Storytelling Our Way to a Better Life


The poet Muriel Rukeyser once said something like this: The Universe is not made of atoms; it’s made of stories. I think that conferences are made of stories too, like the one I’m at this week, the National Energy and Utility Affordability Coalition (NEUAC) Annual ... in Baltimore, Maryland. 

I got thinking about stories this morning when Julie Dixon of National Journal (far left in photo) discussed the importance of story telling in advocating for LIHEAP, the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Project—from which the Weatherization Assistance Program now receives the majority of it’s funding. To summarize, Julie mentioned that

  • through stories, “You get to be the hero”;
  • we remember best what we feel and stories elicit feelings;
  • numbers can paralyze and lots of data can make a problem seem too big to approach, while a story makes it personal and human-sized; and
  • 65% of our day-to-day communication is in the form of stories.

But enough about stories; here are some that inspired me at the conference. Hope they inspire you too. 

  • Mark Bergel, a professor at American University in Washington DC, volunteered to distribute groceries to low-income neighbors. He saw and felt poverty up close and decided to start a non-profit, A Wider Circle, through which volunteers “wrap themselves around” people in poverty, offering individuals needed support from all sides—food, health care, education, jobs, and more.
  • Bruce Tonn of Oak Ridge National Laboratory told a simple story about the Weatherization Assistance Program; how the program reduced the number of poor kids who had to make at least one emergency room visit in a year because of asthma from 16% to 4%. This means many more kids attend school every day.
  • Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old African American died while in the custody of the Baltimore police last April, setting off rioting in the city. He was arrested for carrying a switch blade. As a young boy growing up in Baltimore, Gray was lead poisoned and began suffering from asthma.
  • Dewayne Davis, age 8, spent three weeks in a Baltimore hospital suffering from asthma. Because of this, his mother was close to losing her job. Desperate, Dewayne’s mother called Ruth Ann Norton of the Green and Healthy Homes Initiative (GHHI) and asked for help. Ruth and GHHI got HUD, DOE, and a private philanthropist to clean up Dewayne’s house, made it healthy to live in, comfortable, and energy efficient. Six years later Dewayne has a perfect school attendance record, his mom is working as a detective for the Baltimore Police, and Medicaid is no longer spending $48,000 a year on Dewayne’s health care.
  • In 2020, a young child from Baltimore will walk out of her doctor’s office with a prescription for a healthy home; the work to make it so provided by her health care provider.

There are a lot more stories to tell. That last story was told by Ruth Anne Norton and is made of hope. After being at the NEUAC 2015 Annual Conference, I think her story will come true. But it’s going to take a lot more work from all of us.

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Comment by Nate Adams on June 26, 2015 at 11:54am

Nice! As a bunch of nerds, we suck at storytelling. The health stories have a lot of power. Thanks for sharing.

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