Making Change Through Stories, Large and Small

Storytelling and Social ChangeStorytelling has caught on as a means of social change and civic engagement in the last five to ten years, and has been a popular practice for, well, pretty much forever. Consider the use of slave narratives in the US abolitionist movement, or popular theater performed from early on in the farmworker movement.

Anyone reading this blog has probably thought about how stories can motivate people to volunteer or donate money; a personal narrative tugs at your heart and compels you to help out.

Perhaps less obvious are other applications of storytelling that change the way people interact within communities: to assess a community’s needs and strengths (Orton’s Heart & Soul is a great example); to organize people in a group (consider Marshall Ganz’s “Public Narrative” method, adapted by the 2008 Obama campaign); to educate the public (such as Voice of Witness does with human rights); or to advocate a cause (examples include the grantees of the Health Media Initiative of the Open Society Foundation).


Stewardship: Sustaining Citizen Engagement

Note: This post is section one of a five-part series highlighting excerpts from the study Stewarding the Future of Our Communities by Steven C. Ames, the Foundation’s 2012 Craig Byrne Fellow. This paper addresses the challenges of stewarding local community engagement and planning in order to ensure its ongoing success and impact. Featuring case studies of five exemplary community engagement and planning experiences in small towns and cities around the country, Ames highlights specific stewardship duluthbanner_350x388.jpgapproaches the communities have used to carry the success of their efforts far into the future. This blog post examines how communities keep residents engaged and participating in important local decision-making. 

The ongoing engagement of a community’s residents is the lifeline of its community plan and is essential to its successful future. No vision or plan, however eloquently stated or thoughtfully constructed, will endure long enough to be realized if the townspeople are not continually engaged in its achievement.

Beginning in the mid-2000s, the Duluth Local Initiative Support Corporation (Duluth LISC) and its At Home in Duluth collaborative, a program focused on five inner-city neighborhoods, intensified their efforts in West Duluth, an older, established neighborhood in need of revitalization. Since then, more than 40 major initiatives addressing housing, income, economic activity, education, and health have been implemented, resulting in a catalogue of achievements and a reenergized sense of community.


The Power of the Individual

aucmen_300x169.jpgSeveral weeks ago, Middlebury College opened the Center for Social Entrepreneurship, a new program encouraging students to take an active role in their education while accomplishing good at the same time. For its inaugural symposium, the Center brought a number of people to speak and teach.

I had the good fortune to attend two of the talks. The first was by Bill Drayton, founder of Ashoka-Innovators for the Public. Bill focused on the need to develop systems that can adapt quickly and effectively, vital in our rapidly changing world. He argued that traditionally structured systems need to give way to teams and teams-of-teams as a way to unleash individual creativity and remain nimble and responsive to challenges and opportunities. He also shared a few inspiring examples of work by Ashoka Fellows.


Size Matters

Photo: Martina Rathgens (Flickr: size matters) [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons], via Wikimedia Commons" href="//">Size MattersThis morning on my way to work, I heard John Cougar Mellencamp’s “Born in a Small Town” on the radio. I cranked up the volume, rolled down the windows, and joined right in: “I was born in a small town, and I can breathe in a small town…”

As the words came out of my mouth, I felt a little hypocritical—I wasn’t born in a small town, I was born in Denver. (Incidentally, I am also able to breathe here in Denver, which is quite the feat.) What’s strange is, Denver feels like a small town. Each neighborhood has its own character, there’s intense loyalty to place, and it’s darn near impossible for me to go somewhere without running in to someone I know.


Building Civic Capacity

rosie-the-riveter_civiccapacity_300x389.jpgAs part of our Heart & Soul Community Planning work with towns in the Northeast and Rocky Mountain regions, we at the Orton Family Foundation work to train residents in facilitation, story gathering, outreach and communication, scenario planning, implementation and stewardship.

We know our time with a community will end and the long-term success of our collaborative efforts depends on the community’s ability to carry on the challenging work of navigating change.

Many foundations and non-profits share this goal, but the difficulty of achieving it cannot be underestimated. Building sustained civic capacity requires immense dedication, awareness, encouragement and stewardship, and it is the linchpin to a community’s long-term success.


The Soul Delivers on the Economic Front

einstein_souldeliverspost_350x263.jpg - Creative CommonsRecently, the Knight Foundation teamed with Gallup to survey Knight’s 26 communities “to find out what emotionally attaches people to a community—what makes them want to put down roots and build a life there.”

This report, Knight Soul of the Community 2010, found the three most important factors to residents’ attachment to their communities were social offerings; openness; and aesthetics: “These seemingly softer needs have an even larger effect than previously thought when it comes to residents’ attachment to their communities.”


Open Source Democracy

jaredduval_nextgendempost_300x450.jpgJared Duval’s book Next Generation Democracy has just been released by Bloomsbury. Jared is on my Board, so I’ll admit my bias. But there’s no doubt his book is an important contribution to the evolving discussions on where democracy needs to go in our communities and our country.

Part educational and part advocacy, Jared’s engaging book offers a refreshing perspective on how the philosophy and field of open source software has shaped the “millenial generation” and its expectations of governments (and institutions). Being of the millennial generation himself, Jared is able to draw from his own experience and that of his contemporaries, as well as “baby boomers’” work and perspectives on the pressing topic of how to improve a system of government that clearly isn’t working.


Lightening Up and Stepping Out

redeyedtreefrog_nationalgeographic-com_270x186.jpgA little update from the underbelly of the Orton Family Foundation BlogFrog: we’re trying to lighten up.

Not quite a newsflash, I know, but critical in a number of ways. Orton Staffers, by and large, come from a land of case studies, research papers, periodicals and publishing houses. We’ve been writing essays all our lives (I’m not promising they were any good, but that’s moot in this case), and while the French word for essay—essayer—means to try, we don’t try out enough stuff on our blog. We don’t experiment enough or test ideas or ask enough questions. In short, we aren’t really connecting with you.