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Book Review: 'Collective narrative practice' by David Denborough

Engendering Hope

This gem of a book explores story work with communities. It is not necessarily written for activists but I think many activist educators will find it thought provoking and stimulating. Many of us of course are familiar with the use of narratives and stories to frame issues, communicate messages, or inspire action. The gift of this book is that it goes beyond this. Collective Narrative Practice is essentially a training manual by one of the pioneers of respectful and collective ways of working with groups and communities. At a whole other level it is also about the task of building a folk culture that supports liberation. While the book is centred on the themes of trauma and resilience, and narrative tools for strengthening individual and collective resilience, it offers the activist educator ways to tell, collect, document, and share stories that have the potential to deepen people’s insight, build movements, and expand the tactical contours of our imagination.

David Denborough takes the reader through the theory that underpins collective narrative practice and then proceeds to present a series of “methodologies of hope”, essentially tools or processes for sharing, documenting, and communicating stories. These easy to use tools grew out of Michael White and David Epston’s groundbreaking work on narrative therapy. While White and Epston worked in a therapeutic context with individuals and families David and his colleagues look at how these tools can be applied collectively. Their work is not therapeutic, at least in the counselling sense. But their work is predominately with traumatised communities: survivors of genocide in Rwanda, Palestinian human rights workers, Aboriginal elders and young people, and others. Their starting point is to invite people to share the special skills and knowledge around sustaining themselves in tough times, and the stories, values, and histories connected to these skills and knowledges. The underlying purpose here is not therapy but to enable people to make a contribution to the lives of others.

Although the book focuses on resilience the tools lend themselves to work supporting organisational and social change. In recent work with West Papuans, Aboriginal activists and community workers, my colleagues from tCA and I have started to experiment with adapting and inventing processes inspired by Denborough’s book, to support activist education – everything from building social change organisations through to thinking about strategy.

Collective Narrative Practice also offers useful ways for activists to think intentionally about how to engage communities through stories and songs, and how to build networks, and perhaps even movements, through ceremony and the exchange of stories, story-telling, songs, and singing. Many of us unconsciously use stories, music, and song to sustain us in our work. Collective Narrative Practice offers fresh inspiration for thinking about how to do this more intentionally and in ways that decentre suffering and highlight the kinds of skills and knowledge that we need to draw on to change the world.

This book includes the following tools:

Collective narrative documents
Enabling contributions through exchanging messages and convening definitional ceremonies
The Tree of Life
The Team of Life
Checklists of social and psychological resistance
Collective narrative timelines
Maps of history
Songs of sustenance.
Denborough starts the book with an anecdote, a story of meeting Paolo Freire just before he died, and the problem of what Freire termed ‘neo-liberal fatalism’. It seems fitting to end this review with that story for the way in which it holds out hope and challenge. David relates how he asked Paolo Freire a question: ‘how some of the principles he was describing might be relevant to working with people who are homeless’. Denborough recounts Freire’s response:

He said that this was a question that was impossible for him to answer – that I was, in fact, looking in the wrong place for the answer to that question. He said that the answer to that question could only be found in conversation and connection with those who are homeless. He described that a more pressing concern was that the privileged in the world routinely look for solutions in the wrong places and then, when they cannot find solutions there, they feel despair, and become convinced that that broader change is not possible and therefore not worth aspiring to or acting towards. He named that phenomena as ‘neo-liberal fatalism’ and said that he believed it was perhaps the greatest obstacle that we face... ‘Our struggle today does not mean that we will necessarily achieve change but, without our struggle today, perhaps future generations will have to struggle much more. History does not finish with us, it goes beyond’ said Freire.


Denborough then concludes the preface with some questions. ‘How do we resist neo-liberal fatalism? How can we conceive of our work in ways that believe in the hope of broader social change? How can we look for this hope in the right places?’ These are the kind of strategic questions that educators everywhere would do well to meditate on.

As a resource for engendering hope I highly recommend this book.

Jason MacLeod, Jagera / Yuggera Country 2010

Order this text through the Dulwich Centre


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