Advocacy starts with your story. Your story, my story and everyone else’s stories add up to the Big Story we are telling ourselves about the earth. Over time, our collective stories will guide us to sustainable prosperity or to total destruction. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Let’s start with your personal story about the earth you live on.
What events have touched your heart? Perhaps a brilliant sunset over the ocean? The birth of an animal or child? Do you have a favorite place outdoors? Where do you spend your free time? Is there a place in nature where you go to connect with your soul? Have you felt the loss of a favorite place? Or the loss of something you loved to do like swimming in a lake that’s now too polluted for swimming, or the loss of something that sustained you, like fishing for a living? Your personal story about connecting with the earth—whether about love or loss—is the starting place for advocacy.
You may think stories are too touchy-feely, or not as important as facts. Perhaps you view a carefully crafted argument about your issue as more powerful. This article will show you that the opposite can be true. It will show you how a well-crafted story is one of the most powerful assets in the toolbox of those interested in advocacy.
Two Ways Stories Are Used in Advocacy
Your earth connection stories—whether about love or loss— can ground you in your deepest truth. One of my favorite places is Maine’s north woods. When the going gets tough, I think of the many camping trips I’ve taken there, the beautiful forests, clear waters, the sun rising over lakes and mountains. This reminds me of why I care so much about the earth and why I am doing this work. It keeps me on track when I hear bad news or am struggling to see the light. Your earth connection stories can strengthen your advocacy in these ways too.
Your stories can also be used to show how ordinary people are affected by public policies. In a recent legislation, forty-five of my community members testified to create a climate action plan for my state. We heard from fishermen, restaurant owners, farmers, remote workers, business owners, health care workers, teachers and more. Each had their own reasons for supporting this initiative. The bill passed easily.
Touching the Hearts of Decision Makers
As an environmental advocate, you are trying to touch the heart of decision makers. Whether you are opposing an inappropriate development in your neighborhood, or asking congress to invest in clean energy, you need to make a human connection with those making policy decisions. And the best way to do that is by telling your story.
Trust in government is at an all-time low. This is particularly true in settings where public decisions are being discussed. Decision makers are on guard in these situations and are looking for the motive behind your words. They know you are there to try and influence them. They are wary of being manipulated. An authentic, true story that shares the details of a real human experience—complete with feelings, thoughts, sights, sounds and dialogue—can cut through the wariness of your listeners.
By telling a good story, you can build a human connection and touch the heart of even the most hard-hearted politician. Everyone, even politicians and CEOs, wants to feel that they are a good person, doing the right thing. Your job as a storyteller/advocate is to create a scenario where the decision makers can relate to your point of view. Placing them in your shoes and integrating facts to support your perspective can persuade them and reinforce the idea that they are right to be taking up your cause.
Authenticity is key. You need to be who you are, grounded in your personal story. Twisting facts, lying, or directly challenging your listeners’ values is the kiss of death. But, if you are well prepared and credible, your personal story will have power and influence.
Why Your Story Is Important
Most of us wish that decision makers would take the lead and do “the right thing”. But the truth is, leaders cannot stick their neck out without support. They need to know who is behind them before they can move forward. Citizen stories and organized groups of advocates provide this backing and pave the way for change.
Much of policy making these days is dominated by paid lobbyists. Corporations have invested heavily in lobbying, primarily through trade associations and think tanks with lofty names. Conservative, well funded lobbying groups like American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), Freedom Watch, and The Heritage Foundation write anti-environment legislation, and are continuously introducing it in all 50 states. Recent examples include legislation to bar the EPA from regulating carbon emissions, outlaw incentives for purchasing electric vehicles, and penalize banks and financial institutions that divest from fossil fuels. Citizen voices are needed— sometimes desperately needed—to counter these initiatives.
In Pennsylvania, the oil and gas industry convinced the state legislature that fracking was not harmful to residents because it was too deep underground to have any adverse effects. The legislature passed Act 13, a bill that would allow fracking wells to be located anywhere—school yards, town squares, neighborhoods and public parks. It wasn’t until citizens came forward and told stories of polluted wells and sickened farm animals that decision makers saw the truth and repealed Act. 13. Without these citizen stories, decision makers probably wouldn’t have acted.
The importance of citizen voices cannot be overestimated. Today, the balance of power leans toward the side of corporate America and the wealthy elite. We have seen this in many ways. Citizen voices, made clear with storytelling about people’s real lives and experiences, are needed to restore the balance of power.
You Are More Powerful Than You Think
The climate crisis is a topic where stories are especially important. Climate change and its causes are abstract concepts. The effects of climate change are different, depending on where you live. Have you noticed the ice melting off lakes earlier than ever before? Have you seen land or water taken over by invasive species? Have you experienced drought or floods? Has anyone in your community suffered from air pollution or extreme heat?
Your direct experience takes the climate crisis out of the conceptual realm. As citizens united in advocacy, we need to show decision makers exactly how climate policies are affecting our families and community.
Citizen stories have the power to shift the energy of a discussion, change the decision on the table, and bring forward a different way of being. With the climate crisis looming, policy makers need your help to shift the discussion from the cost of investing in clean energy and adapting to rising seas to the far greater cost of not taking action. Citizens need to show that the health and viability of their communities are at stake. It’s critical that ordinary people speak up about this.
The most important thing you can do today is to tell a decision maker that you care, and that a healthy future matters to you. This is true whether you are working with your neighborhood association, an environmental advocacy group, a state or county, or even Congress. If you have facts and data to back up your story, that’s great. If you have experience organizing or advocating, that’s great too. But none of this is required.
It is enough to say that you care and explain why. The other day, a legislator I know said this to me: “When I go to vote on an issue, what I remember are the stories I heard.”
This article is adapted from the book Advocating for the Environment, How To Gather Your Power and Take Action, by Susan B Inches.