As a Fijian Australian, and someone dedicated to participatory approaches, it was an intuitive step to move into story work as a dedicated methodology in my community development practice, in my research practice, and in my personal arts practice. Storywork opens up robust collaboration potential for decolonized research and community engagement with Indigenous pedagogies, practices and expressions of culture, ensuring that Western engagement and research methodologies no longer dominate or fail to acknowledge or include Indigenous cultural practices as profound pathways of knowledge transformation.
Story work program impacts
Over the past little while, storytelling methods have been taken up in a variety of community, health, educational, and academic settings. Since I began to focus on storywork (back at Queensland Alliance in 2010 building their Speakers Bureau) I have drawn from activism, campaigning, psychology, political science and community development practices to develop workshop-based methods for engaging small groups of people in sharing stories that document a wide range of culturally and historically embedded life experiences. I choose to identify our range of methods under the umbrella of “StoryWork.”
Today, storytelling has become a buzz word. It’s increasingly difficult to find much thoughtful conversation about why a particular individual or group might benefit from sharing stories; how it is that people make decisions about representing themselves and their communities, in first- person narratives; and what benefits creating and sharing stories might offer to storytellers and listeners, respectively.
At Community Powered Responses, (when appropriate to use storywork) my commitment is to support and nurture projects that capitalise on the transformational capacities of storytelling, outlined here:
Learn: Story as a learning tool helps communities assess their needs and strengths and evaluate a program throughout its life.
While change is an inevitable part of being human, people often lack opportunities to share and bear witness to stories of their own struggles and joys, or to listen to those of others. My array of StoryWork approaches at Community Powered Responses offer a safe, supportive environment in which participants of all ages and from all walks of life can explore their histories and reflect on how they got to where they are. Important work in psychology has documented the significant mental health benefits of sharing personal memories in a group setting, both of which are key aspects of the StoryWork methods we offer (see, for example, Herman, 1992; Pennebaker, 1997). By telling their own stories, workshop participants connect deeply with themselves and with others, access a renewed sense of hope for the future, and develop valuable skills for community and institutional leadership.
Whether in an academic or community context, my storywork methods can be used to assess and document local needs and challenges, and to evaluate whether or not these needs and problems are being addressed by existing programs and services. I have collaborated with partners on workshops that are framed as a form of community-based participatory research or engaged research, to support the gathering of qualitative evidence about issues of concern or local strengths and capacities that are being overlooked. I have also worked with partners to gather stories that document important moments along the way, as a project unfolds, or offer a reflective space where people can discuss what is working and what might be done differently. I also actively exploring how best to evaluate the impact of storytelling workshops.
Organise: Story as an organising tool strengthens and builds (participatory) leadership in organisations and communities and serves as a means of exchanging strategies for social change.
Collective action begins with individual action, as people make connections between their own lives and the lives of others (Freire, 1970). My StoryWork methods offer wonderful opportunities to examine life experiences and issues across chasms of difference – be they cultural, linguistic, political, racial, gendered, age-related, etc. As workshop participants allow themselves to be vulnerable in sharing their own stories, they gain insight into perspectives and emotions they may not previously have considered or felt. This builds solidarity within and across groups and encourages community engagement. Once stories are completed, the audiences that watch them have the chance to consider how they may be affected by or implicated in a particular issue. With careful facilitation, community stories can generate deep and strategic discussion and function as opportunities to map out strategies for how communities can take action on important issues.
Educate: Story as an education tool engages people and communities in courageous conversations and public discussions.
Beyond the education on (participatory) leadership that happens in the context of a Community Powered Responses workshop, my work has proven that personal stories are immensely useful tools for learning and awareness. I work closely with workshop participants to ensure that the social and political determinants of individual “experience” are brought out, in their stories. Facts and timelines and third-person perspectives by “experts” can be useful in describing an issue or problem, but personal stories, when properly contextualised, can bring to life the realities of how individuals and then communities experience that issue or problem, day to day. Stories created in my workshops also stand out in the current field of media overload, with their directness of emotional expression. When people see and hear a story that addresses silenced or stigmatised topics, their conception of what can and can’t be said or done shifts, and this is where behaviour and social norm change begin.
Advocate: Story as an advocacy engages people to participate in community building, fund-raising and advocacy.
In an ideal world, local communities would have ample opportunity to express their opinions and needs, and these voices would directly inform public policy debates. Unfortunately, abstract data and special interests all too often dominate. Stories created in our workshops can bring the concerns of those who are typically overlooked into the arena of policy and legislation. Their compact length and ability to zero in on significant topics and themes make them ideal for educating and influencing leaders and decision makers. Additionally, unless the public is educated about the need for particular policies and those responsible for enforcement are appropriately trained, legislative and policy changes are unlikely to be impactful. Community Powered Responses stories can function as key components of public awareness raising and institutional capacity building efforts to support responsible implementation of policies that have already been adopted.
Freire, P. (1970; 1992). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum. Herman, J. (1992). Trauma and Recovery. New York: Basic Books.
Pennebaker, James W (1997). Opening up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions. New York: Guildford Press.
Storywork projects and previous training
2014 – 2015 – As I Was Saying
Lana was a radio presenter, producer podcaster on Joy 94.9fm. She co-hosted World Wide Wave, and had her own podcast, As I Was Saying.
2014-2015 – 2SER The Wire.
Lana was a casual International News and Current Affairs radio journalist for 2SER’s, The Wire. She produced her own stories.
2017 – Ability Links NSW Storybook Project
Connecting our community: Stories of courage, strength and determination compiles the personal stories of people who have been supported by the ALNSW program, which works with people with disability, their family and carers to live the life they want as valued and equal members of their community.
Lana Woolf was the story worker, who worked with the community to develop their stories of courage, strength & determination.
2018 – Our Stories – Dandenong Library
Our Stories is a compilation of written and oral stories created by the local community. The connections made by the Our Stories participants highlight how Libraries Change Lives in Greater Dandenong. Our Stories was published as a book, as well as a audio-recording, and is a kit suitable for English as a second Language (ESL) learners or those with low levels of literacy. Copies are available to borrow from the Dandenong and Springvale library.
Lana Woolf was the story worker, who worked with the local community to develop their stories.
2017 – Service for the Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture and Trauma Survivors. STARTTS
Developed and facilitated a skills development training with staff from the Families in Cultural Transition (FICT) team to learn the practice of ‘re-storying’ and ‘double listening’. A story work practice to ensure that people with experiences of trauma and experiences responses to trauma are safe with sharing stories.
2018 – Harmony Alliance
Lana facilitated a two day workshop on using story as an advocacy tool with the Harmony Alliance Young Migrant and Refugee Women’s Advisory Group.
2018- Facilitating a Story Strategy workshop in Melbourne with local community development workers.
2018 – Facilitating a Story Strategy workshop in Tasmania with local community development workers.
2018 – Facilitating a 2 day workshop on story as an advocacy took in Hong Kong for International Family Equality Day (IFED) and Planet Ally.
2017 – 2018 – Using Story (Talanoa) and Participatory Asset Mapping as research methodology in the Fijian research Down By The River.
2018 – Rohingya Refugees
Working with Rohingya Refugee women to develop stories of advocacy based on their (strength as opposed to trauma) experiences. Funded by Springvale-Monash Legal Service.
Working with Moreland City Council. A community engagement and research project on homelessness using a story harvesting technique.
2018 – Wendybird Brisbane
Facilitating a two day workshop with LGBTIQ+ community members developing advocacy stories.
2018 – Multicultural Council of Tasmania
Facilitating a two day workshop with culturally diverse community members developing advocacy stories.
2020-2022 – Rainbow Resilience: Leaving no Fijian behind –‘giving soli’ for more inclusive climate and disaster resilience. Undertaking narrative power analysis to unpack Religious Disaster Narratives, and create new narratives of inclusion. Report in review at DFAT.
2022-2023 Stories for WASH advocacy with Waria in Eastern Indonesia. Film launching September 2023.
Lana worked with the local community using Participatory Action Research methods. The community decided they wanted to increase their WASh advocacy through the use of story. The film is being launched on 8th September 2023.
2023 – PX Whanau radio show on 3CR.
Lana Woolf is one of the co-hosts, and producers, of PX Whanau – Australia’s only queer Pasifika radio show. Bringing you a story each month.
2023 – SIGAP: Using story as research
Lana is leading a qualitative research (narrative inquiry) component of the USAID funded SIGAP project in Indonesia. She is building the story work skills of the local research partners, and using narrative inquiry and participatory asset mapping to understand Indonesian diverse SOGIESC people’s access to social protection mechanisms.
What storywork workshop participants said…
Network for a Sustainable East Gipsland
“Loved the program. Essential for anyone who has a case and wants to bring people on the journey and achieve change”
“I gained valuable communication for social change skills in this workshop and look forward to getting them into practice.”
“A great way to gain more clarity and do strategic planning for advocacy”
“A great workshop if you want to develop your own story in a supportive environment, in a way that directs you to a more structured tale for change.”
“I learnt about the value of story in advocacy and how to tell a story that is about me, also relates to others in order to achieve an outcome in social justice. Lana is a powerful and kind person and this enables learning and sharing in a group. In this way Lana facilitates us to speak and share stories in a meaningful way.”
“Storytelling is really going to inform my work in the family violence sector in the future. The small facilitated sessions led by Lana provided a interesting space to learn the art of storytelling and advocacy.”
“Essential learning for anyone engaged in social change”
“A good introduction to why story is an essential part of social change.”
Alan Padgham SDA Victoria
“A lovely workshop on the connection and power than ties advocacy and story.”
“An interesting workshop into the meaning of advocacy on a broader level & how to use stories to make impact in this area.”
Natalie Rutstein – Sane Australia
“This workshop has given me the tools to create strategies for advocacy work at a community level.”
Sarah Race- Rye Community House
“Lana knows the subject matter and uses great examples to make the information palatable.”
Sunita Mann – Melton City Council