Preaching to the Choir: experiments in transformative storytelling

by Katja Holtz

Breaking through the noise to tell a story capable of compelling change is one of life’s great challenges. Often these stories are, in themselves, nothing earth shattering. They are stories that need to be told again and again and again.

We call them platitudes or commandments or morality tales. They’re about greed, jealousy, anger, love-common human emotions. When told around a fire or over a sleeping child’s cot, we call them fairytales. Every turn around the sun, every generation, people call them boring, worn out, lazy. Yet every turn around the sun, every generation, we fail to learn their lessons.

So, we tell them again.

They might begin much like any other story, with some recognisable figure, chafing under restraints put upon them by circumstance-be that wealth or age or geography. We follow them as fate or serendipity calls them to step outside their ken, to be brave. We watch them fail and succeed in turns. We watch them grow and change and stay the same.

The hope is that the readers will see themselves in this hero and be motivated to act in their interest. So we ask ourselves: how do we make sure they recognise themselves in our hero? Does the journey excite and inspire them? Have they become so used to seeing their exact likeness in other media that we risk losing them with something unfamiliar? Do we, then, write them into the story? Draw haphazard and tenuous parallels, make our hero relatable, so that they might sympathise, empathise, change?

Turning this empathy (seeing oneself in another) into action is often understood in terms of “persuasion”. Social change, it is said, is a matter of convincing those not immediately affected by an issue, to care about said issue. Preaching, not to the choir, but to the unbelieving.

And it is true, unbelievers cannot be ignored when trying to persuade a sceptical readership. A lot of social change campaigning is about getting those in power to unlearn their prejudice, usually by spoon-feeding them Otherness-a dash of diversity here, a pinch of representation there.

I’m experimenting with ways of telling a story that don’t require marginalised people to bend and break and remake themselves in the image of the “powerful”.

Let’s explore the possibility that we can accomplish the same goals by telling stories about ourselves, for ourselves. Preaching to the choir. The hypothesis is that the stories that will change the narrative, change the world, are meant to fit in our mouths. They’re meant to be told around a fire or over a child’s cot. They’re songs and poems and protest chants, stories told in rhythms English cannot mimic, or not written in English at all. Maybe these stories are promises, myths, fairy tales.

Let me give you an example.

This is a poem by Marshallese poet and climate activist, Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner. It was performed at the UN Climate Summit in 2014. It’s audience was a room full of the world’s most eminent diplomatic leadership, representing the world’s nations.

dear matafele peinam,

you are a seven month old sunrise of gummy smiles

you are bald as an egg and bald as the buddha

you are thighs that are thunder and shrieks that are lightning

so excited for bananas, hugs and

our morning walks past the lagoon

dear matafele peinam,

i want to tell you about that lagoon

that lucid, sleepy lagoon lounging against the sunrise

men say that one day

that lagoon will devour you

they say it will gnaw at the shoreline

chew at the roots of your breadfruit trees

gulp down rows of your seawalls

and crunch your island’s shattered bones

they say you, your daughter

and your granddaughter, too

will wander rootless

with only a passport to call home

dear matafele peinam,

don’t cry

mommy promises you

no one

will come and devour you

no greedy whale of a company sharking through political seas

no backwater bullying of businesses with broken morals

no blindfolded bureaucracies gonna push

this mother ocean over

the edge

no one’s drowning, baby

no one’s moving

no one’s losing

their homeland

no one’s gonna become

a climate change refugee

or should i say

no one else

to the carteret islanders of papua new guinea

and to the taro islanders of the solomon islands

i take this moment

to apologize to you

we are drawing the line here

because baby we are going to fight

your mommy daddy

bubu jimma your country and president too

we will all fight

and even though there are those

hidden behind platinum titles

who like to pretend

that we don’t exist

that the marshall islands




and typhoon haiyan in the philippines

and floods of pakistan, algeria, colombia

and all the hurricanes, earthquakes, and tidalwaves

didn’t exist


there are those

who see us

hands reaching out

fists raising up

banners unfurling

megaphones booming

and we are

canoes blocking coal ships

we are

the radiance of solar villages

we are

the rich clean soil of the farmer’s past

we are

petitions blooming from teenage fingertips

we are

families biking, recycling, reusing,

engineers dreaming, designing, building,

artists painting, dancing, writing

and we are spreading the word

and there are thousands out on the street

marching with signs

hand in hand

chanting for change NOW

and they’re marching for you, baby

they’re marching for us

because we deserve to do more than just


we deserve

to thrive

dear matafele peinam,

you are eyes heavy

with drowsy weight

so just close those eyes, baby

and sleep in peace

because we won’t let you down

you’ll see

Jetnil-Kijiner spoke in front of the UN but she was speaking to her daughter because maybe the way to move us to action is not to persuade the unbelievers but to galvanise the choir. Her poem is irrepressibly hopeful, she speaks of “thousands on the streets”, of an “us” and a “we” that enfolds all those willing and able into her struggle. The poem trusts that there are members of the choir, of this “us”, in the room and that they are ready to take up placards and megaphones and arms.

Of course, unbelievers may also be present and they may even be listening. If they are moved by Jetnil-Kijiner’s accounting of Matafele Peinam’s sunrise smile or the promise, “you’ll see”, all the better. Let them join the choir! But if she were to invest her time making a concerted effort to convince them that they should care about the suffering of her people, wouldn’t she have already lost? Wouldn’t she have accepted their premise that human suffering is negotiable, competitive, and that, in turn, their compassion must be earned?

When Jetnil-Kijiner does address these outsiders and their indifference, she does so in the form of another promise.

Because if our islands drown out

due to the rising sea level

just who do you think

will be next

I’m taking you with me

(Excerpt from Butterfly Thief, 2017)

Promise or threat, it’s really up to the reader to decide. She is stating a Truth as she knows it. If they (we) do not take the steps to prevent the death of her island, that same death will come for them (us). Her poetry is clever and inciting. I picture her, eyebrow cocked, saying, “if the shoe fits,” to anyone who might be upset by her implication, by the way she wields that “you”.

Her approach to storytelling is intimate and personal and humanising because it does not shy away from the fact that it is storytelling. It uses metaphor and allegory and allusion, the address is informal and direct and emotional. The subject matter is personal to the author and subsequently, written in her voice.

When we work with marginalised communities let us elevate their stories. Not, I might add, write their stories but elevate the languages they want to tell their stories in so they might tell them themselves. Open the door or give them the pen or hand them the microphone, to make sure they are heard. Maybe that way we’ll get the stories they tell around campfires, the ones they rock their children to sleep with, the ones they tell each other.

These are the stories that inspire me.

Do they inspire you?