Our Toolbox of Emotions: Storytelling and Social Change at frank2020

Categories: BELONGING AND CULTURE: Uniting Community, Civic Engagement,

Familiar with the saying: “The pen is mightier than the sword?” While there is no denying a sword is shaper than even the fanciest ballpoint pen, the same can be said about power of a good story. When you are gripped by an enticing narrative, its simple yet meaningful combination of words, characters, and ideas has the potential to encourage reflection, catalyze action, and inspire change. By its very nature, storytelling shines an examining light on our humanity and cultivates empathy that is grounded in our shared emotions and experiences.

It was this spirit that brought together 300 communicators, educators, scholars, activists, and nonprofit and foundation storytellers in early February 2020 for the seventh annual frank “gathering” in sunny Gainesville, Florida. Named after Frank Karel, a leader and visionary in the world of public interest communications, frank hosts a series of talks, skill sessions, and collaborative opportunities that teach and inspire changemakers how to use stories to drive positive social change.

As a first time frankster, I had heard from my colleagues that the three-day gathering would undoubtedly be an emotional rollercoaster, so I braced myself for some laughing, some reflecting, and maybe some crying. However, this year’s frank had no qualms about playing around with our emotions. Using research-informed insights and actionable examples from experts in the field, frank gave participants a thorough crash course on using our emotional toolboxes to dive deep into awe, fear, pride, anger, love, and hope and, ultimately, build powerful stories that move the needle and advance communities.

These messages that I absorbed in early February have taken on new meanings during the COVID-19 pandemic, as they continue to spiral into the narrative of our local community’s efforts to come together amidst a wave of uncertainty. Local pushes such as Season of Sharing and the 2020 Giving Challenge remind me that thoughtful communications balanced by emotions are essential in navigating our community safely through this shifting moment.

While there are plenty of messages from frank that I see reflected in our local nonprofits’ communications during this time, I’d like to share a few that stand out in my mind as particularly revealing.

Abundance Messaging

Perhaps my favorite conversation came from Amanda Cooper, an independent strategist and consultant, who spoke about abundance messaging. Now you’re probably asking yourself: what does abundance messaging entail? It’s all about recognizing that our emotions – think: love, hope, respect – are infinite, continuing to grow until there is enough of everything for everyone. To changemakers like Cooper, our life is not constrained by the finite but rather is a mosaic of choices, one in which we do not rank based on deservedness and rather reject scarcity and embrace abundance. In this time of heightened need, this message remains poignant as neighbors help neighbors at the local and national level.

Framing Love with the Environment

What do love and protecting the environment have in common? Quite a lot, according to Rachel Lamb, a PhD Candidate in Geographical Sciences at the University of Maryland. Using climate change as an example, Lamb illustrated how love compels us to act because it gives us an opportunity to be stewards of something, whether that be a garden or ourselves. After all, loves affirms our roles as agents of change and as such we should all strive to look at my neighbor’s flourishing as my own flourishing. During the era of social distancing, cultivating that love and friendship in one another is more important than ever to maintaining our mental and physical health, as well as our own feeling of connectedness.

Anger Mobilizes, Hope Organizes

Thomas Coombes, Founder of Hopes-Based Communications, shared insights from more than 15 years working for Human Rights organizations such as Amnesty International, Transparency International, and the European Commission. For Coombes, focusing on anger, fear, and inhumanity wasn’t enough to mobilize action; rather, messages that centered on hope, care, and humanity are powerful catalysts for change. This purposeful shift in communications highlights what we are for rather than what we’re against. And at the heart of it, there is hope in every story. More than anything else, hope will be the guidepost to chart our steady path through this current crisis and beyond.

While I encourage you to implement these ideas in your own writing, at the end of the day, our role as communicators is to create the necessary space for people of all backgrounds to feel empowered to share their own stories. To effectively accomplish this, we need to reach intentionally and creatively into our toolbox of emotions and let our feelings guide our pen strokes. If we do that, we can build meaningful narratives where everyone feels like they belong, even in these challenging times.