Story Jam with Harvey McKinnon - Nonprofit Storytelling Conference

Story Jam with Harvey McKinnon

Written by Sheena Greer


I love when people fiercely and intelligently speak their mind, even if I don’t happen to agree with them.

Thankfully, I agree with Harvey McKinnon. He has been on the side of social justice for his entire career, and continues to strive to do work that truly changes minds and hearts.

He is ferociously intelligent, deeply passionate, and incredibly driven to make change.

He’s also hilarious, another one of my most favourite attributes.

A conversation with Harvey can’t help but make you feel activated. His wit and wisdom are truly admirable, and his desire to teach valuable lessons about the power of storytelling are a gift to our sector.

This Jam took place on Thursday, September 17th.

Story’s Your Uncle

“Have you heard the one about the college kid who walks into a student union’s office and completely changes the course of his life?”

We all have an Uncle Ben.

You know the one.

He’s the one who tells the greatest stories you’ve ever heard. He has incredible comedic timing. He likely isn’t all that politically correct. Most of his stories might not even be factual. He may even tell you the same stories over and over again.

But you don’t care.

Every Christmas, you look forward to hearing the story about that little bar in Dawson Creek. You hold the belly laugh at the edge of your lips waiting for the punch line about Bob Clay’s alligator boots.

“Tell the one about the one-armed lumberjack.”

You know every detail already, but your heart longs to hear it again just the same.

For those of us who have grown up in storytelling cultures, the joy of connecting through stories sometimes feels innate. After all, stories our deep in our bones and marrow. It is only natural for families to come together around the power of the long spun yarn.

But there does come a moment when we realize that this isn’t the only kind of story with emotional value. That it is not only the joyful, raunchy and hilarious stories of our Uncle Ben that wield the power to command an entire room.

There comes a moment when we realize that a powerful story can literally change your life.

A young man attending university, interested in beer and women (and not necessarily in that order), walks into a small gathering of students to listen to two people from Namibia tell their story about living under Apartheid.

In a moment, the entire course of his life is altered. He is awakened to the very real transformative power of story. And he’ll do everything he can over the course of his career to work hard and lead others into a space where they can create societal change with story.

This is not without resistance.

Even the best organisations and the hardest working people can have a complete block when it comes to stories.

Stories are emotional. And emotions are frightening, especially if they are our own.

Imagine invoking emotion in an entire group of people all at once?

For some, it feels all too risky.

For some, it feels the best route is to stick to facts and litany. That’s the way most organisations have communicated in the past, and it is best not to change.

Except that the change your organisation is striving to make in our world will be impossible if you cannot speak to the heart of the matter.

Fact guys don’t win. People don’t give money to facts. They give money through their emotions.

All too often, this is a battle that occurs around a board room table. Litany, the list of facts that keep our board members happy, simply isn’t the story that move donors. Unfortunately, this is a gap that keeps us from connecting to the people who will care most about the change our organisations are making.

The change our donors create with their gifts.

There is no magic formula to changing minds about the power of storytelling.

But a great place to start is around that leadership table. And the greatest way to start that conversation is by storytelling.

No matter where we are from, it is in each and every one of us.

Because we all had an Uncle Ben. Or a Grandma Phyllis. Or a Professor Wilson. Or our friend, Dave. Or a Bronte Sister. Or Martin Luther King Jr. Or somebody who told us a story so profound, so funny, so earth-shattering, so honest, that it awakened in us something we’ve never felt before.

PS – After hearing the stories of two Namibian refugees, Harvey McKinnon started an anti-Apartheid group at Dalhousie University. He went on to volunteer and eventually work for Oxfam, and ever since has turned his hunger for social justice and his belief in storytelling into a business that has helped hundreds of organisations tell stories that matter. And now you know the rest of the story.

More about our character, Harvey

What is your motto?

  • Complete Honesty

What is your most marked characteristic?

  • I’m funny. Or. I think I’m funny.

Historical figure do you admire?

Mandela. After spending a decade doing anti-apartheid work, I have immense respect and admiration for what he did, the person he was.

Which living person do you most admire?

  • Thich Nhat Hanh. Second best known Buddhist in the world after The Dali Lama. Martin Luther King Jr. nominated him for a Nobel Peace Prize.

What is your favorite journey?

  • Going to Halifax.

What is your greatest inspiration when writing?

  • My emotions. If I can feel it, I believe I can convert it into a story that others can feel.

Who is your favourite author?

  • Dave Barry, Michael Chabon, Drew Weston. And I love Miriam Towes

Who are your favourite heroes/heroines in fiction?

  • I enjoy characters from mystery series that you follow through a series. They are great, albeit deeply flawed characters. John Rebus. Philip Marlow.

What are you looking forward to most at the NPStorytelling Conference?

Hearing the stories of all the great people who will be there.

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