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Research and storytelling

Find out which communities and which challenges matter to you.

This section introduces modes to explore what communities know, can do, and can become.

With knowledge made available in these ways, we set the stage for strong collaborative action. Simply put, before collaborative action, you must create collaborative knowledge.

Approaches to communal knowledge

There are many academic and professional frameworks that try to distil the actions we’ve explored above into ways to fulfill such goals in other circumstances. A few general ideas are listed below – but we emphasise there is no ‘one size fits all’ answer. The point is to find ways to encourage organic collaborations with communities, so that their voice and place in the systems we share can be honoured and evolve.

  • Participatory action research (PAR) democratises knowledge production and validates community experience–expertise.

    PAR challenges the traditional academic research norms of a passive researcher and the notion of absolute objectivity. It emphasises active collaboration between researcher and various groups in ways that are inherently political, and often oppositional to prevailing power structures.

    PAR integrates tools of the arts to uncover and foster emerging institutions that can withstand dominant societal forces, focusing on conditions that enable their growth and influence. This is vital in addressing and transforming the underlying dynamics of societal systems and the issues they feed.

  • Asset-based community development (ABCD!) considers and uses what is present in communities, rather than focusing on what is ‘missing’.

    Shifting focus, from community deficiencies to strengths, can challenge traditional leadership models that are reliant on accumulating external resources. This promotes community-driven initiatives and goals. The approach is about recognising and adapting to the complexities and dynamics of community life and successes to grow potential.

  • Various flavours of co-design suggest work(shopp)ing with your collaborators as equal partners in a process, as opposed to viewing them as ‘research subjects’ or recipients of your expertise.

    Co-design upends traditional service delivery models by actively involving stakeholders, such as users and community members, in the design process of service delivery. It aims for equal partnership in change-making, emphasising power-sharing and building capacity through relationships. Co-design not only integrates local knowledge into broader systems but also empowers local communities to sustain solutions, and address systemic issues.

Scholarly inquiry and fieldwork contribute to a deeper understanding of problems that stakeholders previously did not consider. Research, in this context, is not detached observation but an engaged, participatory process that respects and uplifts the knowledge within communities.

How stories matter

Communicating this knowledge is key. We’ve explored how to do so though mapping, but building a persuasive narrative is also important.

Storytelling, critical analysis and creative expression can help reframe issues and present them in ways that resonate on a human level, making abstract problems tangible and urgent. Stories, art and communion can move people to act.

These skills are not just learned for selfless community benefit. They are also incredibly important for your employability. For over twenty years, publications like Harvard Business Review show empirically how stories have a ‘remarkable ability to connect people and inspire them to take action’ (Frei & Morriss 2023); ‘a story expresses how and why life changes’ (Fryer 2003).

Fryer describes how screenwriting lecturer Robert McKee teaches executives that stories ‘fulfill a profound human need to grasp the patterns of living – not merely as an intellectual exercise, but within a very personal, emotional experience’ (emphasis added).

To drive home this point, HBR explicitly endorses the power of storytelling with the advice that it is ‘the key to landing your next job’ (Kurnoff & Lazarus 2021).

Using any of these tools for effective and ethical change requires collaborating with communities in a way that is committed to listening and learning. It involves shifting the dynamic from ‘helping’ towards partnering, learning, acknowledging, and leveraging existing strengths and capacities. Useful barometers here are respect, recognition of historical contexts, and the understanding that communities are not passive recipients of aid, but active agents of change.


Reflect on what has been covered so far. Can you apply these concepts within your own community or organisation? Has there been anything that stood out to you in particular? Share some thoughts in the comments.

If you have any questions or comments about the material or platform, feel free to post them as well.


Frei, F. X., & Morriss, A. (2023). Storytelling That Drives Bold Change. Harvard Business Review.

Fryer, B. (2003). Storytelling That Moves People. Harvard Business Review.

Kurnoff, J., & Lazarus, L. (2021). The Key to Landing Your Next Job? Storytelling. Harvard Business Review.

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Global Challenges, Local Communities: the Arts of Changing the World

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