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Moyers: How Storytelling Is at the Heart of Making Social Change

Veteran activist and organizer Marshall Ganz joins Bill to discuss the power of social movements to effect meaningful change.


BILL MOYERS:  How do you handle the grim news of inequality, corruption, poverty, dysfunction and buffoonery that washes over us every day? Well, you can tune out and ignore it; pretend it will go away until it’s too late or you can look around, find kindred spirits and throw your energies into the fight for justice. ... [Marshall Ganz] is an American maestro of organizing who ... has never given in to despair or given over to fear. At Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, Marshall Ganz teaches the next generation of organizers, students from all over the world. He tells them: when in doubt, just remember the story in the Bible of little David and his slingshot…

Smiting Goliath might as well be Marshall Ganz’s job description. It began in Mississippi’s Freedom Summer of 1964 when his fury against injustice pulled him out of Harvard and into the struggle for civil rights. From there, he signed on with the legendary Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers and for 16 years, struggled to unionize the men and women in the fields of California who toiled endless hours and mounting days, picking crops for next to nothing.

Three decades after Marshall Ganz had dropped out of Harvard, he went back to finish his degree and earn a doctorate. A few years later, he was asked to become the architect behind the Obama campaign’s skillful organizing of students and volunteers.

Today, Marshall Ganz is a founder of the Leading Change Network, a global community of organizers, educators and researchers mobilizing for democracy. You’ll find more of his experience and philosophy in this book: Why David Sometimes Wins.

... Stories have been a powerful part of your life. Where did that come from? Why stories?

MARSHALL GANZ: First of all, I grew up in stories. My fathers a rabbi. And I grew up with the Exodus story as a child. And I was always puzzled by the fact that, you know, they said that at a certain point you were slaves in Egypt. I'd never been a slave or been to Egypt, they’d say to the children. And, but then I came to realize that what it meant was the story really wasn't the property of one people, time, or place.

And then out to the farm workers. And we're in the religious narrative. I mean, one of my first assignments in the farmworkers was to organize a march from Delano to Sacramento. But it wasn't a march. It was a peregrinación. It was a pilgrimage. It was at Lent. It reached Sacramento on Easter Sunday.

It was like an enactment of the redemptive narrative of Easter. But it was built into the movement that we were building. So in my experience in organizing, it was also all within narrative. And so we kind of knew that narrative stories mattered. And they mattered to the heart. And they weren’t the whole story. The whole story, so to speak. The strategy mattered, structure mattered, but narrative mattered, the motivation, the courage.

BILL MOYERS: Until I read your book about Chavez and the strikers, I didn't know how much of their own efforts revolved around stories. But then when I read your book, I realized how the stories that they told, the stories that they inherited, added up to a story that they wanted to leave for their children.

MARSHALL GANZ: Sure. But I mean, that's one of the things that distinguishes movements from, like, interest groups. Movements have narratives. They tell stories, because they are, they are not just about rearranging economics and politics. They also rearrange meaning. And they're not just about redistributing the goods. They're about figuring out what is good.