Imagining the World We Want, Together

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Lehigh Culture & Community / Literature & Social Justice / Politics

This article is cross-posted from Southsider article published March 6, 2018. Southsider focuses on celebrating the local vibrant arts district, reporting on arts and culture programming in Bethlehem’s South Side. For more information about Southsider, visit them online.

On Wednesday, February 14, Tackling T.I.N.A. hosted the first of three public conversations scheduled this Spring. Themed around the idea of “Storytelling as a Strategy for Change,” Lehigh students and faculty joined together with Bethlehem community members to imagine how narrative frames and cultural myths shape our social and political realities.

Led by graduate students in Lehigh’s Literature and Social Justice Program (Department of English), Tackling T.I.N.A. discussions consider how literature — and narrative more broadly — can create social and political action. The group takes its name from one of the dominant myths about contemporary capitalism: “there is no alternative” (T.I.N.A.). As an organization, we aim to broaden participant understanding of economic justice and inspire one another to expand the horizon of possibility.

“Story-based Strategy Campaign Model” flowchart. Excerpt from Reinsborough and Canning’s book Re:Imagining Change.

Reimagining Change: Who Tells Your Story?

Building on Tackling T.I.N.A’s commitment to economic justice, the “Storytelling as a Strategy for Change” offered participants the opportunity to read two provocative texts: “Degrees of Freedom” by Karl Schroeder and excerpts from Re:Imagining Change: How to Use Story-based Strategy to Win Campaigns, Build Movements, and Change the World by Doyle Canning and‎ Patrick Reinsborough. Together, these two texts gave participants common language to discuss the political power of storytelling and a fictional example of what that might look like if we were to more fully integrate creativity into our democratic process.

Two special guests joined us as co-facilitators for this important discussion. Charles Kiernan, a member of the Lehigh Valley Storytelling Guild, and Sarah Stanlick, director of Lehigh University’s Center for Community Engagement, both offered insight on the subject of community storytelling, and the power it has to change our perception.

Kiernan, for instance, explained that stories get to people before thought and thus serve as a powerful way to pass on social values, for better or for worse. And the best stories, Kiernan added, were those where the storyteller disappears entirely, allowing the audience to experience the story directly. While this narrative sleight-of-hand undoubtedly makes for a magical evening of storytelling on the stage, it becomes more complicated when we apply these theories to the stories by which we live our lives. It makes me wonder who is behind the cultural myths that shape our daily lives, and what social values they might unwittingly pass on to us.

Nevertheless, during the discussion, participants expressed both anxiety and excitement about how cultural myths influence political action. Together, we confronted a tension that lies deep within the democratic process, recognizing that no political debate ever escapes the influence of narrative frames. The “facts,” which are so often emphasized in politics, do not make sense outside of the cultural context in which they arise. Thus, as one participant suggested, like an archaeologist discovering fragmentary evidence of some distant past, the challenge of political subjects today is to use narrative strategies to make sense of the information we encounter.

As I continue to reflect on the conversations we had that day, I find myself increasingly frustrated with the polarized “fact wars” that so often define today’s political debates. Liberals and conservatives each reference particular statistics to discredit their opponent’s position and the debate ends in a stalemate, with both parties further entrenched in their side of the political divide. This leads nowhere. We need to change the story, and a focus on narratives can help us do just that. What we need, as Reinsborough and Canning assert at the end of Re:Imagining Change, is a movement of storytellers.

Upcoming Discussions

  • Wednesday, March 28, 4:00 – 5:30 | Building a Better Future: A Public Conversation
    Humanities Center, Lehigh University (224 W. Packer Ave., Bethlehem, PA  18015)
    For this discussion, we will discuss the work of adrienne maree brown, an activist, author, and scholar based in Detroit. As part of an ongoing effort to challenge the dominant narrative that “there is no alternative” to capitalism, this free event focuses on how narratives impact and direct community development projects and local politics. Readings are available here. 
  • Wednesday, April 18, 4:00 – 5:30 | Sustaining Local Communities: A Public Conversation
    Humanities Center, Lehigh University (224 W. Packer Ave., Bethlehem, PA  18015)
    For this discussion, we will discuss the relationship between food activism, environmental justice, and the economy. As part of an ongoing effort to challenge the dominant narrative that “there is no alternative” to capitalism, this free event focuses on how the politics of food play a key role in imagining alternative economies. 
    Readings are available here.

Tackling T.I.N.A. discussions are free and open to the public. Light refreshments provided.

The Author

Adam spends his time envisioning possible futures and devising ways to disrupting the neoliberal order and generally undermine the patriarchy.

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