Four Tips on How To Use Storytelling In Your Work

by Institute for Family | Jun 15, 2022

Tips from the Unbelievably Resilient team on how organizations can leverage storytelling in their work with authenticity, while honoring storytellers with lived expertise in navigating various systems.

UR team: Keri Hope Richmond, Lino Peña-Martinez, Adrian McLemore, Ria Esteves

In the Seen Out Loud podcast, we often host guests who are open to sharing their personal experiences on involvement with child welfare and other systems. Through their stories, listeners can hear about experiences that many families face from perspectives that aren’t often shared. Stories like these can build empathy and understanding and open the listener up to new ways of thinking.

While storytelling is essential for influencing personal, social, and systemic changes, we’ve learned through the process of talking with our guests that not all storytelling puts the storyteller in the driver seat. It’s imperative that when engaging those with experience navigating various systems that we value the storyteller for their expertise and create an open, welcoming environment for their voices to be heard.

“I think having proximity to the people that you’re trying to serve, building relationships, if you’re an organization or a professional that says that you want to engage individuals with lived expertise, be intentional about how you do that. Really think through your processes.”

On Season 2, Episode 5 of Seen Out Loud Keri Hope Richmond, who spent time in foster care and now works as a manager of child welfare policy for the American Academy of Pediatrics and as the Executive Director of Unbelievably Resilient, talks about her experience as a storyteller with lived expertise. She reflects on the times she felt empowered by telling her story and times she felt tokenized and unvalued.

In 2020, Keri and other young adults who have spent time in foster care founded Unbelievably Resilient (formerly FosterStrong), an organization with aims of changing the stigmas and stereotypes surrounding youth in care through storytelling. We asked her and her fellow members of Unbelievably Resilient for tips for organizations and practitioners interested in engaging those with lived expertise and using storytelling as a strategy in their work. Here’s what they said.

UR Unbelievably Resilient Artwork

Seek authenticity over agenda

Engage storytellers with lived experience in a trusting relationship versus a transactional one, and give them the freedom to share their experiences in their own words.


“I think having proximity to the people that you’re trying to serve, building relationships, if you’re an organization or a professional that says that you want to engage individuals with lived expertise, be intentional about how you do that. Really think through your processes.”

Keri Hope Richmond

“I always felt like I had to have a picture-perfect response because I’m speaking to people in the community. I realize that I just need to tell my story and be true to what I feel. And some people might not like it and maybe some people will, but at least I’m being honest.”

Maraide Green

Create a safe and supportive environment

Be thoughtful with the storyteller and the audience in preparing for the storytelling experience.

“Engaging in storytelling with people who have lived experience should be a relational and intentional process. If there is no preparation or pause to ask important questions about the story, we may leave the storyteller feeling tokenized, emotionally naked, and even re-traumatized.

“This sort of collateral damage can be avoided by asking questions like: What is the purpose and goal of telling the story? Is the storyteller comfortable sharing what they are sharing? Is the platform and the storyteller aligned on the goals of sharing? How is the organization or platform creating a safe place for the storyteller to share? And how is the organization or platform supporting the storyteller after they have shared their story, and giving space to honor what a gift it is for someone to embrace vulnerability and share these pieces of themselves?

“When we ask better questions, we can get clear on expectations, and share stories in a way that contributes to the change we hope to see in the world.”

Keri Hope Richmond

Unbelievably Resilient - Keri Hope Richmond
Deep dive into family stories and insights from industry leaders and storytellers with lived expertise on full episodes of Seen Out Loud. See show notes, bonus content and more on our podcast website.
Seen Out Loud Podcast by Institute for Family
“The stories that can shake the world deserve care, right? Too many times we focus on the story itself. Everybody loves a rags to riches story. The reality is that these stories are tender, they’re open wounds that are gushing out and we [as storytellers with lived experience] have to patch it up. So we must focus on providing support throughout that process, providing a benefit to [the storyteller], tending to their needs by making sure they’re not activated, etc., and focusing on supporting them in the “now” is important.”

Lino Peña-Martinez

“I think it’s very important to be transparent when you are discussing these conversations. In the social work field, we like to say we are having courageous conversations. These are conversations that need to be had, they are very heartbreaking, they are traumatic, but they need to be put out there. So just be very transparent and kind. I don’t know if you should put a trigger warning or just “hey just so you know this is very serious content, if you’re not at a place to hear it then drop a save and come back.” Just be very clear with what you’re sharing.”

Ivy-Marie Washington

Value storytellers for their expertise

Understand what the storyteller is re-experiencing by telling their story, respect them as experts, and compensate them for their time.

“I would say making sure that we’re not tokenizing the individual who is sharing their story but that we’re really looking to listen, learn, and to look at them as the true experts of their experience.”

Keri Hope Richmond

““I would say that you’re making sure that you’re not exploiting the voice that you’re uplifting. Make sure that when you’re asking them about their story that there’s a benefit to them as much as it benefits you. But most importantly benefiting [the storyteller] because they’re sharing a big piece of themselves. You should be sure you’re not exploiting their stories while [storytellers] are still trying to spread awareness and get the message out.”

Slam Anderson

Respect the Storyteller’s Intentions

Ask the storyteller why they’re telling their story to ensure alignment on expectations, and keep an open mind to what their stories have to teach us.

“We need to talk and share our stories to see change.”

Keri Hope Richmond

“I think that sometimes it is perceived that we tell our stories for ourselves. That is not the case. We tell our stories so that other people, all those youth coming after us, don’t have to go through the same thing that we did.”

Tori Hope Petersen

I feel like we all tell our stories for a bigger reason and that is to change the narrative surrounding foster care. It’s important that we tell our stories so that we all can begin to change our perspectives and not just “throw the whole person away” because they had a traumatic childhood.

Maraide Green

In lessons shared in Season 2, Episode 5 with Keri Hope Richmond and here from the Unbelievably Resilient team, we’re continuously learning how to be better allies for storytellers with lived expertise. By valuing the storyteller for their expertise and vulnerability, and respecting their story through authenticity and intentionality, we can all work to create space for empathy, understanding, and change.


Connect with Unbelievably Resilient for consultation on storytelling opportunities

For more information on how to engage storytelling and lived expertise, connect with Unbelievably Resilient for consultation and learn more about their work.

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