Advocacy and Storytelling

This AJWS series on storytelling and justice is guest edited by Deji Olukotun.

AJWS’s Washington-based advocacy department seeks to influence decision-makers to support policies and laws that advance AJWS’s mission to empower the world’s marginalized people. Working primarily with members of the U.S. Congress and the executive branch, the advocacy department develops an ‘ask’—or specific demand—that a decision maker is capable of actualizing. Asking and influencing both relate to the power of persuasion, making our advocacy work ripe for storytelling. In this piece in our storytelling blog series, policy associate Amanda Cary describes the complex ways in which storytelling is used by the advocacy department.

The AJWS advocacy department uses storytelling every day—in fact, it’s one of our most useful tools! Storytelling is a practical way to bring digestible information about very complex issues from Africa, Asia and Latin America right into the halls of Congress. But we don’t just use storytelling to pass along engaging information. We tell stories that get the audience to act. For the advocacy department, that means getting our U.S. policymakers to use their power to make critical, lasting change.

Members of Congress listen to the stories of their constituents and figure out how to use their stories in policymaking. But AJWS’s grassroots partners around the world do not have a direct line to Congress to tell their stories—they are not constituents who have elected U.S. officials. That is why it is critical for staff and supporters of AJWS to advocate for change by learning and retelling stories of how our U.S. policy impacts real people around the world.

Storytelling makes our advocacy smarter. Our grassroots partners know what works and what doesn’t work in their communities. Stories of their challenges and their homegrown solutions are an invaluable resource for crafting and changing U.S. policy. In fact, Congressional staff often ask AJWS’s advocacy staff for stories to help them understand and articulate the human impact of their policy decisions. Unfortunately, without an understanding of how real people are affected, too often Congress creates uninformed policy—which is bad policy. We try to educate our policymakers about the importance of garnering information directly from local communities. We urge them to require that these global voices be part of the official procedures for drafting, implementing and evaluating global policy.

For example, in March 2011 we used storytelling to encourage Congress to include local Haitians in decisions that affect their lives. We worked with the Haiti Advocacy Working Group to stage an event on Capitol Hill and supported several grantees to attend so that they could tell their stories in their own words. Aided by photographs of communities in Haiti, grassroots Haitian organizations such as SEROvie, an LGBTI rights organization, told the stories of their experiences and asked the U.S. to consult local people about the provision of U.S. aid and other matters. Congress acted in return. Several members of Congress circulated a sign-on letter that reached Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton about improving the deplorable conditions of internally displaced person camps. 54 members of Congress eventually signed the letter.

Of course, to inspire our policymakers to act, storytelling is not enough. Congress needs a nudge (or a giant push of activism!) to actually translate these stories into effective policy. They need to know that their U.S.-based constituents support better policy. AJWS demonstrates this support from the American Jewish community in many ways including sending emails from you through our online action center, arranging meetings with AJWS constituents and policymakers, signing letters and petitions and supporting legislation on behalf of AJWS.

We use storytelling by harnessing the power of the entire AJWS family, including grantees, our service trip alumni and the wider American Jewish community.  The advocacy department trains our Rabbinical Students Delegation and our Volunteer Summer alumni to tell the stories of their experiences with our grassroots partners, and to effectively flex their muscle as constituents and community members by lobbying for action. We also rally the support of rabbis and Jewish leaders in key Congressional districts through meetings and letters.

Many of our grantees advocate on their own—they know exactly what they need and reach decision makers in their respective countries with sophisticated strategies. We cannot directly bring all our partners to speak to U.S. Congress themselves, but we can give voice to their stories and their own advocacy.

Telling stories about real people, real challenges, and effective solutions allows us to show why local communities should be active participants in the U.S. foreign policy that impacts their lives, while enabling us to support marginalized peoples throughout the world.