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Spread Second Stories - Break Single Stories

By Léa Jebali, Lena Meisinger, Janna Neleman, and Valerie Knöpker.

“When we realise that there is never a Single Story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise” (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie).

At the end of the summer of `20, we pulled together by the forces of friendship and a shared passion for social justice. Four girls in their early twenties, three from Germany, one from the Netherlands, practically living together. Many early mornings and late evenings, we sat together on the floor, post-its everywhere, passionate discussions floating in all directions, aiming for a topic for our Value Creation semester. It must have been many meals, walks, teas, coffees, and wines later, when one of us suddenly remembered an old Ted Talk of a Nigerian author who had inspired each of us. We watched it again. We found our topic.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie warned the world in 2009 for ‘The Danger of a Single Story.’ She explained that the way we view and treat a people is informed by the stories that we have of them. The dangerous part is this:

“How [Single Stories] are told, who tells them, when they are told, how many stories are told, are really dependent on power” (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie).

She gave the example that, about Africans, people usually have a Single Story of catastrophe and primitivity, while about Americans, people have many different stories, ranging from science and business successes to the difficult relationship with its history of slavery and the right to bear arms. Adichie talked about the inequality of storytelling-power between nations, we became interested in this inequality between individuals. “Is there a link between Single Storytelling and intersectional discrimination?”, we wondered. Our desk research made it seem like that was the case. October and November came, two months full of emails, phone calls, and online meetings; we spoke with organisations and activists who fight all kinds of discrimination. They confirmed that stereotypical stories have the power to intersectional discriminate and take away life opportunities from people.

“We need to tell different stories, to humanise the other” (Elif Shafak).

We held a Focus Group Discussion to brainstorm where our Value Creation was most needed. The activists told us to focus on those who are unheard in the Single Storytelling process. According to them, we need a platform that gives unheard voices a safe space to humanise the Single Stories that are told about them. So, there we went. Building an online platform. It was December now and we needed our network more than ever. Our personal networks were indispensable for the technicalities of the website and the partnerships that we build in the months before kept our actions and product in line with the needs of our beneficiaries. A storytelling professor at the University of Michigan helped us set up a value codex for the humanising stories. We asked for feedback after presenting our ideas at the Honours College Conference Krasnoyarsk 2020. Slowly, a platform arose: A place for stories about real people who normally don’t get to do the telling. Where we give storytelling-power to you when you feel that a Single Story wrongly represents you. Where we invite you to get to know the humans who are usually hidden behind stereotypes.

Because this is what we learned from our research, network, and the first Second Stories that our beneficiaries trusted us with:

  • A Single Story has the power to make us view a disabled person unable to love, be ambitious, heartbroken, sexual, well-read, or even happy. A Single Story can make us blind for anything except that single characteristic that a disability is.

  • A Single Story has the power to make us view a Black woman as strong only, discarding the fact that she can be in pain and in need of comfort. A Single Story can deny her humanity.

  • A Single Story has the power to make us view a person in poverty as unable to work, be creative, intelligent, sensible, active, and entrepreneurial. A Single Story can put a person into a trap of humiliating bureaucracies of control and belittlement.

Second Stories are all the other stories that add to the completeness and complexity of the person that a Single Story fails to describe. They are powerful:

  • A Second Story has the power to make us imagine a disabled person as our lover, as our boss, as somebody who feels lost, as our next president, as our teacher, or as the friend who will cheer us up.

  • A Second Story has the power to make us imagine a Black woman to be tired of fighting, in need of a hug, funny, heartbroken, easy-going, or full of love.

  • A Second Story has the power to make us imagine a person in poverty as they are trying, reliable, artistic, economical, trapped by bigger forces, or the next Albert Einstein.

When many Second Stories broaden our imagination, they can broaden opportunities for all of us, so that the next time we want to tell a story, we have the storytelling-power to make it a humane one.

We invite you to challenge the Single Stories that others have about you by telling your Second Stories. We invite you to reconsider the Single Stories that you have about others by listening to their Second Stories. Please be welcome:

Meanwhile, by the forces of the lockdown no longer squeezed together around the same coffee mugs and wine glasses, the four of us currently find ourselves in a state of euphoria in which we text and call each other about new comments from our beneficiaries every few hours and hold our breath for a new story to come in.

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