Are we home yet?

The freeway, an emblem of soulless, alienated modern life, is the last place one would expect to have a spiritual epiphany. But I did, in July 2011 during “Carmageddon” in Los Angeles, and I’d been wanting to write about it for over a year. Even then it took multiple drafts to figure out the heart of the story. Yes, it was a sign from above that prompted a surge of unexpected emotion as I zoomed by at 70 mph. But where had that pent-up reservoir of feelings come from?


Read my latest piece for Huffington Post:  “False Alarm, True Belonging: Why I am Grateful for Carmageddon.”

Conventions of storytelling

Last night in his speech before the Republican National Convention, the vice presidential nominee, Congressman Paul Ryan, zeroed in on “story” in criticizing the current President:

President Obama was asked not long ago to reflect on any mistakes he might have made. He said, well, “I haven’t communicated enough.” He said his job is to “tell a story to the American people”—as if that’s the whole problem here? He needs to talk more, and we need to be better listeners?

Of course, Ryan himself told many stories in the course of that speech (full CBS-TV video here) and throughout his years of campaigning for elected office and doing the work of a legislator.

Storytelling comes with the territory, for Republicans, Democrats and Independents alike.

Shaping the narrative is arguably the number one charge of any political or organizational leader. And it’s not simply a matter of one person “talking more” and another “listening better,” phrases that bring to mind a stern, lecturing parent and a chastened child. The reality is more like a crowded marketplace, with carnival barkers and soapbox preachers clamoring for our collective attention and allegiance.

The democratic process is a contest of ideas and values, and unfortunately the contest isn’t fair. Some storytellers have supersized soapboxes and monopolized megaphones, and others have no voice at all.

This fundamental inequity was the subject of Francesca Poletta’s 2006 book, It Was Like a Fever: Storytelling in Protest and Politics. As summarized in her research abstract (emphasis mine):

Popular conventions of storytelling have served to reproduce the status quo…, less by limiting what disadvantaged groups can imagine than by limiting the occasions on which they can tell authoritative stories.

Despite an explosion in new media and a profusion of outlets for sharing news and opinion, blogs like mine included, “the occasions on which [disadvantaged groups] can tell authoritative stories” remain rare.

And that rarity is no accident.

Visionary stories imagining a better future abound. One of our goals as collaborative storytellers is to change the conventions — to increase occasions and opportunities for such voices to be heard, to take center stage, and to rise above the clamor.

Your story, but whose words?

One of our responsibilities as collaborative storytellers is to encourage the individuals we work with to find their own language to tell their story.

It’s easy to fall back on formulaic ideas and pat phrases, the kind of shorthand often used by social workers, lawyers, and politicians. Sometimes as writers we resort to shorthand because of time pressure and word count limitations; sometimes it’s because we are addressing a particular audience and assume that they get the lingo.

When a friend starts telling me a story and asks at the outset, Do you want the long or the short version?, I always ask for the long version. It’s only in the long version that the unexpected, non-formulaic, unique story in a singular voice will emerge.

A student I once tutored shared with me a brief essay about his difficult early years in foster care after his biological mother was deemed unfit, the loving adoptive parents who ultimately made a home for him, and how those experiences led him to do volunteer work for the homeless. His essay needed little correction. It was grammatically sound and it covered the ground he intended it to. But it was laden with the kind of jargon you’d read in a child protective services report or hear from the judge’s bench in family court. Reading it I could feel almost physically the degree to which the student had over time internalized this language, how the legalese helped muffle the pain of his childhood, and how sad this was (both the pain, and its muffling).

I hardly knew what to say.

So I focused on his pages and my notes on them, and explained that there are different ways to talk about an experience, and that the best way to hold your reader’s attention and create empathy is to talk about it in specific rather than generic terms, personal rather than impersonal, action rather than summary. It’s how you let people in. And I cited the sentences where he did that.

As I read his own words out loud to him, I saw not the proverbial light bulb go off, but something more like a soft glow at the base of a closed door, a hint of all the stories he has yet to tell.

Why we tell stories

Check out Sonya Collins’ latest post, Why I tell stories, at the USC Annenberg Reporting on Health member blog. It’s a great reminder of why we do this work, the different paths we’ve taken to get here (in Collins’ case, teaching English to Hispanic and Chinese garment workers), and the revelations — sometimes embedded pearl-like inside a single off-hand remark — that have inspired us along the way.

She also offers a link to photographer-filmmaker Phillip Batta’s compelling, artfully minimal, short video pieces, Tangerine Conversations, in which speakers’ faces are never shown but their stories of vulnerability and transformation nevertheless get under our skin, like their fingers in the fruit they are peeling as they talk.

Unlikely allies

Seeking to increase the availability and affordability of healthy foods in low-income communities, advocates are finding unlikely allies in the owners of convenience stores, purveyors of junk food and soda more often dismissed as the “enemy.” I interviewed the coordinator of a group of high school students in the City of Baldwin Park, near Los Angeles, whose initial approach took the form of an audit of their local markets.

“We mapped out cornerstores and small markets and found 17 of them within a two-mile radius surrounding schools…. Candy, chips, soda, and beer were in front of the store. Fruit, water, and milk were in the back. In terms of nutrition bars, peanuts, baked chips, and other nutritious snacks, there were few or none. Produce areas, if they existed at all, were poorly marked and maintained, and of very limited range.”

The students, as part of the statewide Healthy Eating, Active Communities initiative, ultimately convinced eight business owners to participate in the Healthy Selections program, involving simple changes in food placement and signage that encourage kids in the store to make healthier choices.

Yesterday NPR showcased a similar initiative in Pennsylvania led by The Food Trust. In his thoughtful, nearly five-minute report, What Will Make the Food Desert Bloom?, Dan Charles interviewed advocates and researchers about well-intentioned efforts that have not always lived up to their promise, and more recent efforts embraced with surprising enthusiasm by convenience store owners.

The Polo Food Market at the corner of 10th and Brown Streets has a new, colorful refrigerator. It’s on loan from The Food Trust, and it’s stocked with fresh fruit and vegetables. Store owner Salinette Rodriquez says she always wanted to sell this kind of thing. “So when they came with the idea, I said ‘Great! This is what we need!” ….But making this food available is only the start of this new campaign. On several store racks, there are signs that rate products green, yellow, or red, based on how nutritious they are. And there are flashy little cards with recipes for how to use some of the most nutritious ingredients. Each of these meals should feed a family of four and cost about five dollars.

When it comes to healthy eating, especially in today’s economy, cost can be the deciding factor. In the same NPR story, Barry Popkin, University of North Carolina professor of public health, offers this stark observation:

“In 1950, low-income Americans ate the most healthy diets in our country. In 2010, they ate the least healthy diets. And that’s because the least healthy foods are the cheapest.”

Things are looking up

Students study birds drawn to their elementary school campus in Los Angeles. Photo by Mark Boster, L.A. Times

Things are looking up when stories like this make front page news.

Louis Sahagun’s inspiring “Column One” piece in today’s Los Angeles Times shows how changes in the outdoor environment of a local public school fired students’ interest in science — an outcome that’s no surprise to researchers and advocates who’ve long recognized a link between children’s physical activity outside the classroom and their readiness to learn, about which I have written for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

A schoolyard habitat grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service helped make this project happen, and the impact has been dramatic.

At Leo Politi Elementary, workers ripped out concrete and planted native flora. The plants attracted insects, which attracted birds, which attracted students, who, fascinated by the nature unfolding before them, learned so much that their science test scores rose sixfold.

My favorite part is how precisely Sahagun captures one girl’s precocious command of flora-and-fauna vocabulary:

10-year-old Jacky Guevera fixed her eyes on an orb spider spinning a web near a pair of bushtits building a nest in the limbs of a crape myrtle tree.

“At our school, flycatchers drink the water in the vernal pool,” said Jacky, who dreams of becoming an ornithologist. “Scrub jays hang out in the oaks. The snapdragon’s red flowers attract Anna’s and Allen’s hummingbirds.”

“I can identify each of these birds when I see them,” she added confidently as she sketched images of the garden’s wildlife.

Amazing what can happen with a little un-paving of paradise.

Read full story by Louis Sahagun, L.A. Times, April 16, 2012: At an urban L.A. school, nature grows — and test scores too