2016: Story Time?

In his memoir of the 2011 revolution in Egypt, Wael Ghonim starts us off with a vivid story. He immediately holds our attention as he tells us of the way he was captured by two guards from State Security: “They had forced my shirt up to cover my head so I could not see, and my belt was tied firmly over the shirt, around my head… The most difficult thing about the slaps and kicks was their element of surprise” Hooked, I continued.

Ghonim’s account of his early development was rich – actively turning down private high school for a public education in an all-boys school, he grappled by day with an “overtly testosterone filled environment” and then spent hours in the online world by night, so much so that it would sometimes be detrimental to his schoolwork. He would develop his computer passion further though, leading him to a career in technology startups.

As opposition to the oppressive regime mounted in the shadows, Ghonim leveraged his knowledge. His blood boiling from the gruesome murder of a young boy,  Khaled Said, by police, Ghonim set to work publicising the atrocity via a dedicated Facebook page. Worried that the page’s original title (“Khaled’s murder will not go unpunished, you dogs of the regime”) would not engage the mainstream, he tried instead “We are all Khaled Said” with great success. The page gained popularity quickly, and is credited as being instrumental in mobilising the populace against a backdrop of silence in the traditional media.

While the struggle for democracy in Egypt is far from over, even the events of 2011 – however shortlived – are remarkable given the consequences at the time for individuals who spoke up.

In the last week I have had the privilege of attending two excellent talks on story telling for social justice. Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich last week introduced me to the importance of addressing the target audience correctly. For example, to mobilise your base supporters, you might use a character more directly affected by a social justice problem, such as a young girl shot by police, on the subject of police brutality. For a more mainstream audience, our efforts might be better served by presenting, for example, a reporter (who is less directly affected by the brutality) who takes the reader on a journey of discovery of police brutality. Ghonim’s decision to change the Facebook page name was another example of knowing his audience.

Jesse Littlewood, of common cause, also told our class at the Harvard Kennedy School that simply telling stories isn’t enough. Instead, he advocates a persistent effort to gather and curate stories from our users. That way, when crisis strikes, we should already have a bank of stories to delve into to support our cause.

As a complete novice, the focus on an anecdotal story comes as a refreshing summons to somebody who has, to date, written exclusively for an academic audience. While we must of course be stringent about our use of data in pursuit of the truth, we must also focus on conveying our message to the public effectively. Stories, well told, are a largely untapped force for good in public health, which is itself a discipline devoted to social justice. What’s more, stories might help the public to understand what public health is, in the first place. A group at Boston University arranged a panel to do just that, in March of this year.

In summary, I think we need a concerted effort within our discipline to a) curate stories from the communities we represent (all the while respecting the ownership of the story by individuals and communities), b) encourage the sharing of these stories for the purpose of advancing the highest attainable standard of health for all and c) telling these stories in the right place, to the right audience, at the right time.






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