Getting personal: why stories matter

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I am a librarian by profession, so it might sound stereotypical for me to champion the power of the story. However, stories have long been the way humans make sense of the world. They can be allegorical or literal. They can contain reflections or premonitions. They can emphasise universality or difference. Most importantly in my view, stories can open doors into unknown worlds and experiences. In our collective experience as a research group during the course of this research, sharing our stories has done all this and more. 

The novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie talks about the ‘single story’ as a mechanism of oppression: ‘Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person.’ In a workplace context, the story that you hold about your colleagues is likely to be tied to their role, skills or position within the organisation. In spaces focused on social justice, the single story that becomes prominent might be tied to gender identity, sexuality, ethnicity, disability or class. The experience of sharing our narratives gave us the ability to share some of the multiplicity of stories that belong to us.

'A sign that we are working at our best is when we feel safe to challenge each other, test our assumptions and ideas, without fear that it might be received wrongly or damage our relationships.'

All stories have a beginning. We were all asked to go back to the beginning, to help us make sense of where we are now and to understand what shapes our view of the world and the work of diversity and inclusion. We started with the things that make us who we are, our upbringing, families, identity and early experiences of injustice. When you are engaged with a value-driven mission - in this case to make the Fund a more diverse and inclusive organisation - it’s natural to make assumptions about why other people have been motivated to become engaged with this work too. In instances like this, it might feel like a no-brainer (‘Of course it’s the right thing to do! Why wouldn’t you want to do your bit in correcting the systemic imbalances of power in society?’). Knowing the backstories of how each of us came to this work helped us to understand not only our own motivations more deeply, but also those of our colleagues.

Given that the work of diversity and inclusion is about improving the daily lived experience of all people regardless of their identity, it might sound obvious to say that one of the insights that we’ve gained is how important relationships are for this work. All our stories highlighted how change often happens as the result of conversations and how relationships can balance out the risk inherent in potentially challenging conversations. Our individual experiences of what it has been like to be involved in this work have also been shaped by our relationships. For some, proximity to the power in the organisation has defined their experience. For others, the quality or number of connections developed with colleagues has acted as a hook to pull us deeper into this work. Looking across all our stories enabled us to see the wider narrative arc and helped us understand that relationships are valuable assets in the struggle for social justice and progress.

'Our hope is that we are using our privilege and platform to surface the observations of the currents that ripple under the tides'

In expanding the stories that we hold about each other, we have ventured under the surface of each other’s motivations and values which has been invaluable for engendering a greater level of trust and deeper sense of connection. We embarked on this project before the Covid-19 pandemic and before the brutal and senseless murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. We weren’t to know then how much this greater level of trust would be needed and tested by the times we live in. This deeper trust has enabled us to throw ourselves into this work with less hesitation, anxiety and fear. It has freed us to focus on what connects us, our shared and common purpose, instead of that which divides us (our divergent experiences of work, life and the world). A sign that we are working at our best is when we feel safe to challenge each other, test our assumptions and ideas, without fear that it might be received wrongly or damage our relationships.

We know that we are enormously privileged in having the space to reflect on our collective experiences and build this deeper sense of trust with each other. Other diversity and inclusion practitioners in the health and care sector may not have that same luxury of time. Our hope is that we are using our privilege and platform to surface the observations of the currents that ripple under the tides. This is the story of how we built our trust with each other. There are many other ways this story could be written.

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