Stories for Social Change: An Interview with Marshall Ganz


If you want to be a part of PCP’s movement to transform primary care, here’s one thing you can do: Share your story.

Here, Marshall Ganz tells us why storytelling is such a powerful tool to incite change. Leaving Harvard in 1964, a year before graduating, Ganz volunteered as an organizer in the civil rights movement in Mississippi. A year later, he had joined Cesar Chavez and his United Farm Workers movement, and went on to become the union’s Director of Organizing. An expert in leadership and organizing, Dr. Ganz now teaches these skills at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and he tells us that storytelling is a crucial part of the skill set.

Why is storytelling a necessary skill for leadership and organizing?

We make sense of the world in two ways: cognitively and emotionally. We understand cognitively what the world is, and we understand emotionally what it means for us. Motivation to act, though, is all about emotion. It’s based on what moves us. I love this; I hate this; this inspires me; this disgusts me. There are emotions that facilitate action and others that inhibit it.

One reason people don’t try new things is because of inertia or habit. So how do you get people’s attention? How do you create enough urgency or enough tension that people are actually motivated to step out of the habitual and risk something new and uncertain? And once they are motivated to step out of habit, one response to the challenge is fear, which is paralyzing, so how do you create hope – rather than fear – to go with the urgency you’ve created?

Leaders and organizers grapple all the time with how to create the tension to inspire a recognition of the need for change, which may incite anger, but also enough hope, empathy and self-worth, so that need for change translates into mindful action and not just reaction.

Narrative is one way we do this. A story is a protagonist confronting a challenge for which he or she is not prepared, and which he or she must find the emotional resources to handle. This produces an outcome. So a plot is an enactment of a moment of choice.

In our lives, we’re confronted with challenges and the need to respond all the time. Because we can empathetically identify with the protagonist in a plot, we are not only able to get the plot’s lesson in our head, but we are also able to feel it in our heart. We’re able to comprehend it emotionally. We get the courage, the fear, the exhilaration, the insight, and the compassion that goes with it. So the moral a story teaches is actually emotional, not simply cognitive. It specifically equips us to deal with challenging choices. Faith traditions, family traditions, cultural traditions are all taught through stories. This is a critical form of empowering discourse. It’s how we learn to be change agents.

Parents of young kids spend a lot of time telling stories. It’s not to incite change; it’s to teach. And we have an appetite for it because we’re infinitely curious about how to deal with challenges so that we don’t – in the case of storytelling to teach faith traditions – go to hell but rather grasp heaven.

We all do this naturally – tell stories – but we teach storytelling as a leadership and organizing skill to bring some intention to this. We teach what’s called public narrative, which is how to link the story of why you’ve been called to your work to the values of the community you’re hoping to engage in action. We share this link through narrative. The challenge to those values that the present moment presents – such as a model of health care that undermines our ability to help our patients – then requires a choice and a grasping of hope with respect to the future. We call it “The Story of Self, Us, and Now.” It comes back to understanding what moves me, what moves my community and then what action is required of us given the challenges that we face.

Primary Care Progress

Founded in 2010, Primary Care Progress is a national organization committed to building stronger primary care teams. Working with current and future healthcare professionals from across disciplines and career stages – from students and faculty to providers and health systems leaders – we offer leadership development and support that emphasizes relational skills, individual resiliency, and advocacy. By providing the resources and community necessary to excel, we’re strengthening the teams at the heart of primary care, ultimately leading to sustainable models of care and better health for all.

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