How Storytelling Can Address the Complex and Intertwining Issues of Modern Society

Societal issues are complex and systemic and intertwine with each other. Answers can never be either/or.

“The power of storytelling is exactly this: to bridge the gaps where everything else has crumbled.”—Paulo Coelho


On Friday, December 14, 2012, a lone gunman entered an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut and killed 26 people, including 20 children ages six to seven. These deaths, coming in the same year as mass shootings in a movie theater, a mall, and a house of worship—and interspersed with violent acts every day on our streets—created a shock wave of sorrow and disbelief throughout the U.S. and the world. With the loss of children who had birthdays and graduations and their entire lives to look forward to, we asked whether this time would finally be the catalyst for action against gun violence, and address when the right to bear arms abridges the right to live and prosper. There were calls for and attacks against gun control, access to mental health care, security in schools, video games, media attention to killers, perspectives on race, and the glorification of violence.
But what we didn’t ask is how we proactively design a world that allows us all the chance to live in safety, and supports a shared goal of opportunity and care for all.
We keep searching for point solutions. We weigh one factor against another in the hopes one solved factor will solve the whole. But societal issues are complex and systemic and intertwine with each other. Answers can never be either/or.
We need to start designing our culture such that holistic sets of solutions, policies, and customs take hold, and hold us to a new, 21st century (and beyond) social contract between the individual and the collective.
How do we do this? One essential way is through story: The only way to truly comprehend the human costs of policy frameworks and cultural constructs is to listen to and exchange stories. The humanitarian and emotional perspectives are often more persuasive than only the rational ones when we are creating livable societies. To build a culture of possibility, we have to build both a movement and an ethical framework grounded in multiple narrative from multiple voices, and fostered by co-creation networks that act for the good of the collective and the protection of the individual.
My own work is in the context of human rights and international development. I use story, culture, and collaborative networks to map systems, design with instead of for, and define human costs, needs, and desires as motivations for change. I am privileged to work across disciplines—with artists, activists, designers, NGOs, and institutions that shape and contextualize multiple perspectives through layers of stories.
The way we do this is through narrative design and transmedia production. I am, for example, currently working as the transmedia producer for Who Is Dayani Cristal?, a film that will premiere opening night of the Sundance Film Festival, and for which I am strategizing the connection between narrative from local communities and direct action on systemic issues around mass migration. In another project, Lakou Mizik, I am advising and co-producing a cross-media project that uses music, culture, and stories from musicians as its drivers to look at the conditions facing Haiti’s artists and their communities and to support Haiti’s creative economy. And I advise groups such as UNESCO, UNICEF, and the World Bank Institute to use innovations in transmedia storytelling and human-centered design to enhance their development initiatives.
In projects like these, I see people coming together as creators and change agents around our collective responsibility for our future, collaboratively using narrative to create new frames of reference. I believe this is a significant way to break down constructs that hold us back, and instead rely on our common humanity to proactively design new possibilities for change.
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This is part of a series of posts examining the idea time and imagining our collective future. Tell us your wish for the future here and we'll bury it in a time capsule.

Illustration by Tyler Hoehne

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