The creative freelancer's guide to equitable storytelling & allyship

May 05, 2021

Stories hold a kind of hidden power. From fashion design to fine art photography to film and television, stories are constantly shaping and reinforcing our interpretation of the truth.

People who tell these stories, including creative freelancers like writers and artists, have a tremendous influence on which stories get told in the mainstream narrative— and who gets helped (or harmed) in the process.

Why Storytelling Matters

The importance of stories in our world was best described by author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. In her TED talk “The Danger of a Single Story,” she explains that by only engaging with one story about a group of people, it manifests as a stereotype that is both untrue and incomplete.

“I’ve always felt that it was impossible to engage properly with a place or a person without engaging with all of the stories of that place and that person. The consequence of the single story is this: it robs people of dignity,” she said.

Stereotypes also drive a wedge between people and make it harder to relate based upon universal experiences. Like Adichie explains, “it emphasizes how we are different, rather than how we are similar.”

If you’re not a writer or a filmmaker who’s directly engaged with the architecturing of story, you might be wondering: How does what I do relate to storytelling?

The answer is simple: representation. Anytime you design a social media graphic, take an advertising photograph, or build a marketing campaign, you’re using words, images, and other visual elements that influence the end consumer.

Here, you have a choice. You can reinforce a harmful stereotype that perpetuates society’s limited perception of a group of people. Or, you can broaden our understanding by showcasing a person’s humanity in an authentic way.

As explained by Makeba Clay, Senior Diversity Fellow at American Alliance Museums, seeing work that reflected her own experience at The Phillips Collection (TPC) was deeply important.

“By exhibiting work related to my own cultural heritage, TPC facilitates access to memories, emotions, and inquiry intimately tied to my understanding of place, identity, and community,” she explained.

Choosing to represent a range of experiences in your work as a creator not only helps people from that group feel acknowledged; it propels us all toward truth.

Storytelling as a Path to Allyship

Perhaps the greatest and most often overlooked aspect of storytelling is the potential to further a connection between those who’ve traditionally had a platform to tell stories, and those who haven’t.

The stories we tell are a way of saying who's allowed to belong in the world, which in turn demonstrates who's life experiences are valued and appreciated. Fostering equal representation as a creative freelancer is an effective mode of non-performative allyship; moreover, it contributes to a more tolerant world.

Resources for Equitable Storytelling

If you’re ready to take responsibility for the impact of the stories you tell, here’s how to get started.

Uplift Voices

The most powerful thing you can do as a storyteller is to know when to step aside. If your story centers a white, able-bodied, and otherwise mainstream narrative, consider how you can put that perspective on hold (even if it’s your own) to uplift other voices in your work.

For example, a journalist can make a point to interview BIPOC experts in a science article, or include Black-owned businesses in a product roundup. A photographer can choose to include someone who’s disabled in a brand photoshoot; an advertising director can choose to interview someone who’s non-binary for a nonprofit campaign.

Use Inclusive Language and Visuals

If you aren’t sure how to discuss a particular identity, check The Diversity Style Guide for updated information on inclusive language. Similarly, the Trans Journalists Association offers guidance on respectful coverage of the transgender community.

If you’re a writer, graphic designer, social media manager, or marketer of any kind, you can use sites like Nappy, Tonl, and pocstock to find inclusive stock imagery. Designers can refer to Color.review, a helpful tool for choosing text colors that are easy to read by everyone.

Expand Your Community

Lastly, it’s important to see what associations and industry groups exist in your industry. Marketers can refer to the Alliance for Inclusive and Multicultural Marketing (AIMM) to understand how to take action for equitable marketing.

Creators can also do their part in understanding how different groups of people are excelling in their own field, which can help change your own narrative about what people in your area of expertise look like.

For instance, writers can consider the following: National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ), Disabled Writers, Editors of Color, and The Asian American Journalists Association (AAJA).

Additionally, People of Craft is a collection of inspiring BIPOC creatives to follow, collaborate with, or hire.

No matter what your industry, keep in mind the words of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: “Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.”

Michelle Polizzi

Michelle is a freelance writer and essayist passionate about mental health, nature, and equality. She’s currently pursuing an MFA and pens Sunday Drive, a newsletter of creative nonfiction stories.