Stories that Matter

In public engagement, the most important work we can do is support people to talk about the things that really matter. The things that change lives and communities, and that bring about the potential for a new and different future. Conversations about families, health, communities, and the lives we lead. Creating space for conversations about values and relationships that sustain us, that make us whole, that make up the essence of who we are. This is the work I love to do, and that I think makes a difference in the world.

You might agree. It seems hard to disagree with this approach. But there is a world of difference between these kinds of meaningful, heartfelt, compassionate conversations and so many of the conversations being planned and designed and called public engagement. Conversations about projects, about small, finite impacts instead of the things that really influence and affect change. Conversations with big, meaningful questions – but with little or no link to decision-making. Conversations that are really designed to convince people of the benefits of a given course of action, but are being called public consultation. When I write these words I can picture example after example.

I’ve learned that conversations that start and then end and are focused on projects don’t move me or bring about the systemic change we need. Conversations about the past, the present, and the future are stories that matter. Conversations with depth, meaning and the opportunity to affect lives. Dialogue Partners projects has worked on so many amazing projects like this over the years – we’ve written case studies on some of the ones that have really moved us and that reflect this kind of change and depth of conversation.

When I think of these engagement processes, the essence of them is in sharing stories, approaches that connect us to each other, conversations that connect us to our own potential and possible future, and support us to be more whole individually and collectively. They provide important data for decision-making, but their meaning is in the heart of what they teach us.

Stories. Going back millions of years, stories are the link that connect each of us to learning from our experiences and link us to each other.

I recently listened to a CBC radio interview with Paul Salopek, a Canadian journalist walking around the world for 7 years, engaged in an epic journey tracing the route of human migration out of Africa. National Geographic is reporting on his journey called the “Out of Eden Walk”, and is providing funding along with the John and James Knight Foundation as part of an experiment called the Storytelling Laboratory. Focused on long form journalism, Paul is gathering the stories and experiences of strangers as he walks around the globe. He is listening to stories, and reporting on them. Sharing them. Bringing us not just “what” happened, but the who, why, and cultural context of places and the people who live in them. Imagine if all news was like this – about PEOPLE first, and their lives, and then about the events that have impacted them.

In 2015, the City of Edmonton recognized the importance of story telling in public and community life, and hosted story telling workshops and competitive storytelling events. As part of the Council Initiative on Public Engagement, the project aimed to increase skills, knowledge and capacity of community members to share, connect and listen to what really matters.

I learned about The Institute for Oral History and Digital story telling at Concordia University this week. A wealth of resources, the organization develops and conducts research projects, provides tools, resources and training – for the gathering, sharing and meaning making that comes from telling our stories. The Institute has a section on ethics and informed consent, an amazing list of digital resources to support this work, and even a free software called “Stories that Matter”. Some moving and ground-breaking projects are listed, including “Montreal Life Stories” which chronicles Montrealer’s experiences and memories of mass violence and displacement. If a depth of human connection, and the listening to what matters most to people is high on your list of priorities, check out the Institute.

Stories Matter. Our connection to each other matters. Our ability to listen to each other, and to make meaning together about the things that really matters is what makes us part of a collective. Let’s do more of this kind of public engagement. And less project focused checking the box.

What stories are you hoping to hear this year?


Steph Roy McCallum