May 2017

The Power of Storytelling: An Interview with Social Change Leader David Hunt

There has never been an activist movement without storytelling being a fundamental tool of it.

For more, see Kamilah Stinnett’s companion essay exploring the artifacts produced by racism and how they help shape our everyday notions of race.

by Tom Foley

For organizer, activist, and educator David Hunt, effective activists need to build appreciation for and practice good storytelling. After all, telling stories is what human beings do every day and have done for millennia. “Outside the physical universe, and the laws that govern the physical universe,” Hunt contends, “there is nothing that impacts, informs, and transforms the human experience, nor moves our spirit, more than story.”

Hunt is the founder of the Community Building Storytelling Project, a program that teaches storytelling as a community building tool. He is a former Kellogg Foundation National Leadership fellow, former executive director of the Chicago Rehab Network and a principal trainer of the Midwest Academy, a premier American institution for promoting organizing and social change. What each of these roles organizing for social change helped Hunt realize is that we are each a collection of stories, and only by sharing these stories can we generative positive change. After coming to terms with his own story, Hunt started the Community Building Storytelling Project to reintroduce storytelling into American culture as a way to build community with personal insight, interaction, and humor. “Human beings are a collection of stories,” he told me. We “are doing storytelling all the time.” Storytelling is natural to what it means to be human. “Storytelling doesn’t need to be taught,” Hunt argues. “Every meeting, every conference, every strategic plan, every episode of the Oprah Winfrey show, every country music song, every day in court court, storytelling. Story is all that we are and all we ever have been. It is all we do all the time.”

Politics as a Story

Storytelling, Hunt says, is essential to effective activism: “there has never been an activist movement without storytelling being a fundamental tool of it.” In American politics, the ability to create a narrative with broad emotional appeal is often the biggest factor in victory and defeat. The ability of the founders to craft a story about monarchical oppression and a vision for the future; the power of Lincoln’s story of the United States and the Civil War in the Gettysburg Address; the successful mobilization of popular support for the 2003 invasion of Iraq—each relied on the artful articulation of an appealing story. Storytelling can build nations and tear down empires.

On Iraq, Hunt notes that “science shows us that if you can get people to repeat the story you told them, you can get them to follow them. That’s what happened with Iraq. 32 to 35 percent of people will believe you if you can get them to repeat the story you just told them. 30 percent of the people won’t care, and the rest will feel they aren’t enough to make a difference.”

“That,” he says, “ is just one example of the power of story.”

Storytelling is an essential, if often overlooked and underemphasized, aspect of political communication and coordination. “People need to be convinced, and stories do that and connect them to others. That’s how they connect with others. Successful activists use stories to do it.” Political change, for better or worse, depends on effective storytelling.

Broadcasting Behavior with Storytelling

When I asked Hunt how storytelling can influence public policy, reconciliation processes, and activism, he said all three are about convincing someone. Three things convince people, he said: money, story, and data. Data, he quickly notes, is just “story without a soul.” But story, he says, is the key.

“Policy is a Greek work for behavior. Public policy is public behavior. When they say “we are going to pass a healthcare bill,” it means how should we behave to each other as it relates to healthcare. It is all about behavior. And so, where does this behavior come from? It comes from our past experiences, our present conditions, and our dreams about the future. What are congressional hearings? Storytelling sessions!”

sally yates testimony
Former National Intelligence Director James Clapper and Former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates testify before a Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on May 8, 2017. Courtesy of CNN.

I asked Hunt how he teaches storytelling to organizers and activists. He explained that it is less about teaching how to tell stories than it is about “awakening people’s understanding to how powerful storytelling is to human understanding.” Humans interact through stories, whether they are building alliances or attacking enemies. “Somebody coming at me is using a story.” Our wars, literal and figurative, are narrative in nature. Our most effective weapons are our stories.

Not all of our stories, however, are self-creations. Sometimes, we retell and act out the stories told, or imposed, on us by hierarchies and power structures.

Hunt elaborates: “In other parts of the world, what story is living your life? You think you are white? Who told you that and why? You think you are Asian? That’s Latin for heathen! No one came to this country saying they are Latino or Hispanic, they come saying they are Guatemalan, Honduran, Mexican. But then they are told you are Latino so they live that story.”

“Race is a creation of society. Story was used to create it.”

People are always telling stories, he reminds me, but they don’t alway realize their actions and reactions as based in story. For him, “the goal is to awaken people to the power of story, and they will figure that [storytelling] out.” With greater awareness about what storytelling can do, the stronger activism and organizations advocating change will be.

Is a Common Past Necessary for Understanding?

I asked Hunt whether we need agreement on history to be able to understand the stories we tell each other.

“No. We need empathy to create the space and sometimes sacred space for everybody’s voices to be heard and shared. We don’t need to agree with it, but we need to try and understand it from that other person’s perspective.”

Some, he says, might explain their position based on their religious teachings; others, that their ancestors arrived there first. The first step, he reiterates, is reaching a deeper understanding of the roots the beliefs held by others. “You need to get under to understand. You’ve got to understand history from that other person’s perspective.” In trying to see the world through someone else’s eyes, we are not required to adopt their perspective. We might, however, be moved to appreciate the sincerity of their belief and gain insight into the architecture of their worldview. If we want to modify it, we need to know how it is built first.

I asked Hunt what he thought about the rhetoric of the current president and the political language of Trumpism: personal attacks and a “me-first” mentality. To Hunt, this is hardly novel to American politics or to human interactions more broadly. “Read stuff in Chinese literature, in the Iliad, in the Bible. This not something new to human beings.” Within the context of American politics, the rhetoric of Trump merely removes the guise of politeness that has long attempted to make cruel politics more palatable. “There’s been this facade—’I disagree with the gentleman of New York’—so [Trump has] kind of broken through the veneer of niceness. [Previously,] they were being polite but they took away your healthcare, your union, your pension.” The bluster and bloviating may seem to mark a new chapter, but if the intentions and actions remain consistent, has anything changed? As Nixon Attorney General John Mitchell said, “watch what we do, not what we say.”

Is there any positive, any silver lining that could come out of this political climate, I asked? Hunt is contagiously optimistic. “I think it has woken a lot of people up now that it is their kid who is graduating from college without a job, who is losing their health insurance, who is affected by drugs and gangs…I think that people [are beginning to] see through some of class and race and see that politics and race matter, and I think there is a silver lining because it has woken people up.”

Challenges and Opportunities

In training activists and organizers to be effective storytellers, I asked Hunt what he found to be the greatest challenge in his work. “I think it is keeping my eyes on the prize and realizing that people are doing the best they can with the consciousness they have.

“We are hard on people; expect people to have a higher level of consciousness. People get upset about Thomas Jefferson for writing “all men are created equal” when he didn’t mean “all people,” or even “all men”—he meant “rich white men!” But that was the consciousness that he had at that time. My mother is 93 years old and she is doing the best with the consciousness she has, just as she did the best she could with the consciousness she had when she was 50, 60, 70 years old.”

Rembrandt Peale’s portrait of Thomas Jefferson.

In this challenge of consciousness, however, Hunt also identifies an opportunity. “I think the biggest opportunity is what I just said-move people’s consciousness a little further down the line. People are so disillusioned right now. It means the illusion has been taken away. Why are you upset? The truth should set you free! The illusion has been taken away and now more people are in that space of being disillusions and I think that ‘s a big opportunity to move the needle. Disillusionment is our best opportunity.” People’s eyes have been opened and their consciousness shifted a little further.

As for “the prize,” Hunt is focused on the future. “I am looking at November 2018 as redemption day. If we can throw out a bunch of people who are doing harm to the people in order for them to line their pockets and put in people who not only serve the people but bow down to the people, if we can create that sort of environment—throwing out the bad people and putting in the good people and creating an environment when they realize that [their position depends on their service to the people, not donors or their own wealth]—to me, that’s what I have to keep my eyes on.”

Watching and Reading with the Eyes of An Organizer

What book and/or film would he recommend to those looking to appreciate storytelling? For a book, Hunt recommended Eckhard Tolle’s Power of Now for its discussion of the mind and how it works. As for a film, he offered The Wizard of Oz, but viewed through an organizer’s lens. Dorothy is an organizer, seeking solutions to collective problems through shared action. She experiences what “organizers see in our society: people without power sent to meet a magical person with the “solution.” Dorothy is sent to meet the all powerful Wizard of Oz who, she is told, will help her return to Kansas. But along the way, she—like organizers—meets “people who don’t have voice, knowledge, or courage but the journey shows them they have those things and then they can overcome incredible obstacles.” And oftentimes at the end of the journey, organizers, like Dorothy, “meet somebody powerful who just got there themselves! The Wizard says “I landed in a balloon and these people made me their king!”  Everyone has a story to tell—some to gain power, some to frighten, and some to just get home.

image 3
Dorothy and her companions, Courtesy of Entertainment Weekly.

Watching with the eye of an organizer helps reveal the inherent power within Dorothy—and within activists themselves. At the end of Dorothy’s journey, she and her companions realize “they had the power within themselves all along, they just needed to go on this journey. Glenda the Good Witch says to Dorothy,’You could have gone home anytime you wished but you wouldn’t have believed me if I told you. You had to go on the journey to find out for yourself.’ I wish people could watch the Wizard of Oz as an organizing journey story because organizing is about getting people to find their own voice, wisdom, courage, and power to change something.”

Great power resides in storytelling—the power to persuade, to compel, to inspire, to unite. Storytelling can strengthen the bonds of community and articulate meaning in a common struggle. It can make great obstacles suddenly surmountable, and daunting challenges ripe opportunities. And most importantly, storytelling reminds us that witches and wizards are only as powerful as the stories we tell allow them to be.

David HuntDavid Hunt is a nationally recognized leader and teacher for social change. He is the founder of David Hunt & Associates. For more information about David, organizing for social change, and storytelling, please visit his website

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3 comments on “The Power of Storytelling: An Interview with Social Change Leader David Hunt

  1. Pingback: American Inheritance: Exploring African American History and the Performance of Race through Material Culture – The Activist History Review

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