Monday, April 19, 2010

the limits of the single story

This is so perfect, I don't want to ruin it with my prattling: People of colour are not a story of suffering . . . Or resistance. « Restructure!

We should be familiar with the 'single story' told by our most familiar -isms: racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, cisism, etc.


What is the 'single story' that feminism tells?
What is the 'single story' of our national identity?
What is the 'single story' of your city or town?
What is the 'single story' of your religion or political party?
(Even the Tea Party has a 'single story' being told by the MSM and others.)

What is the 'single story' of your work - especially if you work for a non profit human services organization?

This is not a weird question: the 'single story' most orgs tell is of the broken down - nevermind the agency that these populations have shown, or that these populations very well might have their own stories to tell. But the 'single story' we tell about these populations is a direct product of the racial/class power and privilege of those of us who work in these orgs.

A friend of mine recently confronted this single story issue when she was preparing a proposal for a large corporate donor for one of our service areas. She was in the middle of writing it when something began to niggle at her. The whole thing felt wrong. The women we were purporting to serve weren't in it at all. It was all stats and 'statements of need' that made it seem like the west side of Chicago was just a bombed out crater, where women wandered the streets begging for bread and children lived in boxes. It was a standard grant narrative that painted the worst picture, without any room for self-determination, agency or stories other than the one we told of poverty levels, literacy rates and lack.

So my friend retooled her proposal to make that niggling itch go away.

It's significant to note that my friend is a woman of color (it is.) And when the proposal was reviewed by a non person of color, the shift in frame was immediately noted - and instantly edited. My friend was told that the single story of women's experiences on the west side is the preferred story to donors - this is the reality that needs to be made even more starkly solid, and repeated everywhere we go, and to everyone we solicit.

The voice of our org, therefore, must reflect "No possibility of feelings more complex than pity." We must reify, no matter how problematic, unfair or racist, a power and privilege that has "the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person."

As a writer I know that I've been guilty of telling only one story. It's an easy shorthand to fall into, especially if this is the way one's sector works. I don't quite know how to end this post except to hope that those of us who are privileged to be in the position to tell the stories of others take our storytelling seriously - and resist the impulse to tell them singly.


Tam317 said...

Love the last paragraph of this. It makes me wonder if it is just on us to change how we tell the story, but also on funders to change the story they want to hear.

Don't get me wrong, I am grateful for funders and the resources and desire they have to help others. But, I wonder if giving them that story feeds into what can be a very paternalistic relationship between grantor and grantee.

Those of us in the non-profit sector working with under-resourced people talk about wanting to empower the people and communities we serve. OF COURSE we feel a naggling when we tell the people's stories from a frame that is in direct opposition to that mission.

As always, you've got me thinking....

Delia Christina said...

I think funders *want* to hear a different story - especially corp donors. I think we underestimate them when we feed them the pity narrative.

These are donors who not only want to see result-driven work, they want to know their money is adding to something valuable and will eventually end. The pity story encourages the cycle of endless giving because it leaves the population in endless need. But is that what donors really want?

If we say that the underresourced community wants a partner to help it raise some boats, it's implied that once the boats are raised, they'll do the rowing themselves.

Another question: do these communities always want orgs like ours there? Do we ask them that? Or do we assume that since they're needy, they'll jump at the chance to be served by us?

This is a dangerous assumption to make and one that we are finding as we change some of our locations. In some places, they already *have* a local org that suits their needs just fine.

And that's something to think about.

Joy said...

A friend of mine saw this on a Berkeley law Women of Color Collective shirt and just sent it to me:

"If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us struggle together." - [aboriginal activist group]

I thought of your post instantly.

I need to have it tattooed on my hand or something as I venture out into the do-gooder realms of the legal profession.

Delia Christina said...

ooohhh, i love that! i'm totally sending to my friends in the fundraising field.

it says exactly why justice should not disappear from the complicated relationship between a donor, and org and a people.

Pamela said...

Your ideas are resonating with funders ...

Keep it up!

Delia Christina said...

Pamela -
Thanks so much for dropping by and for passing on my thoughts to others!

I think it's a testament to the contagious nature of stories that Adichie's presentation led to so many stories being told and passed on.

And I think it's incredibly cool that the SmallChangeFund agreed! Can we change our sector? I sure hope so.

Delia Christina