AWTT Focusing on Narrative Activism


The Americans Who Tell the Truth (AWTT) project has recently been trying to name more precisely what it is that we do. My son, Aran, who is the Executive Director of AWTT, suggested that the term 'Narrative Activism" might describe our attempt to use art, history and storytelling to inspire people to act for social, economic and environmental justice. I want to share some ideas about how narrative activism describes and defines the intent of the portraits I have been painting for the last 12 years.

We understand who we are and construct our identities through the stories we tell ourselves -- family stories, community stories, maturation stories, national stories, historical stories, species stories. And the nature and range of our actions are often based on those stories, what they allow us to do, which narratives to follow. Those stories can extend or limit the bounds of our imaginative sense of possible civic engagements.

The job of AWTT is to tell people, especially young people, true stories, stories that allow them to act for justice, stories that give them permission to work for the common good, stories that call out their courage rather than prey on their fears & insecurities & prejudices. We want to tell people stories that inspire them to be better citizens, stories that accompany them through hard times and teach them about perseverance and the joy of finding meaning in serving others.

One of the most moving stories of this nature is about 15-year-old Claudette Colvin sitting on a bus in Montgomery in the spring of 1955 (9 months before Rosa Parks) and deciding not to move when the bus driver and the white passengers shouted at her to go stand in the back of the bus. Her black high school had been studying the life of Harriet Tubman. Claudette asked herself, What would Harriet do now if she were here on this bus? Harriet's story gave her the courage -- the permission -- to do what she thought she should. Who do I want to be? What story do I want to be able to tell myself about what I did? She paid a price, but she knew who she was then, who her most profound ally was. Claudette was dragged off the bus as she shouted, "The Constitution allows me to sit here!" The Supreme Court decision that overturned bus segregation in Montgomery had her name on it.

A good story, a story of idealism and courage, provides an invisible constituency, creates an invaluable bolster of community and support when we need it.

Last week I was in New York City to meet Ai-jen Poo, head of the National Domestic Workers Alliance. She is my my next portrait.

She's been having remarkable success organizing domestic workers & in-home care workers. Part of her success is based on her intentional organizing of the employers as well as the employees -- telling people a story that shows that their ultimate welfare depends on their mutual success, understanding that the domestic worker will care for the children or the elderly parents more lovingly if the worker feels well cared for.

We talked quite a lot about the nature of power. Ai-jen said that our power as people falls into three categories: political, disruptive, and narrative. She said that neither of the first two will hold unless we change the narrative of this culture from competitive, combative, and self-indulgent to cooperative -- cooperative among ourselves, our communities, our countries and with nature. Obviously, this is a huge effort, one that can not be legislated or regulated, but must happen by changing internal & external narratives.

I asked Ai-jen if she was aware of Grace Lee Boggs' statement: "In order to restore America, we must re-story America." Yes, she said, she knows Grace, and has been inspired by her.

And I told her about how we were characterizing this idea in AWTT as Narrative Activism. She loved that. 

I see everywhere now this awareness of the power & necessity of an honest & empowering story. I think that we need to do more to build on this awareness. Every citizen of this country knows the dominant story of this society, the one that stresses liberty, equality and freedom, the one that congratulates itself as the greatest democracy on Earth. Most citizens do not examine that story enough to see that is often a cover for exploitation, economic disparity, prejudice and violence. And when we do not examine the truth of the story, we all become complicit in its falseness and passive as citizens. It is the mission of Americans Who Tell the Truth to encourage all of us to discover true stories, stories that help us engage in the life and health of our communities, stories that align our ideals with our actions. These stories will help us create a reality that we can all participate in and be proud of.