Doing Things with Stories: Introduction

From Narrative, Through Action, Towards Hope

Click here to read the Editorial of Doing Things with Stories

Once upon a time, a team of researchers started talking to a large range of changemakers to identify what they predict would be the biggest problems of the future. They were surprised to hear, again and again, that the biggest challenge that many communities face concern their capacity to tell stories in the face of crises. There were three takeaways here:

  1. Stories are often offered as a response to crises because they help us re-frame the crisis. Stories shape what we focus on, and thus open up possibilities of who we are in that state of crisis. Lately, though, it seems as if our stories are mere illustrations of crises and instead of shaping the crisis, we follow it.
  2. Stories are powerful because they build our worlds. But this also means that stories can be used by those in power to create worlds that are violent and exclusionary. Stories can be shields, but they can also be weapons. With the weaponisation of stories—like we see in the case of misinformation, for instance—we have to find new values that can shape our stories, and in the process, who we are and how we connect with each other.
  3. Stories are collectives. They might be told by an individual, but they are shared experiences. Stories need to bring people together and orient them towards hopeful action. Unfortunately, the current default of storytelling seems to be a rehearsal of gloom, doom, and despair, which leads to people disengaging from the crisis.

Doing Things with Stories (DTwS) begins with these challenges. It introduces the framework of ‘Narrative Change and Collective Action’ to orient ourselves to tell new kinds of stories. And in the telling, find new forms of telling them, so that we can build communities of practice that are oriented towards hope.

Doing Things with Stories

We initiated Doing Things with Stories as a global initiative and an invitation for passionate changemakers to collectively imagine a better future, by creating conditions of narrative change and meaningful interventions and approaches toward collective action. DTwS is initiated by Oxfam Novib, ArtEZ University of the Arts, and Radboud University.

The initiative was based on two phases:

During the first phase of DTwS, the Global Remote Residency, ten brilliant global residents gathered (virtually) to articulate the needs, challenges, and possible healing of their communities from their experience, expertise and expectations. Together, we have co-created a learning environment that voices questions, articulates concerns, shares anxieties, and identifies the needs of change-makers on the ground. Among other outcomes, five DTwS episodes were created by a duo of the ten participants each. The episodes were designed to support participants in the Global Intensive (Phase 2) to engage with reflections, conversations and case-studies to learn and be inspired to do new things, fun things, exciting things, and critical things with stories.

The second phase of DTwS consisted of two tracks: the In-person Intensive (offline workshop) and the Global Intensive (DTwS Playoff). For the former, a group of passionate students and young changemakers co-created and deeply participated in the two-day In-person Intensive that connected them with our global residents to initiate a conversation about the world of stories and the world that stories create.

For the latter, the Global Intensive (DTwS Playoff), an open invitation was sent out globally to submitting story entries and thinking with us and our DTwS residents on how we could do things with stories orienting us towards hope, collectivity and action. Meanwhile, the five DTwS episodes co-created by our global residents, based on the learning from the first DTwS Phase, as well as from their personal expertise and practices as changemakers, were launched as reflections and inspirations for the participants in the DTwS Playoff. Seventeen submissions are presented in this book.

In order for you to gain a better understanding, we outline the framework of these episodes in the following sections. For curious minds, their full description and content can be accessed here.

We oriented each DTwS episode around a central question, all of which are listed in the following table. These questions’ particular objects of analysis will be illustrated in more detail in the following sections.

Episode

Central Question

Narrative Change Residents*

1

Reframing the Crisis

Alexandra Juhasz, Diana Ocholla

2

Changing the Narrative

Alejandra Ibarra Choul, Sabah Khan

3

Against All Odds: Doing Things Differently

Devin Hentz, Neha Singh

4

Hope on the Horizon

Elena Mejía Juilca, Mussa Khamis

5

Talking Change

Bhavani Esapathi, Terry Jerry A’wase

  • REFRAMING THE CRISIS

As described briefly at the beginning of this introduction, we live with and within crises. We tell stories of crises, and in crisis, to make sense of what is happening around us. While crises alienate, stories connect. As scarce resources lead to a withdrawal into the individual, stories bring us back into the collective. Even as crises create a false sense of competition, making different groups battle for the limited opportunities, stories foster a sense of community, bringing us together to see how the problems that we face are shared and collective.

To give us a sense of how we can reframe crises in our present times, Alexandra Juhasz and Diana Ocholla have been looking at the entanglements of body, crisis, empathy and empowerment. In their episode, they investigate how the body responds to stories and crisis, inherits, and contains them, and how the realisation that stories are collective can actually support the reframing of crises to release embodied trauma and reclaim personal and collective agency.

  • CHANGING NARRATIVES

If the first episode was about re-framing the crisis, the second episode is about changing the very structure of our stories. More often than not, we resort to popular images, dominant narratives and accepted images of people, places and events while telling stories. But Narrative Change is a conscious decision to disrupt and stop the status-quo arcs of stories and how we tell them. Stories cannot be just old, packaged in a new format, but need to be careful and considered, about how they create the realities that we find ourselves in.

Drawing from their practice in organising collectives—Defensores de la Democracia (Defenders of Democracy) in Mexico and the Parcham Collective in IndiaAlejandra Ibarra Chaoul and Sabah Khan show us how, even while offering stories of change, we often fall back on the very tropes and stereotypes that we are trying to fight. Instead of focusing on just new formats of telling stories for collective action, their episode illustrates how the very framings of our stories need to change so that they become a way of disrupting the accepted knowledge and old patterns of making change.

  • DOING THINGS DIFFERENTLY

Stories are often treated as reflections of the world we live in. Representation is one of the strongest aesthetics by which we understand stories, especially when it is rooted in the lived reality of individual and collective experiences. The trope that is repeated regularly is that stories hold a mirror to life. That approach would make us believe that there is one story, and one story alone that was to be told, of a particular experience—and that the story that we are hearing is the only one that ‘naturally’ grew from a phenomenon. However, we have learned to understand that this idea of a naturally growing story is romantic, beautiful, aspirational, and downright wrong.

Stories are intentional; they require labour, resources and bodies to bring them to life. Narrative Change insists that we need to start thinking about the very ways in which our stories are told and how they need to evolve through multiplicity. Doing Things Differently, created by Devin Hentz (founder of cotton mini mill and textile studio Kan Mo Moom Àdduna) and Neha Singh (creator of the #WhyLoiter movement, which encouraged women in India to not feel afraid of exploring the cities they live in), is then not so much about the formats and aesthetics and media and platforms where our stories get told, but about the very conditions through which our stories of collective action can emerge.

  • HOPE ON THE HORIZON

As we have claimed earlier, we see the default aesthetic of narrative practice in our current times as being structured by gloom, doom and despair. Especially with the amplification of information on social media, and anger-based engagement tactics of digital networks, there are unprecedented expressions of anger and a sense of dread that marks most of our stories around the challenging issues of our times.

In this episode, created by Elena Mejía Julca and Mussa Khamis, we find tactics and strategies of addressing, reshaping and reframing the conditions that stop us from creating narrative change by reorienting our stories to hope, without minimising the urgency and gravity of these problems. In her practice as an artist, activist and a narrative worker in Peru, Elena Mejía Julca shows us how we can frame our stories so that they show us the possibility of action, the promise of hope, and the capacity to imagine different kinds of futures. From his pastoral roots and his commitment towards building neighbourly platforms, Mussa Khamis offers us an orientation of hope that is not just about a possible future but of a collective action.

  • TALKING CHANGE

It is a truth universally accepted that stories change the world. However, there is a lot of anxiety about how we can measure, witness and demonstrate this change. In the fifth episode, two extraordinary artists and storytellers, Bhavani Esapathi and Terry Jerry A’wase propose that the answers to that question are difficult because we got the question wrong in the first place. From his practice as a filmmaker who uses fiction as a way of imagining different and new kinds of futures for the youth in Africa, Terry Jerry asks us to pay attention not to the measurement but the experience of change, and locates it in the imaginaries and imaginations of the communities that dream differently. In a very different setting, in her work on health and migration, Bhavani tells us that change is internal, and sometimes so small, that it might never register on the seismic scales of change-making instruments.

WHERE IS HOPE?

Building from the five DTwS episodes, the individual sections of this book will dive further into understanding:

1) how we can tell stories that matter;

2) how we can spread stories to build collectives; and

3) how we can create stories to orient us towards hope.

Launched in July 2022, the Global Intensive (DTwS Playoff) accepted submissions of story oriented towards hope and collective action through narrative change practice. The core of this book is then dedicated to presenting the following 17 story entries from the submissions, featuring the submission in itself, as well as a brief introduction to each piece, written by one of the DTwS residents.

We feel extremely grateful for having had the chance to work with these amazing talents among DTwS residents and participants, to uncover principles of narrative change as they are presented in the pages to follow. We would also like to express our deep appreciation to every DTwS team member and partner who has been part of the fantastic journey and with whom together we have brought DTwS all the way to the publication of this volume. It is our sincere hope that the reader will feel as much inspiration and joy when reading these publications!

Design: Kseniia Anokhina and Magda Castriá

The Doing Things with Stories Team

Nishant Shah (ArtEZ University of the Arts)

Vincent Zhong (ArtEZ University of the Arts)

Anushka Nair (ArtEZ University of the Arts, alumni)

Lukas Beckenbauer (ArtEZ University of the Arts, Junior Research Fellow)

Isabel Crabtree—Condor (Oxfam Novib)

Nicole Walshe (Oxfam Novib)

Anne Mai Baan (Oxfam Novib)

Edwin van Meerkerk (Radboud University)

Airin Rezazadeh Farahmand (Radboud University, student)

Nishant Shah

Dr. Nishant Shah is a feminist, humanist, technologist whose work examines infrastructures, collectivity, and subjectivity in the digital turn. He is the co-founder of The Centre for Internet & Society, India. He is also the Director of Research and Outreach and Professor of Aesthetics and Culture of Technologies at ArtEZ University of the Arts, the Netherlands, as well as a Knowledge Partner for the global art-technology think-tank Digital Earth Fellowship, and a mentor on the Feminist Internet Research Network. His book Really Fake will is published by Minnesota University Press in 2021. 

Lukas Beckenbauer

Lukas Beckenbauer is a producer and VP and co-founder of Reel Motion Impact – a non-profit organization to facilitate feature films, documentaries, and shorts that promote sustainable and social change. Lukas studied Media Studies, Data Analysis, Social Science, and Philosophy at the University of Amsterdam and the Leuphana University in Lüneburg. He is a Junior Research Fellow at ArtEZ, where he works to understand what exactly drives social change narratives.

Vincent Zhong

Vincent Zhong is a research coordinator and project manager at ArtEZ University of the Arts in the Netherlands. He is also a researcher. With Master’s degrees in the fields of enterprise and human resources management, and international destination research, Vincent has worked in Global 500 companies and universities in Asia and Europe. His research experience and interests include the intersections of AI technologies and intercultural and social sustainability, and international destinations and businesses. He has conducted research in the Netherlands, Australia, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Indonesia, China, Portugal, and Spain, among other. He is also a Supervisory Board member of the Asian Movie Night Foundation.

Anushka Nair

Anushka Nair is a performance artist and graduate of MA Performance Practices from ArtEZ University of Arts, NL. Her work explores the affects, agencies and entanglements of bodies of matter—human and more than human— through performance art. She explores intimacy, multiple subjectivities and transformation through her performative encounters. Her work is situated in the intersections of new materialism, phenomenology, ecology and feminism. She has performed extensively in India and the Netherlands, and was also a Learning Partner (pedagogy) for The Digital Everyday course (IND &NL). Her paper Roo(u)ting: Cultivating relations with matter through performance art was selected for the Sentient Performativities Forum by Art.earth (UK) and Schumacher College (ENG). She has been published in Thespo Ink (IND), Friend of The Artist (US) and ArtEZ Press (NL).