The Story Space

Last week Reva Seth, founder of MomShift (, a media campaign sharing stories of professional mothers, posted a blog in The Atlantic concerning the challenge many young women face today when looking for role models in the professional world. She mentioned a few successful individual examples, corporate mothers who were able to balance it all, but argued that these are very much the exception and not the norm.

Seth cited a recent TED (Technology, Education, and Development) video by Chimamanda Adichie, a Nigerian novelist and storyteller in which the celebrated author cautioned against using a “single story” to depict any group.  The lone narrative, using only one account to describe an entire social group, leads to stereotypes, dichotomies, othering, fear, isolation, and structural violence. In American culture, this mythologizing process –the wonderful mother who is able to balance being a CEO, caring for three children, and being a perfect wife, or the young woman on television who lives in Manhattan, works ten hours a week, and wears a different designer outfit every day–creates a model that women rarely meet.

As a daughter, friend, sister, niece, aunt, and neighbor, I have never realized this ideal. Over the past week I have cooked with women, created with women, mourned with women, laughed with women, practiced yoga with women, and worked with women. We also shared stories and none of us completely identified with this idealized American narrative. Unfortunately, many women think the ideal is obtainable, and when they do not attain it, too many descend into a constant and pernicious cycle of shame due to a self-perception of continuing inadequacy.

Dr. Brene Brown, shame and vulnerability expert and grounded theory researcher at the University of Houston, has conducted more than 200 interviews on the subject of shame and shame resilience. Dr. Brown has found that the American ideal of the “Superwoman” creates an incredible amount of shame, isolation, and separateness for maturing girls and women in our culture. Brown argues that empathy and vulnerability are two fundamental ways to overcome the cycle of shame. Brown has developed “Shame Resilience Theory” to assist in such efforts. She insists that sharing your shame, vulnerability, and stories of hope are the best ways to move past those feelings and overcome the enduring power of false ideals.

Women, men, children, communities, nations, we all need a space to share our diverse, eclectic stories. When diversity is celebrated through story, dichotomies transform to continuums and unrealistic, dangerous ideals are seen for the dangerous idols that they    are. People begin to exercise a sense of agency and to own their lives, are more self-resilient. It is through the story space that people in a community can connect on the human level, and through those ties that individuals are also made more resilient and adaptable.

How do we create these opportunities for individuals to share their stories and begin to define their own “successes”?  The Internet and digital technologies are providing one tool. I attended a talk last week by artist, singer, writer, and digital storyteller Thenmozhi Soundararajan. By engaging individuals and working to provide them with the tools and skills to tell their stories, she creates the vulnerable, empathetic space, which ultimately breaks down the claims imposed by socially dominant and unrealistic narratives and ideals that too often constitute structural violence. Her talk was part of The Community Voices series sponsored by Virginia Tech’s Institute for Policy and Governance ( Soundararajan conducts digital storytelling workshops throughout the world and is also conducting research using the strategy with communities in Appalachia.

Reva Seth, Chimamanda Adichie, Brene Brown, and Thenmozhi Soundararajan are examples of modern storytelling pioneers who recognize the elemental power of narrative in human lives and are employing it to provide opportunities for individuals to exercise agency and pursue both dignity and social justice. The need for such efforts has never been more patent and the challenge to find spaces for such storytelling more obvious. The question that I am left pondering is how I might use story to create potentially empowering spaces for women particularly, in community.  __________________________________________________________________


Anna Erwin is a first year PhD student in Planning, Governance, and Globalization from Topsail Island, NC. In 2009, Anna earned her masters degree in Appropriate Technology from Appalachian State University. After graduating, she taught classes in sustainable technologies at ASU and conducted energy efficiency research for the state of North Carolina. Before returning to graduate school at Virginia Tech, Anna spent a year working and living in Ecuador, Peru, and Colombia. Anna’s PhD research will look at peacebuilding, local sustainability, and environmental justice in Appalachia.

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