03/13/2012 11:35 am ET Updated May 12, 2012


In February, well before any of the Kony 2012 business hit, I attended a non-profit board-development workshop sponsored by a local leadership organization. The event was broken out into sessions, and I selected one called "Telling the Story of Your Organization's Impact." It targeted techniques for communicating emotional impact and other intangible truths about an organization to supplement the more data-driven information.

The key concern for me going in to the workshop and the dilemma I posed to the excellent facilitator was whether and how it was possible to tell what is essentially someone else's story in a way that provides meaningful advocacy -- especially if the story builds on a narrative that has already been framed.

Let me be more specific:

-- I wondered aloud how the techniques highlighted in this session could be brought to bear on an organization like mine: Cura Orphanage works in partnership with an AIDS-affected community in Kenya, and it helps support children orphaned by this disease.

-- I wondered what stories I could reasonably tell, when well-meaning audiences have already been manipulated to within an inch of their lives by such previous and much-satirized storytellers as the ChildFund campaign. (I'm 43; can I help it if my formative television years were awash with Sally Struthers' tears? Or that the geniuses at South Park share my cultural reference points?)

-- I wondered how I can effectively tell the story of what my organization does without reinforcing an already limited Western understanding of what the people in Cura village -- and across Africa -- do for themselves.

Not surprisingly, we did not come to any easy answers. And despite all the vibrant discussion about similar questions in the blogosphere lately, none seem to be forthcoming there, either.

I have, though, appreciated Ethan Zuckerman's recent blog, which offers a compelling overview of the damage storytelling, to Western audiences about Africa in particular, can do. He gives credit where it's due, but asks questions that are essential to anyone doing meaningful development work in Africa:

"If we want people to pay attention to the issues we care about, do we need to oversimplify them? And if we do, do our simplistic framings do more unintentional harm than intentional good?"

In reflecting on these questions, I am confronted with the realization that I've been wrestling with them for a long time.

In 1990, having already lived in Kenya for a couple of years, I helped develop Student Transport Aid with my friend Dan Eldon and others. We were an international band of teenagers who pulled off an incredible humanitarian adventure, overland from Kenya to Malawi, culminating in direct aid to people displaced by civil war in Mozambique. During the trip, Dan and I often debated our project, both of us acknowledging the force for good we were attempting to be, while also considering the impacts -- both intended and not -- we were having during the course of the journey.

While in graduate school much later, I submitted a reflection on our experience to a now-apparently-defunct academic publication called The Journal of African Travel Writing (No. 6, 1999). In it, I targeted some of the unintentional negative outcomes of our journey, and engaged in some post-colonial-theory-inspired, academic self-reflection. I admit: filtering our collective youthful passion through graduate-level seminar reading took some of the oomph out of the project, and certainly made our experience less lustrous and inspirational in retrospect.

But the process of doing so was immensely valuable. The idealist humanitarian in me was tempered by the academic theorist in me, and my ongoing work in both realms since then has been enriched by this push and pull.

In 2012, where I live on this continuum is closer to the idealist than the academic, at least for now. Along with my fellow "creative activists," the pure humanitarian version of myself allows emotional reward to sustain the level of work required to make positive change in the world. That version of myself knows that storytelling is one of the world's oldest, most profoundly human ways to communicate the things that connect and inspire us, and wants to be better at it.

Before he was killed in Somalia, Dan committed himself to this purposeful storytelling, too -- and the world was undeniably better off as a result. (Check out Dying to Tell the Story for more on journalists on the front lines of international crises.)

The academic in me persists, too, of course. That version of myself (along with my colleagues in higher education) keeps me focused on measuring impact and on limiting encroachment on the agency of others -- a.k.a., keeping the storyteller quiet when the story isn't hers to tell.

I agree with Zuckerman that international development work doesn't end at "simplified narratives." And despite the Star Wars, good versus evil analogy in their recent film, I'm pretty sure the guys at Invisible Children know this, too. I'm grateful for the conversation they're inspiring and for the energy they can bring to bear on a cause that has moved them so profoundly.

They've turned this story over to the world. What impact will WE have next?