Takeaways from ivoh’s Restorative Narrative Colloquium

After nearly three years of dedicated inquiry into Restorative Narrative, ivoh brought together a group of experts to ask some tough questions about the genre, its impact, and its future. Over the course of three days, the group of journalists, media makers, social justice advocates, and trauma researchers addressed four central questions posed by ivoh.

1. What do communities need from media, particularly in the aftermath of tragedies/difficult times?

Rachel Falcone, Director of Storyline Media and Co-Founder and Executive Producer of Sandy Storyline, emphasized that communities experiencing trauma need their own stories to be heard – and the opportunity to tell their own stories. Another attendee said that in addition to having their own voices and stories elevated, trauma survivors need access to quality information. Mimi Lok, Co-Founder and Executive Director of Voice of Witness, echoed these points and said that communities and individuals need those who go in to facilitate storytelling to approach the work “with a sense of humility and curiosity, with no agenda other than to get as much truth as possible and to get multiple perspectives. We must treat the individuals as experts in their own right, experts of their own experience.”

Kevin Becker and other trauma researchers in the group emphasized that media makers must keep in mind that there is no such thing as closure for communities that are experiencing or have experienced trauma. However, there is an opportunity to find the shared experience in a group of trauma survivors and communicate this with a broader public in order to contribute to a broader sense of community and empathy. Mallary Tenore, Executive Director of ivoh, wrote more about this here.

Participants raised the question: What is a “community”? They discussed the importance of spending time with and in communities in order to better understand complex dynamics and needs.

2. How can Restorative Narratives help foster resilience?

Many Restorative Narratives focus on an individual’s experience in the wake of a trauma and how they persevere in ways both large and small. Participants wondered whether this focus on an individual, the archetypal “hero’s tale,” might actually feel disempowering to individuals experiencing trauma, rather than inspirational. The conversation then turned to whether there could be a Restorative Narrative of community resilience.

There was also a questioning of the word “resilience.” Some participants suggested this is a culturally specific word that has a connotation in English-speaking, American, white culture that does not necessarily translate into other contexts and experiences.

Instead, UNC psychology professor Rich Tedeschi suggested that media think about Restorative Narratives being stories about individuals or communities who are dealing with adversity, who are growing and transforming. As he said, “What is lost can’t be restored. But there can be post-traumatic growth.” 

3. How is a Restorative Narrative framework different from and perhaps stronger than a fear or victim-based storytelling approach?

ivoh fellow Christa Hillstrom began this conversation by defining a despair narrative as one that “doesn’t allow the space for showing people’s agency, ability to make changes, or ability to grow.” Conversely, a Restorative Narrative “focuses on ability of one to make choices and have agency.”

Some participants surfaced a concern that Restorative Narratives often focus on a person of color who makes it. Pia Infante, Co-Director of The Whitman Institute, suggested that while there is potential for Restorative Narratives to be more powerful than fear or victim-based storytelling, there should be a deep inquiry into representation of individuals and groups, as well as consideration about how structures and power contribute to the trauma and challenges being explored. Ellen Schneider, Founder of Active Voice and Director of AV Lab, said: “Structural analysis and historical context need to be addressed through the lens of race. This organization can really elucidate that and take it seriously.”

4. How can we measure the impact of Restorative Narrative? 

Finally, participants discussed what the potential impact of Restorative Narrative might be on media makers, community members, and society as a whole. ivoh has begun exploring the genre’s impact and is interested in getting a better sense of how the genre can mobilize people and communities in ways that traditional “doom and gloom” stories can’t. Before deciding how to measure any impact of Restorative Narratives, participants agreed that “impact” must be narrowed down to specific goals and/or changes associated with the genre. Only then can we undertake a meaningful measurement that can contribute to the genre’s path forward.

Throughout the colloquium’s conversations and the powerful work shared by ivoh fellows and others, it is clear that Restorative Narratives impact the media makers, project participants, and audiences. I am excited for ivoh’s next steps in determining which types of impact are of greatest value and embarking on a journey of deeper understanding through measurement and analysis.

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