How should we tell stories about people we're trying to help?

Individuals, churches, missionaries, and nonprofit groups should ask this regularly. The answer is inextricably bound to the very justice we're trying to promote. The question now has a perfect case study.

Joseph Kony recently became an Internet star through Invisible Children's Kony 2012 campaign. Among the millions of people who watched the video, no debate broke out about the evil of Kony, who as a warlord in central Africa maimed many and made children into killers. Worldwide consensus may be near impossible, but the cruelty inflicted by one of the world's most wanted men can do that. The common goodwill the "Kony 2012" video unleashed was encouraging. People want the best outcome for those in that region.

But a cyber-speed debate broke out over almost every other aspect of the campaign—sparking a discussion about the best policy, advocacy's role, white man's burden, interventionism, and the use of military force.

My prayers have been for Invisible Children's co-founder Jason Russell's recovery from a public breakdown and strength to continue working for justice. While I don't focus on African policy issues, what has continued to interest me—what intersects with my profession as director of a nonprofit focused on education in Haiti—is the opportunity to think about this question of how "we" tell stories to help "them."

To dive into this question, consider the dynamic of the Kony video and its aftermath, where two realities collided:

  • The audience (that is, us) craves simplicity of message, participation in meaningful positive change, and emotional reward—at low personal cost.
  • We (that is, "us" and "them") each want to be treated with nuance and respect.

The Kony 2012 makers indisputably addressed this first reality brilliantly. Invisible Children took a risk, communicated their perspective powerfully, and started an important conversation.

For the second reality—the desire we each have to be treated "with nuance and respect"—it's clear Invisible Children wanted people to treat them this way. They wanted people to consider the video within the context of their work, watch follow-up videos, read a Q&A, look at charts, and take their time assessing the situation. It was a fair request, because everyone deserves as much.

Whether they sufficiently did the same for people in northern Uganda was up for debate. Critiques came quickly about oversimplifying or mischaracterizing the situation, as well as disagreeing with how Ugandans were portrayed as victims to be saved by American college students. Others defended the portrayal as effective advocacy that didn't answer all the questions but kickstarted an important movement that could lead toward more learning and positive influence on policy in the region.

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We can all keep striving to better understand how to work toward justice not only with our actions, but also with how we tell people's stories.

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Jesus' so-called Golden Rule should serve as the overarching guide: "So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you" (Matt. 7:12).

If you've ever talked about your experience on a short-term missions trip in front of your church, tried to start a new project for disadvantaged people in your neighborhood, or raised money to help others, at some point you might have felt an uncomfortable twinge: Did I make the case strongly enough to motivate people to step up and help? Did I selfishly make myself the hero? Did I paint people as one-dimensional victims instead of as the people I know them to be? Did I overstate how much good we've done? I know I've made these mistakes many times during my 15 years in nonprofit work.

Whether as individuals or multi-million dollar Christian development organizations, we need to be accountable for how we speak about each other—particularly about those who have less power than we do.

Articulating principles of a Golden Rule for communication can help align our speaking well with our doing good, align our speaking justly with doing justice.

Principle 1: People need a clear, compelling next step

Leaving the strategy/policy debate aside, Kony 2012 did this very well. Providing a clear, simple, emotionally compelling next step that builds into a larger strategy is harder than it sounds. Child sponsorship remains popular because of how it shows the next step: Help this one child.

My colleagues and I sometimes get too muddled in program details. Speaking at a university, sometimes I've finished telling moving stories, but then failed to help students know what small step to take next. The next step is, after all, the most important one. (After reading some of the Invisible Children critiques, I wanted to ask: So as an American, is there anything I should do to help, or nothing—and if so, what?)

The standard for truth doesn't get lessened, but clear next steps are important.

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Principle 2: The audience is who you're talking to—and who you're talking about

If you don't serve your audience, they won't serve others. What angle interests them? How will they relate? What questions will be in the back of their minds? How can you move their hearts and minds? Not asking these questions fails both the audience and the people you're trying to help.

But I think the audience must also be who you're speaking about, whether they're present or not, whether speaking about a homeless person who lives around the block or someone who speaks another language in an electricity-less village thousands of miles away.

Why? First, work for justice directly engages the issue of power and powerlessness. In our very telling of their stories, we must demonstrate justice. Storytelling is a power; we should acknowledge this. Justice, in part, means being accountable to people to whom we don't have to be accountable. After all, the stories are theirs.

Second, this approach works better long-term. How we tell stories influences how we decide strategy and what kinds of results are prioritized (if the story is about "our" goals and not "theirs," unhealthy pressure builds). With communication technology, there is also an increasing chance people are going to see how we're talking about them. Care in communication builds positively into relationships and work for justice. Overarching narratives influence real-world decisions.

Henri Nouwen wrote about the wisdom of taking one of the developmentally disabled people he worked with on speaking engagements. Because of distance and cost, it might not always be possible. Yet we should always consider the people we're trying to serve as also being in our audience.

Principle 3: Be virally prepared

Communication should always be done as though 100+ million people will watch or read it—and experts will dissect it. This shouldn't paralyze, just sensitize. Your story should not shatter into a million little pieces under scrutiny. A recent example was one of NPR's more popular episodes of This American Life, a critique of Apple Inc.'s labor in China, which had to be retracted after closer attention.

For a fleeting Twitter moment, it seemed Invisible Children was going to be a magical way to turn people's noblest intentions into cynicism (see the bestselling Three Cups of Tea, the book later questioned). That didn't happen though. They quickly and substantively responded to initial criticism, even if disagreements about strategy remained.

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YouTube's viral potential makes a theological/ethical point incisively for all of us: let us speak all things in a way pleasing to God, in the light of truth and love.

Principle 4: Take care when casting the hero and agent of change

Because of evangelicalism's emphasis on "going out into the world," the act of going out is celebrated. But this can make us vulnerable to misapplied heroism.

We seem to need emotional bridges for stories about need in other places. Some criticized Jason Russell for including his son. I don't, though perhaps the cost for him became too high as the scrutiny became so intense and critiques so personal. I've wrestled with discovering that the more autobiographically I share about needs in Haiti, the more people feel they have a way to get involved.

But we need to acknowledge how much more profound the day-to-day commitment of the local church in [fill in the blank] is than what it took to go on a one-week trip to help build a Sunday school classroom.

Likewise, we should be clear about who the agents of change are in these stories. Do we present other people as victims only to be helped? Or do we present a situation where people are already making a difference and would benefit from a boost that they request? One story is more easily heart-rending; the other might be truer and more respectful.

A number of strong critiques of Kony 2012 came from African writers and journalists, protesting that "casting of the hero/change agent" was askew. It wouldn't have addressed all the objections, but considering the video is 30 minutes long, I wonder if including 2 minutes like this would have helped:

  • Halfway through, with appropriate visuals: "Political realities in central Africa are too complex for a child to understand. The problem is horrible, but great progress has been made. Kony's role has been diminished but he still inflicts his evil on children in other countries. Arresting him won't solve every problem, but will be a real step toward peace for the region. Africans are doing the most important, courageous part of this work. Together, we can help them take this next, crucial step."
  • A few 20-second segments highlighting work Ugandans have done to make a difference on the issue.

Principle 5: The pitch is the message

The entire message shifts a little if you benefit from what you're pitching. If the Kony 2012 video had ended with a pitch first for getting behind an advocacy campaign and second that 100 percent of donations would go directly to grassroots Ugandan groups working with former child soldiers, would it have been received differently?

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It's fair to ask for money for your organization, but we should remember that our choices about the pitch can exacerbate any other weaknesses. People I work with in Haiti have helped me be sensitive to this because they're used to foreigners coming into their communities, taking pictures to go tell stories about them, receiving a hero's welcome when they return to the U.S., and raising money—but all this often doesn't result in much real change for their communities.

Money (or, the pitch) is of course a charged issue, and so we should use it as an opportunity for spiritual reflection:

How am I going to benefit from the message of justice that I'm sharing? How are my ambitions intertwined with what sounds like a saintly project? What is being promised if people give or get involved? Vision, humility, and transparency all need to shine through in the answers.

Principle 6: Be attentive, not safe

The most innovative, subversive, risk-taking communication should happen in service of Jesus and justice. Jesus and the prophets were pointed and creative in their messages. We ought to push hard and try new approaches. Though we may have some disagreements, I admire Invisible Children's commitment to communicate with excellence and creativity for justice.

If the people weren't praising Jesus, the rocks would have on Palm Sunday. The blood of Abel cried out from the ground to God. The blood of injustice flows daily, so let's cry out with our best strategies and communication to respond. Let's be attentive, but not safe. We should call each other into account and also encourage each other to take thoughtful risks.

Our love fails if we're not sensitive enough to these principles about telling the stories of others. But our love also fails if we don't push ourselves to creatively punch through the noise and the entertainment and the apathy.

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The initial Kony 2012 video bent some of these Golden Rule principles for communicating—but was made out of love and commitment to people who are suffering. In that way, the video is a bit like all of us: good, flawed, a mix of sinner and saint.

Perhaps these principles can lead to conversations with the people you tell stories about. Are they okay with how you're telling their stories? What is the most respectful approach that can build trust? Do they understand where you'll tell the stories and what kind of action is being invited? This open exchange can actually become part of the story of justice we're trying to achieve together.

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And that's a story worth living.

Kent Annan is author of After Shock and co-director of Haiti Partners. You can follow him on Twitter here.

"Speaking Out" is Christianity Today's guest opinion column and (unlike an editorial) does not necessarily represent the opinion of the magazine.

Related Elsewhere:

Christianity Todayhas covered the Kony 2012 campaign and profiled Joseph Kony.