Years ago, I snapped a photo up in the mountains of Cambodia. It’s of a small child in tattered clothes with smudges of dirt on her adorable cheeks. She's standing in front of a rickety structure that looks as if a stiff breeze would flatten it. It is a riveting photo and one I shared with many others at the time. But if a photo has the power of a thousand words, this one portrayed a very specific tale of poverty and desolation.
The reality is, I had zero context to share along with this image. I didn’t know who the child was or what her life was like. Were her days filled with great joy and deep love or deep need and great sadness? I didn't know. That image, though, portrayed a story. And when shared, it inevitably shaped the perceptions of the many people who saw it.
As I think about story-stewardship, I think about that photo.
Stewardship is something I have long equated with finances. In church and at home, I was reminded that what was in our bank accounts and wallets was not our money, it was God’s. Our job was to give it, save it, and spend it well.
As the years passed, I heard the term stewardship applied to many different areas: our talents, our time, the environment, our health. In each case, we're entrusted with something and it's both a gift and a responsibility to manage it well.
Only very recently did I realize how applicable this same idea is when it comes to others’ stories.
Sure, when a friend shares a snippet of their life with me, I do my best to handle their story with tact and care. I know what they're sharing with me is not the sum of who they are - be it a funny anecdote or heart-breaking news. And if I do pass it along to others, with permission, I (hopefully) add context or frame it in a way that honors the person discussed. In this way, I do my best to steward what they've shared.
But the question I’ve been thinking about lately is do I give this much consideration to the stories of strangers?
Unlike a friend, a stranger won’t likely see the photo I post of them or the story I convey about their life. And knowing that, am I as careful with how I portray them?
In Uganda this past summer, the Kindred Exchange team reminded us that we were becoming ambassadors. While in the country, we would have experiences, meet people, try foods, have conversations, and buy souvenirs. And then we would return home with these artifacts, vignettes, and tales. This was both a beautiful opportunity and a great responsibility because what we would share upon our return would shape others' perception of the country and its inhabitants.
I immediately thought of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie‘s TED Talk on the “Danger of a Single Story.” In it, she states, “Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person.” Single humans, let alone entire people groups, are never one-dimensional. I would never want a single story to define my entire life – be a flattering account of success or a harrowing tale of misfortune.
Adichie’s talk made me aware of the 'single stories' I have bought into in the past. But even more so, I thought about my own power to influence and contribute to creating 'single stories' of others. I thought about the implications of sharing the photos and stories of those I don’t know well. I thought about that little girl on the mountainside in Cambodia.
What if I was on the other side of the lens? What if someone with a different skin tone, speaking a language I didn't understand, showed up, smiled at me and snapped my photo? Maybe through a translator, they asked me a couple of questions that I answered based on my reality at that moment. And then, because of that brief encounter, they crafted a narrative about what it is like to be "me".
As someone who is rather private to start with, this entire imagined scenario felt uncomfortable. But as I thought through this hypothetical situation further, I wondered: if these 'foreigners' were bearing witness to my existence and sharing it with another culture - what story would I want them to tell? What images would I hope they captured?
In some ways, it would be fascinating to know their perceptions and experiences of my land and my people. But I’d also want to provide context and details to shape their understanding of my actual reality.
Shortly after George Floyd’s murder, there was a call to “pass the mic” on social media. White influencers were encouraged to not only be quiet and listen, but to offer their platforms for men and women of color to share their own experiences, worries and fears - their actual reality. While the concept wasn’t new, today’s technology allowed for unprecedented opportunities for this sort of sharing.
Tori Hope Petersen captures this perfectly:
“Being a voice for the voiceless is overrated and outdated. The people you want to speak up for have a voice. We just have to hear and amplify it. Start listening and uplifting.”
I’ve thought about this a lot since then. In today’s world there are very few that are truly “voiceless.” And yet we often hold the mic – or the camera – claiming to represent those “without a voice” when what we could be doing is inviting them up and in, to share our platforms and speak to our audiences.
The question that I’m pondering now is what does it look like to become the conduit for better connections rather than the purveyor of others' stories? Because maybe this is what true story-stewardship is about.
Christy Kern is a seasoned communications consultant who has traveled the world working for hundreds of businesses and nonprofit organizations. With a passion for ethical storytelling, Christy coaches, leads workshops, and facilitates training sessions in order to help people become better communicators. Not only does she work with clients to find clarity within their messaging, she can help that messaging be conveyed the right way. From mission statements and marketing to speeches and conversational skills, her consulting runs the gamut and is tailored to accomplish the specific needs of each client.
After more than a decade of living abroad, Christy is currently settled in the Chicago suburbs with her husband, Hagen, and their curly canine, Watson. She’s a huge fan of putt-putt and loves searching for good tacos around town.
To learn more, get connected, or to work with Christy, click here.