Using Stories for Policy Change - Lessons Learned

As we're about to hold our fourth forum, we've been granted the luxury of learning from our mistakes. Here are just a few of the challenges we faced in showcasing our stories through community forums, and what we've figured out along the way.

•    Clarifying objectives—After struggling to revisit our goals just a few days before our first forum we realized how essential it was to frame the forums around a specific and timely policy goal. It’s also important to make sure that constituents have a voice in determining goals and that they will be energizing. For example, Entre Hermanos staff knew that while tobacco use was a problem in their community, it wasn’t going to be the issue that motivated turnout. In order to identify what other issues were priorities, they posted a large poster in their office and sent out an electronic survey to determine concerns. The results helped staff add protecting HIV budget cuts as well as promoting the tobacco Quitline. There was also great interest in marriage equality, which was a discussion point during the forum and has turned into Entre Hermanos next campaign.

•    These stories are a hook—they bring new participants in, they allow the audience to see themselves reflected through the narratives, and they connect with the decision-makers. We kicked off each event with two – three stories that we selected carefully because of their relevance to the policy goal at hand.  We also selected stories based on whether the storyteller would be able to attend event. That way, each could introduce his/her own piece and discuss why he or she felt the issue was important.

•    Your storytellers are your leaders--- By involving the storytellers in organizing the event, speaking, and recruiting friends and family to come, we develop leadership in our communities. It’s key to follow up with these leaders following these events and to identify next steps for them. For example, after listening to the representative from King County Housing Authority speak to the benefits of smoke-free housing, a group of residents at New Futures are now planning to meet with their property manager to discuss what it would take to get their buildings smoke-free.

•    Getting the right people at the table— After the first forum, we realized that having only elected officials didn’t allow for a blend of expertise—it’s more than electeds who are the decision-makers in our communities. Finding the right balance of elected officials, community leaders to speak to past successes, and topical experts was key to our events’ successes. We found that three or four speakers top was the right number, and making sure to prepare them ahead of time with questions and give them time limits was also helpful.

•   Action at your fingertips-- We found it effective to have petitions to sign, information for people to take home, postcards to write--different actions that people can take at the moment at the event itself. Take a look at some of the samples beneath for ideas.

•   Key statistics—Numbers still matter. Carefully selecting one or two statistics can be an excellent complement to your stories.  For example, when the Burien audience heard that residents of south King County had a life expectancy of years less than their counterparts up North, there was a palpable sense of outrage.

•   Careful planning for the Question and Answer session made for a lively discussion. We “planted” a few questions ahead of time to be used if needed and found it effective to allow people to either ask questions themselves or write them down for the moderator to ask if they were hesitant to speak in public.

•  Forums aren't the only way to showcase these stories. We had a few speakers decline our invitations because they didn't want to be put on the spot publicly. We found that for some policy issues, it makes more sense to meet one on one or in small groups with the policy makers.

While these forums are ideally part of a longer-term community organizing process, this was a challenge for us given that our staff had limited training in organizing and the time limit on our funding. That being said, our MOVE staff across the board is eager to incorporate more of this work into their health-based outreach, are training their colleagues, and exploring collaborations for next steps.

How have you used stories for civic action? Let us know, we're eager to learn from you!