Sherry Brennan and I were high school classmates in Austin, Texas, back in the previous century. We were friends, although not particularly close. That would change decades later – when I discovered a story about Sherry – a story that would launch her (entirely volunteer) career and mission as an advocate for our country’s nutrition assistance programs.
We’ll get back to Sherry and her story in a minute. First, I want to say a word about why advocacy through effective story-telling is important and why we should all engage in it – especially heading into an election cycle.
And I’ll start by delving into the science of story-telling – yes; there is a science, and it’s a pretty hot area of study for researchers these days.
Paul Zak has spent years studying has spent years studying how stories can move us, change our minds and behaviors – and even how stories can change our brain chemistry and make us more likely to donate to charities or causes. Or, by extension, convince us to get more involved with causes or candidates who inspire us.
Paul showed a group of lab subjects a video of a father and his two-year-old son. In the video, the little boy is laughing and playing. But the father is inwardly sad because he knows something the little boy does not know – the boy has a brain tumor and only has months to live (this video was based on a true story, by the way).
The lab subjects’ blood was taken both before watching the video and after. Many of the subjects who paid attention to the video experienced the release of oxytocin in their brains. Oxytocin makes people more trustworthy, generous, and compassionate. Paul calls it the “moral molecule;” others call it the “love hormone.”
The subjects were being compensated for their participation in Paul’s experiment. Interestingly, those who tested for higher levels of oxytocin – almost to a person – decided, when given the chance, to donate their fee to a childhood cancer charity. For a time, their brains literally changed – all because of a well-told story.
So what constitutes an engaging story? Paul explains that a good story starts with a dramatic arc. “It starts with something new and surprising, and increases tension with difficulties that the characters must overcome, often because of some failure or crisis in their past, and then leads to a climax where the characters must look deep inside themselves to overcome the looming crisis, and once this transformation occurs, the story resolves itself,” Paul explains.
Which leads us back to Sherry, my high school classmate. Some years ago, I worked for an economic justice advocacy group named Fair Share. We were helping several larger organizations – among them, the Center for American Progress, the Coalition on Human Needs, and the Food Research & Action Center – collect stories about people who had benefited from SNAP, formerly known in our country as food stamps.
I put an ask out on Facebook. Had any of my Facebook peeps, I wondered, received SNAP and had a story to share or knew someone who had? Sherry – who by then was a highly successful, high-ranking executive with Fox Cable based in Los Angeles, was a beneficiary of SNAP while growing up. (I had no idea; our high school’s student body was fairly affluent, for the most part, subjects like SNAP just didn’t come up.)
“We ate that food and we swallowed our pride, believing that a better day would come,” Sherry would later write. “I would do it again tomorrow if I had to. I thank God that I don’t – but I also thank God that when I did, the possibility was there…. I’m currently a high-ranking TV executive, and I’ve paid more in taxes over the last twenty-five years than my entire family got in government assistance, not to mention finding it possible to donate privately to families in need and charitable organizations. We needed the proverbial ‘leg up.’ We used it, and today my brothers and I are all fully employed taxpayers who support ourselves and our families.”
Sherry’s story, once revealed, kept getting bigger and bigger. The Center for American Progress invited her to D.C. to directly lobby members of Congress. Panel discussions and press conferences would follow. Sherry wrote a series of op-eds, and I worked to get those op-eds an audience. Later, Sherry would deliver the keynote address at FRAC’s annual conference, and today she sits on FRAC’s Board of Directors. All this — because Sherry was kind and motivated enough to respond to a simple plea from me on Facebook.
Sherry’s story worked, in short, because it had a dramatic arc with a surprise element – this highly driven, highly successful TV executive was on food stamps when she was a kid. And the story had a villain and a resolution – the villain was the threat posed to SNAP funding, and the resolution was that Congress eventually approved adequate funding (that time, at least).
If you stop and think about what has happened in our country over the past two years, you can just imagine the millions upon millions of Sherry Brennans who are out there – Americans from all walks of life who have benefitted the American Rescue Plan, for example, be it due to SNAP or the Child Tax Credit expansion, or expanded UI benefits, or rental assistance.
Our job as advocates, then, is to find more Sherrys, tell their stories, and move members of Congress, state legislators, and voters alike.