Surveys are not stories and school leaders are not superheroes

Who somebody is or was we can only know by knowing the story of which he himself is the hero.

Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition

Every now and again I enjoy sticking a key word in TED Talks search facility, select a talk and open my mind to what the presenter has to say. I guess the experience offers relief from the printed word and allows one to connect with the communicator in a different way. Whatever, listening is the thing, like all good stories.

Recently, I particularly enjoyed two talks where presenters shared their belief in and experience of the empowering aspects of community organising. The presenters were Gerardo Calderón and Rabbi Dara Frimmer. A bit on both.

Gerardo Calderón was born and raised in El Salvador. Calderón suggests that many of the large social movements throughout history are strongly marked with the central leading figures, those who we call heroes. But real social movement comes from the supporting community that stand in the shadow. In his talk, Calderón, drawing from his personal experiences in social movements, discusses what he calls the real heroes of social justice. Calderón begins his talk by sharing his inner and outer response to a question once posed by one of his American friends. He was asked “Which kind of superheroes do you guys in El Salvador have?” Calderón says that he responded with, “We don’t really have superheroes down there.” Then he thought on his own response. He realised that in his country:

… since the very beginning in the family and in schools we are taught that if we want to see change, if we want to foster change, we have to get together with other people, build relationships and act as a family, act as a community. That’s why we don’t really feel the need of superheroes.

Dara Frimmer is a Rabbi at Temple Isaiah in Los Angeles. Rabbi Frimmer was recognized in 2014 as the Human Rights Rabbi of the Year by T’ruah, the national Jewish justice organization. The award recognised her leadership at Isaiah, among interfaith communities in Los Angeles, and nationally, on issues of health, environment, education, hunger and human rights. Rabbi Frimmer’s talk poses two questions: Can true change be made by one person? Or does change occur more efficiently when others are involved? For, one of the biggest challenges we face as agents of social change is that we forget to learn people’s stories as we attempt to enlist them in our cause.

Frimmer points out that what we care about is deeply connected to who we are, our life experiences, our pain and disappointment as well as our greatest joy. She says that if we can just remember to get at those sorts of stories and share those of our own we are far more likely to create a network of committed people who are ready to bring about social change.

For me, the stand out point that Frimmer made is this.

We live in an age of surveys. The problem is that surveys don’t work for social change”

Wrestling with this issue – after being just as prone to issuing surveys as we in schools are – the Temple Isaiah community focused on sharing stories and experiences connected to those stories. For example, the struggle to care for ageing parents as well as children.

Rabbi Frimmer suggests that surveys will never be able to reproduce the feelings and the emotions and the sense of connection that people receive when you sit together and listen to people telling their stories. “Surveys are not stories.” Stories remind us that what we think are deeply personal, private issues are in fact shared public concerns. Imagine, Frimmer says, if we began to work on any of these shared issues together

Sharing stories out loud gives a chance for us to see ourselves differently, as well as other people, and they can even begin to change how we see the world. Frimmer claims that such connections lead to a sense of accountability on both sides. We share stories and we reveal something powerful and important about what we really care about, and if we can remember those stories then we can offer people a real opportunity to act on their self-interest. Further, that this is the accountability you need if you want to turn people out for your events… “I need you to show up for me and you are far more likely to say yes if I know your story.”

Rabbi Frimmer acknowledges that sharing your story may well be an expression of vulnerability and be completely counter-cultural. She says that If you want to use your story for social change you must exercise calculated vulnerability. This challenges you to consider what you are prepared to share about yourself, who you are and what you care about so that the people listening really understand you and your interests. More importantly, that your story will invite others to share a story as well.

In her treatise on the Human Condition, the eminent philosopher Hannah Arendt declared:

Who somebody is or was we can only know by knowing the story of which he himself is the hero.

Arendt posits that stories connect us to actions, not abstractions. Stories connect people directly with one another with a power that generalities (surveys?) miss.

So what? For me, this is what…

Gerardo Calderón’s friend’s question triggered an inner interrogation that led to a response that drew on his own story. He was raised in a place that saw no need to seek superheroes, for family, school and community recognised the power of WE. A community and culture that would recognise the sentiment expressed in the union song…

Step by step the longest march
Can be won can be won
Many stones can form an arch
Singly none singly none
And by union what we will
Can be accomplished still
Drops of water turn a mill
Singly none singly none

Rabbi Frimmer and the Isaiah Temple community in Los Angeles embraced a sharing and weaving together of community members’ stories. These personal experiences, memories, and motivations solidified the group and drove purposeful action and social change. Personal issues became shared public issues. Exercising of calculated vulnerability led to community organising and action. A community, too, that would recognise the sentiment expressed in the union song.

So what? And to the nub of it…

I have an ever growing interest in the question, How can parents and families be involved in schools in ways that benefit both their own empowerment and their children?

Recognising that:

  1. the roles that schools offer parents are often limited and may not tap into many available strengths and resources;
  2. the issue is compounded by the reality that a general tendency of parents to act as individuals rather than as a group will dilute the impact of family involvement in schools.

It is my view that we must create and develop new roles for families, making use of their strengths and expertise. If schools genuinely seek engagement with families and community they must create democratic mechanisms for empowerment and participation. Parents would do well to question the assumption that schools automatically and fully understand the best interests of their families and local community. They may well ask themselves, From what source did school derive our story? A story that informs their (school’s) actions – remembering that surveys are not stories. School leaders are NOT qualified superheroes (Who is?). Parents should expect leaders in the school they have chosen for their child to exercise calculated vulnerability and practise shared story-telling; listening to family and community narrative, in turn. Parents way to this should be eased by the democratic structures erected and protected by school. School leaders need to recognise that democratic family participation in schools may not always be the most efficient way of decision making and planning. However, the benefits for children make it worthwhile. Creating opportunities for respectful and democratic engagement in and around our school communities must surely be one of the most pressing and important issues in the world we inhabit today. We can set off on that road by sharing our stories. But we need to know one another’s first…

I offer a coaching service to schools and school leaders on community capacity building. The approach I advocate is one based on relational leadership and lessons drawn from the field of community organising. I begin by listening and seeking to understand both school narrative and community narrative. We then work on bringing the two together by designing and embedding a relationship-centred and dialogical problem-solving approach that works for your school community. This process is bonded by the connections between people that are based on values of respect, trust, mutuality, reciprocity and dignity, and which result in conviviality, compassion and cooperation. Collective efficacy and action grow in strength as individuals form groups, groups identify issues and develop projects that recognise and harness the potential in the overlapping spheres of influence in the lives of our young people: family, school and community. We build school community partnership and generate this sort of activism by bringing people together and adopting a number of tried and tested, and impactful, techniques.

As an outsider I can bring a fresh perspective to issues. This is particularly useful where the issues are highly charged. In the first instance, my relationship with parents and community is established by directly seeking out their stories.

If this is something that interests you and you would like a first conversation then please contact me on 07793055719 or email me at

4 thoughts on “Surveys are not stories and school leaders are not superheroes

  1. gilchristgeorge

    Another thought provoking post Simon. I was talking to my daughter, who is an Occupational Therapist specialising in Dementia care, about this very thing today. People’s stories, and their narrative of their story, are so much a part of them, and understanding them, that we have to take the time to hear and understand these. That narrative becomes embodied in their behaviours, actions and thinking. Understanding this is important in building powerful communities of action, as well,as understanding individuals. There is a danger that we are so ‘busy’ in education, with surveys and data collection, we fail to create the time and the space to hear those narratives properly.


    1. simonmfeasey

      So very true, George. Heartening, too, that your daughter has the insight and respect for the personal narratives carried by those in her care. I like too that you highlight the importance of both individual and community narrative. We must listen to both and generate action together.


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