Learning at Large Ep2: Using storytelling to make a million people take action
In this episode of the Learning at Large podcast, I talk to Daniel Hunter, Global Trainings Manager at 350.org. We talked about the power of storytelling, speaking to feelings, using campaigns to build a network, group learning techniques, and above all, how to get people to get into a mindset where they’re actually prepared to take action on something they care about. Enjoy the episode.
Simon: So, Daniel, to get us started, could you introduce yourself and tell us a bit about your role 350.org?
Daniel: Sure. Thanks for having me here—as you said, I work at 350.org. We work on climate change and I’m the global trainings manager, which means a lot of different things. We’re a relatively small organization for the size of our impact, but it means that I support the education and development of our staff, specifically on the skills of organizing and campaigning.
Since we’re a campaign-driven organization, we work on climate change at local levels, working on bans on fracking or particular policies related to switching to renewables, stopping fossil fuel companies, keeping fossil fuels in the ground—those are our campaigns that we run. They’re diverse, they’re spread out. We have lots of different activists doing a lot of different things; they work in different ways. So, my job is to teach people skills that they can use wherever they are, so that they can be more effective at winning the campaigns to have a planet that is habitable for all of us in the future.
Simon: Love it. And what size groups do you tend to work with when you’re teaching them those skills?
Daniel: We have an astounding wide range that we work with. So, one group that I’m working with this morning is a team of five, and they’re working in a really repressive country, so I’m working with them on psychological burnout. This afternoon, I’ll be working on some resources for the climate strikers—youth climate strikers. So, the range of groups I’m speaking to is pretty wide. And 350 isn’t a top-down organization—we’re a movement organization. What that means is, rather than just training our staff, for example, we’re in contact with wide sets of circles.
Some of them are our staff, and some of them—like the youth climate strikers—it’s a disparate movement entity that has no single structure, but it’s called together by a desire to make change. Our modes of influence shift. There’s not sort of one unifying factor—which is a challenge for us at an organizational and structural level as anyone who’s worked with movements knows, and it’s also a gift. It means that we’re trying to support people who are in motion.
In the corporate world, you’re often struggling with people who may resist the content more. We’re training people who want the content, and the question is, can we give people content in a way that they find useful, that they desire and can apply right away?
Simon: What are the other kinds of things that a group of 1.6 million people need to bring them together and have that kind of shared purpose and movement?
Daniel: You’re asking about the heart of what makes a movement thrive. Movements thrive under a couple of different conditions. I think one is, there’s an energy to a movement—I think movements speak to people’s passion, feelings, state. One reason I think the youth climate strikers have been so successful is because they’re coming out of frustration, despair, anger, some hope, and some very honest assessment of how dangerous these times are. So, movements speak to feelings. That’s one of the things that holds them together.
But of course, that isn’t enough. People need a direction. In the organizing parlance we talk about targets; you want to have a goal, you want to have a target, you want to have someone that rather than just an expression of “Something should change, and we hope someone will do it.” It’s a statement that “We want this person or these set of people to make different policy changes” or changes in behavior. So, for 350, we’ve really targeted two sets—which has largely been the fossil fuel industry, which is an industry that needs to die, simply put, so that’s one target is the fossil fuel companies. And specifically, we want to move governments who have been incredibly slow and flat-footed on this.
One of the other things in terms of your question of what makes a movement fly, is having that sense of goal and target that we’re unifying around.
Simon: I love the way you talk about how movement speaks to feeling. You’re finding that way to connect with someone, to mobilize them and make that bigger impact. What do people need to know? What do you need to speak to them about to have that effect that you’re having?
Daniel: I think there’s a couple things that people need to catch. One is that most of us have been taught very bad thinking about how movements operate—a lot of myths. For example, in the U.S., we teach Rosa Parks and her action where she refused to sit down at the back of a bus, and that that sparked off a local and eventually national movement for ending segregation in the United States. So people learn that a kind of movement myth that single-person actions are how movements jumpstart. But it’s not actually the truth. The truth is more complex. It’s that Rosa Parks was already an established organizer and someone who’d been in activism herself, and that there’d been a team of people who’d been thinking about organizing a bus boycott for some time. And, in fact, several other people before Rosa Parks had sat down on buses and been arrested under similar circumstances, and the movement itself had chosen not to pick up those people. One was an unwed mother, and they felt that wouldn’t be a good image to put out there; another was a young woman who was very direct and quite hot-tempered, swore a lot, so they were worried about her as well.
The reality of movement organizing is that it isn’t done by a single hero. It isn’t done by one single large mass mobilization. And in all of these, we have some myths that I think limited an individual’s sense of what they can do. So, that groundwork happens when eople develop local campaigns, where they create infrastructure that allows people to work together on some shared progress.
So, to your question of what are we trying to teach—we’re trying to unteach some myths that people have, we’re trying to teach people the concept of running campaigns. That campaigns are local, that campaigns involve people developing their own localalized goals that move people and grab people’s energy and grab attention. Campaigns are dramatic and confrontational. Local campaigns involve direct action, where people are acting outside of the normal bounds of just lobbying and requesting good policy, but are speaking with a kind of urgency and saying, “We’re putting our bodies on the line.” Those are the things we’re trying to teach people. How do you develop and craft people, how do you pull people together, how do you meet new people? Those are the skillsets we’re trying to get across whenever we’re working with a new group.
People learn by the specific. I think one of the great mistakes of classical educational theory is, you know—if I’m going to teach about nonviolence, I come in and I talk about the theoretical consequences of nonviolent direct action, about the pillars of support, about the various campaign structures, about etc. etc. I go into the theory and I lay it all out there. But people don’t learn that way. The reality is, people learn by what’s next to them. They learn by hearing an example of—when you were a kid, Simon, you already knew how to do nonviolent direct action. Every child has already done it. So, I would teach by asking you, “What’s a time when you stood up to your parents, where you got them to do something even when they didn’t want to do it? How’d you try doing it, even if you weren’t successful?” Everybody’s got that story as a teenager or eight-year-old or five-year-old, that they’ve tried to get someone to do something by using whatever tools they had available to them—even if they didn’t have traditional power. That’s the heartbeat of nonviolent direct action.
And now, we’re in a territory where I’m talking about it in your context. So, that’s the challenge of distributed education, is how do you teach a board concept when you may not have high familiarity with someone’s particular context? That’s certainly some of the challenges we had when we were developing the online courses that we’ve been creating.
Simon: Do you feel, though, that there is a way to do that—connect with someone with those kinds of personal stories and takeaways in a more scaled way?
Daniel: I don’t think the technology is there to make it equivalent. I’m not sure if it ever will be, because of the nature of human beings—we’re storytelling creatures. Machines don’t have the kind of ears to listen to stories. So, we saw it as an experiment, to try and develop online courses.
How did we think about it? One thing we thought to ourselves was, how can you ask a question—as you say, prod—someone to dig into their own life experience a little bit? The relationship most of us have with a computer isn’t, “I come to my computer in order to be highly thoughtful and reflective.” It’s a place where I watch a movie, or play a game, or read someone’s else’s thing. So, our starting point was—as much as possible, we wanted to start each online course with something that would elicit from people a position, a thought, a reflection on something that they did. In some of the courses we developed, we just straight up asked people, “What’s a time when you blank blank blank?” And we’d ask people, “What’s a time when you tried standing up for yourself and were successful? What did you do?” We asked people a series of questions: “What did you try?” “How would you categorize your technique?” So we gave six different categories and tried to give people some options, just as a way to increase the probability that someone actually is thinking of a particular time. So we’d be working with that story. Even though the computer didn’t analyze that story, didn’t even listen—we didn’t have to record it—we’re trying to get them to interact with their own story.
In other cases, we were a little bit less overt in our strategy. We had a course that we developed called “Having Climate Change Conversations.” This course is about how do you get people to talk about climate change in their own life, in a more effective way? We had people start by sharing “What are some of the strategies that you’ve tried already when you talk about climate change that we know don’t work?” I believe we said things like—“I reference polar bears and faraway places that people have no personal relationship to.” Or, “I use lots of scientific mumbo-jumbo.” Or, “I make sure to not get emotional in any way shape or form.” Or, “I etc. etc. etc.” We just had people click little checkboxes—there are little icons to go along with them—but they’d check little boxes on what are the different things you have done at one point in time.
Then we say, that’s fine, we’ve all done some of these things and sometimes, actually, they might be the right thing for the right group. But, as we’re learning more about climate change communication, we’re finding out these things don’t really work so well. So, let’s try out some different strategies… That’s our intro. And again, what we’re trying to do is we’re trying to set people up by recalling something that they’ve already participated in, that they can be connected to the content so that they’re bringing themselves to the table. Because my belief, as an educator, is the more people are authentic, the more effective my teaching can be.
“My belief, as an educator, is the more people are authentic, the more effective my teaching can be.” @DanielActivism
My preference is always to start with strength-based, so the having climate change conversation wasn’t that. But more than not, we try to find people leaning on a skill that they already had.
Simon: Is that by just asking them, to recall that and bring it into their mind?
Daniel: Well, I like asking people something that they’ve done successfully. So, my question earlier to you, Simon, was, “What’s a time as a kid that you stood up for yourself and it worked out?” But my framing there is the success is your behavior, your trying something out. As opposed to, “Tell me about a time when you were really oppressed,” which gets to a darker spot. Not a bad spot—you could do a lot of learning in that area—but as a starting point, I want to get people thinking about a strength that they already have, a skill that they’ve got that they didn’t even know they had, or a time that they were successful, or even just an initiating starting point of something that they can kind of lean on. Campaigning involves so much feeling of being ineffectual, so I want to work with the part of people that has some sense of, “I can learn, I can grow, we can adapt, we can change.” As opposed to the part of them that says, “It’s hopeless, I can’t win”—you know, that feels stuck. We also teach people hard digital skills and it’s a similar thing.
Simon: So you’re taking people on a mindset shift from the minute you start to interact with them, then. Where’s the tipping point, when they become equipped, or useful, or active?
Daniel: As soon as you’re telling your story, we’re already in the territory. It’s then just a matter of trying to weave together the pieces of what someone’s story is, as closely as we can, so that we can get to “the theory,” or the models. The theory that I teach with is the experiential model, which is we start with an experience. Reflection is actually what you may or may not have done, which is thinking deeply on “How did I make that choice?” “What were the emotional complications?” etc. etc. etc. Reflection, even in successful stories of campaigns, could always use more reflection.
And then, generalization is bringing in concepts, language—I introduce the language of civil disobedience. And then, I would say, “Simon, what’s something that you really want to shake the shackles of that you’ve gotten used to, and what’s an example of where you might want to do civil disobedience now, that you haven’t been, but you might consider?” Then, I would move to application, where we would then, for example, plan together. “What’s a situation where you might do that?” So, each of the courses that we did, we used that model of the experiential cycle as closely as we could to kind of move people through a series. I think most of the courses we tried to do two rounds of the experiential cycle.
Simon: This is a totally different way of looking at the actions or behaviors we take in our lives to let bad things happen or good things happen.
Daniel: And that’s the other thing. People don’t have to know about nonviolent direct action theory in order to be doing it. Therefore, we don’t want to create a belief that the knowledge is what makes it possible. The thing that makes it possible is your feeling, “I don’t want that, and I’m willing to take a risk in order to make that not happen anymore.” That, the cultivation of that feeling—that resistance, that unwillingness, that willingness to take a risk—that feeling more than anything else is the heartbeat of what we rely on to make change.
Simon: I think the way you’ve talked through this example here of bringing someone in and engaging them by talking to them and through storytelling, and through reflection, it’s just so powerful. It’s such a powerful way to get that relevance and engagement that you’ve been talking about. And thank you so much for going through it.
Just very quickly, have you got any books or resources that you refer to? I know from previous conversations we’ve had you have a wealth of different methodologies that you use. Is there anything that would jump out as something you would recommend as a book or resource to support other people that are trying to make a big impact in the way you are?
Daniel: Sure, so I’m an author myself. So I’ve written about organizing activism through storytelling. I bring people through a whole campaign, it’s written almost like a spy fiction novel. But I bring people through a whole campaign in a book called Strategy and Soul, which tells the story of a local campaign that I was involved with around the development issue of casinos.
And another book, from my mentor, called Facilitating Group Learning: Strategies for Success with Adult Learners is more the pedagogical underpinnings of experiential cycle, which is rooted—the experiential methodology that I use is rooted out of the work of Paulo Freire, who is a brilliant educator in Brazil, who is working with an oppressed group and wrote a book called Pedagogy of the Oppressed, which is kind of a classical text in my field. That one is a bit more on the academic side. George’s book is a little more storytelling and weaves in examples from more contemporary activist education—but applicable to learners of all kinds. Those three books are ones I would recommend.
Simon: Thanks to Daniel for a truly inspirational conversation, revealing how we can have a much bigger impact when we approach global issues in a more personal way.