In 2017, I partnered with the Hollywood Homeless Youth Partnership on a project around Ethical Storytelling. This collaboration resulted in a white paper that examined the storytelling practices of organizations working specifically with young people experiencing homelessness in Los Angeles. We decided to invite members of the nonprofit community in LA to a workshop based on the project.
We expected about 30 people to attend.
Over 100 showed up.
Clearly, we weren’t the only ones grappling with the question of how to effectively share stories in a way that not only met leadership and organizational objectives like fundraising, but also lifted up the voices of our story-carriers.
Over the past three years, the work around ethical storytelling has expanded through partnerships with EthicalStorytelling.com, Conveners.org, communications consultants around the world, and hundreds of participants at storytelling workshops throughout the United States.
You can listen to podcasts about ethical storytelling here. You can access resources shared in workshops here. A quick google search will reveal a growing number of articles and guides around ethical storytelling practices, particularly for social impact and nonprofit organizations.
Ethical storytelling has, in certain circles, become a ‘thing.’
My hope is to help broaden the context within which the conversation around ethical storytelling takes place: it's not just the 'right thing to do,' it's also essential to building a more just, equitable, and viable way of being within our communities.
Conventional organizational storytelling is rooted in extractive practices and, when we engage in old-school storytelling without awareness, we are complicit with virulent mindsets and ways of being responsible for the genocide of indigenous peoples, the subjugation of black and brown bodies for the economic gain of white bodied people, and climate collapse.
Ethical storytelling is a set of tools and practices that can help us divest from exploitative ways of being and relationships with the communities and people we purport to serve while fostering more equitable, inclusive, and human relationships.
Jack D. Forbes the the Wetiko Psychosis
This idea of the colonizing mindset as a virus comes from the work of Native American author and scholar Jack D. Forbes. In Columbus and Other Cannibals, published In 1978, Forbes explored a question that he framed as follows:
Why is the dominant culture so excruciatingly, relentlessly, insanely, genocidally, ecocidally, suicidally destructive?
He does not mince words.
Over the next couple hundred pages, he dissects the dominant culture from a Native American perspective. Looking at the root of “imperialism, colonialism, torture, enslavement, conquest, brutality, lying, cheating, secret police, greed, rape, terrorism,’ he finds a common seed: a “disease of aggression against other living things and, more precisely, the disease of the consuming of other creatures lives and possessions:”
Imperialists, rapists and exploiters are not just people who have strayed down a wrong path. They are insane. . .in the true sense of the word. They are mentally ill and, tragically, the form of soul-sickness that they carry is catching.
What emerges is a story not of ‘good’ vs. ‘evil,’ but of a way of thinking that spread across the world like an epidemic. Forbes names this epidemic the wetiko psychosis, a reference to Wetiko, a Cree term that refers to an evil spirit that terrorizes and cannibalizes other beings. The book traces the origin, epidemiology, and characteristics of this disease from its inception to the late 20th Century.
The core idea is that, whether we’re aware of it or not, we’re living within an entire socio-economic and political structure afflicted with this virus at its core and we all carry some degree of the infection.
Edgar Villanueva and Decolonizing Wealth
More recently, Edgar Villanueva, through his book Decolonizing Wealth, has proposed that ‘colonization’ began not with the Conquistadors, but at the moment humans began “managing, controlling, and ‘owning’ other forms of life — plant and animal. Conceptually, this required that humans think of themselves as separate from the rest of the natural world.” I’d add that it also required that humans believe themselves to be superior to the natural world — masters, as it were, of their domain.
This concept of separation and superiority sits near the center of the ‘colonizing mindset’ and gave birth to a culture founded on scarcity and fear. Expansion and an emphasis on growth over all else grow from that fear.
Here’s how Villanueva describes this worldview from the individual perspective:
The boundaries of my body separate me from the rest of the universe. I’m on my own against the world. This terrifies me, and so I try to control everything outside myself, also known as the Other. I fear the Other. I must compete with the Other in order to meet my needs. I always need to act in my self-interest, and I blame the Other for everything that goes wrong.
This mindset is present in all sorts of easily identifiable ways. Just watch one of President Trump’s ‘briefings’ or look at the uptick in fear-based language and the correlated increase in hate crimes since the current U.S. administration came into power.
But it’s not just the obvious examples. This impulse towards control and separation can be found in everything from the Western style of education to systemic inequity and White supremacy. In fact, it’s in every nook and cranny of dominant Western culture.
A seemingly innocuous example: one of the few things I remember from middle school biology class is the mnemonic device ‘King Plays Chess on Fine Grain Sand.’ The first letter of each word correlates with a level of classification for different plant species: Kingdom, Phylum, Family, Class, Genus, Species.
Using these categories, we can separate and parse every plant on the planet. When a new plant is ‘discovered,’ we can classify it and place it in a box for further analysis.
There is tremendous value in this type of analysis. But what we lose in the separation of the plant from its context is the story of interconnection and even communication between plants. The mindset behind this type of classification also reveals an assumption that humans are separate from and dominant over the plants that, quite literally, produce the oxygen needed to support life.
What does it mean that these classifications are the only thing I remember about middle school biology? What impact did such an education have on the way my mind shaped its understanding and story of the world?
A less seemingly innocuous example: the advent of FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) and the related condition known as ‘status anxiety,’ defined loosely as feelings of not being ‘good enough’ to succeed or deserve success. Both of these grow from a deep drive to ‘keep up’ with others and an existential dread that we don’t have any intrinsic value or sense belonging not attached to our achievements or titles.
These deep seated drives and dreads are experienced on an individual level, but reinforced by Western societal beliefs and structures. Product sales, in fact, depend on the ability to cater to our fear of not being enough. As do many services. And, while we’re at it, why do so many of us work so hard for so many hours at jobs that we don’t find meaning in beyond a title or paycheck?
Three actions underlie the colonizing mindset, wherever and however it may show up:
Colonization bred a societal structure and mindset that drives us to want more. More status. More wealth. More stuff.
To satisfy that desire, we exert control over nature and exploit both natural and human resources.
This control and exploitation leads to profound imbalances in our social systems (e.g. systemic racism, patriarchy, and white supremacy) and our relationship with each other and the natural world.
Wetiko, Colonization, and Organizational Storytelling
It may seem that we’ve wandered far afield from the subject of ethical storytelling, but the wetiko psychosis and colonizing mindset lies at the core of many ‘best practices’ in organizational storytelling. Take for example this oversimplified outline of a conventional fundraising story:
Michael was not doing well. He was living on the streets and addicted to drugs.
Then he found Our Organization and went through Our Program.
Now, Michael is doing much better.
Give us money to help more people like Michael.
Let’s unpack this structure through the lens of division, control, and exploitation.
Ethical Storytelling as Decolonizing Practice
In Villanueva’s rendering, colonization can be countered by three corresponding actions and ways of being derived from indigenous ways of being:
Specific Ethical Storytelling practices like Deep Consent, Widening the Universe of Storytellers, and the Ethical Storytelling Pledge all advance these decolonizing principles.
Master Storyteller and teacher Doug Lipman takes this idea a bit further in his work around storytelling and the values needed to build a more vibrant and viable future.
According to Lipman, powerful, conscious storytelling advances:
Ethical Storytelling is more than a way of honoring all of the members of our communities. It’s more than a set of tools and practices. It is an essential part of undoing the centuries of damage inflicted by the wetiko psychosis and the colonizing mindset.
Lasting Change Is Not Possible Without a New Story
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how noble our missions, programs, and intentions are if we engage with unethical storytelling practices. Whether we are aware of it or not, these practices do more than undercut our work, they help further embody ways of being, doing, and acting that have done untold harm across the world.
My hope is that the conversation about ethical storytelling moves beyond debates about the practices within each organization to become part of a movement towards a world inoculated against the wetiko virus and towards a more viable future for all beings.
In this story, we are all co-creators of a way of being, and a story, that is aligned with life, freedom, and a sense of belonging. We are all storytellers. The question is: what do we do with that power?
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.