How can nonprofits use the power of storytelling to effectively communicate their message, without exploiting vulnerable populations? That’s the question more than 300 people considered during a recent panel conversation moderated by Foster America’s executive director, Marie Zemler Wu.
The discussion took place during TechSoup’s “Lights, Camera, Take Action!” three-day digital marketing conference. The conversation included insights from panelists across the spectrum of foster care — those in the tech sector who use their products to help foster youth keep their personal information secure, and those with lived experience working to provide services to current foster youth and those who have recently aged out.
All agreed that storytelling is vital to conveying the impact of programs and policies on the lives of youth who have experienced foster care.
“Youth need to know however they want to share their story, they’re not just a number or statistic,” said Maggie Lin, co-founder and executive director of Foster Nation, a nonprofit that supports foster youth aging out of the system.
Ensuring that young people feel empowered by telling their stories, and not more vulnerable, is key not only to their wellbeing but is an important life skill, said Sixto Cancel, founder of Think of Us, an organization dedicated to transforming child welfare through research and development.
Think of Us has different criteria for storytelling in different settings, Sixto explained, allowing for appropriate levels of sharing for research, or for organizational promotion or fundraising.
“When I want to fundraise, I’m not talking to someone who’s only been talking about their experiences for a year or two,” he said. “It’s more responsible to bring someone who’s been speaking for 5 years, healed and gotten to a place where they can speak without creating more pain or stress.”
Kim Allman of NortonLifeLock and Corrie Conrad of Box.org also touched on the importance of storytelling for increased awareness of the unique problems foster youth face. Due to the number of adults in their lives, and the number of people with access to their sensitive information like social security numbers, foster youth are at an increased risk of identity theft and fraud. This can impact a young person’s credit score, ability to apply for apartments, jobs and other important adult milestones.
Both NortonLifeLock and Box offer services to foster youth to keep their personal information safe, but said that storytelling helps bring meaning to their services.
“We started to talk to Congress about this. One of the important things is to find ways to translate information in a way that resonates,” Kim Allman said. “We took young people’s stories and made some headway and visibility in this issue of identity theft and foster youth.”
“Storytelling is fundamental, super important to getting folks to understand the impact they’re making in the community and how we can amplify it, grow it,” added Corrie Conrad.
Ultimately, whether it be an individual telling their story as an act of reclaiming their power, or an organization storytelling in order to get local or federal support, storytelling is fundamental to changing systems. The panel discussion got practitioners from across the country thinking about best practices for engaging youth with lived experience in the changemaking process.
“Highlighting stories is essential to creating change,” Foster America’s executive director Marie Zemler Wu remarked. “But doing so in a way that’s beneficial to all involved and doesn’t make young people more vulnerable is crucial.”