Thursday, December 17, 2009

Deanna Zandt on New Media, Race Relations, and the Power of Storytelling

There was a moment in Deanna Zandt's speech at the Organizing 2.0 conference that I wanted to highlight:

The power of storytelling must not be underestimated. I will use the Obama campaign as an example, since storytelling played a larger role than anything else, I would argue, in their message strategy.

The campaign had introduced a rather different candidate to the world, an improbable campaign. They clearly recognized that he would not be able to win on issue statements alone, he had to reach out to people who agreed with him on policy but were questioning, "Who is this different looking guy with a funny name?" Through telling his story, he was able to bridge whatever divides existed between himself and millions of Americans.

Although the campaign officially began years later, we can really trace the 2008 Presidential campaign all the way back to the 2004 Democratic National Convention when, then a candidate for U.S. Senate, Barack Obama was introduced to the country when he gave the keynote address. What he did in that speech, more than talk about issues, was that he told his story. He told where he came from, and through that we learned why it was that he was supporting Senator Kerry for President. Without question, it was the most memorable moment in the 2004 Presidential campaign. And that is exactly what President Obama trained his volunteers to do. As an organizer for the campaign, I told my story 8 trillion times. I repeatedly told volunteers, "You may not be an expert on every issue, or on any, but you are an expert on who you are and why you support Barack Obama, and that is what you need share with your neighbors."

What anyone working the campaign will tell you, we would not have won without storytelling. The polls showed that President Obama was right on the issues, but everyone knows that is not enough when it comes to politics. People need to be able to trust their President. And trust, as Deanna Zandt mentions in her speech, is developed through sharing stories with one another. What the campaign realized is that it was not enough to have President Obama's story out there, he needed to expand the reach exponentially by turning every volunteer into a little storytelling machine themselves. President Obama's story is "uniquely American," and it was not enough. What the campaign demonstrated, and what sounds obvious, is that your neighbor's story is more likely to impact you than a candidate's.

They had members of the community talking with their neighbors, sharing struggles of a failing economy and failing health care system, together. And this made all the difference. During President Obama's speech on race, back in PA during the primary, he ended his speech on the power of storytelling:
There is a young, twenty-three year old white woman named Ashley Baia who organized for our campaign in Florence, South Carolina. She had been working to organize a mostly African-American community since the beginning of this campaign, and one day she was at a roundtable discussion where everyone went around telling their story and why they were there.

And Ashley said that when she was nine years old, her mother got cancer. And because she had to miss days of work, she was let go and lost her health care. They had to file for bankruptcy, and that's when Ashley decided that she had to do something to help her mom.

She knew that food was one of their most expensive costs, and so Ashley convinced her mother that what she really liked and really wanted to eat more than anything else was mustard and relish sandwiches. Because that was the cheapest way to eat.

She did this for a year until her mom got better, and she told everyone at the roundtable that the reason she joined our campaign was so that she could help the millions of other children in the country who want and need to help their parents too.

Now Ashley might have made a different choice. Perhaps somebody told her along the way that the source of her mother's problems were blacks who were on welfare and too lazy to work, or Hispanics who were coming into the country illegally. But she didn't. She sought out allies in her fight against injustice.

Anyway, Ashley finishes her story and then goes around the room and asks everyone else why they're supporting the campaign. They all have different stories and reasons. Many bring up a specific issue. And finally they come to this elderly black man who's been sitting there quietly the entire time. And Ashley asks him why he's there. And he does not bring up a specific issue. He does not say health care or the economy. He does not say education or the war. He does not say that he was there because of Barack Obama. He simply says to everyone in the room, "I am here because of Ashley."

"I'm here because of Ashley." By itself, that single moment of recognition between that young white girl and that old black man is not enough. It is not enough to give health care to the sick, or jobs to the jobless, or education to our children.

But it is where we start. It is where our union grows stronger. And as so many generations have come to realize over the course of the two-hundred and twenty one years since a band of patriots signed that document in Philadelphia, that is where the perfection begins.

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