If you’ve been anywhere near the internet lately, you’ve seen how the shape of social justice is changing. Issues are being defined by hashtags and hashed out online, in real time, in the form of posts, videos, and profound personal accounts.
To better understand what unites all the activism happening in our newsfeeds, we got in touch with the It Gets Better Project, an organization that’s no stranger to driving critical conversations. What began as a wildly successful social media campaign to provide hope to young LGBTQ+ people has evolved into a multimedia platform capable of reaching millions annually. They’ve partnered with EF for several of our Global Leadership Summits, teaching students how to use social media to inspire global change.
Director of Education and Global Programming and former teacher himself, Justin Tindall, joined the It Gets Better Project in 2014. “The original movement was one video, and the creators, Dan Savage and Terry Miller, thought that they could spur some local action,” Tindall explains. “Their hope was very small in comparison to what happened, which cued us in to the fact that there was something bigger here.”
“It seems very simple, but what was at the core of that video and the original It Gets Better campaign—what made it go so viral—was that storytelling is extremely vital to all communities, but particularly to marginalized ones like the LGBTQ community.” Because of their unique position as a nonprofit media organization, Tindall emphasizes that inclusivity and empowering their followers is the main priority. “We’re telling the stories of every single niche of our community to the best of our abilities.”
Looking at the success of the Its Gets Better Project over the past eight years, it’s obvious that storytelling can be used as a tool. “The value in stories,” Tindall reasons, “is that everybody can relate to at least a piece of every story that is told.” He likens the process of sharing a story to building a bridge, explaining how people “may not realize it in the process of telling their story, but they are literally giving kids a blueprint for how they can navigate the same spaces or the same experiences. That’s where the value of the story comes in. It really does teach us who we can be and what we can achieve.”
We also asked Tindall why he thinks young people should develop this skill now. “Just take a look at the Parkland students from down in Florida,” Tindall points out. “It’s no wonder that the majority of the ones we see all over the news—leading rallies and marches and speaking so eloquently to the media outlets—so many of them come from a theater program at their school, where they were literally taught how to tell a story.”
“More and more, young people like the Parkland students are being put into situations that are complicated and nuanced, and the more you can personalize and really get to the heart of the issue, which is so much easier with a story, the better off your argument or your cause is.”
According to Tindall, once their storytelling skills are honed, many kids are ahead of the curve when it comes to sharing their perspective. “There are young people who create—they do a drawing that 20 years ago would have stayed in their Trapper Keeper. Now, when they post it on a platform like Tumblr or Twitter, all of a sudden they’re getting 150,000 reshares, which is unbelievable. I think that’s probably the coolest thing to watch. It’s not necessarily the new ways of storytelling, but the new ways of getting the stories out there.”
With the inherent value of stories and the immense reach the current media landscape provides in mind, we asked for Tindall’s stance on the interplay between the two: Can you have social change today without storytelling and social media? “I’m probably being hyperbolic here,” Tindall ventures, “but I don’t think any social change has occurred that hasn’t had a storytelling component.”
“When we were younger, we weren’t just taught about the civil rights movement. No, what happened is that we heard the story of Rosa Parks. We heard the story time and again of her experience getting on that bus, expressing her fatigue, being rejected, and just standing her ground. Again, that story was mapping out how to give full resistance, how to sit and simply say, ‘No, I’m not going to tolerate this.’”
“I think social media is just the current media,” Tindall speculates. “The mediums will come and go. That’s always going to be in flux. Whatever they are, whether it be art, radio, or some new technology, I think storytelling will always be at the center of it and really be the most compelling piece.”
The only way storytelling truly works is if we’re willing to listen, and unfortunately, “it’s natural for us to hear what we want to hear,” Tindall says. “More and more on social media, our attention spans are getting shorter.” But Tindall believes young people are better listeners than we give them credit for, highlighting how “the majority of us in the world are consumers of content; we are not necessarily the creators.”
“When I was a teacher, one of my favorite things to do was give my students 100% complete downtime where, literally, I would dim the lights, take away the books, and ask my students to just to sit with the content that they had been exposed to for 10 minutes. They couldn’t read. They couldn’t grab another book. They couldn’t doodle. They just had to sit there in silence.” He believes that pressing pause on the day and making space for reflection can make all the difference.