The Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy and the Social Sciences

RLF Recap: "Storytelling and Advocacy: Tools for People-Powered Policymaking"

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After spending the last session of RLF focusing on recruitment strategies, the Fellows returned to regular programming this Thursday with Shasti Conrad as the speaker. Conrad has spent much of her career working on public policy, including earning an MPA at Princeton. Her time working in this field has taught her the importance of messaging as a leader, knowledge which she shared with the Fellows. Specifically, Conrad focused the session on utilizing storytelling as an advocacy tool for people-powered policy making.  


The primary topic Conrad used to guide the session was student debt. To introduce the topic, Conrad shared her personal experiences with student debt, which helped set the tone for the rest of the session with its focus on narratives. Adapting Marshall Ganz’s Public Narrative strategy of storytelling, the Fellows were tasked with crafting their own stories to promote a specific student debt policy in small groups. This storytelling strategy uses two frames for messaging, “why the policy issue matters” and the “how the desired policy can be achieved”. These frames enable the policymaker to turn value connections into action. After using this strategy to develop their own stories, the Fellows regrouped, shared, and discussed what worked best in the different stories and why.

Many of the speakers this term have focused on effective communication, and there is good reason for that: As Conrad says, “At the end of the day you have to get people to care about what you are talking about.” A common sentiment among a number of the speakers has been that a leader is not just about having good ideas, but about turning those ideas into actionable plans and eventually concrete results. In the framework of policy making, Conrad shared that, no matter how well written a bill is, to get that bill through the system you have to intrigue people and appeal to their values. She continually emphasized that understanding how to tell compelling stories to advance policies is important to advocacy and enables connection building.

Strong parallels can be drawn between this session and the session led by Drew Jacobs of the Ariel Group during the Fall Retreat. During this session, Jacobs also taught the Fellows the importance of storytelling to connect with others and underlined the importance of relationship building as leaders. In a similar vein, Conrad told the Fellows that as leaders, people have to like you, trust you, and believe you can get job done. If these three conditions are not met, people will not follow you, undermining your informal authority.

As a final note for her session, Conrad reminded the Fellows that as emerging leaders graduating from an elite academic institution, they will be empowered to speak up for themselves and others. Yet leaders should also know when to pass the proverbial (and sometimes real) microphone to individuals that have limited opportunities to share their stories. Conrad left the Fellows with the parting question–and challenge, “Who are you bringing with you as those doors open for you?”

-Written by Maria Smith-Lopez, Class of 2021 Rockefeller Leadership Fellow and Student Program Assistant

As Rockefeller Leadership Fellows, seniors gain a better understanding of the qualities and responsibilities expected of leaders. As Fellows take part in the workshops, discussions, and team-building exercises, they examine their skills, qualities, and attributes as leaders and analyze how these influence teamwork and achieving goals. 

The Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy and the Social Sciences