A Revolutionary Practice of Community Storytelling for Social Change

Reported by Sahara Pradhan


CIE graduate Kathleen Cash (Ed.D. 1982) returned to Amherst for a Tuesday Dialogue to share her work on storytelling and narrative as a powerful method of changing the public conversation and behaviors around issues of HIV/AIDS, sexual and reproductive health, violence against women and girls, and children’s rights. Kathy spoke at length about her work with poor communities in the United States, Thailand, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Haiti and Uganda, giving a detailed presentation of her approach and examples of its application.


Kathy’s work in narrative practice began in 1991, while she was doing HIV/AIDS research and education projects in Thailand. There she began creating a methodology of “Community Narrative Practice” because she felt a need for an approach that differed from what was available at the time. Existing programs focused on HIV/AIDS and violence against women were too cognitive and did not address emotions. They ignored the complexity of social relations and engaged neither culture nor language diversity with monolithic narratives (e.g. framing men as ‘evil’, women as ‘good’). She also observed that they were short-term, temporary and lacking in depth.


Programs based on the Community Narrative Practice that Kathy has developed explicitly address psycho-social dynamics of shame, for example, as an important dimension that is an important factor in domestic violence and the difficulties in preventing it. Her approach incorporated a sensitivity towards human vulnerability, a factor which is often hidden and not easy to address.


Kathy’s program asks the question of how to influence private vulnerability through a social process? The two fundamental components of her programs are “the narrative” and “the pedagogy”. To create the content and materials for the program, her method involves the development of narratives for picture books from patterns that emerge from deep ethnographic research around sex, shame and violence in the communities. Local artists are employed to illustrate a story that speaks through images and the use of authentic dialogue which resonates deeply with people’s private lives and communal expressions.


Local facilitators, trained in the program’s pedagogy, facilitate democratic processes, discussions, role plays, and sometimes conflict resolution, with the ultimate goal of reconfiguring the public conversation around shame and violence. With a keen awareness of the Western, individual-centric assumptions ingrained in many programs, Community Narrative Practice intentionally addresses how people are bound to communities that are deeply implicated in the relationships that constitute them.


Interesting questions were raised by students and faculty in attendance, for example how do we balance the urgency of intervention with the constraints of the fraught contexts in which we do this kind of work? How might we navigate the fine and blurred lines between encouraging cognitive, reflective distance and an emotional catharsis that may be experienced as therapeutic? We were left with a greater appreciation for issues underlying gender-based violence and considerable food for thought.


More information about Kathy’s work and her new book Sex, Shame and Violence: A Revolutionary Practice of Public Storytelling in Poor Communities (2016) can be found on her Web site.