Take my story and tell it truthfully, the good and the bad

Diana Mason, Communications and Marketing Director, ChildFund Australia

03 Nov, 2015

There are times in life when people share profound and important moments from their lived experience. These stories are complicated, precious and involve real people. These moments help to connect us.

During a visit to Papua New Guinea in 2013, where I was documenting stories from women, children and men about their experience of violence, I met a man, Taina, who spent years terrifying his young family when he was drunk. He has long regretted the pain he caused his children and wife, and wanted to share his story so that other men could learn from his experience. He said: “Tell my story truthfully, the good and the bad.”

Taina was brave and honourable in telling his story. I believe it gave him a sense of purpose – not only turning what was a terrible situation into something positive, but a chance to make his children proud.

Taina has continued to tell his story for the good of others, as an anti-violence advocate supporting women’s and children’s rights. He also recently helped launch PNG’s first national, toll-free counselling hotline for people experiencing family violence or sexual violence issues.

Telling the truth is empowering. Working with someone to enable them to share their story gives them strength. Many people want their story told; they want to be understood and to have their experience validated. Our stories make us who we are. Our own personal narrative of our lives defines us.

There is much debate in the international development sector about how we communicate people’s stories. Perhaps our focus on portraying dignity needs to be redefined: dignity is actually enabling people to tell their truth

Of course, we need robust informed consent processes when working with people to share their stories. More than just signing a form, what is really important is that people understand how their story will be used and who might read or view it. People also need to think through what likely impact sharing their story might have on them personally. They can then tell their story with purpose or decide that they don’t want to share it after all. Some people might want to tell their story but hide their identity.

As part of our work preparing for ChildFund’s #stopviolencePNG campaign, I also spent an afternoon with women at City Mission’s Haus Ruth refuge in Port Moresby. Much of the time was spent talking through our informed consent process and working with women to tell their stories.

At the end of the day, a woman called Rose came up to me and expressed her disappointment that we were leaving without hearing her story. She looked upset, and simply said: “My story is important.”

We arranged to come back in a few days so that Rose could tell her story. We talked about who might see it. I told her it was possible that everyone in Papua New Guinea and Australia could see it. To this she replied: “Good. That’s what I want.” I could see that she had spent a lot of time thinking through the purpose of telling her story.

We collectively grieved, as the enormity of Rose’s story unfolded. Afterwards she told us she felt stronger. The process gave her strength. Why? Because she was heard, she was believed, and it affirmed that what had happened to her and her child was unacceptable. Validation, connection and consent are so important for all of us, but particularly when we share our truth.

During this time I also met Amanda who had survived the most horrific violence at the hands of her partner. At the end of her story, she said: “I feel proud to tell the other ladies, there is a law to protect us.” So her purpose in sharing her experience was to build awareness and support others. Sometimes being vulnerable is not a weakness, but a strength. It is a valid experience, as much as feeling happy, content, capable or angry.

Finding the right tone for communications can be difficult for international development organisations. The prevailing view is that we shouldn’t portray people as hopeless or helpless. But at the same time, it is also not truthful to always portray people as strong, empowered, smiling.

What we should be aiming for is capturing people’s lived experience. Their truth, as they want to tell it. That way there is not only power in the story for those who read it, but for the person who was brave enough to share it.

Diana Mason is featured as an expert on the Portrayal of Local People on ACFID's 'Ask an Expert' panel.

  • Diana Mason, Communications and Marketing Director, ChildFund Australia
    Diana Mason, Communications and Marketing Director, ChildFund Australia

    Di Mason is the Director of Communications and Marketing at ChildFund. She has worked for the nonprofit community since the mid 1990s and is an advocate for representing the voices of communities with authenticity.

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