“I don’t think of myself as a storyteller,” Michelle Glass said, with a soft laugh. As a community organizer, she sees her role as a convener of story, creating a vital space for sharing and relationship building. To her, story work is equity work, the work of bringing every voice to the table to sustain coalitions that make lasting systemic change possible.
Michelle fights for policy change and social justice, tackling a variety of issues from houselessness to racism. As someone who grew up in rural Idaho, she saw issues like economic inequality firsthand. She grew up challenging the status quo, asking “why?” whenever she saw discrimination, oppression, or inequity. But she never got a good answer.
In her 20s, she started advocating and organizing on issues that had directly impacted her life. Since then, she’s worked on many campaigns, some local and some statewide, that have resulted in real, tangible change for Oregon communities. In that work, she found the answer to the question she’d been asking all her life. When people ask why systems are broken and communities are oppressed, her response is to build connections and take action.
“We get to change the society we live in,” she said.
In the small town of Gold Hill, Oregon, Michelle worked to organize a group of concerned residents who were responding to a neo-Nazi who had recently moved in and who was very publicly announcing his plans to do a “neighborhood watch.” This was alarming and made many community members feel unsafe.
In response, residents gathered to figure out how to handle the situation. However, their first meeting was contentious, filled with disagreements and unproductive discussions where people talked past each other rather than finding common ground. At the end of the meeting, Michelle and the other organizers were left with a sense of hopelessness. How could they bring together such a divided community?
Then Michelle attended the Community Storytelling Certificate Program at the Hearth. She approached the training from her community organizing perspective, with the goal of bringing the personal to policy spaces. It might seem like an oxymoron to bring a focus on individual people into public policy, she admits. But she wants policy change that centers community members and their stories.
“It’s asking the question: how do we get past data to people?” she said.
While story is frequently used in advocacy as a tool for those affected by an issue to share perspectives and information with policymakers, Michelle quickly saw the potential for story to also connect and sustain those doing the work. She decided to try using storytelling to build solidarity and understanding among groups with diverse perspectives and backgrounds.
She went back to Gold Hill for another meeting. But this time, they started with story. A check in question at the beginning of the meeting gave people the opportunity to share their experiences
and perspectives. And as people shared, the feeling in the room started to change. People became emotionally invested in the stories they heard, and through them, saw each other in a new light.
This transformative moment was the beginning of nine months of sustained community organizing that resulted in a welcoming resolution from the City Council, and stronger connections between community members. The neo-Nazi left town, and in the following election cycle, multiple people who had been part of the organizing effort ran for seats on the City Council.
Now Michelle’s work involves holding space for story and the vital connections that result from it, organizing campaigns and facilitating groups. Through story, she crafts opportunities for people who are on the front lines of organizing and systems change to connect and see each other.
“This is hard work under challenging circumstances,” she said. “If we don’t make space for connections and building relationships, we can’t keep going.”
She’s a thoughtful speaker, often taking a moment to consider her words before continuing on, and it’s easy to see how her careful, quiet demeanor creates space for others to share their stories.
To Michelle, storytelling is an equity practice. White supremacy culture, she says, often dehumanizes people and communities, centering the needs of a system over the needs of people. By centering stories and relationships, she creates a space that is more comfortable and welcoming to those who are uncomfortable in white supremacy culture. Through this work, she creates space for more people to join the movement.
“We want to make space for people who are often not at the table, or not able to bring their full selves to the process,” she said. “We need everyone’s input, but we have to do things differently to bring everyone to the table.”
At the same time, Michelle is very aware of the tensions and possibility for harm that can come with any type of conversation or connection, including storytelling.
“There are power dynamics in who has to tell a story to justify their existence and who doesn’t have to,” she said. People who are forced to tell their story frequently, often in hostile or uncomfortable circumstances could even be retraumatized by a storytelling process that isn’t thoughtful or equitable.
That’s why Michelle puts power sharing processes into her storytelling practice. For example, groups generally have rotating leadership, and different people select the prompts, which are always thoughtfully and intentionally worded. And people in the group can always pass their turn, so no one is ever pressured or coerced into telling a story.
Through her work, Michelle has discovered that a compelling story, one that will truly build connections, must be fully genuine. Morality tales, she says, won’t reach the listener in the same way. She admits that she struggled with the vulnerability that is necessary to tell a heartfelt, deeply human story, but her training with the Hearth helped her to accept it. She learned both how to be in that vulnerable place and how to accept that gift of vulnerability when offered by others. She still holds close to her heart the personal stories she heard from others during the Hearth training, and will never forget them.
For Michelle, stories sustain the community organizing work that can be as challenging and exhausting as it is vital. Through thoughtful, intentional storytelling, connections are forged, relationships are built, and unjust systems of power are changed for the better.
“We can’t create a better world if we don’t start from a place of shared humanity,” she said.