Issue #49: Belonging and Narratives

In so many ways, we are the products of the stories that we tell ourselves. Yesterday, my dad started his first round of chemotherapy for the not one, but two cancers he has. My family has known about his cancer diagnosis since mid-December. But in a combination of delays due to the pandemic, the pace of our medical bureaucracy and just general human error, his final diagnosis was been delayed until last week. Likely unnecessary to restate, but hearing that you have two kinds of cancer is an incredibly weighty diagnosis. Luckily, for my dad, one of the two cancers is very slow growing, and so his prognosis seems good. My parents have been known to be odd and this was no exception. When the doctor shared the final diagnosis, my mom first remarked, “Wow, you're really an overachiever.”

I share this story in order to call attention to the power that stories can have, as they can change our emotional states and change our outlook. And more importantly, when talking about futures thinking and strategic foresight, it can change the actions that we take and therefore our trajectory as we move forward. So today, I want to write about stories and narratives, and how the way we tell narratives and the narratives that we choose to tell might change the way that we think about belonging.


A couple of years ago in the Before Times in 2019, I gave a talk at the HxD conference focused on healthcare experience design in Boston. At that time, the venture capital community and startup community expressed a lot of excitement around femtech. I want to underline that I’m excited by the femtech buzz as well. In so many ways, women's health has been understudied and underserved. However, the spike of venture funding for femtech startups obscured that femtech was equated with fertility, conception, and pregnancy.

Of course, infertility is a massive emotionally trying and horrendously expensive problem that affects one in six women. But what I found to be interesting is that the story told about women's health that equates women’s health with pregnancy and babies rather than addressing totality of an experience or lifetime of the health needs of women. Changing narratives about women and women’s health could expand the boundaries of physical and psychological safety in addressing women’s health needs. Narratives are vehicles for meaning and sense making to allow us to see ourselves and others in a different light and inspire action toward building a different world. Narratives convey values and truths that can inspire novel innovations, and, for venture capitalists, uncover a massive market.

Female Founders Fund recently published a report talking about highlighting the $600 billion opportunity for startups that address menopause. In contrast to pregnancy, a health condition that lasts nine months, menopause negatively impacts quality of life for women for 10 to 30 years. Seeing this market opportunity requires thinking of women as full, complete people rather than avenues for cute babies. A first start to designing these new narratives is amplifying new voices.

One company starting with the first step of changing storytelling voices is a company called Hidden Door. Their tagline is, “we're building a social game platform for kids to discover and create stories with AI.” You can think of Hidden Door as gamified fan fiction for kids who can co-create stories with artificial intelligence through the lens of play. It represents a new opportunity for human-machine collaboration that could spark a more virtuous cycle less encumbered by bias and discrimination and shaped more by the childlike creativity of how kids see the world.

In an article by Henry Lien entitled Diversity Plus: Diverse Story Forms and Themes, Not Just Diverse Faces, the author of the article uses the example of the Broadway show Hamilton to show the real limitations narrow definitions of belonging in the storytelling that only focus on the identity of the storytellers. When exploring the controversy and criticism of Hamilton, he writes:

While those criticisms are important, diversity doesn’t just encompass authors, actors, characters, or subject matter. Diversity also encompasses diverse storytelling forms. This was a play about America back then, told by America as it looks now. It was told in an idiom (rap/hip-hop/pop) that has deep Black roots. And the form in which the musical was told was integral to its personality and uniqueness. At the end of the musical, there is a song whose theme is “Who gets to tell history?” (“Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story?”) The song seems to anticipate the above criticisms by insisting that people of diverse backgrounds have a right to tell the story of white founding fathers, especially if they tell it in a way that is unique to their own culture. 

Underlining the practical implications of the need for diverse storytelling forms is an article written by Jonathan Smuggler discussing the concept of narrative insurgency. In contrast to narrative attack, where disagreement manifests as an point-by-point disarming of a worldview, a narrative insurgency approach take disagreement as an incentive to learn more about narratives, and deconstruct them into component parts in search of allies within narratives that they disagree with.

Now in thinking about narratives that can build belonging in the future, I think it's really one to use this concept as a challenge. In what ways could we use narrative insurgency to build greater belonging as the backlash of misinformation and disinformation grows?

So now we know by this point, it's table stakes to bring in new voices to tell stories. If we imagine the shifts in storytelling in belonging as a pyramid, new voices comprise the base. The next level comprises content including storytelling forms, approaches and themes. At the apex, we could imagine listening, concentrating on how we receive the stories that we hear.

One philosophy that could point to this apex is this notion of fallibilism. The practice of fallibilism says rather than accepting truth and holding it to be permanent, rather, we live in an environment where there's constant learning characterized by the continuous pursuit of truth, correction of past mistakes, and questioning assumptions. Fallibilism assumes uncertainty and upholds iteration of knowledge acquisition and permanence. This openness to change may augur for greater belonging in the future as it can set the stage for the growing power of narrative.

Another signal for looking at how stories can be told, I think, can be shown with a term that Sarah Kendzior introduces in an article that she wrote last year talking about Q Anon.

The terminology of preemptive narrative inversion is particularly interesting. What causes humans in the face of reality and objectively observable facts to nonetheless, accept stories that fly in the face of those facts? What storytelling forms enable sharing these stories not only where facts become irrelevant, but also fighting the facts works in service of dissemination? This concept points to ways in which stories can leapfrog rational systems and accelerate acceptance.

Lastly, I want to share of new ways of creating and accepting narratives that comes from an interview that Stuart Candy did with Demos Helsinki founder Roope Mokka discussing an exhibition called UNTITLED. Now UNTITLED is the first in a series of public imagination experiments aiming to engage people with vision of climate lifestyle in the “post-” era: post-liberal, post-normal, post-truth, post-industrial, post- capitalist, etc. These public experiments aim to name and explain the stories of a world after these transformations, pointing to new approaches for both constructing and receiving stories. In the circular economy of post-narratives, how might we revive and regenerate essential story elements in service of cultivating belonging?

By harnessing properties of emergence, bringing people together to collaborate, and resolve to imagine the unimagined and experiment. and we need each other to experiment and tinker, adopting the properties of fallibilism that assume a lifelong pursuit of truths. Right now, we don't know where we are headed, but nonetheless we are committed to a process of questioning assumptions and continuously failing forward until we find those truths.


Upcoming Events

My talk for SXSW 2021, Startups that Are Re-Thinking the Future of Belonging is now live.

Next week, on Monday, March 22, we have the final session of the Belonging at Work event series. RSVP at https://lu.ma/belongingatwork. You can also add comments to work already done on the Miro board.