Holding the Center: Story and Community Part 3 – Building a Collective Story

(About this post) A few months ago, I received my graduate degree in Environmental Education. As part of this program, I wrote and presented a capstone. This presentation was a snapshot of what we had gotten out of our graduate experience, as well as a chance to present our personal vision of education. For me this became a chance to explore my own connection with story, learning, and how we each explore and understand the world through a unique and special lens.

Because my capstone inspired this project, I have decided to edit it and publish it on my blog. I will be posting it in sections, and providing links to the resources I found to be the most valuable as I researched and developed this piece.

You can find part one of this series, called What is Story? here and part two of this series, called The Importance of Multiple Personal Stories here.


After looking at definitions of story, last week, I shared my own personal story in multiple ways, and examined how this variety has the ability to change my personal views. I finished by recognizing that my own stories as well as the stories that we all have to tell are in fact told in dialogue with others. This year, I will look at what this dialogue looks like, and how it shapes our community and societal stories.

Before I get into this, I want to begin by looking at trees. The soil in a forest is interwoven with thousands of miles of fungal strands weaving in and out between the trees and roots. This network allows trees to communicate with each other, pool resources, and to give and receive news of potential dangers. Each tree makes its own connections with specific fungi, and provides its own unique blend of nutrients and signals into the fungal web, just as each of us develops our own stories and our own identities. The individual links help define the ultimate form that the network takes, but the final fungal network is so much more than a sum of its parts.

Our stories are the same. We both shape our own stories and contribute to the larger story, and we are constantly and subconsciously shaped by the stories around us. They form the intrinsic, underlying framework of our communities. If a forest community is defined by its fungal network, then our human communities are defined by the stories we tell. As we look at story on a collective level, the incredible power of story becomes even more evident.

Before I go on with this idea, I want to shift the definition of story we developed in part one. Many individual stories we hear, think or read fit the classical definition of story, with a protagonist overcoming a challenge and working towards a goal. However, collective stories can be different. A collective story doesn’t always have a protagonist, it doesn’t always have a single journey. Instead it gives us our archetypes, the lines and planes along which we think and act. Mary Ann Bateson described individuals as capable of telling multiple stories about themselves, and I would like to take this further and argue that communities sharing a collective story are equally capable of holding multiple stories about multiple protagonists.

For me, this concept is best defined in the book Mink River by Brian Doyle.

“and so many more stories, all changing by the minute, all swirling and braiding and weaving and spinning and stitching themselves one to another and to the stories of creatures in that place, both the quick sharp-eyed ones and the rooted green ones and the ones underground and the ones too small to see, and to the stories that used to be here, and still are here in ways that you can sense sometimes if you listen with your belly, and the first green shoots of stories that will be told in years to come – so many stories braided and woven and interstitched and leading one to another like spider strands or synapses or creeks that you could listen patiently for a hundred years and never hardly catch more than shards and shreds of the incalculable ocean on stories just in this one town, not big, not small, bounded by four waters, in the hills, by the coast, end of May, first salmonberries just ripe. But you sure can try to catch a few, yes?”  

I can’t imagine a better way of describing what a collective narrative of place is. Coming back to the connections within a forest, the stories of the “rooted green ones” that Doyle talks about, allow us to explore this even more deeply. The connections that individual trees have with specific fungi ultimately shape the fungal web and the forest above it, just as the combination of our stories shape the collective narrative in which we live. These networks allow us to share and communicate ideas, histories and dreams.

However, the web itself defines who is a part of it, who has a say. Similarly, the story we tell as a community defines who is considered to be valuable in that community, and who is excluded. Not every tree in a forest is an equal part of the web, and in our human communities, not every person has an equal part in telling and taking part in the collective story. Julian Rappaport says that “the ability to tell one’s story, and to have access to and influence over collective stories is a powerful resource. As we examine our own collective stories, we must ask ourselves whose voices are helping to shape them? What stories are left out? What stories are repressed, excluded, denied and misrepresented?

Much as we can tell our personal story in many ways, the cultural story can be told in an infinite variety of ways depending on who is doing the telling. I want to stress now that I don’t think there is ever a definitive story of a community. Even if every voice is included, people will see different things, and find different meanings, values or morals. Just as there is power in having multiple versions of a personal story, there is value in having multiple versions of the community story. But what if certain stories are left out completely, or even worse, negated or denied? What happens if we only have one story?

In her TED Talk called The Danger of a Single Story, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie powerfully illustrates the other side of Mary Catherine Bateson’s ideas about composing a life story. Not only are multiple stories powerful, but a single story is incredibly dangerous. She describes the experience of coming to the United States from Nigeria and being shocked at the fact that her roommate didn’t know she knew how to use the stove, and that a professor of hers thought her writing was not “authentically African”, simply because her characters drove cars and went to school. She goes on to say that “the single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

When disadvantaged groups don’t have access to the collective story they are impacted in two ways. Not only are their voices and images absent from the collective story-making process, but when they are present, they are often presented in one way, as a “single story” which only serves to exacerbate the perception of difference. Each individual is so much more than one story, and every individual has a different story. To reduce a group of people, a country, or even a continent is to deny their right to an individual story, and to deny their right to participate in the community story.

If a tree cannot connect with its neighbors, it will sicken and often die. It will not grow as tall or as strong as it others of its type that are connected to each other. And while many trees prefer and are more likely to connect with trees of their own kind, Douglas Fir to Douglas Fir, Birch to Birch, they are often also connected across species as well. This makes them stronger and more resilient. In the winter, when their leaves have fallen and they can no longer photosynthesize, Paper Birch trees will receive sugars and other nutrients from the coniferous trees like Douglas Firs around them. When a tree isolates itself, or isolates others, it ends up being weaker. As we as individuals or as a society try to isolate ourselves, to exclude and deny the stories of people who look or sound different from us, we too become weaker.

What does the exclusion of certain stories look like in our communities today? I grew up seeing myself represented for the most part in the stories I heard, read, and watched. People who looked like me, and talked like me were everywhere, solving mysteries and crimes, going on adventures, babysitting, riding horses, and so many other things I was interested in. It was easy to see myself reflected in almost every potential area of life.

In the documentary released last year, I Am Not Your Negro, James Baldwin highlights his experiences of watching movies as a child, and the way he saw the image on the screen reflected in the world around him. He says “Heros, as far as I could see, were white, and not merely because of the movies but because the land in which I lived, of which movies were simply a reflection…It comes as a great shock, around the age of five, or six, or seven to discover that Gary Cooper killing off the Indians when you were rooting for Gary Cooper, that the Indians were you”

As James Baldwin so eloquently describes, the process of internalizing the collective story begins in childhood. While adults also struggle to see themselves in the mainstream media, I want to share with you the results from a survey of children’s books published in 2015. Before you read them, I want to remind you about an important aspect of story that we talked about in part one. In stories, especially ones that help us understand the world, or ones that communicate cultural norms, a protagonist must be relatable. In other words, a protagonist must be someone we can imagine being.

2015 Children’s Racial Demographic Statistics:

  • 50% – European
  • 15% – African or Caribbean
  • 25% – Latin American
  • 5% – Asian or Pacific
  • 1% – Native American
  • 5% – 2 or more ethnicities

However the books children can access do not reflect this. That same year, almost 75% of all children’s books published in the United States featured white protagonists, and a further 10% or so featured non-human main characters, such as trucks, animals and toys. That means that only 15% of all children’s books published featured protagonists of any racial minority, even though they make up about 50% of the youth population in this country. While this looks extremely low, it is actually an improvement. In 2012, only 5% of all children’s books published featured protagonists of any racial minority.

The statistics I describe above are also reflected in movies, and for other groups of people, including women and members of the L.G.B.T.Q community. Despite significant improvements in recent years, measures like the Bechdel test, which looks at what women speak about in movies and television shows, and a simple demographic breakdown of protagonists in books or movies continue to show that the collective story in this country continues to focus primarily on white middle class men.

Personally, despite identifying a woman, and in large part in thanks to my parents, who as you heard earlier, went out of their way to create stories in which I was represented, I feel the stories I absorbed still allowed me to see myself as a successful protagonist, as someone who had the right to seek out lofty goals, who was capable of overcoming the obstacles in my way.

For almost half the population of this country, this is not the case. For so many people, the story they see about themselves is one of a fool, a sidekick or a villain. How must this affect their own stories, the way they develop their identities, the way they embody those and the choices they make? I can’t begin to understand. In the words of James Baldwin, everyone deserves see themselves as hero. This is not to say that we must have to have more diverse superheroes and heroines, although I wouldn’t complain if we did. I only mean that everyone deserves to see themselves as the protagonists of the stories they witness in the world around them.

The greatest gift we can give someone is to hear their story. Not just listen, but to really hear it, to allow it to sink in under our skin, and to absorb both the words and the emotions of the storyteller. This is the greatest gift because on a fundamental level humans are formed and molded by stories. We ARE story, and when we welcome in someone else’s story, we accept them on a deep, fundamental level. Adichie also says: “Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.”

As humans we are storytellers, and we can help repair this dignity, we can recognize stories as the powerful resource they are. As an educator, I can tell stories that cast people of all stripes as heroes. I can tell stories that cast communities, countries, or natural environments as protagonists win their own right. We can all do this, and this is a powerful act. But I’m not sure this is enough. We can invite others to tell their stories, we can choose to hear those stories that haven’t always been heard. This is what I am doing in choosing to seek more diverse stories in my reading life. But that is still not enough.

What may be enough is that perhaps we can start to tell stories together. We can enter into a dialogue with people whose stories feel alien to us and begin to tell the story that unites us. We can begin to build our community narratives with everyone’s stories included. What do we share? What have we experienced together? Two mothers might share stories of having and raising children, of the joy of a smile, or the fear of a missed phone call. Two students might share stories of last-minute deadlines, late nights, or new and exciting ideas. As a human community we all have stories that are linked together, we all have stories that are connected, and by seeking those connections, by hearing those stories, we can understand ourselves, each other and the world we live in.

As Brian Doyle so eloquently stated, all stories are “braided and woven and interstitched and leading one to another”. If you take anything away from this post, I ask that you begin to seek out the stories and people you don’t normally see or hear, and you start to tell stories with them.

Great Resources for Further Exploration:

Part 1:

The Storytelling Animal by Jonathan Gottschall

Story Proof: the Science Behind the Startling Power of Story by Kendall Haven

Part 2:

The material for this piece came from an essay by Mary Catherine Bateson called “Composing a Life Story” published in: The Impossible Will Take a Little While: Perseverance and Hope in Troubled Times, edited by Paul Loeb. However, she also wrote a book, also called Composing a Life Story, and has also been featured on one of my favorite podcasts, On Being with Krista Tippet.

Part 2:

Mink River by Brian Doyle

We Need Diverse Books (this organization works to promote diverse authors and diverse stories, especially in children’s literature)

TED Talks:

I Am Not Your Negro by Raoul Peck (adapted from the writing and work of James Baldwin)


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