On Storytelling as a Tool for Inclusivity

The Magazine: On Storytelling as a Tool for Inclusivity

Christina Blacken is a consultant, coach, writer and public speaker focused on using the power of storytelling to build better, more inclusive teams, companies and cultures. She’s the founder of The New Quo, an inclusion and communication company based in New York.

Tell us about your journey starting The New Quo. When did you first discover the power of storytelling as a tool for inclusivity?

I started my career in the law world, because I wanted to save the world and make a difference, one legal brief at a time. I was working at a pretty prestigious law firm, and I had gotten my first taste of what makes a good workplace and what is expected when it comes to hierarchy and power. I noticed some of the conventional stories about business affected my experience working there –– from who I could talk to, to how I was being seen and heard, there were a lot of old school, traditional and frankly, inequitable narratives that shaped my experience. So I asked myself, “If the corporate America isn’t for me, where do I go next to still make an impact?” I went to the nonprofit world.

And there I fell in love with storytelling, because it was my job to build national communications campaigns to motivate young people to volunteer for causes like women’s health, poverty, and racism and inequality. It was fascinating to build a campaign, share it on social media, in emails and text messages, and influence thousands of people to change their behavior and thinking. I started to dig into the power of storytelling, and particularly, a term I just discovered, called narrative intelligence, when it comes to how our organizations are organized, how they set goals, structures and communications, and how beliefs and behaviors are passed on from person to person. I began to study how storytelling impacts business, what’s working and what’s not working. And then I launched The New Quo, as a way to experiment with storytelling and disrupting conventional ideas about leadership, power, creativity and success.

Eventually, I started to build my own communication framework to teach people how to use storytelling to change behavior or disrupt bias. We’ve now trained over 1500 business leaders and entrepreneurs.

It's been this crazy evolution of me seeing pain points from my own personal experiences as a black woman in the corporate world, and how often dominant and unconscious narratives shape what we do and who we allow to be visible.

Why is storytelling such a powerful tool for inclusivity? How can it change beliefs or behaviors?

There's two distinct reasons: about 50% of all of our daily activities are done on autopilot, and in the unconscious. And a lot of those activities are driven by internal beliefs. So your belief about your security or safety, who you can trust, who you can't trust, that gets ingrained in you from a very early age, from your childhood, your education, the media that you consume, and most of those beliefs are passed on and transported into your thinking through story. And that's actually through a process called narrative transport, which has been researched by a number of individuals, that when you hear a story, you literally adopt the feelings, experiences and beliefs and values as your own, for better or for worse.

There are many interesting studies about how the media and essentially, the stereotypes that we consume, and how history is told, deeply shapes our perspectives, our stereotypes, and our assumptions, which really shape our behaviors and what we do.

Human beings have one thing that's most unique to our experience: storytelling. We use narrative to attach meaning to every single event that's happening around us, whether the narrative is true or not, and depending on what narrative you attach, it'll change your behavior. And that's an interesting aspect of therapy, because a lot of therapy modalities are using narrative to reframe certain limiting beliefs or thoughts –– cognitive distortions is the technical term for it –– to change your thinking and ultimately, hopefully, change your behavior.

Another important point is that a significant amount of your daily communication is through story.

It's estimated that about 65% of every single thing that you're communicating, whether that's with friends, or lovers, or your mom or your colleagues or customers, is through using narrative to persuade, to influence and to connect.

Stories play a significant role in everything that we do every single day, and most people aren't conscious of it –– they just kind of naturally do it. And the people who become experts, storytellers, they control a lot of how people think, and what they do –– even if people aren't conscious of it, which is why marketing is such a profitable, billion-dollar industry, and also why it can be used for bad, as we've seen in some of the political and social issues that we're facing –– because of false narratives that have been started. So that's why I think it's such an incredibly powerful tool, because it touches so much of our lives in so many areas, and so many of the things that we do.

Can you share a transformative moment in your life that brought some of these ideas to life?

I grew up in Utah, and when I was first applying to colleges in high school, I was getting mailings from prestigious colleges, like Harvard, Stanford, Yale and Princeton. And I just assumed they were spamming people my age, that they must send out a pamphlet to everyone once they turn seventeen. And I was talking to the Vice Principal of my high school, telling her about it and asking her why all of these colleges were wasting paper, and she told me that they weren’t mailing everyone in the country, and that they saw something in me, and I should feel encouraged to apply.

So I started applying to schools, and I was accepted to Cornell University. And I remember telling some of my classmates and some of them were extremely excited about it, considering it was a big deal to think about leaving the state as a lone wolf when you grew up in Utah. My AP history teacher heard me talking about Cornell, and when a student asked him if he was excited about my admission, he turns to the classroom and says, “Well, what’s her mom going to do, rob a bank?” He didn’t say congratulations, he wasn’t excited about it, and he was stuck on never specific and cemented narratives about success, education, my capabilities –– even though I was one of the top students in the class and one of the only students that actually passed the AP test. So I remember that being a big inflection point where I said, I can allow this moment to define my story of my capabilities, or I can see it as his story. And his limitation and his perspective, allow him to hold on to that, allow him to let that rock sink him to the bottom of the ocean if he wants it to, but to not let it be an albatross to what I wanted to do.

And I remember making a conscious choice to prove him wrong. Because I know for a fact, I have the capabilities, I have the skills. And I succeeded, I did end up going to Cornell –– but I could have taken that story he was trying to project onto me because of his fears, insecurities and biases, and it could have limited my capabilities or how I see myself, and I think that happens a lot for people who are from marginalized backgrounds. You’re constantly told who you are, what you can do, and what you’re capable and not capable of, and it can really work your sense of self. So creating my own story about my sense of self was incredibly important to my wellbeing and my success going forward.

How would you describe yourself as a woman? As an activisit? As an entrepreneur?

I would say I'm definitely a community builder; I'm really good at connecting with a lot of different types of people from all walks of life and all ages, and I think it's because I really enjoy people's stories. There are very few times that people genuinely feel heard. And so that's allowed me to connect with people in ways and pretty quickly, to really see the fullness of them and to see what their potential is and what makes them great, and what unique talents and strengths they bring to the world. So I think that's my activist role is to help people to see the fullness and the possibility of their potential and their own power, and how their story plays a key role in that.

I would also say that I'm a funny, creative, irreverent, humorous person that brings a new perspective to an idea. I'm definitely a person that's probably a little bit more unconventional and definitely disruptive in ways that are fun; they'll challenge you and make you maybe a little bit uncomfortable or make you have to dig a bit deeper. I'm a disruptive person who wants to see solutions.

I had a conversation a couple of months ago with a woman who brought up this term “symphony,” and how we create a “symphony” between everyone's unique strengths and talents and opportunities, and see that as the true new North Star of a society that's being inclusive and creative. A symphony is really gelling together beautifully to create something new. And I think that's the role that I play in the work that I do and why I do it, what I stand for.

What are some tips you can share for carving out and maintaining a wellbeing practice?

I personally love writing; I've always been a writer, but even five minutes daily of the process of putting things down and writing out your fears, hopes, desires, or a funny thing that happened –– it’s writing it down, and finding spaces and places where you have the safety of a group that you can process things with. And I've been able to find that with certain community groups and business groups, especially women's focused entrepreneurship groups, that have been really helpful for me to check in and share our hopes and dreams. So I think finding and seeking safe spaces of people who share similar values is really important, and connecting with people who share similar values, in nourishing and meaningful ways that are not just transactional

I've also been using some CBD to go to sleep because I've been having trouble sleeping, and that's actually been really helpful. So I think there are ways you can integrate things into your life, but it's really about creating those spaces and environments to be able to feel that security and that safety.

Has your experience working with companies validated your commitment to this issue?

Early stage conversations are really exciting for me. I’ve really enjoyed working with your team, and seeing the process of how we can be intentional and thoughtful from an early stage. With early stage conversations, anything is possible, compared to if you’ve been doing something the same way for twenty years.

And I think the more that we can get into these conversations and introduce new practices and policies at the genesis of organizations, the better –– we're starting them off on the right track, instead of having to say, "You're on this bad track, heading towards a cliff."

It’s been really exciting to me to see that there is more and more of an interest. It's not just this “nice to have,” companies are saying, we want to think about this, this is very important to our success, and to our long term health. Let's not put it off until it becomes such a problem that we've created a whole bunch of other issues we didn't even plan for. And so that's been exciting to see people's willingness to just want to commit more to their own self-development.

Do you have any daily affirmations?

Create to create. I believe my creativity could potentially heal others. So one that's come up a lot for me is, how can I continue to explore and experiment and learn in ways that are just open and free, just like when we were kids. Creativity is a vessel for self-expression and healing and connection.

In this time of uncertainty, what do you know to be true?

I know that whatever stories you tell yourself, and others, they become reality. So choose wisely. Choose wisely the stories that you're consuming, and the stories that you are telling and sharing.

We're seeing it play out live in front of our faces, but what damage can be done when false narratives or dangerous or harmful or violent narratives become considered truths? So I think this is the time to examine, what are some of the stories that we need to challenge? Which ones do we need to let go of? What are the new ones that we need to create?

We are in the space where we can create narratives that are seen as just factual truths for a long time. And I think I see it as an opportunity. Is it painful, is it messy? Is it crazy? Yes. But it's an inflection point. And we can choose to go one way or the other. So we need to choose wisely.

What does "wellbeing" mean to you?

Wellbeing means tending to all of your needs: your mental, emotional, physical and spiritual needs, and nourishing them in a way that isn’t damaging to yourself or others. So that could mean a lot of things: it can mean a good meal, a great conversation, something you want to create. And it also means doing it in ways that feel authentic and valuable to you and not just doing it because someone else said you must do it. Wellbeing means being really in-tune with your desires and why you have those desires, and fulfilling them.

If there's a gap between your values and what you do every day, closing that gap is wellbeing. That could mean being seen, feeling heard, being your full authentic self and being accepted. All of those things are part of wellbeing, so I think that intentionality and community really plays a part in how we feel about ourselves and how we feel about and treat others.

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