The Poverty Narrative: Using Personal Stories for Systemic Change

June 26, 2020

By Kalena Thomhave
U-M Poverty Solutions

In this final session of The Poverty Narrative series, panelists explored how personal stories can contribute to systemic change. Personal stories are regularly used in journalism in order to bring the “human experience” into articles. But how can journalists be sure that these stories aren’t just part of the “transaction” of the journalism process, but remain true to a person’s lived experiences?

Marisol Bello, director of communications for Community Change and the Center for Community Change Action, shared about the communications fellows program at Community Change that aims to elevate the voices of marginalized people in telling their own stories. The project provides coaching and mentoring to fellows in order to train them in multi-platform storytelling, whether they are making videos and podcasts or writing essays and articles. Bello spoke of the damaging and inaccurate “welfare queen” myth propagated by Ronald Reagan, which assumed that people who were struggling were “mooching” off of the government. The fellows program directly challenges such flawed stereotypes, allowing people with lived experiences of poverty to write about their own stories.

“When you tell your own story, you’re always the hero,” said Bello.

Marisa Kwiatkowski, investigative reporter on social welfare for USA Today, shared about her process working on a piece using personal stories. “In my experience [readers] oftentimes don’t care about policies…they don’t care about datapoints, what they care about is people,” she said. “When we [find] how a system is broken, we [try] to find people to show [readers] the human impact.”

Kwiatkowski told of an investigative project she worked on involving parents who were falsely claiming they were neglecting their children. What was happening was that these families had children with developmental disabilities, but parents were not able to afford the level of services their children needed—private health insurance was not enough. Falsely claiming neglect meant their children could then get access to the mental health services they required. Kwiatkowski wanted to center the experiences of these families interacting with policy.

“My job,” said Kwiatkowski, “is to get out of the way and let their voices and experiences be heard.”

When speaking with sources who are relaying personal stories, it’s important for journalists to “overcommunicate,” about the intention of the story and the process, said Kwiatkowski. People need to understand how their story may be framed and where it will show up. They need to be prepared for their friends and families, as well as strangers, to read their story.

Journalists should also look to a multitude of organizations and outlets when seeking diverse sources, said Bello. Read the Black and Latinx press in the area and reach out to grassroots groups. They should also reject using a source just for a simple anecdote—keep relationships strong and talk to people for future stories. People with lived experience also have insight on policy questions—they are, after all, the people who most feel the impacts of policy. Be sure, said Bello, to ask people how they feel about policy questions, instead of merely relying on policymakers and academics.