This post was originally published on the Thousand Currents blog.

Words, images, and how we put them all together matter. They convey the world we want to see, and hold the past and our present.

Our job is to make sure that the words and images we use reflect our vision and values at Thousand Currents. This means using our power and resources to reshape ideas of how “helping” globally should occur – from charity to solidarity.

Our team works to make sure our storytelling differs from mainstream stories about poor countries or global development in four important ways:

Outsiders are never the antagonists of the story.

History is pretty unequivocal on how lasting social transformation occurs. That is why our stories start with someone embedded in their own community, someone who holds a vision for a hopeful, collective future and is building towards that vision with those around them.

External actors (like us) are just secondary characters. Thus we are transparent and clear about our roles and how we support the main storyline, which is small yet formidable pockets of people power coming together around the world.

We don’t endorse simple solutions.

We want to tell stories that help us consider root causes and alternative solutions, stories full of details that offer context and dignity, stories that stimulate critical thinking and compassion. They are created within a body of work focused on righting the wrongs of economic, political, and historical realities.

Many organizations use this storytelling formula to get people to donate to them: “poor people face problem X” + “our solution/intervention, i.e. why we need your money” = “end of problem X.” For example, an NGO will highlight the story of a woman who had her first child at age 14 and now has nine children and struggles to feed them. That is, until she attends a “family planning fair” in the capital city sponsored by the organization. She is “happy” to have attended. The end.

What about gender violence? What about urbanization? What about food and economic systems? All may be contributors to her family’s circumstances.

The end? If only.

Our stories are formed with a global audience in mind.

Telling truer stories means creating them with the people who the content is focused on. Stories that uphold self-determination means those whose story it is are the first and most important audience. They define not only the problems, but the solutions.

Because we are all surrounded by systems that wish to do away with our humanity, stories never define people by their problems or struggles, but as full human beings. This includes the “subjects” of stories, and our audiences. Empire and white supremacy, resource extraction and dirty energy, patriarchy and militarism affect ALL of us.

From “86-yr-old grandma” to “8th grader,” there’s no dumbing down. We respect our audiences enough to invite them to reflect on what are deeply-rooted issues. Young people especially have a completely different frame about their roles in how change occurs. When our storytelling is rooted in shared analysis, we can connect person-to-person rather than giver-receiver.

We mobilize collective action.

Oh how I wish it were possible for one individual or one organization to “change the world.” At Thousand Currents, part of our organization’s vision and thus our communications strategy is to share stories that challenge the individualism and isolation that keeps us separate, and to keep pushing beyond any savior mentalities. Our communications team is not just “delivering” information to “targets” in transactional ways, but rather, we are weaving an interdependent community together.

Storytelling is a powerfully emotive and connective tool for this purpose. Stories can persuade, influence, motivate, and educate. But stories can also deepen ignorance and reinforce assumptions.

Storytelling that moves us from charity to solidarity means I am proud to say that our communications team is held accountable to our partners first and foremost, and to our global team. Our responsibility as storytellers and bridge builders amongst our community is to start conversations about how to build collective power – rooted in equity and liberation – to care for one another.


Jennifer Lentfer is constantly looking for ways to portray the realities of people’s lives, their struggles, their strengths–as well as outsiders’ roles and mistakes–in an impatient, “silver bullet solutions” world. In 2010, she created the blog to help place community-driven (rather than donor-driven) initiatives at the forefront of international aid, philanthropy, and social enterprise, and in 2012 she was named as one of Foreign Policy Magazine’s “100 women to follow on Twitter” at @intldogooder. Jennifer has served with various international organizations in Zimbabwe, Malawi, Namibia, and the US, including Oxfam, the Red Cross, UNICEF, Catholic Relief Services, and Firelight Foundation.  Jennifer is currently the Communications Director at Thousand Currents, an instructor at the University of Vermont, and is a published author and poet. Read more by Lentfer on her blog, How Matters, and follow her on Twitter at @intldogooder.