The Time for Environmental Action is NOW!

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by Susan Holloway | Bio

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How Can Stories Motivate Us to Take Action? Lessons for Environmental Activists

26 Oct 2021 5:12 PM | Gayle Marsh (Administrator)

I have moments when my personal actions to fight climate change seem pathetically ineffectual. I stand in my kitchen wondering whether the top of my plastic spray bottle is recyclable, or is just the bottle itself? Or neither? What difference does it make anyway, if the seas are already awash in plastic? 

You may also experience this overwhelmed feeling at times. The challenge of addressing extensive, systemic problems like climate change can leave you feeling worried or hopeless. 

How do environmental advocates effectively stimulate hope and commitment to action? I recently learned about the public narrative framework, which uses the power of narratives, or stories, to evoke positive emotions that spur people’s motivation to make things better. Remember the amazing speech then-Senator Obama gave at the 2004 Democratic Convention? That speech is a masterpiece of public narrative! Let’s find out about the framework and then see how Obama and others use it so effectively.

Public Narrative

  Connections among values, emotions, and action (source: Marshall Ganz, Harvard University)

The public narrative framework is the brainchild of Marshall Ganz, an activist, leadership consultant, teacher, and writer. More about his amazing story later…but let’s focus on his ideas first. If you want to read more about his framework, please refer to the articles listed at the end of this post.

Ganz emphasizes the importance of two ways of knowing, the kind with the head and the kind with the heart. No offense to rational, analytic thinking based on evidence but I am going to focus here on what he has to say about emotion! 

The main point is this: Narratives engage people in experiencing the emotions that arise during a challenging circumstance, a process that also brings their values into focus and motivates them to meet the challenge with action.

Let’s take an example to illustrate this web of feelings, beliefs, and actions. I feel very sad when I see a picture of a seagull tangled in a plastic fishing line. That strong emotion signals the value I place on the wellbeing of wildlife, as well as my belief that people have a responsibility to help other living creatures. When these emotions and beliefs are activated, I am motivated to do something about plastic pollution, including recycle plastic bottles. 

But let’s say, for argument’s sake, that I don’t have any particular response to the trapped seagull. None of my values are particularly called to the fore. So I am unlikely to do anything to reduce the amount of plastic in the ocean.  

Is there a connection between action and other emotions besides sadness? Absolutely! Ganz groups emotions into two categories. Emotions that inhibit action include inertia, fear, self-doubt, isolation, and apathy. Those that facilitate action are urgency, hope, the sense that you can make a difference (known by its acronym, UCMAD), solidarity, and anger. The goal for advocacy leadership is to highlight stories that are action motivators.

Why Focus on Narratives?

  Image from an early version of Three Little Pigs (source: Wikipedia)
Don’t forget that these are supposed to be stories! My story of the entangled seagull was lame, at best. Good stories have a plot, characters, and a moral. The plot in most stories involves a serious challenge to the main character. The three little pigs, for example, are in danger of being eaten by the big bad wolf. We can empathetically identify with the pigs – imagining their fear of being eaten – and this emotional response draws us into the scenario.

The challenge presents the characters (pigs, in this case) with an urgent need to pay attention to the danger and choose an action. You probably remember the kind of house each pig decides to build to protect himself from the wolf. The pigs' housing choices signal to the reader their respective values. Only one pig is hardworking enough to put the effort into building a solid house. So that pig’s values (hard work) lead to an action (building a brick house), that leads to a positive outcome (not being eaten). 

This tale, which has been around for centuries in various guises, engages the reader’s emotions, and in doing so, it painlessly encourages reflection on how to best survive in a dangerous world!

Enough about pigs! What about the environment? 

Ganz describes three kinds of narrative. In a story of self you recount how you have responded to a challenge by making choices to act in a certain way. An effective story of self focuses on choice points, moments when our values become clear to us. In the words of Ganz and his colleagues: “We all have stories of pain, or we wouldn’t think the world needs changing. We all have stories of hope, or we wouldn’t think we could change it.” 

  Source: Marshall Ganz
The second kind of narrative is the story of us, which communicates why the community of people to which you belong is called to act, and why those people have the capacity to do so. So let’s say you are talking to a member of the Marin County Board of Supervisors about banning single-use plastic utensils and dishes from stores and restaurants. The story of us could describe how and why the residents of San Anselmo banded together to pass an ordinance banning plastic food ware in their town. 

The third kind of narrative is the story of now. The story of now focuses on the next action that is required. For instance, you might ask the Supervisor to join you and other residents in the fight against plastic food ware, and urge her to author a bill outlawing its use.

The Story of an Unlikely Hero

The story of Marshall Ganz is inspirational. Born in 1943, Ganz grew up in Bakersfield, the son of a rabbi and a teacher. His family moved to Germany for three years following WW II, where his father served as an army chaplain working with Holocaust survivors. While the young Marshall did not understand the complexity of the war at an intellectual level, he experienced the deep emotional trauma of those survivors who passed through his home. 

Images from the Mississippi Summer Project

In the summer of 1964, then a college student at Harvard, Ganz became involved in the Mississippi Summer Project, and stayed on to work for SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee). As he writes in his book, Why David Sometimes Wins, “Mississippi had taught many of us that it was not an exception, but rather a clearly drawn example of how race, politics, and power work in America.”

  Cesar Chavez and Marshall Ganz
Moving back to Bakersfield in 1965, Ganz became involved in the United Farm Workers movement, where he helped address California’s discrimination towards workers who had no voting power, earned low wages, and endured bad working conditions. These experiences had convinced him that political change depends on mobilizing the resources of marginalized communities into power so that they (not others) could change their conditions. He remained with the UFW for 16 years as an organizer, then served in various leadership positions until his resignation in 1983. 

Nearly 30 years after dropping out, Ganz return to Harvard to complete his undergraduate degree and earn a PhD in sociology. He became a faculty member at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, where he developed (and still teaches) courses on the role of public narrative and leadership. Ganz has also contributed his expertise to many initiatives outside the University, including a project addressing leadership in the Sierra Club, and the formation of Camp Obamas to organize volunteers in Barack Obama’s 2007-8 campaign for president.

In his writing, Ganz often sums up his ideas with a quote from Rabbi Hillel, who lived in Jerusalem during the first century BCE: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am for myself alone, what am I?  If not now, when?” 

The Supreme Master of Public Narrative

Barack Obama and
John Kerry in 2004
No one can spin a public narrative as skillfully as former president Barack Obama. Let’s look at a few excerpts from his famous 2004 speech at the Democratic National Convention. 

In the beginning of his speech Obama introduces himself, addressing the ways in which his upbringing is unconventional while also reframing it as actually consistent with the American story. His narrative frames his grandfather and father’s story as an inspiring one of personal effort while also showing how it synchs with the American story of opportunity, linking his story of self with a story of us. 

Tonight is a particular honor for me because, let's face it, my presence on this stage is pretty unlikely. My father was a foreign student, born and raised in a small village in Kenya. He grew up herding goats, went to school in a tin-roof shack….But my grandfather had larger dreams for his son. Through hard work and perseverance my father got a scholarship to study in a magical place: America, which stood as a beacon of freedom and opportunity to so many who had come before…I stand here knowing that my story is part of the larger American story, that I owe a debt to all of those who came before me, and that, in no other country on earth, is my story even possible. 

Barack Obama visiting his grandmother

But does Senator Obama allow us to bask in the glow of American awesomeness? No, he continues by describing the urgent need for action to preserve America’s values and commitments, stimulating our emotional responses towards people who have not yet benefited from those commitments.

I say to you tonight: we have more work to do. More to do for the workers I met in Galesburg, Illinois, who are losing their union jobs at the Maytag plant that's moving to Mexico, and now are having to compete with their own children for jobs that pay seven bucks an hour. 

And finally, the story of now! Elect John Kerry, a man who understands and embodies those shared values.

In this election, we offer that choice. Our party has chosen a man to lead us who embodies the best this country has to offer. That man is John Kerry. John Kerry understands the ideals of community, faith, and sacrifice, because they've defined his life...In the end, that's what this election is about. Do we participate in a politics of cynicism or a politics of hope?…The audacity of hope!


Want to Learn More about Public Narrative?

Read these articles by Ganz and his colleagues:

Comprehensive essay on public narrative

Participant guide to Public Narrative for organizers

Report on the organizational effectiveness of the Sierra Club’s Groups and Chapters

Take a look at two examples of Public Narrative:

Obama’s 2004 speech at the Democratic Convention

Tom Hank’s op-ed persuading us to make community college tuition-free for two years; did you know that he attended Chabot College?

Check out this fresh take on the Three Little Pigs: 

Green Jelly’s weird musical version (not for little children) of the story. It adds an important twist to the story by making the third pig an A student who can afford to study architecture at Harvard because his father is a famous rock star. Kudos to Green Jelly for including the role of resources in responding to the challenge of building a sturdy house.

That’s it for this installment of the Notebook! I give special thanks to Trevor Stevenson, whose EFM class on Persuasive Strategies for advocates introduced me to these powerful ideas. 

Thanks to Rob Badger and Nita Winter for sharing Rob’s beautiful image on the Notebook banner. Check out their award-winning book on wildflowers or visit their website for more stunning images of wildlife.

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