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The Hewlett Foundation Blog




Friday Note: Tell Me a Story 

May 23, 2014 — By Ruth Levine

One thing you can count on at the Hewlett Foundation is our affection for data, but here’s a little-known secret: even more than numbers, we love stories. In the Global Development and Population Program we make bunches of grants to add to the amount, quality, and availability of data about where a government’s money comes from, how it’s spent, and whether people end up better or worse off for having spent it. We promote evaluation and metrics. Heck, it’s right there in the Foundation’s new tagline: we’re “helping people lead measurably better lives.” Alongside our belief in the value of quantitative information, though, we’re cultivating an increased appreciation for storytelling. And it’s paying off.

I’m not talking about random, tug-at-your-heart-strings anecdotes. I’m talking about finding ways to elevate and put into context stories people tell about their own experience. It’s a core part of the notion that we can focus resources so that people’s own voices can be heard, from within their own communities to distant capitals. And by being heard, be understood and help lead to positive change.

Let me give just a few examples. In our grants to protect reproductive health and rights in the U.S., we’re following closely the “provoice” work that Exhale is doing to find and tell the stories of women who have had abortions. One in every three American women will have an abortion in her lifetime, but because of stigma few have the chance to talk about the often complicated thoughts and feelings that accompanied their decision to terminate a pregnancy. The women who’ve participated in Exhale’s abortion storytelling project do have that chance. They report a greater sense of wellbeing and acceptance; those who’ve heard or read the stories are far more likely to empathize more and judge less, regardless of whether they change their views on abortion.

We also admire the partnership that the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy has developed with MTV to connect viewers of 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom to accurate information about birth control. These reality TV shows, showing the truth of what girls’ and boys’ lives are like when they become responsible for a baby, are a radical departure from any standard approach to educating young people about the risks of early and unprotected sex. They aren’t necessarily intended to be educational at all, which is probably what makes them work. Study after study has found that these shows don’t just grab viewers’ attention; they also make it more likely that young viewers will have important conversations with their parents, and end up with healthier attitudes about sex. Remarkably, one recent study estimates that up to a third of the impressive drop in teen pregnancy in the U.S. can be attributed to changes in behavior resulting from watching 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom.

We’re supporting creative work with storytelling overseas, too. Global Giving, a partner in Feedback Labs, has refined its methods of collecting hundreds of stories from people affected by aid projects, and then analyzing those stories so non-governmental organizations (NGOs) know what community members are saying about what they need and whether they’re getting it. One interesting feature of that work is that it doesn’t start with the NGO’s perspective— “So, how do you feel about me?”—but instead starts from the individual’s viewpoint— “What problems do you have, and who can you turn to for help?” (Their Storytelling Tool is available for anyone to use.)

Great stories also are at the forefront in the work that Well Told Story does in Kenya. WTS produces Shujaaz, a wildly popular radio show and comic book series, written in street-slang. Focused first on entertaining, young Kenyan artists who write and produce Shujaaz are telling the story of fictional characters struggling to succeed at school, maintain friendships, make a living and understand what the powers that be are up to. Along the way, while subtly dispensing information and advice, Shujaaz has become one of the most widely read publications in the country, capturing not one but two Emmys.

Exciting as the storytelling work is now, I’m guessing there’s even more interesting stuff ahead. I think there’s more to learn about how storytelling can change people’s sense of their ability to affect the conditions of their lives; and how storytelling can be paired with traditional data to paint a full picture of on-the- ground realities for policy makers. I’m guessing, too, that we’re going to start seeing opportunities for computer-enabled storytelling to capture information from people in ways that cannot be done in a survey format. (Think what commercial game developers already can know about how gamers think through problems.) And I’m sure that as these and other ideas develop, the Global Development and Population Program will be closely following the story.