“Your Right Is My Right”: Powerful Storytelling Is The Best Tool We Have To Fight For Social Justice And Equality

Editor of The Vocal

Approx 6 minute reading time

It’s easy to feel helpless in the face of blinding social justice, widespread inequality and human rights abuses. It’s easy to dismiss any attempts at activism as slacktivism because it involves a hashtag and/or is on the internet, as if that should somehow demean it. It’s easy to deride “just spreading awareness without real action!” as some kind of rallying war cry for smugness that only really ends up advocating for apathy. It’s easy to lose focus of what really matters, to deviate so far from where our attention is really needed. All these things are so common, so widespread, precisely because it is us in default mode. It is the equivalent of “sitting this one out” but sitting all of them out, a free pass to go on as you were before, blissfully unaware of the glorious fire spreading around you. It’s the “this is fine” meme, aware that it’s happening but frozen on the spot of history.

It’s much harder to stand for something. To continue to rally around the disenfranchised, to help raise the voices of those without one. And yet every day people continue to do it, even when it’s risky to do so. Powerful storytelling forces us to wake up from whatever reverie we were in. It forces us to confront the humanity of those most susceptible to abuse. And then, at its best, it can mobilise us towards taking up collective action in whatever means available to us. Sometimes we don’t even realise change is happening until it’s over and we look back a little dumbfounded, that we helped make that happen.

I was starkly reminded of this on a balmy week night, surrounded by a sandstone fortress as I made my way towards a courtyard adorned with a string of lights. There I found people milling about as they waited to hear the true stories of well known Australians addressing the issue of fighting for the rights of others and how those same rights are our own. This is radical empathy in action. 

Cathy Freeman, Peter Greste, Michael Caton and Carlotta among others were part of a collective of everyday Australians sharing personal stories of social injustice, crafted in a special workshop conducted by global storytelling organisation, The Moth, and on this night they were there to share those stories, live and without any notes.

Right now Australian news feeds are flooded with social justice issues like the offshore detention of asylum seekers and the fight for marriage equality. It’s in this environment that Maurice Blackburn Lawyers, Australia’s leading social justice law firm, is launching a unique new initiative to highlight the importance of standing up for the rights of all Australians. It’s a particularly important mission given the increased surge in power sweeping to the conservative right across the world and here in Australia too. The time to stand up and do something is more imperative than ever.

Even more alarmingly, recent research conducted by Maurice Blackburn Lawyers and Lonergan research has shown that one in two Australians (53 per cent) have witnessed an act of social injustice in the past month alone.

Kate Tellers, a Senior Producer at The Moth who conducted the workshops in Sydney with the Australian storytellers, says personal stories play a critical role in making people aware of key societal issues, with research showing such stories are up to twenty-two times more effective in impacting a listener than facts alone.

“When we hear a story from someone who has faced an injustice, someone who may have lived a life entirely different to our own, we feel connected to them as human beings. Through the recounting of a singular experience, we are able to connect on a much deeper level. Their vulnerability engages us and it becomes impossible not to care. Stories help us dissolve socio-economic barriers, suggest ways to overcome challenges, and see things with new eyes,” said Ms. Tellers.

Jacob Varghese, head of Social Justice at Maurice Blackburn Lawyers says the firm dedicates many of its cases towards raising awareness of acts of social injustice.

“Too often, social justice only becomes clear when we or someone we care for comes into direct contact with a social injustice,” Mr Varghese said.

“Through these personal stories, we hope to demonstrate the importance of fighting not just for our own rights, but for the rights of all Australians. Working with The Moth, we are cultivating and presenting these stories to help provide a greater insight into the role of social justice to a fair society.”

Cathy Freeman described the storytelling process as “having a profound impact on me,”

“It’s very cathartic, it grounds me but also humbles me and inspires me…It’s all very personal soul-bearing stuff.”

When it was Ms. Freeman’s turn to tell her story, it was a deeply moving and surreal experience to see someone who has been so part of our national identity and who made such groundbreaking achievements, talking quite frankly about life after an early retirement. It was the realisation of the extent of oppression of Indigenous Australians as revealed to her in an official letter denying her mother permission to visit her own family at Christmas in 1963 that almost broke her.

The chilling last line of her live story left everyone speechless: “If I’d known my parents’ story, who knows how much faster I could have run”.

I’ve always found The Moth, an acclaimed non-profit organisation dedicated to the art and craft of storytelling, to be a really nerve wracking experience, even while sitting in the audience. This is because the stories are told live and without notes. So you can feel their hearts beating through their chests, their eyes wandering as they try to remember their stories, the small moments of triumph and relief when they remember the good bits. The best stories are the ones that come naturally, as though that person was waiting to tell their story on their own terms and really own it. 

It was hard not to feel blown away by the calibre and power of the stories in the room that night. Each person channelled their own unique voice in their sometimes shaky, sometimes funny and always punchy delivery. Highlights include Kylie Sambo, a 22-year-old Indigenous woman, who gave us a taste of her political rapping before telling us in her own words the story of fighting against a radioactive waste storage and disposal facility in Muckaty Station, which was greeted with a standing ovation.

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Kylie Sambo

Carlotta, “the Queen of the Cross” told her story of becoming one of the most prominent transgender women in the 1970s and subsequently an advocate for LGBTI rights, with humour, grace and defiance. Gerard Wilkie calmly describes being dragged into a conveyer belt at a rock crushing plant, and that the real injustice of of his horrific accident was that in the aftermath he had to continue fighting for his right to adequate workers compensation. By the end of the night it was difficult to not feel moved and stirred by the stories and more acutely aware of the everyday injustices we all face which so often go ignored. I don’t know if it will make a difference but since it’s the strongest form of resistance we currently have, I’m willing to give it a go.

Read our full interview with Peter Greste here.

The stories will be played as part of a 12-week podcast series, which will be hosted by social justice campaigner and lawyer, Corinne Grant. The podcast series will be available online via iTunes and mauriceblackburn.com.au from 1st December 2016.