Use Your Words: Storytelling in Food Justice
My colleague Anyela was recently interviewed in a video on a cooking series offered at her program. Anyela uttered a phrase she now regrets about how the class is her participants’ only chance to learn about healthy eating. The filmmakers latched onto it, eager to show how uniquely beneficial the class was. Anyela lamented to me that she never meant to imply that families don’t try to feed their children well, or that schools aren’t an important arena for teaching about food. But the stock story of underprivileged children needing any help they can get took hold regardless.
Storytelling, rooted in ancient traditions, has always been intertwined with power. Hip-hop, the music birthed here in the Bronx, tells of the lived experiences of communities deprived of power. Many argue that rap came from West Africa out of the griot tradition, although griots in fact served those in power not the people. Stories can create personal and social change. As a community-based food justice program, telling our story is of paramount importance.
At the 2016 NESAWG Conference, Karen Spiller introduced workshop attendees to The Storytelling Project, an approach from Barnard College to “learning about race and racism through storytelling and the arts.” The project dissects a spectrum of four common story types. These are: Stock Stories, Concealed Stories, Resistance Stories, and Counter Stories. Stock stories are the ubiquitous stories usually told by and centering the dominant group. Counter stories work to specifically counteract stock stories and instead offer methods for social change. For me, the storytelling project provided a framework of recognizing problematic narratives, while giving specific direction on an alternative.
After the conference, my teammate and I decided to apply the storytelling framework to our blog posts. We analyzed previous posts to see where they fit on the spectrum and confirmed that they were overwhelming stock and concealed stories. We set a goal for writing resistance and counter stories in the upcoming year. I am pleased to report that we achieved the goal. One outcome was a series on History of Food as a Tool for Resistance: you can check out posts here and here.
I recently had the opportunity to go to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. It struck me that the entirety of the museum was a counter story. It intentionally tells the story of African Americans in America as American History – not as a niche that is incidental to our nation’s founding. Bricks representing his dozens and dozens of slaves overshadow a statue of Thomas Jefferson, our founding father depicted in countless stock stories. The statue visually depicts how slavery is central to America’s independence. The museum centers multitudes of stories of African Americans shaping their own futures. I’m sharing a couple of photos that resonated with me in particular.
By no means can I say that I am an expert in this approach or that we have figured it out. I want to name some particular challenges here:
- It’s important for white people like myself to pay attention to this framework. That being said, marginalized communities should be given the platform to tell their own stories. This is yet another reason for our staff to be representative of our community. We make efforts to give participants and diverse staff the chance to share their stories.
- We can only frame our work and projects as “counter” stories if they actually are. Using this analysis has illuminated the areas of our work that are not advancing social change and thus that we need to shift away from.
- This work is never complete and must be continually invested in. My colleague who worked with me on this project moved onto another job. I have not kept up this analysis, or had deep conversations with new colleagues, since her departure.
Are you familiar with the storytelling project? Is it new to you? Do you have other resources or different perspectives or share?
Do you think the food movement is telling enough resistance and counter stories?