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In Celebration of Mediation Week: Legal Story Telling and the Obama Speech

I don't know if today's post by Paul Secunda over at Concurring Opinions was penned in recognition of Mediation Week, but it might as well have been.  See The First-Person Narrative in Legal Scholarship here -- excerpt below.  

Allen Rostron[ and] Nancy [Levit's] . . . . series in the UMKC Law Review last year called Law Stories: Tales from Legal Practice, Experience, and Education . . . [was begun] to expand on the art of legal storytelling:

Over the last few decades, storytelling became a subject of enormous interest and controversy within the world of legal scholarship. . . Some . . . . told accounts of actual events in ways that gave voice to the experiences of outsiders. . . . [A]  major textbook publisher developed a new series of books that recount the stories behind landmark cases . . . to help students appreciate not only the players in major cases, but also the social context in which cases arise. . . 

Legal theorists began to recognize what historians and practicing lawyers had long known and what cognitive psychologists were just discovering - the extraordinary power of stories. Stories are the way people, including judges and jurors, understand situations. People recall events in story form. Stories are educative; they illuminate different perspectives and evoke empathy. Stories create bonds; their evocative details engage people in ways that sterile legal arguments do not.

Because . . . I [too] believe that legal storytelling is not only educative, but also a way to illuminate different perspectives, I chose to contribute this year to the Second Law Stories Series [--] Mediating the Special Education Front Lines in Mississippi [which] comes directly from my first-hand experiences as a special education mediator in Mississippi.

Professor Secunda concludes by asking whether story-telling should have a place in legal scholarship.  And quite a propitious day he posed to ask the question.

Barack Obama and the Racial Divide

Obama's speech today -- triggered by but not solely given to address questions about inflammatory statements made by his pastor from the pulpit -- was grounded in story.  Why?  Because only the texture, detail, ambiguity, contradiction, and paradox of actual "lived experience" at a particular time and in a specific place, is capable of approaching the "truth" of the human  predicament.  Where does story start?  Classically, with one's his birth and lineage.   

I am the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas. I was raised with the help of a white grandfather who survived a Depression to serve in Patton’s Army during World War II and a white grandmother who worked on a bomber assembly line at Fort Leavenworth while he was overseas. I’ve gone to some of the best schools in America and lived in one of the world’s poorest nations. I am married to a black American who carries within her the blood of slaves and slaveowners – an inheritance we pass on to our two precious daughters. I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins, of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents, and for as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible. 

Giving to Airy Nothings/A Local Habitation and a Name

By beginning with autobiography, by taking the time to tell his wholly personal yet universal story, Obama does what Shakespeare said all writers must do -- "give[] to airy nothings/a local habitation and a name."  No single snapshot, no view from 30,000 feet, no abstract and colorless (or "colored") everyman can do much more than to "simplify and stereotype and amplify the negative to the point that it distorts reality."

We should long have known that only a bi-racial man might be permitted to take the national stage to address "white" demoralization with as much forcefulness as "black" misery; to describe "black" and "white" anger with equal understanding; to say that "[m]ost working- and middle-class white Americans don't feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race."

Their experience is the immigrant experience – as far as they’re concerned, no one’s handed them anything, they’ve built it from scratch. They’ve worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pension dumped after a lifetime of labor. They are anxious about their futures, and feel their dreams slipping away; in an era of stagnant wages and global competition, opportunity comes to be seen as a zero sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense. So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear that an African American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed; when they’re told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time.

To acknowledge that 

for the men and women of Reverend Wright’s generation, the memories of humiliation and doubt and fear have not gone away; nor has the anger and the bitterness of those years. That anger may not get expressed in public, in front of white co-workers or white friends. But it does find voice in the barbershop or around the kitchen table. At times, that anger is exploited by politicia ns, to gin up votes along racial lines, or to make up for a politician’s own failings.

And occasionally it finds voice in the church on Sunday morning, in the pulpit and in the pews. . . . . That anger is not always productive . . . But [it] is real; it is powerful; and to simply wish it away, to condemn it without understanding its roots, only serves to widen the chasm of misunderstanding that exists between the races.

So Where Do We Begin?

Story, for Obama, is not simply a way to approach the difficult truth.  It is the instrument to cauterize our wounds; the weapon with which to resist the easy answer and the politically "correct" response.  

Just as black anger often proved counterproductive, so have . . . white resentments distracted attention from the real culprits of the middle class squeeze – . . . . And yet, to wish away the resentments of white Americans, to label them as misguided or even racist, without recognizing they are grounded in legitimate concerns – this too widens the racial divide, and blocks the path to understanding.

This is where we are right now. It’s a racial stalemate we’ve been stuck in for years.

So where do we begin? 

With story.  

"There is a young, twenty-three year old white woman named Ashley Baia who organized for our campaign in Florence, South Carolina," Obama concludes.

She had been working to organize a mostly African-American community since the beginning of this campaign, and one day she was at a roundtable discussion where everyone went around telling their story and why they were there.

And Ashley said that when she was nine years old, her mother got cancer. And because she had to miss days of work, she was let go and lost her health care. They had to file for bankruptcy, and that’s when Ashley decided that she had to do something to help her mom.
She knew that food was one of their most expensive costs, and so Ashley convinced her mother that what she really liked and really wanted to eat more than anything else was mustard and relish sandwiches. Because that was the cheapest way to eat.

She did this for a year until her mom got better, and she told everyone at the roundtable that the reason she joined our campaign was so that she could help the millions of other children in the country who want and need to help their parents too. . . . 

. . . Ashley finishes her story and then goes around the room and asks everyone else why they’re supporting the campaign. They all have different stories and reasons. Many bring up a specific issue. And finally they come to this elderly black man who’s been sitting there quietly the entire time. And Ashley asks him why he’s there. And he does not bring up a specific issue. He does not say health care or the economy. He does not say education or the war. He does not say that he was there because of Barack Obama. He simply says to everyone in the room, “I am here because of Ashley.”

“I’m here because of Ashley.”

The recognition that we are involved, engaged, hopeful, willing, motivated, cheered, encouraged, and made more courageous because we have connected with one specific textured, multi-dimensional, storied human being, is not, Obama admits "enough."  

"But it is where we start."

Comments (3)

Read through and enter the discussion by using the form at the end
michael webster - March 20, 2008 2:19 AM

Stories, fairy tales, and other figments of our lizard brains move us to action - sometime pretty nasty and brutish actions.

As I recall, coming up on Good Friday, there used to be a fairly prevalent story about how the Jews were Christ killers.

Now I am a big fan of emotion - but we rely upon stories to justify our actions when we don't have data. One shot decisions almost require magical thinking.

For almost 99.99% of our history, we haven't had data.

We are getting close to getting some - be a good time to recognize stories for what they were.

For the record, I don't believe there was an Ashley.

Vickie Pynchon - March 20, 2008 9:50 PM

You are quite right Michael that stories can be used to stir emotional responses for good and for evil; as can "data," which is, after all, 'story' stripped of its particulars.

Whether we use story, data, conventional wisdom, folkways or religious beliefs to guide and express ourselves in community with others, we do good or evil according to our intention, not according to the form our communication takes or the type of information we prefer to accumulate in an effort to make sense of the world.

I LIKE data A LOT but I don't think we need to choose one or the other. And data, after all, is really just a short, short, short, short, short story that reduces people and experience to qualities that can be expressed in the affirmative or the negative.

If you and I have the opportunity someday to sit in easy chairs in my living room or yours, we will invariably tell each other stories of our own lives. I generally prefer that type of socializing to the kind where people exchange "hard" facts (data, statistics) or opinions about those facts.

I wouldn't call either preference "wrong." But if I "hated" Canadians, I believe I'd come away from our conversation at least slightly less biased.

And that's what Obama was trying to get at, really, wasn't he?

Vickie Pynchon - March 27, 2008 11:39 AM

here's the link to Ashley, who, it appears, does indeed exist: http://www.zoominfo.com/people/Baia_Ashley_937685889.aspx

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