Ethical Storytelling as a Decolonizing Practice

Over the past few years ‘Ethical Storytelling’ has become more of a priority, and, for better or worse, a buzz-word in the not-for-profit, social impact world. 


A quick search reveals a wealth of articles with tips that include asset framing, collaborative storytelling, taking the Ethical Storytelling Pledge, downloading the Dignified Storytelling Handbook and so on. You can find a wealth resources and tools to help further your ethical / dignified storytelling practice here.


I’m interested in widening the context and helping further the understanding of the vital importance of ethical storytelling practices in cultivating inclusive organizational cultures and, more broadly, in contributing to the decolonization of the impact sector.


Conventional organizational storytelling–the type that has been the hallmark of fundraising campaigns and not-for-profit communication for decades–is rooted in extractive practices. Ethical storytelling is a set of tools and practices, and a mindset, that can help us divest from exploitative ways of being and relationships with the communities and people we purport to serve while fostering more equitable, inclusive, and human relationships.

Edgar Villanueva and Colonizing Mindset

Edgar Villanueva, through his book Decolonizing Wealth, has proposed that ‘colonization’ began not with the Conquistadors, but at the moment humans began “managing, controlling, and ‘owning’ other forms of life–plant and animal. Conceptually, this required that humans think of themselves as separate from the rest of the natural world.” I’d add that it also required that humans believe themselves to be superior to the natural world–masters, as it were, of their domain.


This concept of separation and superiority sits near the center of the ‘colonizing mindset’ and gave birth to a culture founded on scarcity and fear. Expansion and an emphasis on growth over all else grow from that fear.


Here’s how Villanueva describes this worldview from the individual perspective:

The boundaries of my body separate me from the rest of the universe. I’m on my own against the world. This terrifies me, and so I try to control everything outside myself, also known as the Other. I fear the Other. I must compete with the Other in order to meet my needs. I always need to act in my self-interest, and I blame the Other for everything that goes wrong.

This impulse towards control and separation can be found in everything from the Western style of education to systemic inequity and White supremacy. It’s in every nook and cranny of dominant Western culture.


An example: the advent of FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) and the related condition known as ‘status anxiety,’ defined loosely as feelings of not being ‘good enough’ to succeed or deserve success. Both of these grow from a deep drive to ‘keep up’ with others and an existential dread that we don’t have any intrinsic value or sense belonging not attached to our achievements or titles.


These deep seated drives and dreads are experienced on an individual level, but reinforced by Western societal beliefs and structures. 


According to Villanueva, three actions underlie the colonizing mindset, wherever and however it may show up:

  • Divide
  • Control
  • Exploit


Colonization bred a societal structure and mindset that drives us to want more. More status. More wealth. More stuff.


To satisfy that desire, we exert control over nature and exploit both natural and human resources.


This control and exploitation leads to profound imbalances and injustices in our social / organizational systems (e.g. systemic racism, patriarchy, and white supremacy) and our relationship with each other and the natural world.

Colonization and Organizational Storytelling

It may seem that we’ve wandered far afield from the subject of ethical storytelling, but the colonizing mindset lies at the core of many ‘best practices’ in organizational storytelling. Take for example this oversimplified outline of a conventional fundraising story:


Michael was not doing well. He was living on the streets and addicted to drugs.


Then he found Our Organization and went through Our Program.


Now, Michael is doing much better.Your donation will help more people like Michael.


Let’s unpack this structure through the lens of division, control, and exploitation.


  • Our ‘hero,’ the client our organization purports to serve is defined in terms of his deficits and the temporary condition of living on the streets. By centering his challenges, we strip him of his humanity, creating a sense of ‘us,’ the organization and readers of the story, and ‘them,’ people like Michael.


  • The story itself is extractive, exploiting Michael’s narrative in order to raise funds. A powerful question to ask around organizational stories is ‘who benefits from this story?’ In this case, the organization benefits by telling the story while Michael’s story exists as a resource to be mined for empathy and tears. 


  • In the course of extracting the story, the organization has positioned itself as the ‘hero.’ Michael’s transformation is due, in this structure, solely to the valiant efforts of the organization. This is a ‘savior complex’ narrative based, again, in an ethos of division and exploitation.


It’s important to note that none of the above are intentional. For the most part, the organizations who deploy this type of storytelling do so with the best of intentions. The mindset we’re looking to shift operates beneath the surface, infecting our stories and bringing us into complicity with the core actions of colonization: division, control, and exploitation.

Ethical Storytelling as Decolonizing Practice

In Villanueva’s rendering, colonization can be countered by three corresponding actions derived from indigenous ways of being:


  • Connection
  • Relating
  • Belonging


Specific Ethical Storytelling practices like Deep Consent, Widening the Universe of Storytellers, and the Ethical Storytelling Pledge all advance these decolonizing principles.


Master Storyteller and teacher Doug Lipman takes this idea a bit further in his work around storytelling and the values needed to build a more vibrant and viable future.


According to Lipman, powerful, conscious storytelling advances:

  • Deep listening
  • A predisposition to compassion
  • The importance of relationships 
  • The efficacy of openness 
  • The preciousness of every human point of view 
  • The universality of human potential 
  • The Whole Mind
  • Emotion’s role in thinking


Each of these values connects, in different ways, to connection, relating, and belonging.


Ethical Storytelling is more than a way of honoring all of the members of our communities. It’s more than a set of tools and practices. It is an essential part of undoing the centuries of damage inflicted by the colonizing mindset.

Lasting Change Is Not Possible Without a New Relationship With Story

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how noble our missions, programs, and intentions are if we engage with unethical storytelling practices. Whether we are aware of it or not, these practices do more than undercut our work, they help further embody ways of being, doing, and acting that have done untold harm across the world.


One last quote from Decolonizing Wealth:

We must heal our culture and our institutions by identifying and rejecting the colonized aspects of our culture and our institutions. In using money as medicine, we can eradicate the colonizer virus from our funding institutions: instead of divide, control, exploit, we embrace a new paradigm of connect, relate, belong.

Ethical Stortyelling invites us to substitute the word ‘story’ for ‘money’ in the quote above. In using story as medicine, we can eradicate the colonizer virus from our sector.


My hope is that the conversation about ethical storytelling moves beyond debates about the practices within each organization to become part of a movement towards a more connected, collective viable future for all beings.


In this story, we are all co-creators of a way of being, and a story, that is aligned with life, freedom, and a sense of belonging.


We are all storytellers. Now what do we do with that power?