The power of storytelling in public health

Pedja Stojicic teaching a class
Pedja Stojicic

May 31, 2024 — A popular course at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health teaches students to harness the power of storytelling to motivate others to join them in translating public health research into societal change.

Predrag “Pedja” Stojicic, the course instructor and a faculty affiliate at the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights, said such storytelling helps bridge the disconnect between academic work in public health and its implementation in society.

“We help students make their own values explicit in order to create personal and collective agency,” he said. “They learn to build an emotional connection with people to translate public health science into an ability to do things.”

Students are embracing the storytelling challenge. In three years, HPM 562, “Narrative Leadership: Using Storytelling to Mobilize Collective Action in Public Health,” has grown from a small pilot project to a class now capped at 50 students focused on engaging hearts and minds to improve health.

Students learn to craft a public narrative that can inspire collective support for a call to action. First, a student identifies the core values that led them to pursue public health and shares that in story form, known as the story of self. Second, they identify and tell the story of the values of the community they aim to impact, known as the story of us. And finally, they weave these elements together to produce an integrated call-to-action story, known as the story of now.

The public narratives are an eclectic mix. One recent student called on colleagues to adopt a more strategic approach to tackling pressing public health issues. Another student called for more humane nurse-to-patient staffing ratios. A third called for heightened protections for queer-identifying students in public schools. These calls to action help students learn a narrative framework that can be used throughout their public health careers.

Opening yourself to big questions

Years ago, Stojicic took an online course with Harvard Kennedy School professor Marshall Ganz, who popularized narrative leadership as a tool in community organizing and social movements. As a young physician in Belgrade, Stojicic was struggling against corruption in health care. He learned to ask his fellow organizers to articulate the values behind their work against corruption, always leaving them with: “Can you tell us that through story?”

“The moment we started applying public narrative in our anti-corruption campaigns in Serbia, it was magical. We learned to lead and to inspire collective action through the power of story,” he said.

Now his students are learning to harness the same powerful tools.

Hailey Hernandez speaking at Harvard Chan School's 2023 Convocation
Hailey Hernandez speaking at Harvard Chan School’s 2023 Convocation.

Hailey Hernandez, MPH ’23, said her time as a student and teaching fellow in HPM 562 enabled her to clearly identify why she cares so much about the health of marginalized communities, leading her to call on her classmates and colleagues to tackle problems in public health in targeted ways. Hernandez was the student speaker at Harvard Chan School’s 2023 Convocation.

“The course is a transformative experience because it gives you the time and space to reset. Many of us knew even as kids what we wanted to do and why we wanted to do it,” she said. “The course is about unlocking this natural storytelling ability in people. You look at yourself, and then you look at the world around you and what you’re doing, and you connect the dots.”

Stojicic said students learn to identify the authentic values that motivate the work they do in public health. “It’s about opening yourself to big questions: What is the reason why I care about these things?” Stojicic said.

Connecting heart and mind

Kiran Zindani, MPH ’24, took the class last fall. After serving as a nurse through the COVID-19 pandemic, she enrolled at Harvard Chan School to transition to the business side of health care and make an impact on a broader scale.

In the course, Zindani explored her background as a Pakistani and an American and the difficulties involved in choosing nursing rather than medicine in a culture where the latter is more highly valued. She explored the idea of holding multiple identities and multiple values at the same time, producing a final public narrative that brought people into the fast-paced nature of nursing and the life and death situations she dealt with during COVID-19, while also calling for mandated nurse-to-patient staffing ratios in hospitals.

“I really did leave it all on the table,” said Zindani. “The power of the course for me was that I stopped trying to mold what I write into this idea of what I thought people expected of me—whether it was my family, my community, my school, my jobs. Moving forward as a leader leaving Harvard Chan School, I’m not scared to be myself anymore.”

For Nick Birk, a first-year doctoral student in biostatistics, the structured reflection around what motivates him was extremely helpful. For his story of self, Birk wrote about discovering he was gay while growing up in Texas and the trials involved in navigating his sexuality in a hostile environment. For his story of us, he wrote about the values around equity and inclusion that unite public health students. For his story of now, he called for public high school administrators to create supports for queer-identifying students.

“This course helped me remember why I’m here and what I believe in,” Birk said. “Now I know how to use narrative storytelling to put my academic work in context and communicate it in a way that inspires action. And I learned that to do that well, you have to step back and remember what motivates you.”

Meg Murphy

Photo: Kent Dayton