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Storytelling in a disconnected age, and why it matters for policymakers

Published by USC Bedrosian Center on

by Chrysa Perakis

We know the importance of storytelling in novels – a good story can transport the reader to another world and unlock the endless bounds of their imagination. Storytelling in films allows viewers to embark on exciting adventures with their favorite characters. But, what about storytelling in public policy? How can storytelling be used to bring awareness to critical issues?

There is no denying that without data and statistics, it would be impossible to understand public policy issues. It would also be difficult to formulate effective policies that create a foundation for good governance and improve communities. Storytelling, however, brings a human context to today’s most pressing problems by connecting real people to real stories. Many times we read a news article online about the rising rate of homelessness in California or the effect of student loan debt on those trying to buy their first home. While those statistics are shocking, they generalize a population and can sometimes be difficult to understand why it should matter to us as individuals. Storytelling and the presentation of narratives are an effective way of communicating public policy. They put a human face to a problem that the public simply cannot ignore. Storytelling also helps raise voices that often go ignored in society while helping us all understand the effects of issues on real people.

Enter: Soledad O’Brien- the master storyteller. She started off in the crazy world of breaking news and covering catastrophes like Hurricane Katrina and the 2010 Haiti earthquake. After continuing to anchor news programs and host documentaries for CNN, O’Brien made the incredible transition from news anchor to CEO and created her own media and production company, Starfish Media Group.

Even the naming of her company tells a story. While O’Brien was on the ground reporting on the cataclysmic 2010 earthquake in Haiti, there was a boy walking on the beach picking up individual starfish that had been dispersed onto the sand, and left to die as they were drying out in the sun. A man approached the boy and mentioned that there was no way he could save all the starfish; there were just too many and his actions would not matter. While the boy knew he couldn’t save all the starfish, he knew that even by saving one, it would matter and make a difference to that one.

Between making documentaries that highlight personal narratives through Starfish Media Group and amplifying voices on her TV show “Matter of Fact with Soledad O’Brien,” she has continued to weave storytelling with public policy issues. On “Matter of Fact,” O’Brien dives into various policy related topics including education, immigration, healthcare, environment, and civil rights amongst others. During her broadcast she highlights an issue through the lens of an individual (or in some cases individuals) and seeks to expand on their personal narratives and experience.

In a recent interview, O’Brien spoke to a black man in Raleigh, North Carolina who had been unfairly handcuffed in his own home after his burglary alarm went off on accident. O’Brien calls attention to the overlying issue of unfair and often violent treatment of people of color by law enforcement, and how one man’s experience can bring personal context to the issue. In another episode, O’Brien discusses the student loan debt crisis, specifically in Pennsylvania, and highlights the story of a teacher who is now $57,000 more in debt than he had originally borrowed. While we know that student loan debt is a nationwide crisis, this man’s personal story helps us learn the effects of what that looks to the average person- like how he is biking 15 miles roundtrip to work each day to cut costs.

Soledad O’Brien’s attention to the intersection of public policy and storytelling is crucial in bringing awareness to public policy issues to those outside our policy wonk bubble. We are so excited to have her as our distinguished speaker for The Holt Lecture this year and learn more about her approach to storytelling.

Joining Soledad O’Brien in a conversation after the lecture will be the Mayor of Compton and outstanding Price alumna, Aja Brown. For the city of Compton, Mayor Brown is the youngest mayor to ever be elected and was overwhelmingly re-elected in 2017. She has helped transform the city by successfully taking action on community policy issues related to unemployment, crime and safety, and domestic human trafficking. Mayor Brown has enacted the initiative, “Compton Empowered” to help ex-gang members succeed through peace treaties and employment opportunities. She has also successfully reduced the unemployment rate in Compton by 50%. Mayor Brown is an inspiring leader who continues to add to Compton’s own story through her positive work and empowering leadership. We look forward to her conversation with Soledad O’Brien.

If you would like tickets for this year’s Holt Lecture, click here. It’s free! Hope to see you there!

Stay tuned for more updates from the Bedrosian Center.

Bedrosian Center