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.



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