Aspen Baker is the Founder and Executive Director of Exhale, an award-winning pro-voice organization that creates a supportive, respectful culture for each person’s unique abortion experience. Exhale partnered with Storycenter’s Silence Speaks Initiative to create workshops where women could create their own stories and deepen their understanding of the role that stigma plays in storysharing. Aspen is currently working on her first book: Pro-Voice: How to Keep Listening When the World Wants a Fight.
“We are wary of listening to stories that we think are being told to manipulate our emotions or push us to believe a certain way,” said Francesca Polletta, author of It Was Like a Fever: Storytelling in Protest and Politics in a phone call with me last year. “On the other hand,” she says, “ambivalent stories, stories with no clear moral agenda, invite the listener to imagine themselves in the story. True engagement happens when the listener can see multiple outcomes for a story and is able to come to their own conclusions.”
For the storyteller, this is easier said than done, especially if one is sharing a deeply personal story about a stigmatized experience, like abortion. Last year, Mira Ptacin wrote about her abortion in Un-bearing, her poignant article for Guernica. Her readers, captivated by the power of her emotions, found themselves emotional too, and were either inspired or angry about where those feelings took them. “Thank you for such a heart wrenching illustration of why women must have the right to choose” wrote one reader in response. But, another commented: “It is sad to see a woman who is obviously a gifted writer use her talents to evoke emotions that would excuse taking the life of another innocent human being.”
After reading Ptacin’s emotional story, people either embraced or rejected it, based off their beliefs about her reasons for telling it.
Ronak Davé, a Pro-Voice Fellow with my organization Exhale, understands this experience all too well. Years ago, Ronak created a digital story about her abortion with the Silence Speaks Initiative of the Center for Digital Storytelling, and just this winter she participated in Sharing Our Stories: Exhale’s National Pro-Voice Tour, where five storytellers traveled the nation to listen and share abortion stories with college students. In her recent blog post for Storycenter, she noted: “People take from stories what they want. That which fits their frame. No matter how much detail I provided, people would only hear what they allowed themselves to.”
I watched this play out in real time recently when I co-presented with Ronak on a panel about abortion stories at the YTH Live conference in San Francisco. Ronak kicked off our part of the presentation by sharing her nuanced, layered, emotional abortion story, the kind of story that challenges everyone’s assumptions and dismantles stale myths. In a moment of brevity, she used a little humor to lighten the mood. She joked that her story used to take her five hours to tell, but now – after ten years of telling her story in a variety of venues and formats – she regularly shares it in 140-characters on Twitter. She was kidding. And yet, a pro-choice activist in the room, whose job it is to generate abortion stories online, tweeted: “You can share your abortion story in as little as 140-characters.” Ronak’s tone, her nuance, her humanity was flattened. Her point – that telling an abortion story publicly is complicated and often difficult but can also be rewarding personally and socially – was ignored. The context of her in-person presentation was lost to the internet.
Flattened Humans and Remixed Stories
Remember that old game “telephone?” One person whispers a statement into the ear of the person standing next to them, who then turns to the next person and passes it on? It only takes a few people for that original statement to be changed into something quite different. By playing “telephone” we learned that what people say and what someone else hears isn’t always the same thing. It’s easy to imagine how much an abortion story would change as it’s passed from one person to the next in a simple game of “telephone,” so imagine what the internet could do to it, or to any story or voice typically hidden from the public.
Take Charles Ramsey, the Cleveland hero and internet sensation who is certainly a guy with a knack for telling engaging stories. In his video, Jay Smooth, a pop culture commentator at Colorlines, remarks upon what the internet does to people like Mr. Ramsey – people on the fringes, the ones whose voices we don’t normally hear or whose faces we don’t typically see on TV – by turning them into memes, GIFs, or by auto-tuning their “funny” words. “Whenever a certain person is in the news, we have a certain compulsion to flatten out that person and immediately flatten out their personhood into this paper-thin, click-bait, Chappelle show, laughing-for-the-wrong-reasons viral joke,” said Jay. “Charles Ramsey is a real person who had a deep well of compassion that made him worth talking about [but]… I worry that we are filtering out whatever is real and valuable about people… It’s kinda weird.”
Very weird. And, it happens all the time. It happened to me. People take your words or your story and turn them into whatever they want to hear, what amuses them, angers them, or affirms their own values and beliefs. That’s what needs to be remembered: storytelling is as much about the listener as the teller. It’s a relationship, a two-way street, which is why Exhale typically uses the phrase "storysharing." When done well, each story invites a listener to tell their own.
But sometimes, instead of facilitating this exchange, the internet cuts it short. Sam Gregory, Program Director at WITNESS, the international human rights video advocacy organization, is a leader in ethical storytelling and has written extensively about the ethical challenges of mash-up and remix culture. He writes about how “unlike historians, journalists, legal advocates, or ethnographers… online video creators, sharers, and remixers lack any common codes of conduct [and their]… remix and montage approaches to video evidence raise questions around authenticity, consent, safety, representation, and efficacy.” Sam is primarily working in the field of human rights abuses, but the lessons learned in this context are certainly applicable to a broad range of stigmatized or marginalized communities – like the community of women who have abortions.
Pro-Voice = Listening + Storytelling
This is the problem pro-voice was created to solve. Pro-voice is the guiding idea behind Exhale’s work to change the social climate around abortion from one of stigma and shame to one of support and respect. When we coined the term in 2005, we saw that there were many people speaking about abortion, for or against it, but very few of those voices were actually people who had experienced it. We knew that if the full complex reality of our voices and experiences could come through, the black and white binary of the debate would lose-out to the power of the grey area.
On the Sharing Our Stories Tour in February, our five Fellows taught pro-voice to more than 400 students, professors, campus security guards, and receptionists from around the country. “Pro-voice,” one Fellow said, is “two compassionate acts put together. Listening and storytelling.” In each workshop, people got to try these ideas on for themselves, listening to their neighbor and sharing personal stories about their lives with each other. They were able to imagine this practice for many other kinds of situations in need of change and transformation, from how we talk with our families to how we share stories about our most private experiences.
Opening Conversations with Ambiguous Stories
Kassi Underwood, another Pro-Voice Fellow, used the analogy of a washing machine – how that new pink sock will color an entire load of whites – to describe the way the internet has remixed her story to others' liking. Her stories, when tweeted, often come attached with a hashtag of #prochoice or #prolife, turning her nuanced experience into something else entirely. Kassi is a writer and a storyteller, and she wants the largest possible audience to read and engage with her story, but she believes that the hashtags limit her readership, because unless you identify with one of those labels, you will probably steer clear of her story, believing her intention is to manipulate your emotions and sway your politics. While this in fact may be the goal of the person tweeting, it is not Kassi’s motivation for sharing her story.
As Ms. Polletta implies, why bother to read a story if someone has already told you what it’s about?
There is a difference between stories designed to open conversations and those designed to close them, according to Sam Gregory. For example, if an advocate is trying to get a legislative body to vote a certain way on an issue, the advocate may tell a simple story designed to make it easy for decision-makers to vote yes or no. The advocate isn’t interested in raising new questions, exploring deep insights, or engaging ethical conundrums with the judge who is deciding her human rights case or with the Senator weighing the political costs of her vote on your controversial bill. The advocate, wisely, often chooses to use a personal story to end the conversation.
While stories designed to close conversations can be put to good use in political activism, they are unlikely to lead to social change and deep cultural transformation.
There is another kind of story, designed to open a conversation. But opening dialogue requires a very different approach. Instead of trying to convince or persuade, an ambiguous story welcomes people into conversation, into relationship, into engagement with you.
Deanna Zandt, digital strategist and author of “Share This! How You Will Change the World with Social Networking” said it best in her recent speech Ecstasy And Despair: How Powerful Emotions Trigger Digital Activism at re:publica, Germany’s largest digital media conference, in Berlin:
“Storytelling is not preaching. It’s not co-opting. It’s not appropriating stories and trying to fit them into some neatly-predefined messaging frame. Storytelling is opening the floodgates and letting the magic happen when people have the means and authority to tell their own stories. Our job is to facilitate and guide that process.”
Thaler Pekar, an expert in all things storysharing, says the result of this magical approach will be chaotic. In her article Pro-Voice and Pro-Chaos for PhilanTopic, she writes:
“Being 'pro-voice' means being anti-predetermined story… 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."
And, Thaler believes, “the odds are excellent that out of that chaos, profound insight would follow.”
We can’t do it alone. We need our allies to fight the flattening and remixing of our stories and support the leadership of those who dare to open a conversation with their personal, ambiguous, emotional stories.