Researcher and storyteller
We think we write the stories but, in a significant way, the stories write us. It’s the discovery of this that has, in its turn, shaped the career of social justice activist Marianne Elliott. Aptly, to illustrate this, she tells a story taken from the most recent stage of her career. Just retired from ActionStation, the digital activist platform she helped establish in 2014, she’s setting up a new research organisation, a ‘think-and-do-tank’, called The Workshop.
Her co-director at The Workshop is Dr Jess Berentson-Shaw, who in 2017 wrote a book called Pennies from Heaven, investigating the most effective policy actions for moving families and children out of poverty. Jess concluded, in essence, that giving people more money was the most effective way to help families. ‘There’s been a lot of good quality research done on this,’ Marianne says, ‘and what I find really interesting is that people don’t believe it. I have a really dear friend, a really compassionate woman, and she just does not think that lifting the income of low-income families will help, because she thinks the parents will make bad choices with that money. I presented her with the research and I was like, “See?” And she said, “I don’t believe it.” I was actually getting a bit angry with her.’
Marianne showed her friend the New Zealand household income survey that reveals how much money each household spends on heating, food and also alcohol. ‘It’s really clear that as a percentage of income, the lowest expenditure on alcohol is in the lowest income bracket. She didn’t believe it.’
Then the friend explained to Marianne that in her family, both her mother and her husband’s mother had grown up on food stamps, and that their parents had used that money for alcohol rather than food for their children. ‘And that’s when I realised: our origin story will always trump research evidence. Don’t try and tell someone that their core story is wrong by giving them facts. Research evidence can’t shift a story that’s been laid down in our bodies as children. So I talked to Jess about it and I said, “Should I just give up?” And we agreed: you can shift it with a story – stories that people can relate to and that over time will replace their foundational story.’
And that, in essence, is the working paradigm for The Workshop: it establishes what matters to New Zealanders, especially by listening to those most affected by an issue; it conducts research on effective solutions; it distils stories from the research; and then it tells those stories to the public in order to create empathy – and empathy, Marianne firmly believes, helps drive change.
The People’s Mental Health Report is a great example of this methodology. Despite persistent signs that the mental health sector was deteriorating into crisis, the government had ignored repeated calls for a review. So in 2016, with a general election on the horizon, Marianne teamed up with mental health advocate Mike King and psychotherapist Kyle MacDonald to do their own review. Using crowd funding and their own community platform, ActionStation, they collected 500 stories of people’s personal experiences of the mental health system. From those stories they conducted qualitative keywords analysis and wrote a report, with recommendations, that was launched four months before the 2017 general election. Twelve people whose stories of traumatic experiences in the mental health system were in the report agreed to speak to the media, providing real, human faces for the issues. ‘It got so much media attention,’ Marianne says. The issue became a key one during the election campaign, and the incoming Labour-led government quickly set up an inquiry into the sector.
Over her career, Marianne has developed her own values-based framework. ‘I use all the C words. Compassion is the first thing: is there a kind way to deal with the person and the situation from a policy perspective? Then connection is really important – I’m interested in policies that foster connection and community and enable people to act together and to be together, as opposed to policies that isolate people. The third one is collective rather than individual. I have a clear framework for understanding complex social problems, which is to look at the system that they’re happening in. I’m very sceptical when people try to explain complex social problems through the lens of an individual person’s choice exclusively.’
The coherence of Marianne’s ideas has evolved over her extraordinary life experience. She grew up on a dairy farm in the South Waikato, in an Open Brethren family. When she was about three the family took a year out from farming and went to Papua New Guinea on a church mission.
She thinks that early experience helped create what’s proved a dominant thread in her life: a delight in the experience of different cultures. As a young human rights lawyer she went first to Gaza, then to Timor Leste and later to Afghanistan.
‘Curiosity is probably the strongest thing I feel when I go into a culture that’s different from my own,’ she says. ‘And lots of humility. As a Pākehā person in New Zealand, and an English-speaking person moving through the world, generally I get to have the experience of the world wrapping around my cultural norms. I’ve found being very much the minority quite unsettling, but in a way that I’ve enjoyed. Not that it was always pleasant. Sometimes you feel lost and confused, like when you’re stuck on a street in Gaza and you’re really hot and you can’t find your way home because you’ve forgotten how to say the address in Arabic and you bought too many oranges because you thought you were asking for two but you got two kilos. But then you think, this is what other people experience in many ways all the time in a world that’s not built for them. So I try and welcome even those unpleasant experiences, and be humbled.’