Storytelling: a deceptively simple way to resolve racial tensions and community conflict

“Through WYS we were able to connect and get closer and all the suspicions that we had about one another were swept away. We connected because we heard each other’s stories which was like feeling each other’s heartbeat."
Pastor Libuseng Tshabalala

This year has brought its fair share of turmoil, which has highlighted societal fault lines such as racial division, economic inequality and xenophobia. Incidents such as the backlash to the Clicks hair product advertisement that unhelpfully relied on negative ethnic stereotypes and the incidents in Senekal involving extreme left- and right-wing groups, made it clear that there’s much work to be done around the issue of racial division. But how do you bring groups of people with conflicting perspectives closer together?

“It hasn’t been an easy journey, but What’s Your Story? (WYS) got it started”, shared Ps Libuseng Tshabalala on how tensions between denominations in Kanana, Orkney were diffused due to their participation in the WYS programme. The breaking down of the perceived barriers between these groups by sharing their personal stories with each other has led to them combining as a powerful force during this time to pray together and distribute food parcels.

We were gathered from all over the country and from all walks of life: ministry, correctional services, the NGO sector and private individuals – but all with a common goal of learning how to use personal storytelling to deepen connections and understanding between people. The occasion, the first of two online training sessions to equip people to use Heartlines’ What’s Your Story? programme effectively.

“This isn’t rocket science, it’s simple yet so profound and effective”, said WYS facilitator Brett Anderson by way of explaining the power of storytelling. “Stories speak to who we are, they allow us to connect with others, and develop empathy”, he added. At the heart of it is a simple framework: “Ask. Listen. Tell.” This involves creating a space where you invite someone to safely share their story, and be heard in a way that shows an appreciation for them. The last step, “Tell” involves being vulnerable enough to share your own story, to allow others to understand you better.

“WYS has made a big impact in uniting groups across racial, cultural and denominational barriers”, shared WYS facilitator Olefile Masangane.

“I’ve been involved in social justice and reconciliation work for many years, and people are quite fatigued on this issue… WYS has been a breath of fresh air as a new angle on this”, said Ps Seth Naicker, workshop host and WYS facilitator. “Think of what we can do with this [WYS] across the country”, he encouraged participants.

The WYS programme can be implemented in different contexts such as church, life groups, youth groups or families. Free resources have been specifically created for each of these and are available on the What’s Your Story? Church website. During the training session, there were four breakaway groups, each dealing specifically with one of these contexts.

“Sometimes it’s easier to share our stories with strangers than family – why is that?”, family breakaway group host Nevelia Moloi asked. Once we overcome the barriers that stop us from sharing our stories with those closest to us, we could benefit from an increased understanding and empathy, fewer misconceptions and an enriched self-awareness. “Use open-ended questions and just start”, Moloi encouraged those wanting to use personal storytelling to forge deeper bonds in their families. Once we have asked the question, it is critical that we listen with open hearts, rather than with the primary intention of responding. Moloi also shared tips on how to use the WYS for Families resources, which are all freely available on the WYS website.

If you would like to learn more about the WYS programme, here are a few next steps to take:

  • Free training: online WYS training on Tuesday 3 November from 19:00 - 20:00


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25 Aug 2020|Heartlines

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