Telling The Story: The Final Ingredient

Post by Michael Lindenberger


Thirty-four years ago Joan Didion opened a famous essay about life in a California she no longer recognized, or even fully trusted, by writing, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” I am finishing up my first year as a resident here in California and it’s important to note that much has changed here since the 1979 publication of The White Album, but the importance of storytelling hasn’t.

We can debate whether storytelling is necessary, as Didion wrote, to our lives, but it certainly is one powerful tool for making sense of the lives we do lead, and for communicating that sense to others.

What flushed these thoughts on a sunny Tuesday morning was reflections on the five weeks my team – Chelsea, Tate and Ryan — and I have just spent working in East Palo Alto. We were on task for the city manager and her executive team to design a way to boost the sense of community among residents of the west side of East Palo Alto.

We began our task, as is recorded earlier on the blog, by a different kind of storytelling: We asked residents there to tell us their stories, and we listened. If we have been successful, and we all four feel good about our project, that was the moment our success began: When we asked about the stories of the residents there, and listened to their answers.

I won’t recount the whole process of nearly five weeks here, since much of it has been detailed on the blog by teammates, but I will that we went down several paths that we later abandoned before deciding on our final design.

We thought perhaps what was needed was a way for young people to better understand older residents, many of whom came to EPA when it was a very different place, or for black residents to understand Latino residents and for Pacific Islanders to tell their stories. We devised a way that young people would, instead of telling their own stories through writing and artistic programs designed to teach them self-expression, interview each other and end up telling the stories of their parents, or their friends and of people they don’t know and normally wouldn’t talk to.

We thought that by doing that we might put a face on the East Palo Alto residents, so many of whom we heard anecdotally work in service positions in companies that have made Silicon Valley famous. Indeed, we thought even that we could use those stories to help brand the EPA as a backbone of Silicon Valley and approach companies with an appeal to get more directly involved in housing and other touch-and-go issues that make for many in EPA their hold on their lives so tenuous.

But as we kept asking questions, we lost faith in the ability of those stories to apply real leverage against companies, who we feared would not be persuaded that a healthy EPA was a business necessity for them, not when this particular job market is so tilted in their favor.

So the glory of the design thinking process was just this: We easily abandoned storytelling as central part of our solution, and turned instead to other levers. We ended up proposing the Park Knights of the Westside, as a solution to a very pressing and immediate need for safer and simpler parking choices for residents of the Woodland Park Apartments.

In short, the solution is to recruit a host of volunteers who would be willing to be on call once a month or so to respond to texted requests for parking escorts for residents who arrive home late at night and sometimes must park a mile away or more.

But we weren’t done with storytelling. Even after developing the solution, and testing it through prototypes and improving it right up until the last minute, we had to present the idea to city manager Magda Gonzolez and her executive team. We would be one of four teams presenting and the task was simple, but not easy: Communicate to her team our idea in a way that would both arouse their curiosity and satisfy their experience-born skepticism powerfully enough that they would take the idea and put it in play.

That’s no small task, given the wealth of ideas and paucity of resources available to people in their position.

In our run-through on Tuesday, two days before the presentations, we demonstrated just how much work we had to do. One problem, the opening was too long and failed to adequately set the stage for what we were about to present. Our solution, taken from a member of the teaching team, was to use a piece of visualization that had ended the talk previously as part of the ramp.

I simply asked the managers to close their eyes and imaging coming home late at night in a dark and distant parking space and then walking 20 minutes back home. With eyes closed, it was easy to see how vulnerable that daily routine would make anyone feel.

That was but one example of how each of the three of us who were presenting focused our remarks first on the storytelling, and second on the importance of the ideas and methods we were discussing. And I think it is one reason why, when we ended, Magda responded so enthusiastically to our proposal.

A few simple rules we followed:

  • Whenever possible we substituted natural language for d.School jargon. This was harder than it seems since so much of the process is defined by its own terms, from empathy work to ideation to prototyping … we tried to get rid of them all, or if we kept them to explain the words in context.
  • We included signposts – little verbal clues as to where we were in the story, such as (now that we’ve told you who we met, we’ll talk about what we learned from them), and finally:
  • We weren’t afraid of repetition. Relying on the old preacher’s formula, we told them what we were going to say, said it, then told them what we had just told them.

I will just close by saying that seeing the reaction on the faces of the city manager and her team made this class project seem very worthwhile. We don’t know whether they will encourage the formation of the Park Knights or not, but I am certain that elements of our proposal will live on in the policy discussions among her team and the city council.

That’s five weeks well spent, and a story we can all be proud to tell.

3 thoughts on “Telling The Story: The Final Ingredient

  1. Kit Miller

    Interesting Michael. I will try to read some of the blog.
    In short, does that mean you decided the best way you could help boost community spirit was by helping residents to feel safe in their community, so you focussed on developing a volunteer safety escort to solve this problem? Did this problem come out through your storytelling with residents? Are they still planning to do anything in relation to big companies? Are there still plans to involve youth and elders in storytelling?

  2. Michael Lindenberger

    Hi Kit: We settled on one idea: A neighborhood group of Westside EPA residents who would help each other feel safer at night when they have to park far away from home. Our hope is that the network will serve as a platform to find other ways they can help each other, including, say, sharing information about what are widely reported to be unfair practices by the company that owns the apartments nearly everyone in this area lives in.

    There were many other ideas and even more problems. I personally was interested in the storytelling angle, but it wasn’t the one we pursued. I’d love to see that explored though.

    Maybe some of the readers here will have ideas for pressing forward ?

  3. Phil Clore

    Michael; What an interesting project. Thank you for posting the description of your team’s work in EPA. The read gave me much to think about.


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