When storytelling affects social change

When storytelling affects social change

Today I’m writing about the power of storytelling and how it can affect social change. This article is inspired by two sources. The first:

How the criminal justice system changed protocol for victims of sexual assault

This morning I attended the CreativeMornings event in Portsmouth, NH. The topic was Justice and speaker Emmett Soldati shared the story of how he was inspired by his father’s work in Stafford County, NH.

His father, Lincoln Soldati, was a Stafford County Attorney who ran for Congress in 2018. While County Attorney, he took on the mission of addressing the way cases of sexual assault were investigated and prosecuted. He came up with a new and revolutionary protocol that caused much less trauma for the victims. The compassionate protocol is called “Victim Witness.”

When his father ran for Congress, Emmett fell back on the power of storytelling, which was inspired by his fascination with movies and his background in film production. He took the story of Victim Witness and turned it into a short documentary for his father’s campaign. The documentary features a sexual assault victim who shares how the protocol saved her life and helped her to feel a sense of justice.

Although Lincoln Soldati lost the congressional race, the story remains an important one. It tells how one very small, rural and poor county in New Hampshire completely transformed the way victims of assault are treated by the criminal justice system, so that they aren’t re-traumatized when they come forward with their story. The most important part of the protocol is that the victims are always believed and never questioned about whether a crime took place. The protocol is now the norm in all of New Hampshire, and it is the hope that other counties and states will adopt the same protocol.

How uncovering hidden stories of trauma can literally save lives

Emmett Soldati’s talk made me think about another situation I learned about recently, and how problems which were not systemically addressed are now being done so on a community level. Similar to the Victim Witness protocol, which validates and acknowledges the truth of victims’ stories, a new way to medically treat children uses a similar understanding.

The pediatrician and current Surgeon General of California, Nadine Burke Harris, spoke at TEDMed in 2014. She had noticed a disturbing trend as she treated children from an underserved neighborhood in San Francisco. Those who suffered one or more Adverse Childhood Experience (or ACE) are more likely to experience mental, behavioral, and physical challenges. In fact, having an ACE as a child will affect not only one’s personal well-being, but have a negative impact on one’s educational, economic, and relationship success in life.

In other words, children who grew up in poverty, experienced starvation, were homeless, abused, witnessed abuse and violence, and so forth, are more likely than children who had positive childhood experiences to end up homeless, jobless, in jail, mentally unstable, etc when they’re older.

But that wasn’t the revolutionary part of her observation. Through her studies, Harris found that trauma (toxic stress) is a common factor that can profoundly impact adult-onset disease and cause early death. Those with ACEs will be at triple the risk for heart disease, lung cancer, and other medical problems.

Harris’ medical center in San Francisco, The Center for Youth Wellness, aims to improve child and adolescent health by targeting the effects of ACEs. Its main goal is that “every pediatrician in the United States will screen for ACEs by 2028.”

This knowledge about chronic trauma is now out in the open. Marianne Williamson talks about it in her presidential campaign. On her site she says:

Most Americans probably don’t appreciate the level of chronic trauma experienced by our children today - but the chronic trauma goes unaddressed. Millions of children lack consistent access to sufficient and nutritious food, millions lack health care, and millions go to schools lacking the school supplies needed to teach a child to read. A child who cannot read by the age of 8 has a drastically reduced chance of graduating from high school, and a drastically increased chance of incarceration.

Our youth homicide rates are more than seven times that of other leading industrialized nations. Social scientists now describe “war zones”— areas in violently charged homes and communities -- where levels of trauma and post-traumatic stress among children are similar to those experienced by returning vets.

There is nothing “post” about the traumatic stress of our children when it is re-triggered every day.

We must rescue our children from such crises no differently than if we were rescuing them from natural disasters.

Will you use your voice and share real stories to affect change?

If we don’t hear the stories of victims of trauma, and if hearing them, we don’t address them and make sure these kinds of things don’t keep happening, then this is both negligent and criminal. Silence is complicity.

I admire those who speak up about the need to address these wrongs. It’s a brave thing to do. I admire even more those who find a way to make systemic changes happen so that these wrongs are less likely to keep happening.

Photo by Josh Johnson on Unsplash
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