The power of storytelling in advocacy

By Ken Ogasawara

MCC Photo

I hadn’t ever considered myself an “advocate” per se. Maybe I had always seen advocacy work suited for fiery, passionate people with loud voices and strong opinions. Personally, I have always felt a bit envious of those with strong opinions; I have always held mine rather loosely. I am usually one to empathize with both sides of an argument, sometimes to a fault.

With that said, recent developments in my professional life, including joining the Canadian Advocacy Network (CAN) at MCC have made for an interesting and encouraging experience. My colleagues on the CAN are, unlike me, well-seasoned advocates and far from breathing fire, they are a thoughtful, warm, and welcoming group of people who hold their convictions for a just world very deeply.

The other part of my work life involves being a creative producer for a number of documentary projects focused on various issues. Though advocacy (as I knew it) did not come naturally to me, storytelling was a better fit.

One example is in a recent podcast episode I produced, called ‘David and Goliath’. You can listen to a clip here.

It is part of a larger experiment of sorts – using the podcast format to tell stories of MCC program participants, staff, donors, and partners. When starting this project, I naively thought it would be very similar to documentary filmmaking but half as hard because I don’t have to deal with visuals. How hard could it be? Pretty hard, as it turns out. Especially when it comes to summarizing the Palestine and Israel conflict in only a few minutes.

The impetus for the episode was the opportunity to interview two young peace activists – Sahar Vardi, an Israeli Jew, and Tareq Al-Zoughbi, a Palestinian Christian. That conversation alone was worth an episode. Here is a great exchange where Tarek talks about the nuances of the Palestinian experience living in occupied territories:

Tarek: People are just tired and the status quo become livable and with that there’s so many distractions. Part of the difference is we have such a larger population in the West Bank which is able to continue living and living…I don’t want to use the word “decently” but not as bad as those in Gaza. They are able to use their smartphones, have internet, go to school, keep up with their favourite TV show, to have some yummy food, to go to restaurants – that sort of thing.

SaharThere’s Netflix now, everything is fine.

This is one of my favourite bits of tape – but it didn’t make it into the final cut of the episode. This was representative of one the greatest challenges I had with this episode – it wasn’t having too little content, it was having too much! In addition to the interviews and public talks that Sahar and Tarek gave during a speaking tour in October/November 2018, there are hours of interviews recorded by MCC Canada for the A Cry For Home campaign, not to mention 50 plus years of history to condense for context. That meant that inevitably, even some of my favourite lines had to be cut to service the larger story. After sharing drafts of the podcast with a few friends who had no prior knowledge of the context of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian areas, I realized the most important components of the episode are the stories it tells.

Studies have shown that people are moved to action because of emotion, not reason or facts. Storytelling is a uniquely powerful tool for conveying emotion. For example, I can tell you how the hundreds of checkpoints make life very difficult for Palestinians in occupied territories. I can tell you that they are massive and heavily fortified at the crossings from the West Bank and Gaza into Israel. Palestinians can only pass through if they have permits—whether to work in Israel, to go to hospitals, to make religious pilgrimages, or even to cultivate the land they still own. I can tell you that who can cross a checkpoint is often arbitrary. I can tell you it can be deeply humiliating. I can tell you that it can cost lives. But all of this can also be conveyed in a story:

“My name is Kifah*. I was pregnant with my first child when, at 4 a.m. one day, I started to feel birth contractions. In order to reach a hospital, my husband and I had to cross a checkpoint. Even though my husband was pleading with the soldiers that the situation was urgent, we were denied permission to pass. It was only when I fell to the ground and the baby’s head emerged, that the soldiers permitted us to pass. An ambulance was waiting on the other side of the checkpoint, but it was too late. My son was born at the checkpoint. He suffered irreparable damage. I will never forget the soldier staring at me with his colleague and laughing as I lay on the floor in labour.”

You may forget the exact facts and figures I could use to explain the conflict, but you will not easily forget the story of Kifah giving birth while being metres away from life-saving medical care, but separated by a checkpoint.

The last two paragraphs explaining the checkpoints, as well as Kifah’s story, come from The Palestine Land Exercise (PLE). Inspired by the Kairos Blanket Exercise, the Palestine Land Exercise is an experiential learning tool that is designed to help participants understand the history and current context of Palestine and Israel.

Our PLE team at MCC Ontario has only led a handful of these events so far, but the feedback is encouraging. The powerful and liberal use of stories from MCC partners in Palestine and Israel keep the learning grounded and centred around the human-experience. The devastation of the hyper-militarized occupation by Israel and the desperate yearning for peace by both Palestinians and Israelis comes through loud and clear throughout the 90-minute exercise.

As I learn more about MCC’s advocacy work, I am grateful for the opportunity to use my experiences in storytelling to engage others to take action – for peace and for justice.

Check out more stories of Palestinians and Israelis working for peace and justice on our A Cry for Home website.

*Last name withheld for security reasons.

Ken Ogasawara is a Communications Specialist at MCC Ontario

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