Introducing the Systems Storytelling Initiative

Collective Change Lab
5 min readMar 16, 2022

Written by Cynthia Rayner

Imagine you’re at a party. You haven’t met many of the guests and you find yourself in conversation with someone new. What is the first thing that you talk about? Likely, you’ll ask each other something along the lines of “How did you come to be here?”

When we form collectives, our objective is usually the same. We have an intense desire to situate ourselves in the context of the bigger picture. We want to know how we came to be associated with the group. And we want to know if we belong. The way we figure out the answers to these pressing questions is to do something that is uniquely human: we tell stories.

While storytelling is a human universal, the ways we tell stories differs across cultures and sectors. For example, in individualistic cultures, we’ll likely tell a story that is based on our personal experience of arriving at this point. In collectivistic cultures, we’ll focus on our position in the family or community, with an emphasis on relationships and interconnectedness.

But this is only one dimension of storytelling. Storytelling approaches differ in their treatment of characters, emphasis on context versus action, relationship between cause and effect, whether nature is included as a protagonist, pace, timing…the list goes on.

The Hero’s Journey

Despite this diversity of approaches, a specific type of storytelling — often called the Hero’s Journey Model — has become the dominant form of organizational storytelling, primarily as an output of for-profit business practices. And, by extension, this dominant method of storytelling has become a norm in nonprofit and philanthropic communications.

The Hero’s Journey is a story archetype that we probably all know well: a singular individual, called to adventure, sets out on a journey to achieve great things. He (because it’s usually a he) encounters great obstacles which threaten to derail his journey. Ultimately, through hardship and persistence, he prevails and returns from the journey with treasures that will benefit mankind.

This archetype has been with us for thousands of years. Scholars like Joseph Campbell have even argued that it is a monomyth, in fact the only type of story, representing man’s spiritual destiny. The theory of the monomyth, however, is an erasure — a suppression of the many ways that stories have been and can be told.

At best, the Hero’s Journey Model is deceptive; at worst, it is destructive. When we tell stories of heroic actors and single-solution approaches (often featuring protagonists from the historically privileged Global North) we incorrectly identify agents of change, negate the contributions of others and frame our expectations about who and how social change unfolds.

This changemaker identity shapes our mental models (wrongly), narrowing what we do, what we fund, and how we work together. We are then incentivized to perpetuate this narrative through articles, blogs, funding proposals, academic case studies, and more. When we bemoan the fact that social change organizations are not “collaborative”, we must ask ourselves, why should they be, when this goes against our deeply ingrained narratives about how change happens?

Should We Tell Stories Differently?

Does it matter how we tell stories? Should we explore non-dominant alternatives? We think the answer to both of these questions is yes.

Indigenous author and scholar Gregory Cajete writes, “Story is one of the most basic ways that the human brain structures and relates human experience. Everything that humans do and experience revolves around some kind of story…At almost every moment of our lives, from birth to death and even in sleep, we are engaged with stories of every form and variation.”

While storytelling is used to transmit information, it also involves our senses, activates memory and imagination, transmits values and social norms, and guides our decisions about what to selectively focus on and what to tune out. When we experience stories, we make meaning of the world around us — past, present and future.

Our bodies respond to stories. Stories trigger an emotional system driven by chemical and electrical changes in the body as events in a story transpire. Neuroscience tells us that this emotional system is essential to executive functioning, and by extension, personal and collective agency.

So, stories drive cognition and action. They shape our reality even though they are not reality. Therefore, it makes sense that the way we structure stories influences how we think about organizations, social movements, collective action, and systems change.

Introducing the Systems Storytelling Project

This month, we are launching the Systems Storytelling Project. We’re focusing on how collectives tell stories of systems change — not just the change that we seek, but the ways we do it together.

To do this, we know we have few answers. So we are assembling a group of storytellers from across the globe — from different cultures, backgrounds and sectors — in a Community of Practice to help us learn about the different ways we can tell stories.

These storytellers have a wide range of lived and learned experiences. We will be joined by indigenous storytellers and immigrant storytellers, from South America, North America, Africa and Asia. Some bring oral traditions, others written or visual. They identify as artists, fiction writers, journalists, musicians, poets, explorers, and filmmakers — even anthropologists and architects.

Our Beginning Narrative

A few months ago, to get us started, we worked closely with Narrative and Cultural Strategist, Nayantara Sen, to design the Community of Practice. In our first meeting, Nayantara urged us to articulate our beginning narrative as an important first step.

As part of that effort, we crafted the following starting values (we anticipate that these may evolve as we go):

Sustainable systems change…

  • Doesn’t happen through one heroic individual
  • Is led by multiple actors through a plurality of approaches
  • Is relational and not just technical, with the relationship as the most important unit of change in a social system

Therefore, systems storytelling…

  • Should illustrate multiple perspectives, including the complex relationships between people, power, and resource flows
  • Should not privilege written forms of language, but rather utilize many modes of human expression
  • Should make space for emotion, empathy, and the sacred

We hope that our findings will allow for new storytelling methods to be used:

  • Inside organizations and collectives, to make meaning of the change that they are creating and experiencing
  • Between organizations, collectives and their stakeholders (ie, funders and supporters), to show how change is happening
  • Outside, to mainstream audiences, to show how change is unfolding

Together, facilitated by CCL’s Juanita Zerda, we will be exploring different “Hows” of storytelling to discover more creative ways of telling stories, revealing systems and bringing them to life, engaging with multiple perspectives, and embracing complexity — rather than glorifying individual or organizational heroes.

How a story is told perhaps matters as much as the content of the story itself.

We’d love to have you come along with us! If you’d like to join us on this journey, click here.

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