• Jennifer Rich

Our Stories Must Mobilize People in the Service of Justice

Back in my reporter days, I loved the lede. Finding just the right person to tell just the right story at the beginning of my article to help my American audience connect to the issues of the day in Brazil, where I was based. My favorite of them all was this one, from an article I wrote from the city of Itacoatiara, in the heart of the Amazon:

“If you buy a motorcycle from Onelio Pimentel, you will be a guest of honor at his monthly party in the town square. He will send you a card every year on your birthday. And he will always be waiting with a smile to show you the next new model.”

What followed was a bunch more column inches about the burgeoning motorcycle market in Brazil, and Honda’s attempt to keep Yamaha from taking over more market share. But I’m guessing not many of you care about that. What you might be wondering instead is what did Onelio do to become such a great salesman? Or how much did he make to be able to spring for a party every month in the town square? Or maybe even, how are poor Brazilians able to buy motorcycles?

That’s because it turns out, I was wrong. Research shows that individual stories anchor our brains at the person level. Which means that rather than contextualizing a bigger issue, they are really directing our minds to seek explanations and get behind solutions at the level of individuals. This anchor can be helpful for a holiday fundraising campaign or a food drive. And it has fueled a great deal of GoFundMe pages that provide important individual support to people in times of need. But person-level stories constrain our ability to get people to think big and act bigger – to achieve the kind of grand, structural reimagining we need to move beyond racism and get us to justice.