National Writing Project

Book Review: Storytelling for Social Justice

By: Erin Wilkey
Date: January 19, 2011

Summary: Lee Anne Bell introduces the Storytelling Project model, a compelling antiracist curriculum designed to enable reflective and critical conversations about race and racism by examining the stories we tell.


Think back to conversations you have engaged in about race and racism. Maybe you were in the role of facilitator, guiding discussion in your classroom about a piece of literature. Or perhaps you were a participant in a diversity training or professional development workshop about race.

How did the participants interact in these conversations? What stories were shared? Were participants comfortable telling their stories? How were opposing viewpoints negotiated?

To provide a guiding framework to explore such conversations, Lee Anne Bell, the Barbara Silver Horowitz Director of Education at Barnard College, Columbia University, introduces a compelling antiracist curriculum in her book Storytelling for Social Justice: Connecting Narrative and the Arts in Antiracist Teaching . Bell's Storytelling Project model curriculum is designed to enable reflective and critical conversations about race and racism by examining the stories we tell.

In this book, Bell outlines the model and provides examples of how it can be adapted for a range of purposes and groups including classroom instruction, preservice teacher training, and professional development workshops.

Using Arts to Teach About Race and Racism

Storytelling for Social Justice is a must-read and a must-do.

In developing the Storytelling Project model, Bell organized a team of educators and artists and asked that they think about how the arts could be used to teach and learn about race and racism. The team identified the story as an art form with the potential to encourage deep thinking about these issues while making the concepts more concrete and personal.

Central to the Storytelling Project model is the awareness that not all stories are valued equally. The curriculum also recognizes that stories are a source of social and cultural knowledge as well as a way of bearing witness. By exploring the social stories that both perpetuate and challenge the status quo, we develop a new set of tools for understanding race and racism.

The Storytelling Project model emerges from four concepts Bell identifies as instrumental in facilitating a critical analysis of racism:

  • Race is a social construct; the idea of distinct "races" is an illusion.
  • Racism operates on many levels and in multiple and complex ways.
  • White privilege is a central feature of systemic racism, though often unacknowledged.
  • The notion of "color-blindness" impedes racial progress.

"How we talk about race matters," writes Bell. "It provides a roadmap for tracing how people make sense of social reality, helping us to see where we connect with and where we differ from others in our reading of the world, and it defines the remedies that will be considered as appropriate and necessary."

The Four Story Types

The Storytelling Project model provides language and a framework for analyzing racism through the lenses of four story types. As participants become more aware of the kinds of stories they tell or encounter, they begin to recognize patterns that perpetuate racism.

The first story type identified by Bell and her colleagues is stock stories. Stock stories uphold the status quo by ignoring or minimizing the ongoing effects of racism and discrimination in society.

Examples of stock stories include claims of reverse racism or anecdotes that challenge affirmative action. They enable the storytellers to perpetuate racist stereotypes without being called racist themselves. Stock stories support the notion that we have entered a "post-racial" era and that our society is "color-blind."

Concealed stories are stories from the margins. They are often repressed or conveniently "forgotten" because they contradict stock stories. They can also be suppressed because they recount painful or traumatic experiences. Concealed stories told by people of color are not readily shared with whites, while those told by whites expose insiders' knowledge of how racism is perpetuated.

The third story type is resistance stories. Resistance stories challenge racism by highlighting ways people defy stock stories. These stories are often expressed through works of art or political action. Resistance stories are powerful tools in educating for social justice.

Emerging/transforming stories are new stories we construct based on a thoughtful awareness of the other three types. These stories acknowledge the impact of history and culture on the present and build upon concealed and resistance stories as they challenge the status quo.

The Storytelling Project Model in Action

Bell dedicates a chapter to each story type, providing numerous activities and tools for implementing the Storytelling Project model for a range of purposes and groups. Activities involve reflection, writing, role play, analysis of poetry and visual art, reexamining history, and carefully facilitated discussion.

One activity for introducing stock and concealed stories involves analyzing the concept of "the American dream." In this activity, participants study speeches given by Arnold Schwarzenegger and Barack Obama during the 2004 presidential conventions. Participants identify and categorize references to the American dream, paying close attention to whose stories are told and whose are left out.

In the chapter on resistance stories, Bell describes an activity in which participants reevaluate their own definitions of resistance. The facilitator introduces the idea that there is resistance that is strengthening in its ability to facilitate change, and there is resistance that is self-destructive and passive.

Volunteers are asked to silently act out images of resistance while the rest of the group offers interpretations of the scenarios from multiple perspectives. Through this role-playing activity, participants begin to think more deeply about how to use resistance consciously and proactively.

The final chapter of Storytelling for Social Justice walks readers through the process of cultivating a counter-storytelling community. Bell draws upon models of group dynamics in order to frame an example of the Storytelling Project model in action. She describes a five-day, intensive summer institute for teachers, in which participants explore the four story types. Bell emphasizes the importance of establishing a community where open conversation can take place.

The detailed outline of the institute provides a valuable resource for educators or facilitators wishing to implement the Storytelling Project model. Bell also includes samples of participants' writing reflections to highlight the impact of the activities and discussions.

Upon reading Storytelling for Social Justice, I am filled with an urgency to share the Storytelling Project model with every educator I know. And it is not enough for me to say this book is a must-read. Storytelling for Social Justice is a must-read and a must-do.

If the purpose of education is to empower students to think critically about the world, question the status quo, and create positive change, then tools like the Storytelling Project model should guide our planning and instruction.

Erin Wilkey, 2007 fellow at the Greater Kansas City Writing Project (GKCWP), taught adult ESL in Kansas City, Missouri, and eleventh- and twelfth- grade English in Kansas City, Kansas. She has now relocated to Oakland, California, where she is working as a private tutor and freelance writer while completing her master's degree in instructional design and technology and continuing to serve as GKCWP's website administrator.

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