Stories as a Medium for Change: A Reflection on the Storied Lives Project

Stories have the power to make change; this is a driving idea behind the Storied Lives project, a SSHRC-funded research project hosted by the Live Work Well Research Centre, the Community Engaged Scholarship Institute, and the Guelph-Wellington Task Force for Poverty Elimination, that aims to improve peoples’ understandings of the complex experiences of individuals living with poverty in Ontario and beyond. At the heart of Storied Lives is a series of four podcasts, each telling a composite story. They are fictional narratives, based on a collection of true accounts, that allow people with lived experience to share their knowledge. Each composite story is followed by a short discussion with a community activist with expertise in combatting poverty. Listeners are asked to complete pre- and post-surveys, which aim to improve our understanding of how stories impact perceptions of poverty.

The process of developing the podcasts began with a series of focus groups with a diverse range of individuals living with poverty to learn about their unique circumstances and barriers to access. Knowledge learned through the focus groups created the foundation for the podcasts. Aidan Lockhart, a graduate research assistant on the Storied Lives team, used insights from the nuanced, personal experiences shared by those facing issues of poverty to create composite narratives to fill an important gap in public discourse and education. Whether it is ‘Saving Grace’, which details the complexities of living with poverty and disability in both rural and urban areas, or ‘Quota’, which highlights challenges faced by racialized newcomers who speak English as an additional language, each of these stories is rooted in focus group participants’ lived experiences. This makes the stories’ calls to action even more urgent.

The interviews with poverty experts featured at the end of each story help listeners digest the content. In ‘Old Enough to Hit’, Leiran Docherty of the Women Abuse Council of Toronto discusses systemic inequality as the root cause of poverty. Women are more likely to live in poverty, and poverty is both a cause and a consequence of gender-based violence. In ‘Paying Customers Only’, Dr. Akwatu Khenti, assistant professor at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, describes the intersection of access variables. Black and other racialized people living with poverty and mental health challenges often face additional struggles due to racial stigmatization. Each accompanying interview contextualizes its respective story in the current Canadian social context.  

In June 2022, the podcast series was released at a launch party, hosted at 10 Carden in Guelph. About 30 community members participated in the event, which included a panel of community researchers and artists, some of whom were involved in the project, and others of whom work in areas adjacent poverty elimination. Panelists shared their experiences in the research and creative processes, and/or the impact they hoped the stories would have in the broader community. Then, audience members had the opportunity to listen to one of the four podcasts, and to participate in a follow-up discussion about the podcast and its content. Listeners were also invited to complete the pre- and post-survey about the impact of the stories. The podcasts and accompanying surveys are available here – have a listen!

In a society that is increasingly defined by what separates its constituents rather than what binds them together, it is easy for people who are marginalized to be left out. Individualism is encouraged, and easier to pursue when the experiences of others are hidden away from sight. Stories can shine a light on the complex realities of peoples’ lives. Through art, realities about the world can be presented in a way that captivates audiences and encourages them to care about others. Stories have the power to awaken people to the problems plaguing society and – we hope – to spark collective action. As the findings from the Storied Lives project emerge, we look forward to learning more about how stories – and podcasts as an artistic medium – can inform change that leads towards poverty elimination.


Poverty; Stories; Art; Activism