Harness the Power of Your Story: How Storytelling Informs Policy

“If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” – Former U.S. Representative Shirley Chisholm, New York

At any level, our elected officials’ fundamental role and responsibility is to reflect and advocate for the values and voices of the people and communities they represent. However, the lack of diversity among decision-makers – particularly at the state and federal levels – hinders their ability to understand and center the realities of people from marginalized communities and the impact policies and decisions can have on the lived experiences of constituents.

Among state legislators, only 9% identify as Black, 6% as Latinx, and 29% as women. Nationwide, 0.2% of elected officials are from the LGBTQ community. Though diversity has increased over the past decade, about 75% of Congress is white, and 73% are men. Roughly 67% of House members and 76% of Senators hold graduate degrees, compared to 13% of the American population. Analysis of the previous Congress found that the median net worth of members was more than $500,000. Even when well-intentioned, without experience of hardship or awareness of the continued oppression of marginalized communities, these realities may remain invisible to or inadequately addressed by policymakers.

“Stories are the single most powerful weapon in a leader’s arsenal” – Howard Gardner

Growing up, I wanted to be in medicine; I was obsessed with the idea of “fixing” people. After high school, I spent a few weeks shadowing a Physician Assistant in a primary care clinic outside Boston. One day a patient came in reporting back pain and numbness in his arms. I don’t recall the diagnosis or any of the patient’s vitals, but I know that there was a treatment available – the problem was that he couldn’t afford it. I’ll never forget the desperation in his voice as he described the agony he was in and the financial constraints that limited his ability – and right – to be healthy. So, he left that day with the advice to take some Advil, and I left that experience with an intense redirection of what truly needed “fixing.”

Many policymakers have heard stories shared by constituents that brought forth the depth of humanity to an issue and drove them to advocate for meaningful and informed change. Cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner suggests that messages delivered as stories are 22 times more likely to be remembered than data alone. When stories and data are combined, they have the power to move people both emotionally and intellectually.

A handful of years ago, I had the opportunity to intern for a longtime state representative, during which I helped manage their constituent services. The requests that came from district residents were the focus, and the concerns or positions most frequently stressed rose to the top. But the personal stories are what lit a fire for my boss. As an advocate, this continues to ring true: constituent voices hold significant power to influence and inform the decisions and priorities of policymakers and government at various levels. Even for officials with lived expertise – with poverty, for example, or as a member of a marginalized group – the intersectionality and range of differences in experience give weight to each story.

Though the path to engaging with government beyond your elected legislators is less transparent, the Biden Administration has taken steps to try to ensure that its policies and practices are informed by community voice. Early on, the Administration issued a slate of Executive Orders to advance equity and support for underserved communities, including an order that directed agencies to identify barriers and facilitators of effective program delivery. To do this, agencies issued formal requests for information. However, a burdensome and obscure process in itself, this triggered a further directive to proactively engage with the public to fully understand the experience of accessing benefit programs as well as the time, financial, and psychological costs this process imposes. Similarly, as the White House prepares for its Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health, it has emphasized the Administration’s intention to include ideas and stories from those with lived experience and expertise. Though initial steps, these actions point to the growing recognition that the government’s most meaningful tool is to listen to the people it’s meant to serve.

Want to learn how to take action, have a seat at the table, and share your story to advance equitable policies? Here are three ways you can do that just that:

  1. Contact your legislators: Find out who represents you on the local, state and federal level and their contact information here. If you want to speak with your legislator or their staff, request a meeting – they want to speak to constituents!
  2. Craft your story: You want to share your story – but how do you best prepare and do this most effectively? Shared during this year’s RESULTS International Conference, RESULTS Experts on Poverty – a diverse team of advocates who use their firsthand experience of poverty to push for more effective policies to support those with low-incomes – have created a phenomenal workshop to help with this: “Going Beyond the Numbers: Learning to Personalize Your Lobbying Experience for Effective Advocacy”. See additional storytelling workshops and resources from the Experts on Poverty here.
  3. Utilize media to amplify your story: Whether it’s social or traditional media, legislators and their staff are constantly monitoring various outlets to connect with the public and better understand the needs of their communities. Sharing your story via these mediums allows you to inform your elected official while reaching a wider audience – including others who may be encouraged to get involved in advocacy or share their own experience. Amplifying an issue in this way can also be essential in building wider awareness, understanding, and reducing stigma.
    • Social media: Tag legislators and others who you want to see your post. Include hashtags and interact directly by responding to or quoting other posts.
    • Traditional media: Identify online and print news outlets within your elected official’s district. Is there a particular source that they look to or often cite on their social media accounts? These outlets often accept and publish opinion pieces and Letters to the Editor from community members. You can also reach out directly to reporters, who may be interested in speaking with you and publishing an editorial piece on the issue.

Find inspiration: Need some examples to jumpstart your storytelling? The list below should help:

  • What the Expanded Child Tax Credit Means to Me, OtherWords
    • RESULTS Expert on Poverty La’Shon Marshall shares her past experience as a child and describes now as a mother how the expanded Child Tax Credit has helped support her family.
  • Why Congress Needs to Make the Child Tax Credit Permanent, YouTube
    • In a collection of short video testimonials, RESULTS Experts on Poverty advocate for the 2021 expansions to the CTC to be made permanent by sharing how the temporary benefit helped support their families.
  • EITC for Families with ITINs, YouTube
    • Erika Perez describes how she and her daughter would benefit if Massachusetts were to extend eligibility for its Earned Income Tax Credit to working immigrants.
  • How to Fix Child Care Before the Next Pandemic Wave, The New York Times
    • NYT opinion writer Jessica Grose advocates for policies to support families and the child care sector by highlighting the experience of parents and child care providers, using (with their permission) quotes and personal stories.