Mrs. W and the Citizen Story
I walked into my community’s open forum with the mayor of Providence this week as a recent transplant. A lifelong Utahn, the rhythm of inner-city living is still foreign to me, and I went to get a better sense of my neighborhood.
As I sat down on a front row folding chair, I looked around —
A majority of onlookers donned business casual, while others sported torn track suits. I felt uncomfortably in-between with my jean capris and diminished makeup following a long day at work. Everyone was different, though. From hair color and skin tone to eye placement and body carriage, each person was unique.
After only a half hour of introductions and presentation from Mayor Jorge Elorza, he opened the floor for citizens to bring attention to their concerns. Many people were eager to voice feedback.
Mid-way through the conversation, a short, well-worn African-American woman in her 50s stood and addressed the mayor. Let’s call her Mrs. W.
I am sorry to say I had written off Mrs. W before she began to speak. Her appearance was unprofessional; she had sat bent over in her chair, elbows on her knees, looking quizzically at the mayor or the ground. I had judged her as being unimportant. What could she say of value?
Boy was I wrong, and so glad to have been.
She addressed the group confidently and brought up specific bills, by name, that she was concerned about and how she perceived them affecting her family. She talked about her sons, who are now successful medical and college students, and their experiences with public and charter school systems in the area.
She violated our expectations and had the audience captivated.
During the heart of her address, she changed focus.
“I’m really disappointed because this (pointing to audience) does not represent my community.”
She was right. These were not the people I typically see on the streets.
“So, my question is how did the information get disseminated that we were going to gather here tonight?”
Mayoral staff’s answer: Social media, flyers, email.
“I’m wondering [about] the boys and girl’s club, the schools, the guidance counselors,” Mrs. W retorted. “There are a lot of parents that should be sitting in these chairs and they’re not, and I believe it’s because they didn’t get the information. So, that’s a problem because the people that we’re concerned about, the people sweating the dirt on the ground, they should be here.”
To Mayor Elorza’s credit, he saw the value in what she was saying and listened.
“Let’s sign her up,” he said to his communications staff. “This is very helpful.”
The whole tenor of the meeting changed after that. People were more candid and there was increased interaction between the mayor and audience.
Even after the meeting was over, the mayor stayed and talked with Mrs. W. He included members of his staff and anyone who wanted to join the conversation. I was impressed, both by her and the city’s willingness to listen to its citizens to improve their experience.
Her exchange with the mayor got me thinking about story. What made her story so powerful?
These people — us, citizens — are the ones experiencing systems set in place by government. Because of this experience, each person has power — information power. They know what works and what doesn’t because their life experiences are the direct effect of policies in place.
For over an hour that night we heard citizens raising concerns and drawing attention to problems near their homes:
“My neighbor’s house is piled high with dirty mattresses. What are you doing to do to clear them from the streets?”
“Why did I not get a response to my questions when I contacted city hall?”
“People come speeding down my street and I’m afraid to walk down the road with my children. What can we do to fix this?”
They know what is hurting.
The mayor graciously addressed each of these concerns throughout the night, directing them to members of his team who could help.
It was heartening to watch these exchanges, but I kept thinking about the scalability of this approach. Listening and responding to individual stories, a leader can drown in problems and expend all energy fixing small cases, never to get to the root of an issue.
As I listened, the question on my mind was, “How could we use these stories to make system-wide changes?”
In design, stories are used as experiential evidence to spur needed change. The trick to utilizing stories for system change is to not get caught up on individual cases, but instead to decipher what the story means.
These stories and dozens more through the night, though anecdotal, held common themes:
I desire safety and I don’t feel safe.
I desire effective communication and I am finding barriers.
I desire order and I am experiencing disorder.
The specific examples were evidence of larger issues at play.
When common themes and points of tension are revealed through story, you can be proactive about preventing them and creating a more effective system instead of reacting to problems that have already occurred. And when energy is used to create a better system instead of patching pre-existing problems, the individual cases of the future often work themselves out.
Hearing and responding to stories is a great first step — we need the individual stories of citizens, as unique as they are. But to access the full value of stories, to make them useful for a system, we need to find and address themes within the larger citizen story.
Mrs. W showed us stories have power to rally people around a cause, the power to create action. They have the power to inform and change opinion. I argue, when applied correctly, they also have the power to transform.
Mrs. W said it best:
“If you get together and find a meeting of minds, some solutions might come out of that.”
Amen, Mrs. W.
Originally published on BIF Speak, a Medium.com publication.