Who should tell our stories?









This time a week ago I was recovering from nearly 20 hours of exhausting travel but still experiencing a mental, emotional and intellectual high after spending two weeks teaching journalism in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

My colleagues were some of the most exceptional storytellers – writers, photojournalists, and documentary film makers – with whom I have ever worked (and I have worked alongside some of the best). I felt blessed to share things I have learned in more than 35 yeaUnesco Journalismrs as a journalist.

I was the first of three writing instructors to arrive for the four-week “Pan African Workshop for Professional Media Product
ion,” which began Oct. 18 and lasts through Friday. The workshop was the brainchild of my former Associated Press colleague Russell Frederick, a gifted photojournalist with a growing international presence; Abraham Haile Biru, an award winning filmmaker who built a high-profile career in Europe before returning to his native Ethiopia to start the Blue Nile Film and Television Academy; and the brilliant Sasha Geist Rubel of UNESCO.

My task was to begin laying a foundation of storytelling essentials. I did not necessarily know what to expect from the students, but I soon learned that they needed no help from me in developing ideas, just the tools to share them with a global audience.

In many ways they reminded me of myself. I grew up in Mississippi at the climax of the civil rights movement. White reporters told stories of black homes, businesses and houses of worship that were bombed and burned. They told stories of black men and women whose bodies were left hanging from trees as terrorist calling cards. They told stories of peaceful black protesters being set upon with attack dogs, firehoses and police officers wielding nightsticks.

Their stories were delivered with such dramatic and grisly detail that they shocked the consciousness of a nation that thought better of itself, thus breaking the back of institutionalized racial segregation. The problem was, they were not necessarily OUR stories; more nuanced chronicles of people who found and shared moments of happiness and grace, never lost hope, and were willing to die fighting for what they believed so that their children could have better lives.

Similarly, my Ethiopian students want to contribute to the global narrative about a country no one knows quite the way they do: the national pride; the rich history; the remarkable art and music; the diverse culture; the rapidly growing economy; the fact that theirs is the only African nation never colonized; and the peaceful coexistence of Christians, Muslims and Jews for more than 1,000 years. They know first-hand of its deficiencies: inadequate infrastructure, unsafe roads, soot-belching cars and buses, inferior emergency medical care and too few opportunities for women.

But they also know that the Ethiopia depicted in global media – plagued by famine and conflict – is not theirs. While I was there, a story in American media said Ethiopia is suffering a severe drought. That is true for a portion of the county, but no truer than saying the United States was suffering a severe drought based on conditions in California. Western media often exaggerate negative depictions and ignore everything else.

Why should we Americans (especially African Americans) care about helping Ethiopians and other Africans change the narrative of their county and their continent? Because in working with them, we learn things we might never have imagined and our lives can be transformed in ways we never imagined. Plus we can then share richer, deeper, more accurate stories about our own country, its people, and its place in the world.


©2015 Robert Naylor Coaching and Consulting, LLC. All rights reserved

Robert Naylor is a journalist, journalism educator, consultant, certified coach, facilitator, and speaker who helps people become better leaders, improve workplace performance, and find focus in their careers and life. He is available for on-site training, private coaching, keynote presentations, lectures, and commentary. For more information visit naylorcoaching online or contact

Connect with Robert on TwitterLinkedIn, and Facebook.


Comments are closed.