Stories to Change the World

by Judith Black, Sharing the Fire Intensive Workshop Presenter


Have you ever noticed that the grander the aspiration, the less effective a story is? Often the more desperately I want to influence my listeners, the less authentic, more didactic, and thus less useful is my story. Yes, Virginia, irony is the driving force of the universe.

Many years ago I created a story, “Bread and Roses.” The title is taken from the song about the famous 1912 textile industry strike in Lawrence, MA, which frames the tale. I wanted to teach about the parts of US labor history that are ignored or glossed over in our history texts; I wanted to create empathy for the working class movement that initiated this strike and show the necessity of a woman-initiated and -run birth control movement. (It’s good to have a few working objectives!)

The problem is that the story, though not awful, is not great. The characters are stock, doing what I need them to do to fulfill my goals. The story can still be a pleasant alternative to an hour’s dry lecture on this period, but I doubt if it has the full power that story can wallop. Powerful stories come out of ancient molds that share deep truths, or authentic experiences that deeply touch who we are and how we function. They don’t come out of prescribed curriculum modules!

Flash forward to Sharing the Fire 2016. “You teach what you need to learn” is a famous adage, and in keeping with it, I proposed an intensive for the Friday afternoon before the formal conference begins. “Global Issues: Small Stories” will address this very issue. How can we create real stories that resonate with fresh truth and authentic experience around the issues we are passionate about?

My focus is the environment. In a heartbeat, I can go into a long diatribe on the folly of our species’ continued burning of fossil fuels, our use of dangerous technologies to create energy, and our moronic responses to sane measures that could secure at least a little of the planet for our grandchildren. You can imagine how effective I am with people who disagree! It is time to bind the power of story with the necessities of survival in a way that will evoke heartfelt empathy and then change. Have you done this? I would love to hear about your successes. Can we do it? Please join me as we search for ways to share our knowledge, passion, and objectives in stories that will honestly resonate for listeners.

Our world might just rest in the balance.

Want to explore this crucial issue with Judith Black? Register for her pre-conference intensive, “Global Issues: Small Stories,” 1:00-5:00 pm, Friday, April 1 at Sharing the Fire 2016.

Visit the Sharing the Fire pages on this website to register for the intensive and the conference.
Learn more about Judith Black and her work at
Want to share your own ideas about activist storytelling? Leave a comment.



Stories to Change the World — 3 Comments

  1. Such an important topic … If we don’t have a healthy environment we don’t have anything. Can’t understand why so many people don’t get it. I’m the volunteer Beyond Fossil Fuels forum coordinator for CT Sierra Club. It’s like pulling teeth to set them up and get people to come. Maybe we need stories interspersed among the facts …

  2. Thank you, Judith. I am so looking forward to your workshop at Sharing the Fire!
    I have seen your keen sense of the “deep truths” in action as you tell. I would never miss an opportunity to learn from you.

  3. Oh, this is so good! Hell fire and damnation stories are great for believers, but turn off the non-believers. A story that will get the non-believer to wonder, to question, to think is absolute gold. Developing the story that can do just that is perhaps critical to our future.

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