Occupy Faith Storytelling Guidelines

On May 29 2012, faith leaders across the nation (Occupy Faith movement) began a national storytelling process to document the lives of people struggling in the current financial crisis. This storytelling process has several purposes:

  1. Sometimes people feel ashamed, as if it is their personal failure, that they have had financial difficulties and suffered. We want to help them break silence because we know they are not alone and their sharing will help others not feel alone. So, part of the reason for sharing is to connect to others and support each other where that is possible
  2. Storytelling is a way to connect people and strengthen local Occupy Faith groups by bringing more people together to share in our collective struggle for a better world.
  3. We want to video tape people’s stories, if they are willing to be taped (BE SURE TO GET A SIGNED RELEASE). These video recorded stories will be collected in an archive at the New York Museum, which will allow documentary filmmakers, reporters, historians, etc. a chance to see the vast impact of the financial crisis on ordinary Americans.
  4. We also want to make the stories of ordinary people available to the public, via uploading to a website, as texts, audio recordings, and videos. The website will be ready in a few weeks for people to post their materials.

In addition to the above purposes, we want to collect stories that will be appropriate for

“A People’s Investigation of Money, Debt, and Power,” which will take the form of a Truth Commission that collects testimony from those who tell their stories.  The committee will spend a year or more reviewing the stories to help them make findings of what caused the financial crisis and how to repair the damage.   See the description below of the preparation of testimony for the Truth Commission. We invite you to participate in this national project. Here are some suggestions that your faith community might follow:

 A. Work with your faith community by involving them in the process of recruiting participants.  Explain that this storytelling process is to document the impact of the financial crash on ordinary people’s lives and to talk about what has been helpful in surviving. The first step in the process is to have a time for storytelling that just lets people tell their stories to listeners. A small group is a good idea, where several people tell stories. Sometimes listening to others will enable participants to deepen or add to what they say, but doing it one on one is also possible if people are uncomfortable being in a group.

B. You might have an information night within your faith group using an “Introductory video”. Work with your local faith leader and any committees to bring them on board.  You may even want to invite them to attend the videotaping training.

C. This first stage is very important in helping people break silence and tell their story. The storytelling process is a community building process at the local level, and it is one of the important goals of expanding the Occupy Faith Movement.

D. Make sure there are people who will facilitate the process and encourage all present to do deep listening. This means not thinking of questions or what one wants to say, but receiving with intense focus as people tell their stories, as if they were the only person in the room, listening to someone they care about tell their story.

E. If you have a time limit on how long you can meet, make sure everyone knows this, but, at this first stage, you want to listen carefully and give people adequate time (10-20 minutes) to tell their story. Just be sure everyone knows the time constraints and how much time is the maximum each person will have.


Here are some guidelines you should consider:

1.  Be sure that all participants know why they have been invited to tell their stories and how they might be used. Thank people for coming.  Answer any questions or concerns the person may have about this experience.

2.  The participants must sign a legal release, if the storytelling is being recorded. Often audio recording is a good strategy because people forget the tape is running, but a camera can be intrusive and inhibit sharing. A later message will give the URL for uploading texts, audio and video recordings of stories.

3.  Establish rapport and a welcoming atmosphere before the taping.  Discuss what deep listening involves. Here is a short summary:

Those willing to share their experiences require courage, honesty, and a willingness to be vulnerable. By our own behavior of deep listening, compassionate listening, and attentive listening, we contribute to making space for such truth-telling. Listen as if you are the only person in the room, as if you are receiving testimony of a friend. Listening carefully, with open hearts and minds, to receive what you hear in a spirit of empathy and hospitality. Each voice reflects a different sense of human interests and different moods (sadness, anger, hope, hopelessness).   Avoid any words or behavior that may lead people to feel manipulated.  Parker Palmer, in his book, To Know as We Are Known,  suggests  creating an atmosphere where people feel your hospitality.

4.  The participants should know in advance (a few days at least) what questions are being asked. Perhaps have them select a few questions they want to talk about. This allows them to think about their situation.  Spontaneous interviews often lack depth and leave the participant thinking afterward   “I wish I would have said….”.   If the participant chooses some questions, you may want to add one or two to round out the interviews.

5.  Monitor the use of time, or have someone else do it for you, so people feel treated fairly.

6.   Thank people for being there and offer words of encouragement and hope.

Guidelines for Training

1.  The purpose for training (which needn’t be long--a half hour to an hour is sufficient) is to determine if the video person or the interviewer (you may want to use both) can be non-judgmental and good listeners.

2.  You might start by showing a taped interview that is humorous and violates many of our expectations.  Ask the trainees to comment about what went wrong in that video.   Humor at the beginning relaxes the atmosphere and increases rapport.  You might show a clip of a Bill Moyers interview (or someone else) and talk about why it is effective.

3.  Brainstorm with participants:  “What makes a good interview?”

4.  The interviewer should not:

                   Interrupt too frequently.

                   Interject their opinion or ask questions in a judgmental or derogatory tone.

                   Ask too many questions.  We want the participant to do most of the talking!

5.  The interviewer should:

                  Keep the conversation going…allow pauses, but if a pause is too long then interject.

                  At appropriate points you might interject,  “Tell me more…”  “Can you think of an example?”

                   “What do you mean by that?” 

                  Use Open questions, questions that begin with “how” or “why”.  Avoid closed questions that ask for a yes or no answer.

                  Realize that the interviewee does most of the talking and any questions by the interviewer are to be brief and very, very infrequent.  With some participants the interviewer may only be asking some key questions from the list. With others, perhaps they answer the questions written in front of them, and you just monitor time so all of the questions are addressed.

                  Realize that not all of the key questions can be asked.  The interviewer must choose three or four, and depending upon what you are reading from their pre-statement, you may wish to choose a different set of questions for different participants.

6.  To achieve consistency in our interviews, the videotaping should not be a rambling pontification or harangue of the personal political or religious views.   These stories are to reflect on the existential situation of the person in today’s society.

 The suggested questions that follow may be used for the final taping process.  They are also useful for guiding the early stages as well.  Due to time constraints, it will not be possible to ask all of these questions:

  1. State in a sentence what is your current life situation.
  2. How has your life changed since the financial crisis of 2008 and what happened to you in relation to that financial crisis?
  3. How are you adapting to these changes and what has been most challenging part of this adjustment?
  4. If you have been through a foreclosure, please describe how that unfolded. 
  5. Have you had any encounters with law enforcement agencies?  Tell us about that.
  6. How does unequal treatment based on race, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation, age or disability affect your economic situation?
  7. What do you see happening to other people you know?
  8. Who do you think is responsible for the economic condition of our society?
  9. How are you feeling about the changes in your life?
  10. How are you feeling about the changes you observe in our society?
  11. What are your fears for the future?
  12. What have you done to respond to your situation? 
  13. What support would you want to see our society provide?
  14. What are your hopes for the future?
  15. Where is God or your spirituality for you in the midst of all this?

(these questions were contributed by Sally Juarez and Carol Wolfley of  Oakland,  California)

In addition to videotaping general stories, some groups may want to tape stories whose intent is specifically directed to the Truth Commission. 



 A People’s Investigation is different from most other oral history or organizing efforts – it isn’t just an academic exercise to collect everyone’s different “truths,” nor is it an effort to collect stories that will illustrate an analysis or policy goals that are already a foregone conclusion.  We are collecting stories because we believe that the process of storytelling is a political process.  The storyteller is taking a stand that her story is worth telling and it is connected to a broader set of stories in her neighborhood and the world.  Thus, storytelling is a process of building relationships and hopes that we can change our world for the better.

A democratically selected independent People’s Commission will spend a year or more reviewing the stories collected as well as other information (newspaper articles, official commission reports and other data) to help them make findings around what caused the financial crisis and its damage. The commission will make recommendations on how to repair that damage and make sure it doesn’t happen again.  (The process and focus of this People’s Commission Inquiry will be narrowed as the organizers review the stories collected and begin to see the patterns that emerge.)

Once you have begun a storytelling process, then you begin collecting testimony for the Truth Commission. This collecting might happen at the same time you ask (or people volunteer) to give 3-5 minute versions of their story to be videotaped. Another alternative is to think about the stories and ask participants to come back later for videotaping (this gives them a chance to be more prepared).

 Consider these concerns when collecting testimony for a Truth Commission:

A. You do not want to re-traumatize people who clearly cannot tell a coherent narrative because of lack of emotional control.

B. You do not want to record stories from people who can’t tell a story well, or do not understand what happened to them, or are too confused about the issues involved to be clear.

C. BE SURE TO GET A SIGNED RELEASE from anyone who is taped. These video recorded stories will be collected in an archive at the New York Museum, which will allow documentary filmmakers, reporters, historians, etc. a chance to see the vast impact of the financial crisis on ordinary Americans. This testimony will be posted online and made available to the public as well as the Truth Commission.

D. The testimony cannot be longer than 3-5 minutes—it can be shorter, but not longer. Participants can write it out or plan ahead to fit the time constraints.

E. Some people who record testimony may be called to appear in person at a Truth Commission hearing. No one is required to do this, but if a participant is willing, get contact information so this can happen.

F. Use a camcorder and tripod to videotape.  This allows you to sit at one side having the person look at you as you ask questions.   Don’t hide behind any camera which puts a barrier between you and the participant.   This is a conversation between you and the participant, so the participant doesn’t look into the camera.

G. Be sure to check your recording to make sure the sound (audio) and visual (video) quality are adequate and nothing went wrong with the recording. Checking with the testifier present is a good idea. They may want to re-tape the interview—so give them that opportunity.

The focus of the Truth Commission is money, debt, and power. (Occupy Faith is broader approach and can include many other issues that do not apply to the Truth Commission parameters).