Storytelling for activists

Are we sitting comfortably?

A while back, a few of us were lucky enough to have a storytelling workshop with Jonah Sachs, author of Winning the Story Wars and the creative force behind “The Meatrix,” “Store Wars,” and “Story of Stuff.” Our subject was what the story of Greenpeace might be in the coming year; what new roles we might play in the age old story of the hero, in which a broken world is mended. In the narrative we want to tell, however, Greenpeace plays the role of mentor, not hero: the Obi-Wan who sets someone on a journey or the Lady of the Lake who gives them a magic sword. Much of our thinking about Greenpeace’s value circled around the idea of awakening people’s inner rebel, and the idea that the hero is the one who hears the story, not the one who tells it. We played with audience profiles, with archetypes, with narrative arcs, and were set a number of challenges to tell stories featuring some of our fictional creations. Here’s the product of one of my exercises — it was written pretty close to what you see here in about twenty minutes, but I keep coming back to it as something I may want to develop further. Encouraging noises, constructive criticism, and howls of disapproval all welcome.

Cedric’s Story

Cedric stepped off his hoverboard, kickflipped it into his backpack, and voice-activated the door to his apartment. He desperately wanted a shower. The commute home through the throng of Manila’s traffic was like a life-and-death game of Donkey Kong 3D in a pinball machine — but a pinball machine in which the air had been replaced with a gritty, smokey, greasy gas of pale yellow sulphur. He tossed his respirator filter into the trash and ran his finger through the grit in his fashionable jet-black-with-a-neon-blue-streak hair.

He dimmed the picture window with a gesture in the air and left a trail of clothes across the living room. They were smart, trendy clothes as befitted his middle management job with the tech firm Cisco, but if you looked closely at the logo on his polo shirt it was slightly off: the helmeted rider on his horse was raising the customary polo mallet, but the object on the ground he was swinging at wasn’t a polo ball, but an Izod alligator. Cedric had bought it from a one-eyed grizzly of a man at a stall full of defiantly illegal goods in Carriedo Street Market, and worn it expecting to shock his co-workers with this bit of non-conformity. Not a single person had noticed.

Conformity was on his mind as Cedric dialed up the water purity to a luxuriously expensive setting and stepped into the steaming hot shower. At work today, Senior Management had called a meeting for all staff to ensure instructions were clear about how to vote in the upcoming national referendum. The legislation to outlaw wind and solar power had been heavily promoted by Cisco, and the company was clear in articulating their hope that there would be a 100% yes vote from the staff. It would be good for business, they argued, if the Patriotic Coal company were allowed to complete their grid monopoly. Cisco enjoyed deeply discounted electrical rates in exchange for their active support of the Coal Party candidates.

They’d been told that while the secret ballot was still a constitutional right, and they were free to vote however they chose, they hoped nobody would object to all staff taking a lie-detector test about how they intended to vote — merely as part of a research project by human resources. Then they lined up the staff in a neat, orderly row.

Cedric had put his hand on the black glass of the digital table, looked into the eyes of the grey suited test administrator. Somehow, the words “I’m undecided” blurted out of his mouth. He watched his name and personnel file materialize on the table top under his fingers, and glide into a red virtual folder.

Towelling off and getting into his going-out clothes, Cedric worried this could mean his job. “I don’t even care that much about the vote” he thought to himself. What bothered him was the feeling of being on an assembly line, being a cardboard-cutout, cookie-cutter version of the ideal employee. Citizen X. Consumer of grey goo. Voter of the party line.

It reminded him of something… black and white scenes of a vast factory… Metropolis — that old silent movie he’d watched before the film rights got bought and shelved by the Philippines’ only media company. He’d tried to watch it again but it was gone from the official channels — which tended to happen to works deemed “Anti-social.” It wasn’t called censorship, just “Unavailable in your rights territory…” Well, screw that he thought. He told the hologram unit to grab it from the PirateBay Satellite so he could watch it later, and headed out the door.

—————————— 18 months later———————–

Before they let him out of prison, Cedric was tattooed with a bar code on his forehead that would inform every door that he walked through for the rest of his life that he’d been convicted of media piracy, and his right to vote was forever suspended.

But he’d also gotten another tattoo inside, this one unofficial: a tiny dove emblem just under the collar line of his shirt. This one would unlock only one door. A door to a secret location, a place where a group of fellow convicts, who had been put away for the smallest of misdemeanours days before the referendum, intended to gather to build a counterforce. As he walked out into the thick yellow air, Cedric smiled behind his white respirator to see the black cloud to the east shot through with a moment of red light. Off to the west, a rainbow shimmered into the distant air.



4 thoughts on “Storytelling for activists”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.