Can positive storytelling improve race relations? This LA-based collective thinks so

3 weeks ago 6

A transgender, homeless vet who is raising money so other transgender veterans can have access to health care and housing.

A former mafia “fix-it” guy for Hollywood A-list celebrities who sought redemption.

A former gang member in Compton who now works to get people out of gangs.

Their individual stories are like gusts of wind. Harnessed together, however, the group telling these and other stories hopes they may be able to generate significant energy capable of powering meaningful conversations that bring people together.

This is the optimism and belief that drives Positive Identity, a Los Angeles-based collective that not only aggregates positive, inspiring stories about people who represent a diversity of races, nationalities, religions and gender identities, but also produces a podcast, videos and other original content with the hope that storytelling that focuses on forgiveness, reconciliation, redemption and solutions can improve race relations and unify people in an increasingly polarized world.

Race relations eroded

Positive Identity founder Stephen Grey, a White filmmaker who launched the collective earlier this year with other like-minded friends and colleagues, says the group’s efforts spotlight stories that are all around us yet rarely lifted up.

“We see so many different communities around us do positive things,” he said in a recent interview. “We have so many people looking for solutions. People do amazing, unbelievable stuff all the time. I truly believe that when we lift up these stories, we can create a change in how communities perceive each other and how we fundamentally talk about each other.”

Grey added that content creators on staff come from diverse racial and cultural backgrounds, which gives them the knowledge, sensitivity and authority to tell or curate these stories.

A number of studies and polls have consistently shown over the past few years that race relations in America are at their worst. According to a 2019 Pew Research Center survey, about six in 10 Americans (58%) said race relations are generally bad, a view that was held by majorities across ethnic groups. The survey also found that Black people (71%) are considerably more likely than White and Latino people (56% and 60%, respectively) to express negative views about the state of race relations.

A Gallup survey in July showed that for the second consecutive year, U.S. adults’ positive ratings of relations between Black and White Americans fell to their lowest point in more than 20 years of measuring this data. The survey showed that right now, 57% of Americans say relations between the two groups are “somewhat” or “very” bad. Race relations further eroded in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd and the nationwide protests and calls for racial justice that followed.

Tough conversations

Having conversations in this polarized racial environment can be challenging, but there’s a way to do it, said Ron Bush, Positive Identity’s co-founder and content creator, who is also a stand-up comedian, actor and director.

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“If you corner people and call them a racist or a bigot, they’re going to retreat,” said Bush, who is gay and Black. “If you meet them where they are, sympathize and have a discussion without forcing them to be who you want them to be, it actually moves the needle. If just one person sees what we’re doing and that changes their life, they can change someone else’s life. And the ripple effect begins.”

He is currently working on a series of videos titled “12 Steps for America.”

“It’s like the program by Alcoholics Anonymous,” Bush said. “But we talk about how hating is like addiction. Anything you do compulsively, regardless of the negative impact, is an addiction.”

Making positive content doesn’t mean there is no acknowledgement of the real hardships out in the world, said David Beier, the company’s content director, whose mother is Palestinian and father White.

“I’m not a typical American,” he said. “Sometimes, I have privilege and other times, it gets yanked away. So based on my personal experience, I know that this is layered and complex subject. So our goal is to create something not just more inclusive, but actually showing the value of voices from different races, religions and backgrounds.”

Power of storytelling

Content director Leonora Anzaldua, a Chicana filmmaker and photographer, draws from personal experience as well. Her grandfather walked across the border from Mexico and several of her family members in southern Texas are immigrants. She has been working on presenting stories on Positive Identity’s site that speak about the contributions of immigrants to America.

“People often hear only the negative rhetoric,” she said. “It’s also important to understand that people who live in other parts of the world are also wonderful, kind, generous individuals who contribute to their societies. This country is not the only great place to be. When we understand what a beautiful world this this, we become more primed to embrace people from other parts of the world instead of fearing them.”

But do people really want to hear positive stories? Can these stories compete in a media ecosystem where murders, scandals and sensational tweets scream for attention?

Recent trends indicate that viewers are rewarding complex storytelling that weaves in positivity in addition to straight-out good news. For example, shows such as “Ted Lasso” and actor John Krasinski’s “Some Good News” doing exceptionally well, said Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, professor of psychology and faculty advisor of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley.

“It’s not an accident that shows like Ted Lasso are popular,” he said. “While it’s a very good show, its popularity also tells me that people want a break from all the negativity. They may not be actively looking for positive stories. But they are finding new ways to relax.”

Hopeful outlook

The effective stories are also ones that are not just positive, but also told well, Mendoza-Denton said.

“Storytelling is a great way to humanize the other,” he said. “For example, if I have a negative conception of a group, to see small clips of positive behavior can be a way to soften those attitudes or conceptions. It helps humanize people whom we may not normally view as trustworthy.”

Having a positive slant to a story may not only grab attention, but help viewers understand the complexity of an issue in a manner that’s not threatening, Mendoza-Denton said.

“It takes courage and a moral stance by whoever the decision makers are to promote this type of content,” he said.

Grey and Bush say they are optimistic and hopeful that their content will create those positive ripples of change, even if they may just be a drop in the bucket right now.

“We have people like Steve Jobs who created products we didn’t even know we needed until they were made,” Bush said. “What we’re doing is a very different approach to hot-button issues. I’m hopeful people will get it. Eventually, you do get tired of all the hate and negativity.”

Grey believes in the lessons of history.

“History has shown us that optimists win, at least most of the time,” he said. “If we don’t have optimism, we all fall. We have to believe. People may want clicks and controversy right now. But we also know people want to believe in each other.”

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