Can stories create change? Commonwealth Conversations at Civil Society Week

Posted on 30/01/2018
By Leo Kiss

Can stories told through the medium of films, short stories and poetry, change the way people perceive social problems and challenge deep rooted social issues?

High profile journalistic exposés can trigger change. But how can the stories of citizens sharing experiences of, for example, gender based violence influence public discussion around broader gender and power imbalances? That’s the question the Commonwealth Foundation brought to International Civil Society Week 2017 (ICSW 2017), a global gathering of civil society organisations.  ICSW 2017 took place in Fiji in December in honour of Fiji chairing the recent climate talks in Bonn; the first time ICSW had been convened in the Pacific.

The Foundation’s approach to investigating the transformative power of stories was to produce three discussion events for ICSW 2017 predicated on the following themes: Gender and Justice; The Legacy of Indenture; and The Politics of Identity. Creative storytellers and civil society attendees were invited to come together and discuss the issues raised in the films and written stories created as part of Commonwealth Writers’ capacity development projects for storytellers. The Foundation funded a total of eight climate and women’s rights activists from the Caribbean and the Pacific to participate in these conversations and the wider forum.

‘From the Polynesian oral traditions of old to films streamed via the web today, stories capture and store human experience.’

In the first of the three events, Gender and Justice, Katherine Reki played her powerful short film, My Mother’s Blood (2016). The film tells the tale of a woman that falls victim to the ravages of superstition, the loss of her land and livelihood and the son she leaves behind who plots revenge. It was refreshing for those Pacific islanders among us to see stories from a perspective they recognise. Reki opened the discussion with a statement that resonated with the audience: ‘Why can’t films tell the story of our culture and history? Why does it always have to be Hollywood’s? I wanted to change that.’

Although My Mother’s Blood handles some pertinent social issues, it was clear that those in the room were gripped by the narrative focus on people – which, as they all agreed, made the issues at hand feel more real. The event’s chair, Gabrielle Hosein, captured this point neatly: ‘if we can touch enough people’s hearts, we can cultivate action.’ This is partly the advantage that storytelling has over other ways of talking about social issues.

‘[Stories] create human connections to the issues and experiences they are a vehicle for. And in doing so they can encourage and shape conversations in a way many political discussions cannot.’

But, as the subsequent events explored, it is not just the emotional impact of stories that give them currency. In the event on The Legacy of Indenture, Mary Rokondravu, a Fijian writer and former winner of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize, made an important point: ‘if we leave these stories behind, then no one learns, and no one hears’. Indeed, stories have always played this role. From the Polynesian oral traditions of old to films streamed via the web today, stories capture and store human experience,  and not only through the narrow experiences of those lucky or great enough to make it into the history books. With the proliferation of the internet, as one audience member pointed out, opportunities for ordinary citizens to have their stories acknowledged are increasing, and social media plays no small part in this.

Above: Delegates from all over the world participated in the conversations
Above: Part of the Foundation’s delegation to International Civil Society Week

While the importance of the language of stories might seem obvious, the importance of stories for preserving language is less spoken about. Gabrielle Hosein emphasised that stories can give successors ‘a language to draw on’, enabling subsequent generations to create and sustain identities outside of the status quo. This highlighted stories important role in preserving social history. Mere Taito pointed out the importance of intellectual property laws in this debate: that social histories are written down is useful, just as long as they don’t find their way into ‘private vaults’.

At the concluding event, The Politics of Identity, Tracy Assing spoke of how indigenous histories were still not being ‘documented consistently or comprehensively’ and, with a glint of a tear in her eye, her performance of ‘Unaccounted For’, recently published in the Commonwealth Writers anthology So Many Islands, described how indigenous communities can attempt to undo this historical wrong: ‘I am the daughter of Ricky Assing and Marlene Ballantyne. The sister of Che […] this is how I was taught to introduce myself. It was a way of saying that I never walked alone’.

So, how do stories create change? They create human connections to the issues and experiences they are a vehicle for and, in doing so, they can encourage and shape conversations in a way many political discussions cannot.  It was encouraging to see this idea picked up in the concluding ICSW 2017 plenary discussion on methods for civil society advocacy. But it was a subsequent comment from one of our panellists and former winner of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize, Mary Rokonodravu, which struck at the heart of the Foundation’s mission in Fiji:

The Foundation’s Commonwealth Writers programme continues to identify platforms and to promote such stories from less-heard voices during 2018 and will be hosting several events at this year’s Commonwealth People’s Forum in London.

Leo Kiss is a Programme Officer for Learning and Communications at the Commonwealth Foundation.