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Empathetic Storytelling and the Moral Imagination

 Oxford’s Fierce Compassion – Series of Student Insights to the Skoll World Forum 2016.

MBA student Yasmin Kumi gives her perspective on the Skoll World Forum seminar session ‘Empathetic Storytelling and the Moral Imagination’.

“There is emergency and pain everywhere – but there also is the consistent possibility of solution”, says Gary Gottlieb, Chief Executive Officer of Partners in Health. Each year the Skoll World Forum brings together an array of social change makers from around the world who have a compelling vision to make it a better, more equal and more moral place. But how can we make sure that every single citizen on the planet has the same ambition?

It is important that we tell our stories and engage the people around us on uncomfortable truths. Artists such as Cori Shepherd Stern (Producer, Bend the Arc) do wonderful work to achieve just that – her touching piece about Partners in Health tells the story of a young Peruvian who nearly dies because of year-long treatment with the wrong medication. Even in the 2min-truncated version of the film shown during the session, many of us in the audience had tears in our eyes.

Moral imagination, in a way, means that we constantly need to find our own avenue back to our moral selves and open up to our own emotions. Even more importantly, we need to ensure that we help others to do so by telling “stories that have the power to shift people’s thinking”, as Lynette Wallworth of Sundance/Stories of Change puts it. What becomes clear from listening to her and the other panelists is that we probably all do great work in our own organizations, manage to change the lives of people who need our support and find self-fulfillment in that. But if we do not become multipliers of the vision behind social change making by telling our stories, how will we touch others outside of our own microcosm?

How do you tell your own story to engage others on social change, the world’s most important endeavor? How do you find a way to make it real? Without doubt, Sonita Alizadeh, who is 19-years old although seeming to have the wisdom of a 90-year old, has found the answer to this. Having escaped to be sold off to child marriage at the age of 16, she became a rapper telling her story in the local language of her country. After the session I watched the video on youtube that eventually helped her to be invited to the US and go to school – and even though I do not understand a word of what she raps about, I immediately felt captured and engaged by just watching it. I wondered how she managed to do that.

Luckily, Sonita was kind enough to share her secrets with us – most importantly, she told us about her dream book. The dream book is “her map on how to achieve her goals” – anything that is captured in this book has to be thought about, believed in, spoken about and worked on. In a way it seems that anything written in that book becomes a commitment. It seems that the dream book is the source of Sonita’s incredible authenticity.

And that, after all, is what counts. There arguably is a wide range of possibilities of how to tell your story to be a multiplier of social change – and we all have to figure out which option is best. But if we really want to capture the people around us, then the source of all that will be to have the authenticity of Sonita. And for that to be possible, we need to learn to be as disciplined as she is with one thing: internalizing our vision and our values again and again. It can be through a dream book that we look at every day, it can be the frequent active memory of an experience that led us to do what we are doing, it can be a place where we find peace and feel closer to our own social vision again.

Whatever you choose, have the trust that regularly revisiting that source of your drive and energy for social change will help you to be authentic; and that will enable you to captivate each and every single person around you when you tell them your story, no matter how you tell it.