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ICYMI: Power of Personal Stories Help Rebuke RNC Depictions of Immigrants and America

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Yesterday, we highlighted that the powerful primetime speeches of Nevada-based Dreamer Astrid Silva and 11-year old Karla Ortiz and her mother, Francisca, at the Democratic convention offered a humanizing rebuke to the portrayal of immigrants as criminals on display at the RNC.

While a massive-sample Gallup poll from last week found that 84% of Americans favor a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, including 76% of Republicans, the GOP continues to narrowcast its fearful message about immigrants to the small contingent of diehard immigration opponents. As a result, the DNC’s recognition of immigrants as already part of America more accurately captures the public’s view compared with the dark and “othering” display of the previous week at the RNC. As America’s Voice Executive Director Frank Sharry said, “The decision to prominently feature undocumented immigrants and mixed status families at the DNC gave America a window into the passion of millions of hard working immigrants yearning to be formally recognized by a nation they already call home.”

In a new Washington Post story, excerpted below, Janell Ross assesses another reason why Karla Ortiz’s speech was so important – it taps into the fundamental power that storytelling has to transform politics:

“The story was simple, almost deceptively so. An 11-year-old girl, accompanied by her mom, took the podium at the Democratic National Convention Monday night and brought the country inside her world.

She is an American, Las Vegas born. Her parents are undocumented immigrants working unspecified jobs in Karla’s hometown. Every day as Karla makes her way to school she’s filled with a specific fear. That is the fear one or both of her parents may simply be gone, picked up by federal immigration officials and put on the path to deportation. She fears that she will come home and find it empty. She fears her parents won’t be around to help her find rare rocks in the Las  Vegas desert. Karla wants to become a lawyer to help families like her own.

Implied but not said: This is the daily burden shouldered by millions of people who entered the country illegally from countries where the proverbial legal ‘immigration line,’ requires a wait of 20-plus years. That is especially true for those from nearby countries. These parents who go to work each day and their American-born children are the very people who Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump aims to deport, en masse. That’s his fix. Soon to be Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton thinks the country needs a more nuanced set of immigration reforms.

Out in the convention hall and the living rooms of America where Karla’s story was heard there were, no doubt, a variety of responses. But, most fall into one of two broad categories.

They are goosebumps or some less visible variation thereof and aversion, be it rejection and a channel change or seething anger paired with continued viewing. Both broad responses are at their core, emotional and telling. They are the kind of reactions any therapist with an available 50 minute-hour would deem worthy of examination. We react as we do to effective political storytelling for reasons that reveal volumes about the human mind, American politics and how, in a democracy, political victories are won.

Here’s the thing: little Karla Ortiz came out and told a story. In the process, she accomplished what many a great-on-paper political candidate, long-suffering activist and dinner-table political commentator has not. She activated the parts of the human brain that help to make us unusual as a species and put us at the top of the food chain.

Healthy human brains come equipped to take in facts and process information via logic and different forms of reasoning. But how we interpret and then act on these facts is also shaped by what we feel, and what those feelings lead us to believe to be real. It’s the combination of thought and feeling that shapes politics and the effectiveness of all political activity, said Marshall Ganz, a lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School of government.

‘When most people think of politics they think of arguments or argumentative speechmaking,’ said Ganz. ‘But, what we know is that it’s stories, stories told in a particular way, that are much more effective. The capacity to instruct the heart, not just the head is what that gives storytelling such power. It’s through them — when told the right way — that then we experience moral or emotional insight into the lives of others.

…This storytelling stuff can work.

…Now, back to little Karla Ortiz. In standing up and taking Americans inside what she thinks and feels every day, Karla also expressed a deep kind of faith in the country’s commitment to a certain kind of decency, compassion. She all but raised the question, does the United States remain committed to those ideas carved on that tablet held in the Statue of Liberty’s arms, or not?”