Storytelling For Social Good

Posted by Tara Roth on

Sabra Williams is a powerful storyteller. And she needs to be, as do we all, but especially since she works for social good in the impact and civil society sector.

A compelling story makes something memorable, inspirational, aspirational, and actionable. That can translate into effective fundraising, media coverage, scale, and other meaningful outcomes.

On a recent June morning, Sabra was sitting in a director’s chair, with a floor-to-ceiling window behind her, the Pacific Ocean not many steps away, surfers and dolphins visible, and the sounds of crashing waves constant. All of that seemed to disappear when Sabra spoke.

“In Buddhism, we used to talk about turning poison into medicine,” Sabra said. “People have to know what the poison is, and then you can choose to change it. The most joy I get in my life is inside prison, because I meet people who are the most creative, inspiring… resilient, visionary, and optimistic.”

She continued: “Everything good in my life, I’ve learned behind bars, so I’ve become a better parent, a better artist, a better practitioner, a teaching artist because of the partnerships I have with people who are incarcerated. They’ve changed my life in every way.”

Sabra isn’t incarcerated herself, but the organization she co-founded, Creative Acts, helps those who are preparing for release from prison into an often vastly changed world by utilizing virtual reality. It helps acclimate people who’ve been inside – even held in solitary confinement – sometimes for decades - to the joys of the modern world (like travel) and the banalities (like pumping gas and using an ATM) that can bewilder and frustrate people upon release, so much so that they can feel that the outside world just isn’t for them and that they want to return to prison.

Sabra was one of the four panelists at an event that I organized and moderated, “Technology and Storytelling For Social Good.” Joining her were Laura Gonzalez of Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator, Alexis Cabrera of 9 Dots, and Paul Lanctot of The Debt Collective. Each of these Los Angeles leaders shared compelling stories of their vision, impact, and challenges.

The Goldhirsh Foundation has funded all of the aforementioned organizations through our annual LA2050 Grants Challenge. The event I’m describing, part of LA #TechWeek, took place at the headquarters of the beatific Creative Visions Foundation, which operates at the “intersection of storytelling, arts, media, and technology,” as my friend Kathy Eldon told the crowd when welcoming them to this near-perfect space that is itself a story, about the remarkable life of Dan Eldon, which ended far too soon.

Storytelling has been, and continues to be, a constant throughout my career. I worked with Participant Media before serving as the founding COO at GOOD Magazine. I am an Ad Council board member. And at the Goldhirsh Foundation, our investments often tell a story – take Faves, for example, a climate-friendly snack made of upcycled fruit and vegetables that “turns problems into candy.” Or, NationBuilder, which creates technology that helps support causes, campaigns, and nonprofits. Collaborative Fund is a leading source of capital for big ideas pushing the world forward, Lowercarbon Capital “backs kickass companies that make real money slashing CO2 emissions, sucking carbon out of the sky, and buying us time to unf**k the planet.”

In the workplace, I make certain we have on our small staff a design fellow, communications and social media fellows, and a communications director. This commitment to creativity pays off, in ways intangible and tangible. Approximately 80,000 votes were cast by the public in our 2023 LA2050 Grants Challenge. Our LA2050 biweekly newsletter just won a Shorty Award. Two months ago we produced and premiered this powerful, Telly Gold-winning short film, starring some of the many Los Angeles movement heroes in our cohort community. And last year, we earned a Silver in the Anthem Awards for our awareness campaign. All of our storytelling is done in service of amplifying voices and forces for good – which is why I put together the recent panel discussion as well.

Let’s end with another story that inspired and activated many - resulting in successful fundraising, scale, and media coverage. In 2016, the Goldhirsh Foundation was the first to fund what would become the massively impactful S.E.E.D. guaranteed income pilot project in Stockton, California. That pilot led to scores of cities and counties around the nation launching their own versions.

My friend Michael Tubbs, then the mayor of Stockton, led the program. Now among many other roles, he’s the executive producer of a documentary film that debuted last week at the Tribeca Festival. It’s Basic aims to tell the larger story of this proven-to-be-effective anti-poverty tool, in part by highlighting people whose lives it has changed for the better. 

I hope that the stories in the film and from the panel reach a significant audience. And more broadly: Creatives, social investors, public servants, and enterprise leaders – let's make sure we work together to promote powerful storytelling in the service of “world positive**” ideals.

**Thanks to Obvious Ventures for this term!