TEDxUCLA 2015: Beyond the Box

Unlocking the potential of your stories


About Joan

As a Project Coordinator at GOOD, Joan leverages her interests and background to activate projects that move our world forward. She started her career in the Amazon rainforest through her work with the German International Development Cooperation and the Ecuadorian Ministry of the Environment. Her global experience is supplemented by joint B.A. degrees in International Development and Geography/Environmental Studies from UCLA, which have opened up opportunities to work with projects related to environmental conservation, education, gender equality, community building, and cross-cultural understanding.


What is your story? Does it relate to the story of the person sitting next to you? What about the coffee farmer in Ethiopia, or the businesswoman running to her next meeting in London? More than level of relatability, what impact does your story have?

Now stories might mean something different to every single person here. To some, you’re thinking about the stories you tell your children at bedtime. Other people are thinking of the news articles they read every morning, and still others are just thinking about that crazy thing that happened at work the other day that they have to tell their best friend.

For me, I’ve always loved stories. When I was a little girl, I was a total nerd. That’s how I got into UCLA. Just kidding! But I would go to the library every week. I forced my mom to take me there. I would devour any book. I was a regular at story time, and I would get lost in these fantastical worlds that I read about. And as an adult, I yearned to explore them.

But what I started to realize is that these fantastical stories of fairy tale and the underdog coming out on top aren’t always the case in reality. And that is where the danger and the power of storytelling lies.

To me, stories make a private narrative public, something that countless others that can relate to, something that they can hold on to, even if they’ve never experienced that person or that thing firsthand. That’s what happened to me. Stories are exactly what sparked my interest in international development.

When I first heard stories of orphans in Mexico or the AIDS epidemic in Namibia, I felt like I had to do something. I very naively decided that it was my job to fix years of cultural, social, political, and economic history. And I would read these stories of people out there doing something, people who were my age, people younger than me. And I was like, “This isn’t enough. What am I doing? I’m sitting on the couch watching TV.”

And so I finally, when I turned 18 — well first of all, at 18, I decided I knew everything so I decide to fix like literally years of all this history. So I moved to the Amazon rainforest and I was like, I’m going to make a difference because no one else has done it before me.

And I’m telling you this in a very blasé way, and I can assure you that people like my parents made sure that a lot more thought went into this than I’m letting on. But the point is that stories were the impetus in me taking action. I was driven by stories of need and I was motivated by an imagined tale of heroics. What I found on the ground, however, were that my original perceptions were shattered.

Stories tell a very specific narrative. It is the narrative that the storyteller wants you to hear. And while this isn’t inherently wrong, it is always powerful.

When I first embarked on my international experiences, I went to Mexico on a mission trip to build an orphanage, and I had these beautiful images of me playing with the kids and building this new structure that would provide shelter.

And then I got there and I realized that all I knew how to say in Spanish was “Hola, me llamo Joanna.” Hi, my name’s Joan. And that was literally the end of the story because I lacked the cultural and the linguistic understanding to learn how I could make a difference and help.

But I still didn’t learn my lesson, so a few years later I found myself on a plane to Namibia after I’d read about stories and heard stories firsthand about the AIDS epidemic. And I expected to find desolate areas of town and overflowing hospitals. And I did, I did find some very desolate areas of town.

But I also found an energizing spirit of resilience among the youth. I met other girls who had big dreams, just like me. One girl in particular named Amelia, who had the big dreams of becoming a pilot, like her namesake.

And finally, I embarked on my longest development experience yet. I moved to the Amazon rainforest. And here’s where I learned that reading about stories of development are very different than living in the developing world. Because let me tell you, there is nothing glamorous about soaping up for your daily bath in the river with 30 other people, or defeathering a chicken so you can have food for dinner that night.

But through these experiences, I learned the power of honest storytelling. And that doesn’t just mean creating poverty porn or focusing on someone’s struggles so you can elicit more sympathetic support for donations. But it also doesn’t mean ignoring someone’s life experiences to only focus on what’s pleasant.

This is where a passion project of mine was born. I started a digital storytelling project called Nova Narratives because I wanted to give other people the opportunity to be moved by the same stories that moved me. Through Nova Narratives, we tell honest stories — at least we try to. And with these honest stories we pair them with links and ways that people can tangibly get involved, whether it’s educating themselves further on a topic or actually volunteering. If it’s donating, there are links that can hold your hand, kind of show you what can be done.

The definition of the word “nova” is “a sudden brightening of a previously inconspicuous star.” The mission of Nova Narratives is to highlight the lives of previously inconspicuous people, and I aim to do that by harnessing the power of stories.

After spending about in total about three years now off and on in the Ecuadorian Amazon, I felt like I had a pretty good handle of how things ran there, what the culture was like, how to work there.

And so on one of the most recent projects I led by myself, a digital literacy project, I was connected with a local partner named Jorge, and Jorge is from a very small community, it’s very rural.

It’s so rural that it’s a complete dead zone for self service. You know, you’ll be on the bus out there, people will be talking on the phone, and at the same minute everyone’s calls will cut out and you’ll see everyone checking their phone like, “oh, we’re here.” And this community is historically underrepresented because it’s an indigenous community and they’re looked down upon by society.

But in the midst of this project, I also met a man named Edmundo, and Edmundo is a passionate community leader. He is always striving for the best, and he encourages those around him to do the same. He refuses to accept anything but the best. And he’s tough, but he’s well respected and well-liked by his community.

So what is the difference between Jorge and Edmundo? The only difference is their story. Jorge and Edmundo are actually the same person. The man’s full name is Edmundo Jorge Cerda Tapui, and everyone in Ecuador has four names. So it’s very difficult when you’re meeting people for the first time, but helpful in cases like this when you’re trying to make a point.

And Edmundo, he goes by Edmundo, he blew my mind because he completely shattered my previous perceptions. I thought I’d be working with someone who’s passive, someone who would look to me for leadership just because I was foreign. And that’s not okay. But that’s how it’s often been. Edmundo completely showed me that even our most established storylines can be wrong.

My passion for international development has also given me a passion for geography, and in geography we have a term called ground truthing. This refers to the process of matching GIS or GPS coordinate points on a map to what actually exists on the ground.

This concept of ground truthing is absolutely critical in storytelling. Stories cannot and should not be told unless they are founded in absolute truth. Otherwise, they become fantastical fiction: still powerful, but they lack the impact that moves other human beings.

I think I learned this the hard way. Whenever I’m in Ecuador, I live and I stay with the same host family. And my oldest host sister, Margarita, was my first friend. She was the one who took me under her wing. She was patient with me as I stumbled over my foreign words. She would explain to me what was on my plate for dinner that night. There is a term in my part of the Amazon where it roughly translated to “jungle meat” so you honestly have no idea, i’s just something they found in the jungle that’s on your plate for dinner.

So, and after a year of living with this woman, you know, I was so inspired by her. I felt like I knew her, and I wanted to start telling her story. And I did. I started telling people back home about this inspiring woman and how she overcame gender stereotypes to become one of the first female tour guides at the national park, and how she was a confident single mother.

But in an attempt not to reduce her to her struggles, I neglected them completely. One day, it was nearing the end of my time in the country for that trip and I was packing up my stuff. She’s sitting on the edge of my bed just watching me and all of a sudden she just got up and left and she was visibly upset.

At this point, I was like, “I know I talk a lot and I sometimes speak without thinking, but I didn’t even say a word. How did I offend someone?” So I get up and I follow her and I asked her, I was like, “What’s wrong?”

And she just takes a second, she pauses, she looks at me directly in the eyes and she says, “This is just an experience for you. You’re going to pack up your things. You’re going to go back to your nice life in the United States and you’re going to forget about me. When you leave, there’s a hole. But this? This is my life. And you don’t know the half of it.”

To this day, those are still some of the most impactful words ever spoken to me. I think I’m much more careful about the way that I tell stories now, and it’s completely changed the way the approach that I take to storytelling, to my experiences.

There are good and bad parts to every story. The good things should emphasize the common humanity that we share. But at the same time, you cannot neglect the social structures and situations that some people live in because that defines who we are and where we’re from.

These nuances in our stories differentiate our personal narratives, the narratives of every student, educator, single mother, plumber, whoever you are. It’s what gives us a reason to dig deeper within ourselves, to understand our fellow human beings, and understand why their story matters, even if we’ve never been in that place ourselves.

Margarita was the one who taught me this, and while I still don’t fully know what it’s like to spend a day in her shoes, learning her story has given me an opportunity to try.

Stories are powerful. Margarita was recently diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and in her part of the Amazon, this disease is not very well understood. So her family, her friends don’t fully understand the gravity of it and what that means for her. And they don’t understand why it’s so hard for her to travel five hours on a bus, to stand up for another five hours as she receives chemotherapy, because she can’t afford a hospital room and a hotel room.

But she and her story has created the opportunity for a cross-cultural support group to be made of other cancer survivors and other cancer fighters. So now Margarita is no longer alone, but she has a whole community of women around the world who are fighting the same horrible disease that she is and who can be that support system for her.

And to me, that is what storytelling is about. Storytelling is about creating connections between people, and that connection gives us a reason to act. And acting doesn’t just mean donating money or throwing money at a project. It means actually getting involved with something that you care about.

Stories encourage a little bit of a realistic idealism, and I think the whole world can benefit from a little bit more of that. Like I said earlier, I started Nova Narratives because I wanted to harness the power of storytelling. I’ve realized that I can’t change the world singlehandedly, but stories can.

Too often, people are limited by how daunting it seems to get involved. There’s never enough time, there’s never enough money, and you don’t have the resources to fly around the world. Nor should you have to, because doing something is as simple as telling a story.

So what does storytelling for impact mean? To me, it’s so much more than just finding someone and positioning their truth in a certain moving way. Telling a story for impact is about creating connections between people that bridge differences and give us reasons to take action.

Everyone has a story. So what impact will your story have? Thank you.