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The danger of the single story

September 26, 2022

I just came back from a board meeting in Michigan. World Renew is a Christian Community Development organization that does amazing work around the world. They (like us) use an Asset-Based Community Development approach, seeing the good in a community and building on what good things are already happening in a neighborhood instead of focusing on what is wrong.

We talked about the danger of the single story (based on a Ted talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie). We often reduce individuals and their stories to a group of people “the poor”, the “undocumented” the “farm laborers”, the “right” or “left”, ”young people”… you name it, and with that we totally miss the complexity of people, the giftedness and passions of people and their own unique stories.

When you see me and what I do, you get one picture of me, but when you get to know me, you will hear a very different story, and the same is true of you. Neither you or I want to be lumped into a single story, there is so much more to us.

And yet, we spend so much time putting people into a single story, we reduce individuals to an idea that has been told to us and maybe has been repeated for generations. We trust the media to tell the story, we trust IEP’s to tell the story, we trust…. But reality is there is always so much more. Years ago I had a major argument with my brother who lived all his life in Germany. He was convinced we had a swimming pool in our backyard and horses in our barns……he knew of a single story of America (the TV show “Dallas”) and with that could not fathom that it could not be true. We hear the story of the “undocumented” who take advantage of our system and generosity, crossing the boarder to ‘steal from us’. Never hearing their story of why they are fleeing the brutalities of their countries, never taking the time to understand their journey. We tell the single story of the ‘poor’ on the welfare system, portraying them as ‘lazy’, ‘uneducated’, ‘drug addicts’, never listening to their individual stories and the journey that brought them to this point, but instead we rob them of their dignity. We tell the single story of the ‘rich’, about their ‘greed’, their ‘extravagant living’, their ‘abuse of the system’, never looking at their hard work, their ability to employ many people, their own struggles. We tell the single story of politicians, their ‘corruption’, their ‘agendas’, without ever seeing them as fathers and mothers who want to create a better world for the next generation.

You and I do not want to be measured by a single story, we humans are way too complex to put into a single narrative, let’s not flatten our existence by boxing us in. Let’s hear each other’s stories and learn from each other. Let’s see people for who they are, amazing individuals with stories beyond your imagination.

PS If you get a chance watch her Ted Talk.

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