Jacquelyn Spade – Development and Communications Manager Komera, Inc.

In working as a Communications Manager, part of my job entails telling stories from the field – the stories of the people we work with or whose lives we have impacted by the organization’s work. I do this with the hope that my post gets the attention of a reader for just long enough that they become interested in my organization. That means balancing the use of catchy phrases, words that spark interest, and photos that draw the reader in. However, if not careful, what it can look like is click-bait headlines or graphic photos to shock and awe. Worst yet, it can mean exploiting the pain or suffering someone has or is experiencing for likes, follows, or donations. With the rise of social media and the desire to “go viral”, some organizations have toed the line (unsuccessfully in my opinion) of what is, and isn’t appropriate to share or post. This is commonly referred to as “poverty porn” – a term used to describe the monetization and exploitation of poverty and marginalized communities, commonly found in the NGO/Non-profit and news media sphere.   

Executive Director Dativah Bideri Mukamusonera with Komera Scholars at the FAWE Girls School

So, how do we combat exploitive storytelling or poverty porn? For me personally, it's focusing on ethical storytelling. According to the Berkley Group, ethical storytelling “refers to this active practice of ensuring that NPOs [(non-profit organizations)] marketing and storytelling is inclusive of both the viewpoints of the constituents and the donors, so they can achieve both goals of serving their constituents through receiving funding, while respecting the human dignity of their constituents.” But ethical storytelling doesn’t stop there, or better yet, doesn’t start there. It also means understanding how the sheer act of telling one’s story can lead to the re-experiencing of trauma, resulting in the need for resources to deal with the after effects. Additionally, according to Rachel Goble, the CEO of the Freedom Story and Co-Curator of Ethical Storytelling, there are guiding questions that one can ask before even beginning an interview: 

1. Do we have the person’s consent to tell their story, for this purpose and in this medium?

2. What will happen to the person after we tell their story in this way? Could it cause them harm? Are we going to continue to help them and be in a relationship with them, or are we leaving as soon as we “get what we need?”

3. Are we telling the story in a way that reinforces harmful stereotypes or stigmas about a social issue or the people who are affected by it?

She also suggests reviewing or creating, if your organization doesn’t have one, the consent policies. This is another great first step to further ensure that all parties understand what they are agreeing to, and what will happen after the story has been promoted. It’s also important to note that consent forms should be translated and in accessible language; having a thorough consent form means nothing if the parties don’t understand what they are agreeing to. 

So how can we bring ethical storytelling into our work? Thankfully there are resources (of which I am committed to utilizing) that can help us in the industry ground our organizations in ethical storytelling. And in addition to asking ourselves these questions, both before and after we get the stories, we should also remember that even with consent, some stories are not ours to tell. We may have the best intentions going into the conversation or post, but we don’t always have to hit publish. Just think to yourself, if you would cringe reading the story on someone else’s site, it probably shouldn’t be on yours. Finally, it’s important to acknowledge that at some point even with the best intentions, mistakes can lead to a cringe-worthy post going live. This is when it's important to learn from and listen to your community and the communities you work in. Most importantly, don’t be afraid to acknowledge mistakes, learn, and grow. Afterall, we’re human!

About the Author

Jacquelyn is a recent graduate from NYU - Wagner with a master’s degree in Urban Planning specializing in International Development Planning. She has been connected with Komera for several years now through volunteering, interning, and now as the Development and Communications Manager.