Stories that have changed history

Abraham Lincoln said to Harriet Beecher Stowe, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war.”

I’ll ignore the diminutive “little” for the purposes of this post to focus on the other salient point. Beecher Stowe’s book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, was a story that emotionally portrayed the cruelty of slavery in the United States and roused abolitionist support in the North.*

According to a new article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, there are three classifications of stories that lead to great systemic change: Story as light, story as glue and story as web.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin is an example of story as lighta story that helps illuminate the past, present, and future, thus lighting up the paths of change. In the case of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and later To Kill a Mockingbird, these stories highlighted fault lines in a system and made visceral cases for change.

The second classification of story is story as glue — leveraging story as a tool to connect people across difference and to generate narratives that hold together groups, organizations, and movements. The story of Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche is a fantastic narrative that holds together a diverse community of western buddhist practitioners who have just relatively recently received ages-old wisdom from Tibet.

Finally, the third classification of story is story as web — leveraging story to re-write the web of personal, cultural and mythic narratives we live in. Think about the  iconic American cultural theme of “picking oneself up by one’s bootstraps” and the implications that storyline might have on our perspective on social welfare programs.

The article is fascinating and provides many more examples of each story type. Check it out.

*While the book’s treatment of race has received criticism, its historical significance is notable.