Exhale is a community of people with personal abortion experiences and when it comes to storysharing, we advocate that: 1) women who have had abortions must have the ability to control their own narratives in our public discourse; and 2) that we must have authority and decision-making over when and how our stories are used by advocates.
Thaler Pekar has been writing about the ethical sharing of stories in a series of blog posts; and her insights offer critical thinking for our community members and the advocates who seek to have access to our stories.
In a two-part series in PhilanTopic, Thaler outlines the concept of Ethical StorySharing, in Part 1:
Because stories are powerful, and because they are wholly owned by the person who shares them, we have an ethical obligation to use story in ways that do no harm. Whether we are asking for stories to better understand an organizational challenge, to use in our organizational communications, or for an advocacy campaign, our goal should be to empower, not exploit…
The need to refrain from treating story as a commodity goes beyond nonprofit and advocacy work; it should inform all your work with narrative. True narrative intelligence respects the sharer of the story and recognizes that his or her story is a unique part of them that cannot, and should not, be taken and shared without permission.
In Ethical StorySharing, Part 2, Thaler gives more advice to advocates who seek to work with stories:
Thinking about the stories you’re not hearing is critical to the ethical use of story. Do you have a responsibility to seek them out? Also, do you plan to label and publicly present the stories you do gather? And if so, how will the context affect the way the audience perceives those stories?…
Or you may be working with a stigmatized population, in which case you have a special responsibility to protect the sharer of the story. For example, you have an ethical obligation to share any knowledge you may have about what could happen to the person, personally or professionally, if they decide to share their story. Might you need to provide for the person’s safety? Does the person sharing his or her story understand how s/he could lose control over the context in which the story is shared, especially in super-public places like YouTube?
Develop and engage a keen sense of empathy. Consider what people physically and emotionally need in order to share their stories. Make certain that people are in no way coerced into sharing a story, and explore and protect against any possibilities that the teller may be stigmatized, or even harmed, because he or she has shared a story.
Remember that each individual wholly owns his or her stories. Personal stories are not commodities, to be taken from one person and given to another, in exchange for reimbursement of some sort…Remember, too, that the audience is a partner in the story sharing. Create conditions favorable to the listener fully receiving and making sense of the story.
Understand that story begets story. Story is a contagion: By sharing a story, you will elicit stories in response. Keep this in mind, creating both the time and physical requirements that respect and enable a flow of stories.
In order to hear the real range of people’s complex experiences and emotions, you must avoid communicating that only certain stories are acceptable, welcome, and valued. If you are too descriptive about the types of stories you want to hear, you may not hear anything at all.
Sagely, Thaler writes:
Refrain from starting a narrative project with a predetermined sense of the stories you will hear. When stories are elicited with honesty and benevolence (and they must be!), you will most likely be surprised, delighted, and frightened by what you hear. Commit yourself to the journey, not to the product.
Finally, in “Pro-Voice and Pro-Chaos” in PhilanTopic, Thaler describes how Pro-Voice is inherently a practice of Ethical StorySharing:
Being “pro-voice” means being anti-predetermined story. The people who work with and support Exhale understand that embracing reality is the only authentic choice for those advocating for sustainable conflict resolution and a more peaceful social climate. Imagine if more advocates let go of their fear of being surprised, contradicted, or losing control and looked to solicit and share stories that didn’t necessarily fit predetermined agendas. In their representation of the complexity of reality, the resulting stories might appear to be chaotic. But the odds are excellent that out of that chaos, profound insight would follow.
To learn more about Thaler and her thinking on Ethical StorySharing, follow her on Twitter: @thaler.