Contributors Inda Intiar and Njoki Mbũrũ offer tangible examples of how storytelling is enabling and catalyzing systems transformation within the philanthropic ecosystem – and some important lessons about the importance of relationships, slowing down, and self-awareness learned along the way.
Earlier this year, Community Foundations of Canada’s (CFC) Sam Campling and Kelly Squier drove across the Maritime provinces to meet with organizations supported by the Communities for Gender Equality (CGE) initiative. Teamed up with local videographers, they set out to amplify the stories of those organizations, as they’ve done through podcasts and other formats in the past.
CFC is a founding partner of CGE, which supports programs and services catering to women, girls, and Two-Spirit and gender-diverse people, enabling long-term systemic change.
One of the stories highlighted is one about the Volunteer Doula Program offered by the Chebucto Family Centre in Kjipuktuk (Halifax). With help from the Community Foundation of Nova Scotia, the program has expanded to offer free birthing support five hours away, on Unama
' ki (Cape Breton Island). Efforts to harness creativity to communicate the impact of programs like this one has led to increased funding for the programs. It has also helped communities where the programs are based, and outside, understand the issues and visualize potential solutions.
Statistics in a report can convey the impact of programs like these, too. But storytelling adds soul to the data, and makes it relatable.
The process of storytelling can be transformative at the personal, organizational, and community level. In a fast-paced world where we often don’t have the time to dream, slowing down to recount or listen to a story can remind us what’s possible. Sometimes, the allies we’re looking for are already in our corner, and resources are already within reach.
Statistics in a report can convey the impact of programs . . . But storytelling adds soul to the data.
The impact and creativity inherent in storytelling attracted us to this work. As storytelling fellows with CFC’s Transformation team, we contribute to the organization’s efforts to support systems transformation within its network of community foundations and beyond.
We began our fellowship in the fall of 2022, building on the work of the inaugural fellow, Ayusha Mahajan. We were set to tackle what seemed to be very different topics: inclusive social infrastructure for Inda, and web3 (a decentralized iteration of the internet that emphasizes individuals’ ownership over their data and privacy of personal info) and emerging technologies for Njoki. What emerged in our collaboration with each other, and with the CFC team, network, and partners, is a journey that transformed us personally and exposed four key lessons that bridged our respective areas of focus.
As storytelling fellows with Community Foundations of Canada, we contribute to the organization’s efforts to support systems transformation within its network of community foundations and beyond.
In this piece, we will explore the possibilities that lend themselves to funders and philanthropists when individuals and teams mindfully engage with deliberate slowness, when folks centre connectedness to others, and when everyone consents to and participates in personal transformation as part of our shared mission to activate change.
Primarily, we speak to systems transformation through a lens of equity, inclusion, and emergence. Alongside our curiosities, our personal observations, and our unique lived experiences, we also offer tangible examples of how storytelling is enabling and catalyzing systems transformation within the philanthropic ecosystem. Our hope is that these offerings will represent a landing place for you, our readers and supporters, where your thought processes and projects can both take rest and take off.
Before we share our learnings, we should explain what we mean when we say “systems transformation.” Systems transformation involves tackling our most pressing problems and leveraging previously unimagined possibilities. It includes changing underlying patterns, narratives, relationships, values, and norms. It requires a shift in our mindsets and paradigms so as to embed intersectionality when reimagining power structures and addressing inequities.
Transformation requires tension, wandering, courage, and a willingness to engage with a sense of being lost. It requires us to brave the discomfort of change.
Professional storytellers, many in the communications field or in news media, are usually faced with competing demands and tight deadlines. Project funders also often require goals to be met within a short timeline. Yet, to tell our stories, or amplify another’s story, we require what author and facilitator adrienne maree brown calls “moving at the speed of trust.” Truthfully, it often feels impossible to allow time for that trust to grow.
In our fellowship, we’ve learned that meaningful co-creation requires us to prioritize relationships with our collaborators. In practice, that could include keeping partners in the loop, implementing an iterative process, and incorporating feedback as much as possible at every relevant step. The work should feel like it belongs to all of us around the table. And if a collaborator changes their mind about sharing their story, we choose to re-centre consent and trust, and adjust the story accordingly.
We’ve learned that meaningful co-creation requires us to prioritize relationships with our collaborators.
This felt radical at first, but that’s only because there’s a mindset of transformation that has to happen within us to put relationships ahead of bylines, deadlines, the news, and social media cycles.
This is not to say setting deadlines isn’t useful – it is. But here we’ve found an opportunity to truly collaborate in a non-extractive way, so we don’t miss out on the magic that relationality (a worldview that underlines that no one or thing exists in isolation) brings. And that might require a significant shift in our pace.
Have you come across the story of Hare and Tortoise? The one where Hare mocks Tortoise for being too slow and challenges Tortoise to a race? Despite their natural differences in speed, Hare’s overconfidence and pride cost him the race. Here, the lesson is that speed does not guarantee success.
Through our time as transformation storytelling fellows with CFC, we developed a new muscle for patience. Thinking, talking, and writing about urgency and the systems that uphold cycles of burnout has necessitated a slowing down of our own. We have had to examine our own routines and mindsets around time. In doing so, we have encountered the richness that comes alive when we take one minute longer to listen to a colleague share how they are feeling, or when we take an extra moment to reflect on a blog we have read.
Deliberate resistance to urgency offers us the chance to pause and turn to face the cracks and faults in our policies and systems.
In the context of systems transformation across the landscape of philanthropy, slowing down offers us the opportunity to witness ourselves and one another as co-designers and co-creators of a future where everyone belongs. Deliberate resistance to urgency offers us the chance to pause and turn to face the cracks and faults in our policies and systems that we have been brushing over. In doing so, we might begin to find more creative ways to use our power and privilege to meaningfully address these systemic issues.
One of the ways that this fellowship has enabled us to engage with a new relationship to time and urgency is through introducing us to the world of web3 and emerging technologies, like artificial intelligence (AI). Over the nine months of our fellowship, we have observed that trying to keep up with the rapidly evolving and vast landscape of emerging technologies can be equal parts thrilling and exhausting.
During the course of our learning, we were surprised to learn about the open letter calling for a pause on the training of advanced AI systems. While these technologies have quickly become a hot topic of conversation, with numerous practical applications, what we see here is a call to slow down. By temporarily hitting the brakes on this, society would have a chance to recalibrate and decide what matters most – in terms of the design, development, and use of these technologies. As the writers of the letter note, “Having succeeded in creating powerful AI systems, we can now enjoy an ‘AI summer’ in which we reap the rewards, engineer these systems for the clear benefit of all, and give society a chance to adapt.”
The call to slow down, at work and outside of our workplaces, is not prescriptive. Rather, as we perceive it, the call to slow down is a matter of recalibration, adaptation, and transformation. Slowing down as a form of rest. Slowing down to pause before offering a response/advice/comment. Slowing down as a chance to lead with curiosity.
The times are urgent; let us slow down.
When we are so accustomed to the pace of output-driven productivity, back-to-back events/meetings, and cramming our evenings and weekends with all sorts of plans, the invitation to pause and be still might sound like a passing joke or criticism.
Indeed, this call to practise introspection and self-inquiry might raise questions for you:
- How do I set aside time to pause and be still?
- What (actual) value will I gain by developing a practice of inner reflection?
- Isn’t this just some “woo-woo” stuff that is far removed from the (real) work that I am supposed to be doing?
We have neither definitive nor prescriptive answers to these questions. We invite you to explore them with us – centring creativity, curiosity, and transformation.
Storytelling in a workshop format became a way for participants to envision their ideal future while reflecting on their current state of being.
To share an example, one of the resources that we created as part of our fellowship – which supported us to practise ongoing self-inquiry – was an hour-long workshop titled Mindful Futurism(separate and distinct from the book of the same title by Rakan Brahedni). Njoki – the designer and lead facilitator of this workshop – was inspired to bridge her passion for mindfulness with her skills in facilitation and her knowledge of design thinking. Through this workshop (which she hosted for the larger CFC team twice), she took participants through a series of questions, dialogues, and practices where they traced their own understanding of, and relationship with, transformation. More specifically, using self-reflective questions, each participant had an opportunity to think about, feel through, and share how their identity, interests, and inquiries translate into their vision of a future where they feel a sense of belonging.
In this way, storytelling in a workshop format became a way for participants to envision their ideal future while reflecting on their current state of being. Through such instances of storytelling, we continue to develop tools that keep us in the practice of self-awareness. Two questions that might be pivotal for your own transformation journey are:
- How can we create joyous, abundant, equitable futures if we make no room to be honest about where we are now, even if the present moment feels uncomfortable?
- How can we build better tomorrows if we do not intentionally and courageously make time to dream today?
All that you touch you change. All that you change, changes you.
One of the greatest lessons that we’ve had the privilege of learning from our fellowship is that the depth of our self-awareness determines our level of personal transformation. More specifically, in the context of systems transformation work, we have come to observe that one’s capacity to innovate, contribute to, or influence meaningful change is linked to one’s willingness to self-inquire, adjust, and adapt to feedback.
One’s capacity to innovate, contribute to, or influence meaningful change is linked to one’s willingness to self-inquire, adjust, and adapt to feedback.
Consequently, our level of personal transformation gives us access to more possibilities and opportunities to contribute to the transformation of the broader networks, communities, and systems we are part of. What this means is that, in the process of transforming something outside ourselves – be it team dynamics, organizational structure, entire governance systems, et cetera –we are also being transformed organically. In creating something different, we are becoming someone different.
All of us are in constant transformation. Some of us are unwilling to engage with transformation as an equal partner. Some of us are afraid of what transformation will require us to stop/pause/start doing. Some of us want to be transformed only if the conditions around us stay the same. Some of us want to dictate the timeline, pace, and intensity of transformation.
This moment when we release our need to be in control is also the point where we recognize that our practice of self-awareness produces inner transformation. When this process begins, what we observe is that our internal transformation eventually reproduces fractals – in our homes, communities, systems – so that now we are co-creating a future where we all belong.
In her fellowship, Inda collaborated primarily with the team at the Mi
' kmaw Native Friendship Centre in Kjipuktuk (Halifax). The outcome was a series of stories that looked into the role of social infrastructure – spaces where residents of a community can gather and build shared lives – in building cohesion and inclusion. The series is focused on how the centre’s Every One Every Day initiative facilitates Truth and Reconciliation and practises inclusion in a diverse and gentrifying neighbourhood. It explored how Every One Every Day embeds its commitment to Truth and Reconciliation and a narrative of inclusion and self-sufficiency in everything – from the pictures in their seasonal newspapers to the design of their neighbourhood shop and makerspace.
Using storytelling to share tangible examples of concepts like inclusive social infrastructure allows a clearer understanding of a project’s impact and might even inspire similar initiatives elsewhere.
“If seeing is believing, and we don’t see ourselves as joyful people, how do we know that that is something that we can work towards, that we can attain – something that belongs to us.”
—Wanuri Kahiu, in conversation with Saleem Reshamwala
This is the part where we flip the script. The part where we think about what it means for a future to belong to us rather than a future where everyone belongs. Not in the kind of way where we take possession of time and space, or assume that our identities guarantee us access, ownership, and control over the future. Rather, what we are emphasizing here is that a future belongs to us when we all have permission, opportunity, and resources to dream and imagine it. When all of us can feel that our freedom is not at risk simply because we dare to dream beyond our current systemic conditions of inequity, injustice, and incarceration. A future belongs to us when we can boldly and courageously show up for one another through food distribution networks, mutual aid support groups, community-funded scholarships, street protests, and vigils without fearing that we will be mocked, threatened, and violently attacked.
We begin to create a future that belongs to all of us when each of us can freely speak, write, draw, dance, and embody our dreams without feeling that another person’s dreams are a threat to our own. At such a point, we move from merely coexisting with one another. Instead, we move toward active co-creation and collaboration, where the resilience and vibrancy of the future is dependent on diverse representation and meaningful inclusion.
Each of us has a story. Stories are the threads that connect our humanity, and that is exactly why storytelling is such a powerful tool to help us dream.
Stories are the threads that connect our humanity, and that is exactly why storytelling is such a powerful tool to help us dream.
Storytelling, most times, feels like creating a magnificent quilt out of patches handed down to us by our ancestors, friends, and kinfolk. Storytelling is that friend who pauses after you have shared your experience with them and gently asks, “What does that mean to/for you?” That trusted companion who listens while you share something difficult and softly says, “Go on; I am listening.”
Storytelling, as we have come to learn, is a fluid, formless, and friendly medium of expression. It wishes nothing more than to be a witness to our truth-telling, and it demands nothing less than for us to trust that however we choose to tell our stories is the right way and that those who will eventually read/hear these stories will be the right people, at the right time. Creative expression, community connection, and pace are the bedrock of transformational storytelling. What binds these together is that they are based on agency; they require that the storyteller has sovereignty to choose.
Imagination and dreaming are made possible by the reclamation of self-sovereignty. In speaking about what it means to “dream while Black,” Walidah Imarisha, an educator, writer, public scholar, and spoken word artist, says aptly, “We cannot build what we cannot imagine . . . We cannot allow systems to dictate to us when it is our time to dream. We have to claim that for ourselves.”
Transformative storytelling requires a repositioning of power, a reclamation of agency, and a resurgence of radical hope. Our wild dreams are valid.
We’d like to invite you to reflect with us on these questions that guide us. Specifically, we hope these questions offer you the chance to reflect on how you, as an individual or an organization, are currently engaging with storytelling as a tool for systems transformation:
- How are philanthropists making room for transformational storytelling in the sector?
- What kinds of opportunities are you creating to meaningfully engage youth as collaborators in reimagining philanthropy?
- How are you thinking about imagination and dreaming as tools for systems transformation?
Thank you to Michelle Baldwin, Jacqueline Reid, Kelly Squier, and Sam Campling of Community Foundations of Canada for their support on this piece. The Transformation Storytelling Fellowship is made possible thanks to the generous support of Canada Life, RBC Foundation, and Propel Impact.