Cultural humility (CH), a term coined by the field of social work, goes beyond cultural competency or cultural sensitivity. Although cultural competency is an important first step, which includes skills like cross-cultural language skills, awareness of diversity and providing care across lines of difference, cultural humility goes even further. CH offers a critique of the methods used to create stories in the first place, and holds an expectation for outcome, that of a transformative social justice agenda to challenge social inequalities. The CH framework argues that mere awareness does not go far enough; implicit and explicit bias must be uncovered, uprooted and dismantled at every step of the storytelling process as a way to address disparities in the contexts and communities these stories highlight.
CH is also a decisive shift away from telling stories about “other” cultures, places, people, which assumes the locus of normalcy is White and western, but rather demands an accounting of the cultural values and forces of the creator which inform the capacities and methods of the storytelling practice in general.
Further, CH also goes beyond the illusion that the value of stories is to help dominant groups simply “learn about” non-dominant groups. Cultural humility is built on the belief that social justice is actually necessary to eliminate oppression, and that awareness definitely does not guarantee the former.
Therefore, our stories do not seek to just highlight or uncover an injustice, but rather to contribute to correcting power imbalances and to develop partnerships with people and groups who can.
Scholar Ibram X. Kendi defines antiracism as a “powerful collection of antiracist policies that lead to racial equity and are substantiated by antiracist ideas.” Storytelling works in the realm of ideas, and therefore NOVO’s stories must never perpetuate the racist idea that racial difference is a product of something being inherently right or wrong with certain groups. Further, we support anti-racism by deconstructing racist ideas in ourselves, which is personal and lifelong work, as well as only working with clients who contribute to antiracist policies and ideas.
Decolonization can be understood as a process of deconstructing colonial ideologies of the superiority and privilege of Western thought and approaches. Both correcting power imbalances as well as revitalizing, deferring to and centering indigenous knowledge and approaches. This includes de-centering Western European-derived ways of knowing and doing that are implicitly or explicitly presented as the norm. Decolonization includes a respect and deference to Indigenous ways of being, like reciprocity. Reciprocity invites a holistic giving and receiving, which should inform everything from how to conduct an interview to how to relate to the earth. Decolonizing ourselves must lead us to examine and imagine how to return the gift, live with gratitude and reverence and be in connection to ancestral wisdom – as artists and people on this planet.
We take climate change seriously and seek to live in deeper harmony and synchronicity with the earth. This value includes practices such as carbon offsetting, choosing teams that minimize long-haul flight patterns, conserving energy, engaging in storytelling that can enhance, deepen and enliven audiences relationship with the natural world instead of bifurcate, fragment and encourage addiction to technology, consumption, materialism, hoarding and excess.
Choosing the margins
Bell Hooks wrote about “choosing the margins” as a site of belonging as much as a site of struggle and resistance. We commit to redefining margins to acknowledge the richness and diversity of those spaces, instead of “empty spaces occupied by people whose lives don’t matter, or people who spend their lives on the margins trying to escape” 2. Critical race theory, oral history, community action and participatory action research are examples of methodologies created to work with marginalized communities. We utilize these in our stories to facilitate expression of marginalized voices and re-present the experience of marginalization in genuine and authentic ways (p. 205).
Individuals must be understood as complex, and social identities (race, gender, ethnicity, class, etc) do not operate in isolation. An intersectional orientation, coined by professor Kimberlé Crenshaw more than 30 years ago, is “a lens, a prism, for seeing the way in which various forms of inequality often operate together and exacerbate each other.” Therefore, this requires self-interrogation as creators as well as an intersectional lens in our storytelling and social justice work.
Instead of reinforcing the status quo, we want to pursue a transformative agenda that positions individuals within cultures and understands that to bring about change, systems need to be challenged. Using filmmaking as solely an awareness tool reinforces the illusion that the only step to change is learning about the “other.” This is not enough.
Story is magic
Our work rests on the belief and value that stories are powerful. As the oldest form of human learning, stories can stir, move, open, galvanize, surprise, inspire, and everything in between. A form of discourse made more accessible with today’s technological opportunities, we can take stories further than ever before. We value the role of narratives in contributing to culture and the opportunity for viewers to find themselves in characters, settings and plots different than their own lives. The close aesthetic distance, meaning a viewer’s conscious reality and the world of the story collapse into each other, creates avenues for identification, empathy, understanding and even shifts in perspective, beliefs and potentially, behavior. Stories can change the world, they do every day.
Social norms over personal beliefs
We value an integrated model of behavioral prejudice and conflict reduction that prioritizes the communication of social norms over changes in personal beliefs. Social psychological research indicates that shifts in social norms can translate into behavioral changes, regardless of the changes in personal beliefs. Since stories can be consumed at the communal level, there is an opportunity to introduce and reinforce new social norms that can influence more peaceful, just behaviors, again irregardless of individuals’ personal beliefs. Our research in Central African Republic testing virtual reality to reduce prejudice, underscored this framework, and builds on the work of social psychologists like Dr. Betsy Paluck at Princeton, and many others.
We straddle the worlds of storytelling and academia, and value this intersectional expertise. This educational foundation of the inner workings of mental, psychological, and communal health, informs each step of our storytelling approach and practice. We are committed not just to world-class storytelling, but to a process of transformational storytelling and to stories that invite and generate healing, with data, and peer-reviewed publications to prove it.
1 Tervalon & Murray-Garcia, (1998). Cultural humility versus cultural competence: a critical distinction in defining physician training outcomes in multicultural education, Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved, vol 9 (issue 2), pp. 117-125. https://doi.org/10.1353/hpu.2010.0233
2 Hooks, Bell (1990). Yearning, Race, Gender and Cultural Politics. Boston, MA. South End Press.
3 Smith, Linda Tuhiwai (1950). Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. Distributed in the USA exclusively by St Martin’s Press, 1999.
Teachers who sourced and originate these ideas:
Ibram X. Kendi
Robin Wall Kimmerer
Jean Paul Lederach