The power of storytelling in social work is the theme of our 2024 Social Work Day on the Hill and Student Advocacy Day events on March 13, 14, and 15. The very nature of social work requires lifting the voices of poor and vulnerable people so their stories are heard. We include an affected person in our congressional briefings because it is important to hear them tell of their lived experiences, and their stories are often the most persuasive advocacy for policy change. Research and data are critical in developing and promoting evidence-based solutions, but understanding what people are experiencing best connects with the hearts and minds of legislators and policymakers.
I learned to appreciate the value of storytelling while teaching a course on persuasion in the DSW program at the University of Southern California School of Social Work. I was not a good storyteller. As someone trained in quantitative analysis, I learned to interpret a logistic regression coefficient but could not tell a story about it. I knew a few good storytellers, former Congressman Ed Towns being one. I had listened to hours of his storytelling during our long association and friendship. It helped him to connect with audiences.
My communications background equipped me to teach graduate social workers how to craft messages and develop techniques to convince others to accept their way of thinking. I soon learned that storytelling was among the most effective tools in persuasion. I learned that the Harvard Business Review was one of the most ardent proponents of storytelling as a tool for persuasion. One of the hottest topics these days is data storytelling. Podcasts like NASW’s newest Pioneer Jonathan Singer’s The Social Work Podcast and The Social Work Stories podcast provide evidence of the therapeutic value of storytelling.
Social workers have used storytelling for many years. Counselors sift through the stories of help seekers to learn about conscious and unconscious clues to the challenges they bring to the therapeutic process. Listening to their stories, counselors develop trust and rapport with clients who welcome a safe place to share their experiences. Storytelling can be particularly effective with indigenous people who often utilize storytelling and oral history in their cultures.
Dr. Stephanie Boddie, Associate Professor of Church and Community Ministries at Baylor University School of Social Work, employed ethnographic/storytelling research in her documentary Unfinished Business to tell the story of the Great Migration when millions of freed slaves and their descendants left oppressive Jim Crows laws in the South for better opportunities in northern cities. Their oral history interviews are augmented with ethnographic diaries that include photos, letters, journals, and other primary and secondary sources.
She will showcase her storytelling prowess and singing abilities during our Social Work Month events in March. Our ninth annual Social Work Day on the Hill events on Wednesday, March 13, 2024, will be in-person for the first time since 2019. Events will be livestreamed. Our Student Advocacy Day Senior Leadership Team, led by Amani Dseamours, a recent Howard University School of Social Work graduate, decided to do a two-day hybrid event, with a virtual event on Thursday, March 14, 2024, and an in-person event on Friday, March 15.
Social workers are at the front of the line of those who respond affirmatively to the age-old question: who will speak for those who cannot speak for themselves? In this age of complex communication and proliferating misinformation, social workers must play critical roles in cutting through the noise to bring people’s stories to the public’s attention and lawmakers’ attention to provide the resources needed to improve their lives. Using storytelling, social workers can work diligently to bring hope to those who may despair and forfeit their right to participate in the democratic process and let their voices be heard.