Getting Proximate to Understand Multiple Narratives

The Importance of Multiple Narratives 

This article is the second in a series about the principles and practice of getting proximate:

What is a narrative and why are narratives so important?  Why can single narratives be so destructive?

Narratives are stories that we tell, or that are told to us, to describe a certain plight or circumstance of a community or group of individuals.  Single narratives are always biased.  They never tell the whole story.  Instead, they relay the emotional leaning of the narrator or the narrator’s community.  Many times, depending on who the narrator is, the narratives themselves can be one dimensional and may have little bearing on what stories the people or communities might tell of themselves.

Whether or not we realize it, narratives can influence the way we see, think, and even respond to social issues. People and communities are not monolithic.  That is why it is so important to seek multiple narratives that are authentic – those that take into account not only the circumstances at hand, but also past events that may have created the current circumstances.  In addition, multiple narratives help us to understand the thoughts, feelings, and aspirations of those involved.

Let’s examine a well known narrative concerning low income students of color – that they continually underperform in math and reading.  Why?  As the narrative goes, these students often act out in class, are lazy and don’t study, and are just not mentally up to the task. There are, though, alternative narratives.  For instance, low income students of color have far less access to high quality pre-K than their wealthier white peers, therefore often enter the K-12 system already far behind.  Additionally, research has shown that just as the larger U.S. population shows implicit racial bias, teachers show this same bias towards students of color. While well intentioned, implicit racial bias in the classroom manifests itself through lower expectations, lower quality teaching, and how teachers manage their classrooms.

Another example is the narrative around young, low-income high school graduates that receive scholarships to attend college because they are “disadvantaged”.  An alternate narrative might suggest that these low-income high school graduates receive scholarships because they have academic potential and possess the same hopes and dreams for their futures that all young students have.

Reading these two narratives, what did you think and how did they make you feel?

A single narrative often creates stereotypes making it impossible for us to see anything else. And, stereotypes are often incomplete.  They unnecessarily put people in a box where they are seen in only one way, which is then what they become.  When we hear one narrative, we naturally judge its veracity based on our own life experiences … is this true or false?

Multiple narratives can open our minds up for discussion, while single narratives may cause us to judge either the truth of the narrative or make assumptions about the subjects of the narrative. Multiple stories often shed new light on an issue, while a single story simply reconfirms existing beliefs or causes us to make judgements about the subjects of the single narrative.  By rejecting a single entrenched narrative and instead seeking counter-narratives, we can begin to understand long standing systemic issues and can be better informed as we begin to seek solutions.

Part of the Get Proximate initiative asks us to be curious and to actively seek out new narratives. To hear them, we must listen deeply and truly engage with members of the community by hearing their voices. These new narratives will broaden our awareness and shape the way we see, feel, engage and act with our community partners as we all seek to understand and to break down systemic inequities.

Here are some practical ideas about how we might start to examine and seek out multiple narratives as we continue our social impact work.

As you are gathering information about an issue or organization, consider:

  • Whose voices are missing in what you have learned so far?
  • Identify ways you can hear these perspectives: attend community events (even online), reviews, testimonials, get connected to community members, etc.
  • Examine what notions or assumptions you already have about a particular issue, organization or community they serve. Ask where does this narrative come from?
  • Seek out information that challenges existing notions so in the end you have a fuller picture.

Many propositions are on the ballot and as we examine each one we learn the arguments for and against and weigh who is making them. In the end we make final decisions based on information from multiple sources. Does examining an issue from multiple sides change where you might have originally started?

SV2 Partners can share examples of your experiences and work, and continue the conversation in the mySV2 Get Proximate community.