Cultivating Better Conversations With Ethical Storytelling

September 28, 2023 | | 0 Comments

Ethical Storytelling

In a world saturated with stories, narratives, and information, the need for ethical storytelling has never been more pressing. The way we narrate events, the pictures we use, and the voices we amplify all contribute to our collective understanding of the world.

Levis Nderitu introduced the Ethical Storytelling Toolkit, as an open, accessible resource for communicators, leaders and, well, everyone, to learn how to do this. Levis is the global Head of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at PATH, a nonprofit dedicated to health equity, and he had the honor of being part of the team developing this toolkit.

Better Conversations About Ethical Storytelling

A consortium of organizations and individuals has put together the Guide To Better Conversations About Ethical Storytelling. Hosted on the DevEx website, this free toolkit provides a guide to telling stories in a manner that is respectful, inclusive, and does not inadvertently harm or objectify its subjects.

There are chapters dedicated to the intricacies of ethical storytelling. From how to select and use images, to ensuring diverse voices are captured, the toolkit is a comprehensive guide for anyone keen to bring a story to life in a manner that is sensitive and respectful.

Often, in the race to convey urgency or depict need, the media can sometimes rely on cliched images that can harm the dignity of the people they represent. Be it fundraising campaigns for refugees or crises, images are chosen that depict need in a way that can sometimes perpetuate stereotypes. This toolkit challenges that norm, pushing organizations to think more deeply about the narratives they are creating.

A Tool for the Future

Levis, one of the passionate voices behind the toolkit, shared during the podcast about the significance of this initiative in our digital age. Both from being under significant pressure with limited time and as we transition into an era of artificial intelligence (AI), we need to ensure that the stories, images, and data we produce are ethical and diverse. The hope is that as more and more people engage with the toolkit, the stories, and representations to amplify voices in the future to be more dignifying and representative of the diversity of human experiences.

Diving Deeper: Levis’s Insights on DEI

The toolkit was just one aspect of the insightful conversation. Levis further elaborated on his Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) work. He shared their experiences from PATH, illustrating the importance of inclusive storytelling both internally within companies and externally in broader narratives.

It’s evident that the journey towards achieving true diversity and equity is not a straightforward one. The stories we’ve been telling, as Levis pointed out, sometimes go unchallenged simply because they’ve been told for so long. To shift these narratives, organizations and individuals alike need to be ready to challenge the status quo and embark on conversations rooted in values, humanity, and dignity.

Levis’s passion for uplifting communities and ensuring they’re seen as collaborators and partners, rather than problems to be solved, shines through. It’s a timely reminder that the stories we tell shape perceptions and can either empower or disempower communities.

Wrapping Up

As the episode came to a close, the takeaway was clear: we need to be more intentional about the stories we tell and how we tell them. The Ethical Storytelling Toolkit is an excellent starting point for anyone keen to embark on this journey. With easy navigation, illustrative content, and chapters that resonate with real-world scenarios, the toolkit is an invaluable resource for change-makers.

Sharing stories is an age-old tradition, but in our modern world, where stories can reach millions in a matter of seconds, we must ensure they’re shared responsibly. Dive into the toolkit, challenge your perceptions, and let’s collectively ensure the stories of tomorrow uplift, empower, and celebrate the diversity of the human spirit.

To find out about the toolkit, visit:

To find about more about PATH and the work Levis Nderitu is doing, visit their:

Read Full Transcript

[00:00:11] Adam: Welcome to People Helping People, the podcast for social entrepreneurs who want to build a social impact business. I'm your host, Adam Morris, and it's so awesome to be here with Levis Nderitu, who's the head of diversity equity inclusion for PATH's, global programming. He's based in Nairobi, Kenya, and we're going to dive into this space, and then into the Ethical Storytelling Toolkit, which is a great guideline for storytelling in an ethical way, especially for the development sector.

So I'm really excited to dive into this. Levis, welcome on the podcast.

[00:00:42] Levis: Thank you so much, Adam, for having me. It's such a joy to be here today.

[00:00:46] Adam: I'm really excited. Can we start off, can you tell us just a little bit about, your Diversity, Equity and Inclusion role, at PATH and what you do there.

[00:00:54] Levis: Absolutely. So I joined PATH about two years ago. Actually, my anniversary was last week. My two year anniversary

[00:01:00] Adam: Oh,

[00:01:01] Levis: was last. Thank you very much. And yeah, so I joined at a very interesting time and perhaps you know this there was the Black Lives Matters movement that, you know, happened, that awakening in 2020.

COVID 19 had just happened. Um, I think there was a reshaping of organizations as we know it, and particularly in the development sector. And at the time Path where I work, it's it's a global health nonprofit organization distributed across 70 countries. Um, and they also were as an organization, we're looking at their own values.

And so I joined it at a very interesting time. My role really is to ensure that we have an organization that is representative of the communities that we serve. We have an organization that creates a level. Playing field for everyone to advance and to grow in their careers.

And the other important bit is that we want an organization where, um, the people feel they can be their authentic selves. You can bring your whole self to work. That's a kind of organization that we are creating. That's my job in really simple terms. It's, it's cool, but it also has its own challenges.

But I think the coolness and the joy of it is really just. see the transformation and opportunities created for folks, particularly, in countries where we work, and Adam, perhaps, you know this, historically, when you look at the leadership, it's largely been a certain type of people in leadership roles, and we want to change that. We hope that this work will bring in more people, particularly those in the communities where we serve at the decision making table.

[00:02:49] Adam: Can you give a quick picture of the kind of clients that you serve, like what the ground mission is?

[00:02:55] Levis: Absolutely. So our mission at PATH is to advance global health equity through partnerships and innovations. And when we talk about partnerships, I would say our largest sort of, clients really is government. It's working with governments to ensure that we support them and we strengthen their health systems.

Um, you know, an example is like in Tanzania, we're working with the government of Tanzania to digitize their health records, for example, right? So that's just one example of the kind of work that we do. We are in vaccine development, diagnostics, advocacy, the whole spectrum really, um, sort of, that's the kind of work we do.

Of course, the final user of a product is really the communities themselves. It's the child somewhere in Uganda who will get a vaccine. It's the mother somewhere, you know, in Zambia who will get that malaria misquito net, for example. Um, so really that's the end user. But we tend to see, when we think about partnerships, it's really these collaborations with government to ensure that, um, that their health systems is actually strengthened and we support them in, preparing for epidemics and all of these things.

So it's a whole spectrum, Adam, honestly.

[00:04:15] Adam: Beautiful. And with such a large company, your role in there is raising that awareness. What are some of the projects that you work on to increase that? What does that look like?

[00:04:24] Levis: So we look at it from three pillars. Um, one is the people pillar, and the people pillar here, Adam, is thinking about our own staff, right, and how can we create a climate for our own staff to Thrive. How can we have a staff that's actually representative of those communities?

An example of a project we're doing around our people, is a year or so ago, we developed this project or program called Elevate Um, it's an executive sponsorship program, and the purpose of elevate really is to build the leaders of the future, particularly those from, you know, black communities, brown communities, um, Asian and Hispanic communities, right?

They go through a three months program with McKinsey Executive Academy, and then they're paired with an executive member off the leadership team. And the idea here is for them to learn and for doors to be opened for them to get larger assignments and and all of that.

So that's one of the areas we're doing around our people. The other pillar is our business practices. One of the programs we're doing around our business practices is really removing the biases within our own business practices from recruitment. ,an example I would give Adam is, recently we were looking at our H. R. Management system and historically been asking people their previous salaries. Now, yes, I know. Uh, So, now coming in, we realize how much asking someone the previous salary is perpetuates a bias, right? Particularly if you had been underpaid before. for. It's likely that you will ask, you know, for a similar range.

And so we removed asking that question in our recruitment process. And finally, in a, programming pillar, we have launched what we call the equity in programming benchmarks. And so this benchmarks want to look at how equitable our programs, right?

So it's a metric. You will, you know, evaluate between 1 to 4. Um, yeah. And the idea here of this different programs is that diversity equity inclusion is not just about, say, your staff alone, but it should cut across your practices, your policies, as well as your programming and how you actually approach, say, for in our case, public health.

How do we approach public health? Do we center the communities? Do we send to the priorities of the communities? Are we building partnerships with governments? Or community based grassroots organizations that are respectful in nature, you know, which of course we'll talk more about and how that ties in , to the ethical storytelling toolkit.

[00:07:15] Adam: I love that. Well, and just bringing up the point that, it's not just, Hey, here's a solution for the employees in the company, and what that means, but also how you, are working with the people on the grassroots because you are a very grassroots organization and you're working with governments and affecting individual lives.

[00:07:33] Levis: Absolutely.

[00:07:34] Adam: So that, that's really cool. So actually let's dive into that a little bit more because I'm very curious as well, like how that comes into effect when, you have a global organization and you're going into a new country, like how do you actually build up that awareness? What are some of the key things for developing that?

[00:07:53] Levis: It's not easy. You know, of course, the first place is awareness. But importantly, also, it's really one ensuring that sort of that diversity equity inclusion lens is embedded within the strategy of the organization. So that becomes, a platform that even when you're going to a new country, this is embedded in how it's we do business or how we work, right?

So that becomes very, very helpful.

[00:08:20] Adam: What does, what does that actually look like? Is that like, you know, something that comes from the leadership at the very top, or is it something that needs to be throughout the organization? How do you even approach that?

[00:08:29] Levis: It's complicated when you think about strategy to to be honest, of course, traditionally we think strategy executive level, right? Kind of thing, but I think what we're doing at PATH is There are 2025 strategy ensures that all of us staff have been involved in that process, and the bought into it, right from the executive team to the individual contributor. So that makes it a bit easier to translate that. But we wouldn't say that we are there yet, that everyone understands. I think it's really a work in progress when you, when you think about it and to your question, so once you have sort of this lens, when you're, you know, your organization or your staff leaders and individual contributors, understand this is our direction.

This is a key priority for us. So even as you say, you're going to say the government of Kenya , and saying, we would like to work together with you to advance the public health goals of your country. So whether it's around immunization, say for children, then it's not like this is what we have you need to do this, right? It's really understanding what are the needs or the priorities of the government of Kenya and how can we align our product and services or initiatives or intervention to the priorities of this government.

[00:09:55] Adam: And do you ever run into issues where it's like, yeah, you know, the, the effectiveness of something and you want to provide it. But then there's skepticism where people are like, why is this happening to me? Right?

[00:10:07] Levis: Yeah, absolutely. And the challenge I see is when particularly, you work with governments, you can have one government of the government of the day could be very supportive, say, of certain interventions, right? But then another government of the day. It's not supportive of certain interventions, but let me bring it even closer home Adam for you.

Let's think about public health interventions for LGBTQ people, and we work largely, in Africa and and we have an office in Kenya, in Uganda, you know, in different countries where LGBTQ laws are prohibitive.

[00:10:49] Adam: Hmm.

[00:10:50] Levis: And yet we know that we have data that shows that this is a major key population and they have higher rates of, contracting HIV, for instance, how then when we need to ensure that health is for all that there is access to everyone, right?

But then when you have laws in certain countries that, exclude certain communities, then it becomes challenging even when you have programs in mind to target this population, then it becomes challenging, to reach out to everyone in terms of, access to public health.

[00:11:27] Adam: And I can imagine there's a lot of fear there, like, hey, if I'm identifying myself in a place where who I am is illegal, right, like, not wanting to have that information public, and being very skeptical of any organization that's tracking that or providing that service . That sounds like a big challenge of, one, understanding the needs and how to deliver it in a way where, the community is open and receptive.

[00:11:54] Levis: absolutely. Yeah. So there's still work to be done.

[00:11:58] Adam: Have you noticed internally inside of PATH, is there a different education that's how to happen in order to communicate that back?

[00:12:07] Levis: At least inside of PATH of course we have policies that, are inclusive, and you're very clear about our policies and inclusion policies. Of course, diversity, equity, inclusion is embedded in our strategy and in our work. Um, one of my roles, of course, is to educate staff and continue making this a sort of a priority for leaders as well as individual contributors.

But truth is Adam we're not likely to get 100 percent everyone on board. There are people who have very strong convictions, you know, whether it's based on their social cultural backgrounds or faith or whatever. And we respect that. But what we say is that within the four walls of path will treat everyone with respect, with fairness, and with inclusion, that this is a place where, they belong when they are at path, they should belong here.

They belong at path, and so that's continuous. It's work that will is happening continuously because as humans, we all have our biases, right? And we bring those. Biases in our work we bring those biases in our communication, in our leadership and all of those things. So I would say, Adam, that it is work in progress that we are not yet there, but we're striving to be there. That's why DEI I think should still remain a priority for organizations.

[00:13:33] Adam: I think it's those biases which are, are so tricky. I mean, if I think about the stories that I tell myself about the way the world is, it's been built up from my experience from childbirth and if communities I grew up in weren't diverse or, or didn't have exposure to that, that's not part of my story. Or if there was negative stories from my childhood about a certain race or a certain group, you tend to not question those, and so building new stories can be a real challenge of breaking down and saying, Hey, here's what this is actually like and communicating that in an effective way.

[00:14:05] Levis: You nailed it, Adam. Absolutely.

[00:14:08] Adam: Which is a great segue into the guide to better conversations about ethical storytelling. What I've gathered from the toolkit is that it's exactly about this, about how do you capture those stories in a way that is respectful and not harming somebody, but also communicate them in a way that really shares those values.

So can you tell me a little bit about the toolkit and how it got started and what the motivation is there?

[00:14:28] Levis: Of course. I'm super excited. So first, I am so proud that I was part of this initiative on better conversations about ethical storytelling toolkit. So the project started about close to a year ago to be honest, just about there or less than a year ago. And, it brought in years Over 100 NGOs and campaigners to really develop it.

I mean it. 100 plus. The exact number is actually 1 42 or something. Yes,

I know. And the idea is, for coming of all this, folks together is really to revolutionize ethical storytelling and how we tell these stories and some of those organizations of course, path, we were involved. We had care. We had brack. We had African or filter, and other organizations that were really involved in this work. And the purpose, the why of this work is, Adam, that for a long time the stories that have been told have been very stereotypical, and when you even think about, global development sector, what has been happening is that we have seen the communities where the work happens, they're seen as problems rather than partners in developing solutions, right?

And and there is that single story, a single narrative. When you think about, you know, Africa, when I say Vietnam, when I say DRC Congo, Somalia, there's an image that comes into your mind, right? and that has been perpetuated over a long time. And so the coming together of this toolkit is really how can we change that?

How can we ensure that the experiences and the voices of the communities themselves are centered rather than the voices of, say, the donor or communication experts somewhere in the global now you know what I'm talking about? And so it's really about centering this community is centering the voices of the communities that we serve and , saying that this is a stereotype you've had, but let us show you another way of doing it.

And Adam, the idea of this guide or toolkit is even how it was designed is very conversational. As I said, it brought in 100 plus folks from an experts from the sector and from the communities himself to have a conversation knowing that the idea of what is ethical and what is not is debatable, right?

Very, very debatable. What is moral in one society and another is very debatable. So

[00:17:21] Adam: And it changes over time.

[00:17:23] Levis: Absolutely. And so it's a very conversational style. There's of course the toolkit itself. There's a series of videos as well. And it's to say there's not there's no one right way.

So let us come together. Let's have a conversation and chart a path forward for the sector and for us also as individual. Because all of us, I think our storytellers

[00:17:45] Adam: And one thing I really want to highlight that is, is I love the way you phrased it that there's been a long tradition of focusing on stories that highlight a community as here's the problem, as opposed to, here's how the community is partners in, in solving this. Right, so shifting that mindset from a savior perspective of like, yes, we're going to donate and solve this problem to, hey, we are going to develop solutions with the people that know it best and are involved in it because they are key partners to creating change.

[00:18:17] Levis: Yes, I love that

[00:18:19] Adam: And who is the toolkit intended for?

[00:18:22] Levis: one. The toolkit is intended for communicators. Those who are charged with communication within the humanitarian development sector. Secondly, of course, it's for the leaders who want to transform how they communicate impact. The other one is for for the public. You know, people who are listening to us.

It's for them to see. This is the narrative I've been having, say, about a certain community or a certain race or certain tribe or but now I need to rethink that. Right? And as you rightly say, so that we do not see folks as just problems, but they are collaborators, they're partners in coming up with solutions to this, global inequities and challenges in the world.

I don't want to say it's meant for everyone, but it is actually meant for everyone when you think about it. But it's largely for the communicators, the leaders and organizations within this space. And of course, hopefully it trickles down to really everyone who cares about telling a better stories.

[00:19:32] Adam: Now, throughout this whole process, was there anything that really surprised you or any key takeaways from the development of this?

[00:19:38] Levis: Oh, my God. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. For me you know, sometimes they come into a project or initiative and you think, Oh, I kind of like, you know, what I think, though, even the very definition of ethical storytelling evolved for me. That totally evolved, and it was not just about, writing the same stories or communicating the same stories the same way, but it was also like thinking, how do we even listen?

You know, to to, to the communities, right? So that was one that was a, is a key takeaway for me. the other, you know, a sort of surprise or key takeaway was just honestly the learning, and the stories from the community members in this workshops that were there listening how.

Let me take an example of compensation, and Adam, perhaps you know this, we go to communities and we capture their stories, whether it's through videos or interviews and stuff like that. And they probably spend the entire day with us and we tell them, thank you for your time. And we go, they spend a whole day or half a day. Should they be compensated? I think so. Yes. You know, so those are some of the things that I came up for me that I had, never thought about, or you've gone to the community and you've done the videos or whatever, you've gathered the stories and maybe the project has come to an end. Do you go back with this video back to the community and show them or do we just disappear in the thin air?

You know, yeah. So for me, I feel like the whole experience. of working on this tool kit. And I was very privileged to walk on a chapter together with my colleague David Berger at Path. And of course, our topic was around the business case. But when you look at the other topics, cause the toolkit has around six chapters.

When you look at, you know, Chapter one, the why, when you look at building trust and this aspect I'm talking about is in one of those chapters on building trust, right? And I learned so much you know, sort of from the co authors, it's just a rich toolkit that is full of surprises that will open up, your mind on how to actually tell stories in a more ethical and respectful way.

[00:22:11] Adam: That's fantastic. And one, just this idea of, I know so many nonprofits and it's like, okay, they need a story, you know, for, for their funding, right? To, to be able to tell. And if they, they go and they work with their clients, and are extracting value from them, where quite often, they're people that are in poverty or experiencing whether it's homelessness or trafficking or any number of issues, that can also be re traumatizing for them, but it can also... distract them from their very day where they're trying to survive. And so this idea that, Hey, yeah, actually things like compensating them can be very important, but also this idea of like, yeah, involve them in the solution and make sure that, they understand, Hey, how this is benefiting the world. So they can actually see the result.

I love that idea of like, yeah, we're not just taking your video and then you have no idea how it's being presented in the world, but including them in that final result so that they can see where it's going.

[00:23:03] Levis: Absolutely. Adam. Absolutely.

[00:23:07] Adam: That's neat. So what's your dream for this toolkit? How do you hope this will change the world?

[00:23:14] Levis: Wow,

[00:23:15] Adam: Big question. Sorry.

[00:23:16] Levis: a big question. That's a big question. Adam. I think for me as an individual is that, I don't want people to think this is just. A one off sort of guidance. I want this to stimulate conversations on how can we tell the stories in a more ethical way.

I wanted, to open up those conversations to learn from each other to, um, to design the future together. And, and this future is collaborative, so that for me is my hope that this toolkit will ignite, the conversations that we have shied away from having.

When you think about, if you're fundraising, say for refugees, um, or, you know, there's a crisis happening and you need to pull the resources together quickly. And you, you know, most of the time we'll easily just pick the images that depict need and whatever, whatever that will have this conversations that even in the case of emergencies and where time is a constraint, we're able to think about, ethical storytelling that will dignify people, right?

Even in that, even when we're trying to fundraise for hunger or our public health you know, issues, we saw it in COVID time. We saw it when there was this Monkeypox that was called monkeypox. That's that's that came right. We saw the images that were used that we saw the language even calling it that, so I would want my hope is that we'll have this, honest, open conversations that are rooted in our values and humanity and in dignity.

and that we will hopefully see communities is. Differently, you know, differently in the sense off, see them as empowered, see them as humans with value and dignity and see them as collaborators and partners in coming up with solutions rather than problems to solve. I hope also Adam that, We're now moving into AI, artificial intelligence.

That AI, I hope that AI will have the answers it comes up with, or the people who are inputting the algorithms and all of that will be diverse people. And the images that actually show up will be, dignifying to the communities, that are there. So even not only the traditional communication, when you think about it social media and mainstream media, or even, you know, this podcast, but it's really also thinking about the future.

And you think about artificial intelligence as well. My hope is that even this toolkit will help accelerate better stories, better representation, better images, better answers. For the communities, who have for a long time been underrepresented or misrepresented in the past.

[00:26:28] Adam: That's fantastic. Do you know how people can find out about the toolkit and get involved?

[00:26:33] Levis: Oh, yes. So we are very fortunate to have this toolkit based on DevEx website. So you go to DevEx you'll find the toolkit there with all the chapters in there and the videos as well. So it's in the pages of DevEx. Um, they can get that. Follow us as well on on LinkedIn. We have a LinkedIn page on better conversations about storytelling absolutely.

So this toolkit is available largely on DevEx as well as you can follow us on LinkedIn on that.

[00:27:09] Adam: Fantastic. And we'll have the links in the show notes on peoplehelpingpeople. world as well. Um, is there other ways that we can support you in the work that you're doing?

[00:27:18] Levis: Thank you, Adam. I think for me, the support is really amplifying this message across the different platforms that you have it's really that amplication. And embedding it also in how the stories you highlight say on this show, for example and I know I've seen your work quite a diverse set of guests and I really appreciate that.

So this also perspectives, different perspectives. Stories from different groups of people. I think I really celebrate you on that. You've done a fantastic job. So keep up doing that and elevating the voices who for a long time do not have this platforms. So thank you for this work and keep up the good work you're doing.

[00:28:02] Adam: Thank you. And if you're listening, the toolkit is just very illustrative. It's organized in a way that it's just very easy to go through and jump to an area which calls out to you. So if you're listening, please go check out the toolkit. It's free to access, and share it, share it with other people and help spread the word on this.

Because I think it's a really valuable tool. And I have this conversation a lot. I was talking with a non profit this morning, and the topic of ethical storytelling came up. And it's like, we're trying to figure this out for our group. So it's like, yes, here's a toolkit that you can use. but if you're listening, just if you have a way to share what this is, that there's so many people who are asking this very same question of how do I do this?

And so here's a great resource for that. So please do share that. And Levis, thank you so much. It's been such a pleasure talking to you and hearing about your story, both the work that you're doing in Pathlike. Internally in the company, as well as externally of how you communicate with all these, various partners throughout the world.

I think that's really neat balancing those two worlds and really changing the stories, right? I love this talking about how there's these stories that, that we tell that we haven't questioned. They're just habitual and it really takes, a little bit of effort to, to realize that and to see.

You know, a different story. Um, or to assume that, Hey, we've been doing our work as a nonprofit or whatever change work that we're doing in a certain way for so long. That maybe there's something that we're missing, which, is harming or bringing down the, the people that we're serving. So how can we learn and grow if that is so much as like, Hey, compensating the people that we're interviewing or, sharing with them, making sure that they see the results of the work so that they're a partner in that.

Invested in that.

[00:29:43] Levis: Absolutely, Adam. And, thank you so much for having me as well. And as I said, it's really a conversation. So we hope the toolkit will ignite these conversations so that we start questioning the status quo, and really designing a future that's inclusive, a future that's representative of the communities and that centers those communities as well.

Even when it can be expensive or even painful sometimes to kind of like make those changes. But yeah, you're right. It's a long conversation, but I'm happy that this toolkit, is able to do that. And I also want to thank the M&C Saatchi world services for really supporting and convening the workshops and bringing us together, designing the toolkit, the voices in the toolkit, other voices of the communities. And so a big shout out to, the M&C Saatchi World Services, as well as the Conrad Hilter Foundation for the grant that made this happen.

So I'm forever grateful that we have this for the sector.

[00:30:46] Adam: Yeah. And that was really fantastic of them to be able to pull together. All those stories together in a way that is, is very nicely presented.

So, well, thank you so much and thank you for listening. Go check out the toolkit.

[00:31:00] Levis: Thank you, Adam.

Ethical Storytelling
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