Leveraging storytelling’s transformative power for power shifting can help young people make positive change in their communities says Kristeena Monteith
Over the last few years, youth civic society has grown across the globe. Young people are staking a claim on the future. They are tackling issues they care about head-on.
In a world that continues to undermine, undervalue and underestimate the capacity, skills and intelligence of youth, young people are leveraging youth power to make change happen with or without the support of older generations and established institutions.
One of the avenues young people have been wielding their youth power in is storytelling. Young storytellers are raising their voices to challenge injustices, to dream up solutions and better futures, to organise activities and connect. Our words, experiences, ideas, stories are our tools for taking up space, asserting ourselves and creating change.
How are we doing this? For Black History Month, I’ve drawn on the work of 5 amazing young Black storytellers to highlight how young people are using storytelling as a means of power shifting globally.
They are making history more accessible.
“A people without knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots”
– Marcus Garvey
Stories connect us to the past. They help us walk in the footsteps of our ancestors, explore issues they faced and the choices they made. These histories shed light on current experiences and help us make good decisions.
For many historically oppressed people globally, such as the people of the African diaspora, accessing and drawing on these histories is an act of resistance against systems of oppression.
The more we learn about where we come from and how we were displaced, the clearer the lens through which we view modern geopolitical issues becomes.
One amazing podcast using storytelling to connect young Caribbean people to the history of the region is the Lest We Forget Podcast. It is a Gen Z-led exploration of key moments and figures in Caribbean history with the language and sensibilities that modern young people appreciate.
They are centering the voices and experiences of marginalised people.
Stories have an incredible power to include. When a person feels represented – accurately and respectfully depicted, seen and heard – it can be an incredibly affirmative experience.
Stories send a message about who matters. To be in a story and have the story be about us means that we matter. Conversely, to be left out of the story, to have our stories warped, caricatured or suppressed can impact our self-esteem and sense of identity.
It can have the impact of silencing us. So when storytellers like communications expert Imani Barbarin of @crutchesandspice, use their platforms to centre the experiences, voices, problems, and joys of disabled people, they are actively resisting the marginalisation of people with disability and helping people better see, hear, understand issues to stop discrimination, uplift collaboration and stand in solidarity for change.
They are speaking truth to power.
In a world where outspoken Black and Brown people often get penalised for speaking up about the oppressive dynamics, we endure, seizing the mic and calling out harmful, dangerous rhetoric and systems. We delay holding those responsible accountable.
Using storytelling to push back, question, probe and speak the truth – challenges dominant narratives and helps to prevent the unchecked spread of misinformation, disinformation and propaganda. Even at the risk of being victim to “cancel culture”, it is important that we hold powerful people and institutions accountable for their words.
Through hilarious but powerful storytelling the Say Your Mind Podcast, driven by Kelechi Okafor’s powerful social commentary, creates an inclusive space for listeners to highlight people making a positive difference and critique people and institutions causing harm.
In doing so Kelechi has opened up a safe space for dialogue where people know their voices matter. The podcast regularly receives feedback from listeners that they felt inspired to speak their minds when confronted with inequalities in their daily lives.
They are bridging divides and connecting us across borders.
The internet has brought us all closer together and allows us to be transported to almost any corner of the world instantaneously. Yet, for those of us living in this 24-hour news cycle with distractions and entertainment constantly available, it can be easy to become numb to the atrocities being committed and to the sheer scale of human suffering globally, or even to simply not notice.
Storytelling has the power to cut through that jadedness and obfuscation and help us reconnect to our humanity and the emotions and information that we need to feel in order to spark action, to push for change. The outrage, anger, sadness and frustration stories bring up within us are important because every solution, every innovation begins with a pain point – a problem.
Stories like those told by Sudanese poets, activists, refugees and UNHCR ambassador Emi Mahmoud can help us recognize and understand the problems in the world around us. Her poetry has brought attention to and given voice to the lived experiences of refugees, mobilising thousands to action globally.
They are improving access to storytelling.
Sometimes when we do not consider ourselves “creative”, we think storytelling is beyond our abilities. However, facilitating access to good storytelling is just as powerful as crafting the stories yourself. For example, Rebel Women Lit centre writings by Black and Brown people especially queer women and non-binary people.
Through their work, they’ve created a pathway for Black and Brown writers to reach audiences while contributing to the preservation and evolution of the Caribbean literary scene. By improving access to good storytelling we also preserve these stories and the windows into history and culture for generations to come.
Leveraging storytelling’s transformative power can help young people make positive change in their communities, as has been evident in many youth-led movements.
However, as storytellers for good, it’s important to learn from other storytellers and take the time to understand the power of storytelling. We can use it responsibly and effectively, practice empathy for our story’s subjects and audiences and take responsibility for every word we put out into the world.
In so doing we can shift power to the hands of the most vulnerable and rewrite the future into a more just, equitable, safe-for-all-people planet where humanity can thrive.
Kristeena is a member of Restless Development Youth Power Panel (2020-21) and is currently the Creative Producer of Talk Up Radio, a Kingston-based public radio programme, collaborating with youth from across the world to tackle global social and political issues. She also researches civic engagement and political participation and was recognised as one of 17 UN Young Leaders for the Sustainable Development Goals.