Human Rights Through the Art of Compassionate Rebel Storytelling

It has been said that whoever tells the stories, defines the culture. Perhaps that’s why people are looking for new stories, stories where the response is not violence, retaliation, and war, stories where basic human rights are not violated. Everyone wants to believe that human beings can make better choices than the ancient paths of destruction and despair.

The events of September 11, 2001 came as a new story to most Americans, but others around the globe have been living with similar atrocities for generations.

In addition to stories of armed retaliation, however, more and more stories have begun to emerge that speak to the more powerful, graceful part of ourselves when we let our pain and anger serve as a catalyst for rebelling against the status quo and taking compassionate action.

We first discovered the power of such stories when we began to wonder what would happen if we told stories not just from the vantage point of the victim but from a place of power and a belief that ordinary citizens can effect social change when faced with adversity and outrage. These are compassionate rebel stories.

Shortly before September 11, 2002, we collected a number of such inspiring stories and published them as The Compassionate Rebel: Energized by Anger, Motivated by Love. Now this collection canprovide the new stories we so desperately need to stop the cycle of violence escalating in the world around us. In these compassionate, rebellious acts of ordinary people, human rights are affirmed. Such stories of how people have responded to “That’s not fair” help us to tap into our own compassionate rebellion to create other stories and through them to change our culture.

The compassionate rebel exists in all of us. Our challenge is developing ways to tell our own stories and bear witness to the stories of others in order to create a more just society and protect the human rights of all.

We present the following lessons in hopes that the power of our stories put us on a more humane path.

Rebecca Janke Growing Communities for Peace

Compassionate Rebel Storytelling

PART ONE: Stories of Compassionate Rebels

1.    Story Selection:

Select appropriate compassionate rebel stories from The Compassionate Rebel: Energized by Anger, Motivated by Love by Burt Berlowe, Rebecca Janke and Julie Penshorn. The book may be purchased or five stories are available on the website .

2.    Study Team assignment:

a)    Introduce the assignment with a discussion of the idea that “Whoever tells the stories, defines the culture” (see above). Ask students to identify familiar narratives, real or fictional, that illustrate how stories convey the values of their society. b)    Divide students into study teams and assign one story to each study team. Ask each team to read the story (together or as a homework assignment) and discuss the reflection questions at the end. Encourage them to apply compassionate rebel concepts to their own lives and community.       c)    Ask a spokesperson from each team briefly to describe their story and summarize their discussions.

3.    Class Discussion:

  • What are some of the values these stories convey?
  • In what way were these people rebellious? In what way compassionate?
  • What other types of compassionate rebels do you know whose lives and actions could serve to create a new chapter for this book?

PART TWO: Personal Storytelling

1.    Introduction: Explain to students that we all have important personal stories that can also convey our values. Divide students into pairs and explain that each pair will share stories, one speaking while the other takes notes. These notes will then serve as the “raw material” for writing these stories. Emphasize the importance of respecting the privacy of all storytellers.

2.    Telling Stories of Injustice

a)    Working in pairs, students tell each other an early memory of injustice that they personally experienced. They should try to include these questions:

      • What happened and how did you respond?
      • Was one of your human rights denied?

b)    While one student talks, the other takes notes on the stories trying to capture the exact phrases or words the storyteller uses.

c)    Students then exchanges story notes and then write their own story using those words and phrases (These could be part of a homework assignment)

3.    Telling Stories of Joy

a)    Working in the same pairs, students tell each other a joyful early experience. They should try to include these aspects:

  • Describe what happened in as much detail as possible, including the sights, sounds, smells, textures, and taste.
  • Who was there? What were people doing?
  • Why did this experience make you so happy?
  • Did you experience a human right in action?

Again record each other’s story using the exact phrases or words the storyteller shares with you.  Students then exchanges story notes and then write their own story using those words and phrases (These could be part of a homework assignment)

4.    Telling Stories of Struggle

a)    Working in the same pairs (or a private writing session) students describe a current dilemma or struggle they are experiencing. They should try to include these questions:

  • What makes it difficult
  • What would you like to have happen to resolve the situation?
  • Are there human rights in conflict?
  • b)    If working in pairs, use the process of listening and recording as used above. c)    Students write their dilemma stories.

5.    Analyzing the Stories

When the stories have been completed, invite students to reflect on what they have written. This reflection might be in the form of class discussion, discussion in pairs or small groups, or private writing.

a)    Stories of Injustice:

  • How did you respond to the injustice? Do you still respond that way?
  • What was your conflict resolution style then?  What is it now?
  • What method are you using with your current dilemma as described in the third story? If you are, is this method still effective? If you are not, could your new method have been effectively applied? Is it time to try something different? (NB: We tend to develop our conflict resolution style before we are three years old and keep it unless we learn new things along the way.)
  • Have any metaphors appeared in this story that have meaning for you?
  • What have you learned about yourself after doing this exercise that you didn’t know before? Write your conclusions.

b)    Stories of Joy

  • Why was this particular event joyful?
  • What does the story show about what you value and hold as important and meaningful?
  • Who else was present with you in this memory? What do you remember about this person or persons? What legacy did they give you? Is this a legacy that can be applied to your current dilemma?
  • Have any metaphors appeared in this story that have meaning for you?

c)    Stories of Struggle

  • What does your story of a current dilemma or struggle show that you value?
  • Anger is good for identifying what you are against. Try to write a statement about how this dilemma or struggle shows about what you are against.
  • Once you know what you are against, ask yourself what you are for. By doing this, research shows you will have three times the amount of energy to strive for it than you would have had if you only focused on your anger. Knowing what you support also allows you to tap into your compassion and gives you specific ways in which you can work for social change. Write a statement about what you are for, care about, and support.

PART THREE: Becoming a Compassionate Rebel

1. Takinga Compassionate Rebel Response:

From your writings and the compassionate rebel stories you’ve read, brainstorm with your partner and/or another pair of partners about how each could respond as a compassionate rebel response to personal struggles or dilemmas.

  • What response would you would like to make?
  • What concerns, fears or excitement might you have in carrying out your compassionate rebel act?
  • What support might you need to make this act?
  • What steps would you need to take?

Write this part of your story.

2.    Assessing a Compassionate Rebellion:

Report back to the group the results of your compassionate rebel act.

  • Did it improve the situation?
  • How did it make you feel? How did it make others feel?
  • What human rights were addressed?
  • If you had to do it over again, would you change anything? If so, what?
  • How did you feel acting as a compassionate rebel, even if it didn’t change the situation?
  • Do you feel this compassionate rebel act would make a good TV show or movie?

3.    Writing Your Own compassionate Rebel Story:

Compile all previous writing into one compassionate rebel story and submit to where stories are being continually collected for just this purpose.

Thank you for contributing to a culture of peace and nonviolence!

Rebecca Janke, Associate, University of Minnesota Human Rights & Director, Growing Communities for Peace.

This article was copied, with permission, from this site:

Courtesy of and their Human Rights and Peace Store — where individuals can actually buy the full text of the Compassionate Rebel.

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