What We’re Listening To: The Danger of a Single Story by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

The Danger of a Single Story by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie


“Show people as one thing and that is what they become,” the author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie states in her 2009 TEDTalk, The Danger of a Single Story. These simple words strung together pack quite a punch and deliver a profound truth, holding significant relevance not only in literature, but also in the field of grantmaking.

In her talk, Adichie introduces herself as a storyteller, recounting her early experiences as a child growing up in Nigeria reading British and American books that led her to initially write stories featuring only foreign characters and settings. Using personal stories, Adichie summons a clear connection as to how her early narrow reading of people, places, and cultures built a similarly narrow perception of what certain people were capable of, how certain places looked and felt, and which cultures were superior or inferior.

Adichie underscores a critical point: single stories are not just incomplete but can perpetuate stereotypes. “The telling of stories is defined by power structures. The powerful not only tell the story of another person but can make it the definitive story of that person.”

So much of philanthropy is about storytelling. Funders tell their origin stories, and grant seekers tell stories of the people and communities they represent. In my role as the Knott Foundation’s Program Director and as the Grants Manager, my job consists largely of translating, interpreting, and creating stories about the work of the Knott Foundation as well as the communities in which we work.

I love this work. I enjoy creating emotional connections and using stories to enhance relationships, as Adichie describes the work of a story. While I love the work, listening to the TEDTalk brought into focus something I had been unable to really crystalize in my head for several years: the power of the story to create connections and relationships is formidable, powerful. However, if guided by stereotypes and viewed solely through a single lens, the story also has the power to “rob people of their dignity.”

Compiling grant reviews, transcribing conversations, generating grant evaluations – we foundation-based storytellers are writing the record not just of a grant, but of a community, a people, an institution. How these stories are told matters. Through this work, grantmakers wield significant power in shaping the narratives of the communities and the organizations they support.

Delving into the complex stories behind many grant requests takes time and requires a willingness to let the community speak for itself. Sometimes the stories they tell are not the ones we want to hear, but they are the ones we need to hear and share. While we focus on collecting data, we cannot fail to recognize and report back on the dignity, creativity, and tenacity of those we serve. We need to shift the focus of whatever problem we are seeking to solve from the people to the context around the problem.

Adichie’s talk, while profoundly resonating with me professionally, also struck a chord personally. As a resident of Baltimore City, it is hard not to feel as though your story, the story of Baltimore, is understood solely from a narrative of violence, ugliness, and apathy. If you care to look through another lens, however, you will see that Baltimore is far more – it is a city where neighbors come together to support each other, where innovation thrives in unexpected places, and where the spirit of the people shines brightly even during some of the most challenging times.

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, a story is “a description, either true or imagined, of a connected series of events.” Stories can lift us up or pull us down. By examining how we tell stories and whose stories we are telling, we can foster a more inclusive and compassionate understanding of our communities… and even ourselves. We can change the impact of this powerful tool that has often “been used to dispossess and to malign,” to instead, “empower and humanize.” Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity. I highly recommend spending 18:32 minutes of your life watching Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TEDTalk and reflecting on your own storytelling.

By Kathleen McCarthyi