Thursday Thoughts | Human-Centered Storytelling for Black History Month and Beyond
Welcome to another installment of Thursday Thoughts, a dedicated space for our friends in nonprofit sector leadership to reflect on reports, statistics, and other trends—because when our community shares knowledge, we can all do more good. Check out last month’s post here!
February is Black History Month, and it’s a time to center and reflect on the rich tapestry of experiences that make up the lives and stories of Black Americans. We wanted to know how some of our partners approached storytelling during occasions like this, in order to really honor the multitudes a community can contain—here’s what they said.
Minal Bopaiah, Founder and Principal Consultant and Mackenzie Price, Ph.D., Language Strategist
When it comes to how to tell stories for Black history month, I defer to Brevity & Wit’s language strategist Mackenzie Price, who wisely said, “If you are not Black or a predominantly Black organization, and you want to talk to your stakeholders about the Black experience and history through storytelling, a big step is making the center of the story someone other than yourself. So a story about ‘things I didn’t know’ or ‘what inspires me about Black History’ is really a story that is centering what you know and what you value. Moreover, history shouldn’t just be about ‘sad chapters’ in our past, but about relating our history to our present.“
It’s also important to keep that in mind when choosing imagery to accompany a story. The Black experience is about love, joy, collective memory, and inclusion. These ideas should be reflected in your imagery as well as your words. Acacia Betancourt, Brevity & Wit’s creative director, advises nonprofits to center joy and humanity in their images. “Centering genuine joy—particularly through showing people’s faces—can be part of the racial healing and justice efforts,” she says. “Also, pay attention to photo composition, lighting, and cropping: Just because a photo includes many types of people doesn’t automatically mean that they are represented equally or in an inclusive way. Ask yourself who is the main character and who are the supporting characters of an image, and what messages does this send?”
Brevity & Wit is a strategy and design firm focused on helping organizations achieve the change they wish to see in the world. Their unique approach combines human-centered design, the psychology of behavior change, and the principles of diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Brush your teeth. Eat your vegetables. Diversify your audience. Most organizations now understand the importance of doing it, but don’t know how to actualize it, resulting in a lot of proverbial box checking in terms of the content being shared.
The truth is that the only way to fill the gaps in your audience is to be authentic. You cannot shy away from the lived experiences that inform the way that stories are created and shared, the channels we engage with, and how the message resonates. Being honest about what you don’t know is the first step, but the next step is harder and will be uncomfortable. You need to create opportunities for voices beyond your staff, and educate yourself on new topics, but it is all a part of the process. You have to listen to your audience and reflect on what matters to them before they can hear you.
You may make mistakes along the way, but this is how we learn: feedback is an important way to obtain the insights you need. Pay attention to both the criticism and the positive comments that you receive. Occasional missteps are inevitable, but when they occur, it’s important to show that your intent is genuine and that your actions are consistent in order to build trust with your audience over time.
Lastly, as you see Black History Month content flooding your timeline, television, and inbox, ask yourself, “Is there any reason why this message wouldn’t fit in July?” If the answer is no, ask yourself, “Why don’t I get this message in July?” From there, you can work to diversify your audience and content all year round, rather than sharing these stories only in February. Getting to the root of where that disconnect begins—and why these stories haven’t received attention during the other eleven months of the year—has to happen before we can find lasting solutions to filling the gaps. Don’t be afraid to get beyond the checkbox. The reward will be worth the journey.
ParsonsTKO is a diverse team of digital transformation experts that are passionate about bringing change to you—the change makers. They believe in not only the value technology has on social innovation, but the value of the people who carry out the processes. They’re storytellers, campaigners, analysts, developers, data engineers, designers, constantly curious, and always motivated by a challenge.
Shakirah Hill Taylor, Chief Digital Officer and Aileen Andres, Associate Vice President, Digital
Black History Month is an important time to celebrate the contributions and histories of Black people across the country. As we celebrate the rich legacy and acknowledge the themes
of a month dedicated to a larger community, we must remember that social change is ultimately rooted in the lived experiences of real people.
In our role working with a variety of clients—many of those that sit at the intersections of racial equity and other social issues—it is crucial to remind them that compelling content reigns supreme in our digitally-ubiquitous world. Social media, email, and peer-to-peer messaging helped elect the first Black president of the United States, after all. Yet, in the sea of social media posts, we can lose sight of the humanity contained within our Tweets, Reels, and other forms of content.
Evoking empathy in strategic storytelling is effective. The best way for organizations to speak out on their diverse experiences with authenticity is to elevate the faces and voices of the real people on their staff, that they serve, or who they partner with. Human-centered storytelling offers a way for organizations to drive towards their missions by making audiences feel personally connected to their values.
Here are some of the lessons that we’ve learned for producing strong human-centered storytelling.
Human-centered storytelling is not passive.
Get to know the human behind the story. Make sure they are comfortable with the way you’re telling their narrative and allow them to lead in the construction of the narrative arc. Giving them agency in this process will pay off in the long run! You will have created a deep bench of authentic storytellers for your work that you can call on for future activations and events and who will continue to serve as informal ambassadors for your work in other forums.
Formalize your human-centered storytelling approach across your organization.
This is not just for communicators. Implement this approach across your organization’s internal teams as well. Creating an authentic storytelling culture across your organization can help build trust and deepen engagement with your audience.
Integrate the approach throughout all communications and programmatic work.
Personal stories can enhance all sorts of work: events, creative development, strategy, and programming beyond just sharing these stories on social platforms or in op-eds, and when these stories are paired with thought leadership they can be even more impactful. For example: when planning for your next education-focused event panel, consider bringing together big thought leaders in the field and invite a few teachers to share their first-hand perspective; when publishing an op-ed about health systems, have the CEO of your organization and a nurse collaborate. If your organization is prepared to take on a human-centered approach, it should be woven throughout everything you do.
You can’t change the landscape of storytelling alone.
Whether we’re communicating about health systems, education, or voting rights, centering the people at the heart of these issues is a radical transfer of power to those who deserve it most. Encourage your partner organizations and member coalitions to think through a human-centered storytelling lens as well. By working collaboratively with external colleagues, we can change the landscape of how we talk about the issues—and ultimately impact the way society sees them as well.
Don’t lose sight of the forest.
Ultimately, you want your storytelling to serve a purpose. Whether you’re working to see systemic or policy change, your human-centered storytelling should serve as a window to the larger challenge you want to convey or the goal you want to achieve. Draw connections to the larger goal within all of your storytelling so that your audience can easily see the issue from both a micro and macro level; and create an overarching narrative that goes beyond a one-time statement for long-term success.
As we celebrate Black history this month and throughout the year, let’s amplify the real stories of people who can personally express the values and challenges of the communities we want to uplift.