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Why We Don’t Use Stories of Pity
August 27, 2020

The Freedom Story began as an organization from a documentary in which a young girl who was at-risk shared some of her story – she became the first scholarship recipient, and the scholarship grew into the full program we offer to other students like her. But a few years later, when our CEO Rachel Goble spoke with her about her story, she told Rachel that she wished she hadn’t shared some of her life’s most sensitive details so publicly. It wasn’t how she wanted to be remembered. She wanted people instead to see her for the poised, elegant, successful woman she had become.

This conversation coincided with personal misgivings Rachel had already begun to have about the pity-stories that dominate the nonprofit world. It’s generally understood–or perhaps assumed–that the “fly-in-the-eye” kind of stories that lean heavily on people’s hardships are the kind that drive donor dollars. But Rachel began to question whether it was right to emphasize this angle, or whether it was exploitative of people who are already vulnerable. The conversation with our student confirmed the notion that people want to be seen as more than the worst things that have happened to them. From there, the decision was clear: there has to be a better way to tell stories. A way that captures people in a more full sense of their humanity, that treats them with dignity and respect, that invites them to participate fully in how their story is shared–and that assumes the audience, too, is not only capable of understanding humanity in its messiness, but can be inspired by it to join in and participate as well, less as saviors and more as cheerleaders walking alongside every step of the way.

And thus, Ethical Storytelling was born. 

Moving From Pity to Empathy With Ethical Storytelling

Ethical Storytelling is a movement, a community for nonprofits, an invitation, and a commitment to telling more thoughtful stories. The website offers a pledge, resources, and a podcast to help tell stories more ethically. 

It’s also a pillar of our programming. Every student story we share is the culmination of a process of working closely with the student and their mentor to be sure the student is ready to tell their story, they understand what the story will be used for, and that they have final say on what is included and how. While hardships are a part of their story, the focus is usually on how the student was able to overcome their challenges.

Stories are made to help us connect. They can be used to diminish…or they can be used to empower. So often those who have been victimized point to reclaiming ownership of their story as an important part of reclaiming themselves. To that end, we strive to share glimpses into our student’s lives that do more than tug at our hearts. We want to share stories that reveal their hearts too.


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