Students Craft Public Narratives to Address Real and Imaginary Issues

Alzar School | 17.09.17

Barack Obama’s 2004 Democratic National Convention keynote speech launched the then-Senatorial candidate from tall kid with a funny name to the most powerful person in the world. In 18 and a half minutes, Obama told of his working class roots in Kansas, Kenya and Hawaii; how US American values, manifest in programs like Federal Housing Assistance and the GI Bill, allowed Barack himself to climb to the very precipice of power. He spoke of countless Americans, steel workers and immigrants from Florida to Oregon, striving to fulfill the very same ideals: meritocracy, dignity, and a universal belief in the American Dream.

The format of the speech was nothing new. Marshall Ganz developed the Public Narrative model of community organizing over the course of the 1970’s and 1980’s while working in California. He found that a leader speaking from their own experience and appealing to the shared values of their audience motivated communities much more than a simple action plan. Put simply, Barack Obama told stories: a story of self, a story of us, and a story of now. Ganz went on to advise Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, but his Public Narrative model is perhaps even more pervasive.

In leadership class this unit, we spent time analyzing speeches that utilized the Public Narrative model. As a culminating experience, students crafted speeches that addressed an issue on campus, real or imaginary. Students urged their peers to act on such diverse issues as inclusivity at the Alzar School, faults in our Community Tasks program, bringing mindfulness to campus, and the impending alien invasion of Cascade.

On issues serious and silly, practicable and practically nonsense, students spoke to the shared values that we have developed as a community, and urged their peers to act on those values. It’s a skill that requires a deep understanding of why we come together for a whirlwind 4 months, and that students will use throughout their lives as they push their communities to effect positive change.