leaders to Blacksburg to share their stories and perspectives on social change. Our guests have used the power of narrative to connect people, stories and resources, to begin conversations around health, arts and culture, economy, technology and community engagement, and perhaps to encourage some of us to take action.

Doug Lipman has suggested that every storytelling event is “a triangle,” in which the story, the audience and the storyteller relate to each other in a particular way. First, the storyteller forms a relationship with the audience; second, the narrator has a relationship with the story¾its intellectual understanding, emotional experience and imagining. These two relationships involve the storyteller directly, but they do not determine by themselves a successful narrative in Lipman’s view. Rather, to be successful, the audience must form a positive connection with the story. A raconteur can try influencing that third relationship through other ties that involve him or her directly and then hope that the audience will be drawn into the account. I want here to explore one of the relationships of the storytelling triangle through the narratives presented at Community Voices events to date, that of the storyteller’s connection with his or her story. As I reviewed the history of our series, I looked for threads that connected these diverse stories and the people who shared them.

Motivated by a vision to renew the American dream from the ground up, Anthony Flaccavento built his Community Voices talk on the foundations of productive households and resilient communities, networks of learning, innovation and exchange, all suffused and underpinned by love. Beth Obenshain rooted her story in the Blacksburg of several decades ago, tracing its changes to the present. Drawing on the power of ordinary people to shape their communities and bridge differences, she underscored the importance of participation in local politics. Bob Summers offered an encouraging account of how entrepreneurship can foster social action, a tale of how a culture of sharing and collaboration across companies that share space has helped with learning and engagement across organizations and social sectors in downtown Blacksburg.

Nancy Agee shared her personal journey as a new leader of a major institution in the healthcare sector, reflecting on the challenges of instilling a culture of learning and collaboration in an organization that serves diverse groups of patients. Inspired by the ideas and practices of servant leadership, Agee conceptualized change as starting first within the organization (improving the health of employees) then moving outward to affiliated healthcare professionals and patients in order to create an integrated health system that benefits the served community and is also sustainable.  John Dreyzehner appealed to the New River Valley community with the story of a young boy’s family that faced health-related dilemmas similar to those many Americans have experienced as they watched a family member’s health deteriorate while their healthcare bills grew. Dreyzehner’s talk provided an opportunity for citizens to reconsider their norms and values regarding disease prevention and suggested that the change toward a “culture of health” requires the active collaboration of communities, governments and businesses.

Norma Wood and three youths in foster care shared their experiences with and in the foster care system for their Community Voices program, critically reflecting on the importance of forming positive relationships in the community if youth are to succeed in their transition to adulthood. They highlighted the importance of the role of educators and social workers in these efforts. Craig Ramey then developed the theme of education further at his event, arguing that what we do for our children’s education, health and well-being forecasts the social, economic, political and ethical future of our communities and societies.

Brian Wheeler, Woody Crenshaw and Tal Stanley each offered stories that provided hope for civic possibility. Wheeler shared challenges and opportunities that he has encountered along the path to building community knowledge and engagement in Charlottesville, VA. Through the creative use of media in community-based journalism, his organization has informed the decisions of policymakers, citizens and business owners on a daily basis. Stanley, in turn, combined layers of stories from places such as Meadowview, VA, and McDowell County, WV, reflecting on how the interaction of human culture, history, and natural and built environments had created challenges for these communities; challenges that may only be addressed successfully with the honesty and civic creativity that can restore hope and vitality. Determined to celebrate “the small, the slow and the local,” Crenshaw reflected on the place of small communities in national life today and offered a visual story of Floyd, VA’s vibrant cultural life, in which that community’s Country Store serves as an incubator, where music, dancing and conversations take place.

Dudley Cocke shared three stories illustrating the power of the arts and their importance in democracy. In one narrative, we learned how the love of singing brought black and white groups together within a community to create an original work of art through their collaboration. Cocke argued that other kinds of cross-cultural conversations and relationships follow once an initial divide has been breached. Avila Kilmurray inspired us with a complex story about mobilizing across conflict and differences in Northern Ireland with the help of partnerships that have allowed for the introduction of different views and the potential to develop a range of ties. These relationships have allowed the Community Foundation for Northern Ireland to address the nation’s divided communities and bring about much needed social and political change.

The Highlander Center’s challenges, successes and voices could be imagined and heard through Pam McMichael’s thoughtful storytelling. Eighty years of struggle for justice through activism and community organizing at Highlander have been sustained not by passing the proverbial torch, but by helping others’ light their own torches.

In sum, the stories told on the Community Voices stage to date have addressed many different aspects of social change, revealing the complexity of the phenomenon in so doing. To me, these narratives serve as a powerful alternative to our culture’s pervasive individualism by offering accounts filled with collective goals, shared struggles and common hopes that can teach us much about the requisites of democratic citizenship and the changes we must make to attain it.


Bettelheim, B. (1976). The Uses of Enchantment: The meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Lipman, D. (1999). Improving Your Storytelling: Beyond the Basics for All Who Tell Stories in Work or Play. Little Rock, AR: August House Publishers.


Lyusyena Kirakosyan is a Doctoral Candidate in Social, Political, Ethical, and Cultural Thought at Virginia Tech. Her dissertation explores multiple perspectives regarding conceptions of justice for the disabled population in Brazil, from legislators and disability-related NGOs to individuals with impairments. Understanding disability and justice issues that affect this population can contribute to evening out social, economic, cultural and political disparities and reducing the collective marginalization of the disabled in Brazilian society. Since Fall 2010, Lyusyena is part of the organizing team of Community Voices that engages leaders across sectors in sharing stories and insights about their creative leadership initiatives and challenges. Currently Lyusyena is engaged in collaborative research project on arts and their role in building peace under the auspices of the Institute for Policy and Governance and the Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology at Virginia Tech.

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