How Storytelling Can Spark a National Movement

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What do infant mortality, neighborhood zones, and storytelling have to do with each other? For me, the three came together at a workshop I helped facilitate last week. Let me explain.

When people ask me what I do at Pyramid Communications, I tend to want to show them something—a website, a booklet, a logo design, a newspaper story. Some thing I had a hand in making. But making things isn’t even what I love best about my work. What I love best is helping organizations develop their communications thinking. I love working behind the scenes, one step back from the front lines, getting to the essence of what we mean by “giving voice to good causes.”

Not only does it feel good to help people tell their stories, but also, in the process, I get to learn new stories myself. A story I’ve come to know a little better lately is the story of infant mortality in our country. It’s not a particularly heartening story, but it’s an important one. Some day it will have a happy ending.

Black infants die at twice the rate of white infants

In the U.S., our infant mortality rate declined by 12 percent from 2005 to 2011, a welcome trend after rates had stalled from 2000 to 2005. But our rate of 6.05, measured as the number of babies per thousand live births who don’t survive past their first birthday, is unacceptably high. On this critical measure, the United States ranks below 30 countries, including Canada, Italy, and Japan. Even more alarming is the longstanding two-to-one disparity in infant mortality rates between African American and white infants. Although the rate for black babies has declined along with the overall rate, the racial gap remains. You read that right: black babies die before their first birthday at twice the rate of white babies.

Eliminating racial disparities will take a comprehensive effort, rooted in community

This is where our client Best Babies Zone (BBZ) comes in. BBZ is a three-year initiative funded by another Pyramid client, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and directed by Cheri Pies at the University of California, Berkeley. Pies and her colleagues believe that nothing short of bold, outside-the-box thinking is going to eliminate the infant mortality gap.

The big idea behind BBZ is to work across many interrelated community sectors­—not just health services, but also education, economic development, and community support systems—and to concentrate efforts in one, small neighborhood zone. BBZ has launched in three neighborhood zones: Castlemont in Oakland, CA; Hollygrove in New Orleans, LA; and Price Hill in Cincinnati, OH—communities where the needs of mothers and children are great, but where local resources are aligned for change.

Sparking a national movement to improve birth outcomes through storytelling

Last week, my colleagues and I joined representatives from the three BBZ zones, the BBZ office in Berkeley, and a number of national partners for a hands-on workshop on messaging. We worked together on a message framework—a song sheet, if you will, that will help everyone associated with BBZ sing in tune—and on other fundamental storytelling tools. It was a lively group, with strong opinions and strongly held beliefs, but it was also a cohesive group, with everyone pulling for the common good. We accomplished a lot.

I left the workshop inspired and full of hope. I look forward to hearing BBZ tell its story and I’m confident that if it tells the story well, it will succeed in its three initial zones, expand into new zones, and achieve its long-term goal of sparking a social movement to improve birth outcomes in communities across the country. We’ll all be better for it.

Image provided by BBZ. Bina Shrimali, Deja Kono, and Mariela Uribe of the Best Babies Zone at a community event in the Castlemont neighborhood of Oakland, Calif.
Kara brings communications, advocacy and public affairs expertise from more than 15 years of working with nonprofits, businesses and government agencies in the Puget Sound region. She loves spending time with family, traveling, gardening, yoga and the New York Times crossword. Connect with her on Twitter @kj_palmer.