Desmond Tutu (middle) speaks at the Skoll World Forum. Photo courtesy of the Skoll Foundation.
After all the 2015 Skoll World Forum panels, plenary sessions and networking events were over, Sundance Institute’s Stories of Change entourage, Skoll Foundation Director of Global Partnerships Sandy Herz, and her husband Peter Herz sat at a tapas restaurant to take stock of the amazing week. Our heads were still spinning with the many faces we encountered among this phenomenal group of social entrepreneurs, collectively working to solve the world’s most pressing problems. Our hearts were still tenderized by the heroic stories told by the likes of Archbishop Desmond Tutu (civil rights activist), Bassem Youssef (Egyptian satirist), and Safeena Husain (founder, Educate Girls). Our spirits were still floating somewhere above our bodies, uplifted by our proximity to people exhibiting that transcendent part of our collective humanity that emerges during trials and tribulations.
Ironically, it was after all the official programming ended that I heard the most profound statement of the week. It was made by Sandy’s husband Peter as we casually ate our tapas. “The solution only exists in the complexity.” We were talking about investments in agri-business that aim to solve societies’ nutrition issues. He described how in traditional scientific logic, we’ve always broken a problem down to its most essential parts and tried to resolve the problem by looking at those basic units and reconstructing them in an optimal manner. However, now they’re learning that solving the issues of poor nutrition cannot be done by using this method, because good nutrition only exists in the complexity of systems, in the relationship of a diversity of factors: everything from the combinations of foods to the economic systems of production and consumption. Good nutrition is reliant on everything from climate change to economic inequality, immigrant rights to health care, gender dynamics to pop culture. The solution only exists in the complex relationship of many factors.
This concept was very powerful for me as a storyteller, because it was a direct metaphor for one of the most important aspects of story: identity and identity representation. Identity too only exists in the complex relationship of many factors, from the varying versions of history and political constructs, to genetic factors, cultural contexts, and survival strategies. Identity is actually lost when we try to simplify it to its basic units, because it instantly becomes stereotype. Stories with narratives that fail to represent identity in its complexity, contribute to the simplistic notions of identity that live in our unconscious and manifest as implicit bias.
Our mission at Skoll World Forum was to consult social entrepreneurs in the art of crafting stories that impact social change relating to issues as diverse as sex trafficking, climate, checks and balances on capitalism, protection of civilians in war zones, economic development among the extremely poor, education, and healthcare. When we appreciate the power story has in the development of societies and systems, and recognize how our narratives affect how we relate to one another and even inhabit our own identities and roles in society, we can understand the extraordinary influence it can have on today’s most pressing social issues.
Many of our conversations focused on ways to counter the pre–21st century narrative strategies used to communicate social impact work that frames the communities being served in deficit terms like “poor” or “disadvantaged;” and the social workers in privileged terms like “saint,” “savior,” and in some cases, “mother” or “father.” As social science research like Project Implicit has proven, these traditional narrative strategies can actually do more harm than good, as they cement unconscious biases that cause the disempowerment and dependency of communities being served. In many ways this binary and simplistic approach to storytelling actually perpetuates many of the problems the work seeks to resolve.
The solution only exists in the complexity. Collaborating with social entrepreneurs at the Skoll World Forum who are striving to tell stories that uncover the solution in the complexity revealed how we can create art in its most impactful form.