If everything you know about a group is a collection of negative statistics, then there’s no way that you can tell the stories of people from that group—and stories are crucial to inspiring positive change, Trabian Shorters told an audience at Stanford University yesterday. The group of nearly 300 people had gathered at SSIR’s Frontiers of Social Innovation this week to discuss how best to address inequality.

Shorters went on to show the audience how often organizations see groups such as black men in terms of negative stats rather than positive traits and potential. His own organization, BMe Community, seeks to change this narrative, treating black men and individuals more generally in terms of their positive assets rather than their faults, and encouraging them to look at their lives and decisions accordingly.


Trabian Shorters gives his keynote address at Frontiers.

Shorters was far from the only Frontiers participant in the conference’s first two days to emphasize the importance of telling a story—the right story. As attendee and #SSIRFrontiers live-tweeter Julie Emery, executive director of the Virginia Civic Engagement Table, observed, “A definite theme this week is changing the narrative. The narratives we use now are not working for anyone.” In a panel on investing in women and girls, the McKinsey Global Institute’s Jaana Remes urged a shift from a narrative of “women versus men” to one aimed more generally at improving gender equity, promoting not maternity leave, for example, but rather parental leave.

Other speakers talked about how focusing on telling the right story can remind us that there is no single solution to inequality. Because stories are fundamentally about people—not institutions, data, or policies—they can encourage us to take a more holistic approach to addressing a person's needs. In this vein, PolicyLink president and CEO Angela Glover Blackwell argued that housing and transportation, job opportunities, and education policy are all interrelated factors that only together can reduce poverty. Her organization, a national research and action institute that aims to advance economic and social equity, itself takes an integrated approach to these issues, seeing each as a component in reaching the ultimate goal: improving individuals' and families' trajectories. 

Likewise, Stanford economics professor Raj Chetty showed that complex networks of factors affect upward mobility, from the neighborhood where one lives to the teachers one has. For reasons like this, Ford Foundation president Darren Walker argued that foundations ought to make their funding decisions with the aim of investing in overall social progress rather than in individual projects.

The forum has also highlighted an array of emerging technical tools that can help us find and share the stories we should be telling, and address the problems they uncover. Chetty concluded his keynote with a call for more groups to “harness ‘big data’ to develop a scientific evidence base for economic and social policy,” which would allow them, among other things, to “identify which neighborhoods are in greatest need of improvement and which policies work.” The forum’s “Tech for Good” expo, meanwhile, showcased exciting new storytelling tools. Using virtual reality Oculus Rift headsets, for example, conference attendees watched “Clouds Over Sidra,” a three-dimensional, 360-degree film that immersed them in the sights and sounds of a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan.


Participants use the Oculus Rift.

But forum participants stressed that although tools like these can aid us in fleshing out and engaging others in narratives that help organizations reach their goals, they can’t tell us what those goals should be.

Or, as a slide from Yale development economist Dean Karlan put it:



In other words, before you ask for a slew of data and other information, make sure you know what you really need it for. How will it help you tell the right story?

We look forward to more insights on Frontiers’ third and final day.