Responsible, Ethical Storytelling

In 2013, I took a journey into Masailand, Kenya, where I camped out for about 6 weeks. I was fresh out of graduate school classes, so I carried a load of community development theory with me in my back pocket.

I was hungry to get my feet wet in development practice. At that point in my life, I had big dreams of working in the NGO world and knew I needed to have some experience *working among the poor*.

I blogged my journey, and posted my discoveries online for anyone to read. And I remember feeling so puffed up by the feedback I would get from people following along.

I honestly think my motives were good, but whoa. The narrative I was writing from Kenya then was so far from what I would consider responsible or ethical today.

Social media is developing much faster than our ethical standards for online storytelling. And in 2013 I was behind the curve.

I basically want to vomit at the thought of re-publishing what I’m about to share with you. But I’m going to share it anyway, because I hope we can learn from it together.

So, let’s play a game. I’m going to paste an excerpt from a ghastly blog I wrote about a little boy I photographed beside a mud hut in Kenya in 2013. I’ll highlight the exceptionally puke-inducing phrases, and then talk about why so much of what I wrote was not only unethical, but also a lie.

Myth #1: This little boy was completely helpless.

Myth #2: I could save this little boy if someone allowed me to.

Myth #3: Babies are only cute in Baby Gap.

Myth #4: People who really love their babies put their babies in Baby Gap.

Myth #5. Guilt is an appropriate motivator for serving the poor.

Here you have it, friends: the ugly reality of what happens when you externally process online and have to later go back and read your writing through dozens of face palms.

I don’t just share this so that we can all laugh and move on. As expats compelled by our faith, we have a great responsibility to tell stories from the field that are honest and true, but also reflect a Heavenly Father who is gathering His people in love.

If the poor are our project and not our friends, it’s going to be hard to tell an ethical story.

If victims of abuse are our ministry and not our friends, it’s going to be hard to tell an ethical story.

If our neighbors overseas are our audience and not our friends, it’s going to be hard to tell an ethical story.

We must test our hearts and test our words, doing our very best to check the motives behind our storytelling.

How do people respond after reading your donor newsletter? Your Instagram feed? Your blog posts? Are people more drawn to you and your work, or are they drawn to our God whose work is justice, compassion, and hope?

If you haven’t yet discovered www.ethicalstorytelling.com, head on over and explore the new site + give it some love.

18 Comments

  1. Leanne November 14, 2017

    I can completely relate to this when reading newsletters from the time I spent in China as a 22-24 year old. Arrogance, immaturity, condescension. Two decades later, I’m embarrassed to read them. I would so love to have a do-over of my time there with what I hope would be more humility, integrity, understanding, or the perspective it often takes more of living life to gain.. We can only be where we are on our journey, though. I pray the ideas you’ve shared find good soil and take root to produce sweet, God-glorifying fruit in both the stories we see and the ones we tell.

    1. Lauren Pinkston November 20, 2017

      Thanks for the solidarity, Leanne. Hopefully we don’t carry this shame in unhealthy ways, but only use it to spurn us onto greater integrity, like you said. <3

  2. Jennifer Ott November 15, 2017

    Thank you. And thank you for your vulnerability! It is so hard when you work with the vulnerable and economically poor to share properly. And we’ve seen the other extreme, too, with people who share only how the ‘poor are so happy/content/full of faith’. And having to raise funds is the worst part of it all…

    1. Lauren Pinkston November 20, 2017

      That sentence you wrote about the poor always being happy…also shows how little effort we have put into getting to know our neighbors, hey? I do hope that the generation of donors that is rising up with seek out the most truthful stories and honor the truth tellers in their giving. It does feel impossible at times and the temptation to use our stories as a fundraiser is great. 🙁

  3. kris November 15, 2017

    thank you for this- amen sister!! this should be a topic for the month or better yet the year- reflection on our stories and how we tell them- actually delving into our motives for what we write and for even how we process what we see and live. are we honest with ourselves- with our doubts about what we are doing- are we brave enough? i really hope this becomes an even bigger conversation!

    1. Lauren Pinkston November 20, 2017

      Thanks, Kris! We are definitely talking about ways to pull in more of these conversations in coming months. Thanks for your comment!

  4. Rachel November 15, 2017

    Thank you for being real and open with us. It is humbling but important to learn from our past! As someone who blogs, your post made me think and I will be chewing on it for a bit.

    1. Lauren Pinkston November 20, 2017

      It’s hard work reflecting on our own integrity and self-expressions. Don’t give up blogging! There’s something to be said for processing in a public space. I’m glad you found something to think on here. You’re in good company, Rachel.

  5. Cecily November 15, 2017

    So important to see others as friends. That’s how Jesus saw (sees) us in our deepest state of need.
    Thanks, Lauren, for bringing our attention to this uncomplicated truth.

  6. Sarita November 15, 2017

    This is great Lauren! I have these same thoughts when I go back and read some of my naive posts when I was 26 and fresh on the field in Uganda thinking I could solve all the problems. I’ve left them on my blog even though some are mortifying because in some ways they show my progression through time as I lived there and learned what it really meant. Although I still sometimes feel the longer I was in Uganda the less I really knew about solving problems- and the more I knew about sitting with people. Thanks for bringing up an important issue. Your writing is always so fresh. Love your perspective.

    1. Lauren Pinkston November 20, 2017

      Thanks, Sarita. You provide a richness to this community through your experiences. I felt the same way when I was in Uganda last year…I just came to see the importance of sitting with people and being present. We discount that gift so much. <3

  7. Dee November 15, 2017

    Thanks Lauren, as someone from a developing country, I am often amused by people’s assumptions and descriptions of what they see from their limited viewpoints. However we are all broken and trying to do right by what we know, or, as in many cases think we know. As long as we keep learning and remain patient with those who, like us are also learning, howbeit temporally located at different points of that process, we do well.
    Thank you for being honest about painful things. Your writings are a blessing and inspiration!

    1. Rachel November 15, 2017

      I love what you said about all of us are at different places on this journey and we do well having patience for one another . Yes! Truth.

    2. Lauren Pinkston November 20, 2017

      Thanks, Dee. I always appreciate your feedback! We tend to be experts on a place after a single week traveling there, don’t we? 🙂 Maybe just me? Oh man, ouch. How I used to speak so confidently and assuredly about the cultures of places I had only experienced for a few days…and so many of those reflections were only my response to the cultural interactions through my limited worldview.

      We have much to learn…thankful for grace and processes!

  8. Sandi November 18, 2017

    I think your youthful heart was in the right place. We walk in all the light we know. That’s what you knew.

    1. Lauren Pinkston November 20, 2017

      Thanks, Sandi. I do think my heart was in the right place for what I understood about my heart in that time. The Father has done much refining in me since then, and now I can see the dark parts he’s culling out.

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