Collective Narrative Practices & Innovation Projects

The innovative projects which we discuss in this chapter draw on collective narrative practices that are concerned with responding to groups and communities who have experienced significant social suffering and oppression in contexts in which ‘therapy’ may not be culturally resonant. Collective Narrative Practices have a rich history and engage a diverse range of methodologies that can be used with individuals, groups and communities. In this chapter, we will just touch on a few methodologies …


“As counsellors, therapists, psychosocial workers and community workers, stories of hardship find their way to us. In some ways, we are cultural receivers of stories of suffering (Waldegrave, Tamaseses, Tuhaka & Campbell, 2003). And often this suffering is linked to broader injustices: to violence, abuse, racism, poverty, sexism, heterosexual dominance. To be the cultural receivers of these stories brings with it awesome responsibilities; for instance there are responsibilities to comfort and to somehow alleviate hardship. But there is another responsibility that I am hoping we will also engage with. How can we receive these stories and engage with them in ways that not only alleviate individual sorrow, but also enable and sustain local social action to address the broader injustices, violence and abuses in our varying contexts? How can we provide forums for the sorrow, anguish and hardship of the stories that we receive to be transformed into collective actions? I don’t mean grand social actions, I mean local, meaningful, resonant, sustainable, social action or social contributions’

(Denborough, 2008, p. 192)

For a link to the book you can visit Collective Narrative Practice by David Denborough 

The following paper is an example of conversations that have taken place in a number of villages in rural Malawi. Here practitioners engage problems in a personification with one worker playing the role of Mr/Mrs AIDS, who represents HIV/AIDS; and another plays the role of Mr/Mrs CARE, who represents the community. Members of the village are invited to ask questions of these two characters, and a conversation develops. Please click on the link to read about this compelling example of collective practice!

Little by Little we Make a Bundle

In this interview, Paulo Freire describes some of his thinking about oppression, ethical responsibilities and how these shape possibilities for social change. The work of Paulo Freire has influenced the development of collective narrative practices.

Making History and Unveiling Oppression

The Mt Elgon Self-Help Community Project, based in rural Uganda, uses narrative practices to spark and sustain local social action and environmental and economic projects. This video contains some of the stories of the work of Caleb Wakhungu and the Mt Elgon project.



One of the ways in which the field of narrative practice continues to diversify is through innovation projects. These are often the result of collaborations, invitations and challenges. Many of them involve ‘cross-cultural inventions’ and partnerships. You might like to explore some of these examples:

Tree of Life

Life Saving Tips from young Australian Muslims

Healing Stories Partnerships with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Communities

For more projects of this kind you can see the full list here:

Innovation Projects

Many narrative therapists and community workers are now using music and song in their work with individuals, groups, and communities. This page contains songs created during various Dulwich Centre projects both in Australia and overseas, as well as links to find out more about the contexts they were created in.

Songs as a response to hardship and trauma

You can listen to David Denborough discussing the use of song in narrative practice on the radio program ‘Songcatcher’, a Radio Adelaide production. 


For Reflection

Is there an idea or project that stands out to you most at this time?

What about this idea or project has sparked your enthusiasm or curiosity?

In what ways might you begin to experiment with these ideas or methodologies?



What do you think? Have you got an idea that might be interesting to exchange with others? Please let us know and share your thoughts on this chapter below before moving on. Please include where you are writing from (City and Country). Thanks!

This Post Has 231 Comments

  1. Jo Stanley

    Hi, I’m Jo from Yorkshire, England. Warm greetings, colleagues.
    It was great to have the Paulo Friere article as a preface. Because of that I realised that one of the reason I’m so attracted to Narrative Practice is that it can so effective politically; it can be a radical attempted solution to our wider social problems. This was a VERY rich chapter. It meant a lot to me to hear David Denborough’s long radio interview talking about the use of song. (PS copies of the lyrics would have been useful). I can see what a valuable form of documenting, and witnessing, songs can be in community settings, especially prisons.
    Thank you.

  2. Anna Fowke

    This chapter really reconnected me to my childhood spent in PNG and many of the efforts my parents were involved in. As I follow the course I am noting the narrative and cultural aspects of the work I am doing and seeing the long-running connections back to childhood and my storytelling background. The whole experience is prompting a deep recognition of how a narrative approach has been there my whole life.

  3. debbie webster

    I was very impressed with the involvement of the community and the diversity of approach that is culturally inclusive. The Tree of Life exercise is a very unique way of working with children, youth and adults and offers a constructive way of allowing these people to provide their story and to outsider witnesses. I also appreciated the life saving tips which I found to be very informative and there is a reminder that knowledge can come in many different forms.

  4. Kristen

    Hi all, I am writing from Ontario, Canada.

    I was very pleased to see the range of different ideas on how narrative practices could be implemented in communities. I have actually learned about the Tree of Life exercise before in the context of working with refugee’s and newcomers to Canada. I find it to be a wonderful practice to use to build a sense of community, collective experience, and bring to light values. I am also quite intrigued of the blending of music and song into a narrative perspective. I find this to be a beautiful and powerful form of expression that could work for individuals, families, and communities.

  5. Sandra Owen

    I was moved by many of the stories I heard when traversing through the innovative projects. I found the story of the man who has lived his life through a series of grief. I heard a story of intergenerational trauma and how every time death or loss occurs his trauma emerges and like the oyster shell he is rolling one trauma into another. I heard knowledge and strength in him and the way he narrated his narrative. I was moved and enjoyed listening to how the traumas were externalized through the narrative. It made me consider my cumulations and in interest, I told a tale to myself in the mirror and tried to consider externalizing this information by using my mirror self to act as a outside witness so to speak. It was cathatic. My story was of loss in the first 12 years of my life and how I saw that. I asked myself what effect that had and how I felt about the idea of death and if I was to understand it through an animal what would I consider that animal to be. I thought snake. I had lots of fun with this and saw that I had support I did not recognise and rejected and can re tell my story through the understanding of this support now. Suffice to say I then told myself I recognised the strength and wisdom of my words. It was fun. Not perfect but fun.

  6. Rhian Holmes

    Rhian Holmes from Wales
    I also really liked the stories from the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Communities. They talked about different ways of grieving and sharing stories of people who have died and how they helped to shape their lives and communities. Encouraging people to remember multiple stories /histories, is really important as there is no single story that reflects the complexity of people’s lives and histories. I liked the word “knowledges” as this really made me think about how valid and important different views and different stories really are.

  7. Grace Hammond

    What stands out to me is the unifying theme of these unique projects. They are all by the community, and for the community, but also for “outsider witnesses.” The “Encyclopedia of young people’s knowledge and life saving tips” was particularly relevant to my work as a high school librarian. I appreciate the phrasing; “survival strategies for when life is full of dramas, special skills in not taking people’s hate into your heart, and stories about what young people have learnt from journeys they have undertaken.” These special projects all include invitations to participation, which separates the work from archives or “tomes of knowledge” and creates a unique relationship between the readers and the authors because the reader can move into the authorship category. The fact that readers can also communicate back with the authors is a gift for everyone involved.

    I also think the idea of “tips for survival” connects to what I’ve been noticing about the phrase “knowledges,” which is different from the phrase “knowledge.” When we say “knowledge,” we speak of one body of learning, of knowing, that is singular and cohesive. When we say “knowledges,” we speak in terms of multiple understandings, multiple intelligences, multiple stories, and they are infinite and do not REQUIRE a single understanding or one unifying thread. This is the heart of this practice: how many stories can exist alongside one another, and connecting to one another, and diverging from one another. This is such a gift to the storytellers and storylisteners.

  8. Karina

    Hi! My name is Karina and I reside in Toronto, Canada.

    The idea that stands out to me at this time is Outsider Witness; a question that I particularly like is how someone’s story affected the witness.

    It ties in with the Self-Help Community Project we learned about above. I particularly like a question on survival strategies/coping mechanisms used in hard times.

    In the future, I hope to encourage my clients to use music and lyric writing to express difficult emotions. For those who do not know how to write, I think it would be fitting to encourage clients to create a playlist of songs that speak to emotions they are experiencing.

  9. Grace

    Grace, South Australia
    What stands out for me most for me is the aspect of music that every culture has and every person can relate to. The sound and music can carry a lot: suffering and bliss, the memories, history, solutions, and community connection.
    It is interesting how songs and music are the part of our lives. We have music festivals, music concerts in small venues, songs sang around the fire, music to use for relaxation and hypnotherapy, national anthems… just to name a few. Music is everywhere. Music connects.

  10. Rhian Holmes

    Rhian Holmes, Wales UK
    I found this chapter moving and informative. The Tree of Life idea looks really helpful for people to see themselves differently, and to recognise their strengths, and is something I will definitely be using in my practice. Also the Tips for Life videos were excellent. Again showing people with lived experience having strengths and sharing their expert knowledge in order to help others – inspirational! These ideas will help me to promote positive narratives in my work with people with mental health difficulties.

  11. Tanisha

    Tanisha V, India
    The metaphor of raising our heads above the clouds from Mt. Elgon Self-help community Project was very refreshing. It connected beautifully to mindfulness practices, that even though we can only see stormy clouds right now, the blue sky always exists beyond that. Even if it is temporarily obscured from our view. It also reminded me of a similar metaphor of flying. From the ground we can see the clouds but once the aircraft is in the air we realize that the sky above is clear. Similarly, taking ourselves out of our ‘usual’ positions in relation to an issue can give us a fresh perspective on things. I do realize that not everyone can relate to the experience of flying so it is a metaphor I use with caution.

    Telling our stories in ways that make us stronger by Barb Wingard & Jane Lester resonated with me on a deeply personal level. This resource helped me reconnect again in many ways with the memories of my sister. Finding justice for her was an important part of my grieving process otherwise I would still be carrying a lot of anger with me. Reading this excerpt led me to think about more ways in which I can carry her with me in positive and meaningful ways, honour her life, and cherish her love for me. It brought me closer to her and showed me that I can still strengthen this bond even if she is not physically with us anymore.

  12. Michele

    I l live in Victoria, BC, Canada. I am presently working toward a Master’s of Counselling degree. In a beautiful bit of synchronicity, this chapter includes a video of Vikki Reynolds of Vancouver, BC speaking about the Dulwich Centre’s Intersectional Feminist Narrative Project. Last term, Vikki Reynolds work was included in some course content. This week, we are exploring Feminist Theory. I am still vibrating at the intersection that I have just stumbled across as I begin my journey into the world of Narrative Therapy. I am remotely learning via the Dulwich Centre, which is half way around the world from me, only to discover a project that I feel passionate about because of my own feminist work and find myself inspired and speared on by the work of a local woman in this field. Below is the quick post I just added to my academic cohort’s discussion board related to this wonderful discovery. Thanks Dulwich Centre!!

    I LOVE this synchronicity! I have been working through the Dulwich Centre’s free on-line introductory course and came across this video through their Intersectional Feminist Narrative Project. It is a 15-minute video from Vikki Reynolds of Vancouver. Some of her writing crossed our desks in 502, and I used some of her material in my Resistance Project. If you have 15 minutes, this video is rich and current, and relevant to our learning and conversations.

    One of Reynolds’ examples around the intersections of feminism really resonates with me. Like Reynolds, and prior to birth control being readily available for unmarried women (let alone adolescents) and before abortion was legalized in Canada (1988), there was an underground network of information for sexually active youth/women. I was privy to this information during my teenage years (1980-1985). I knew that it cost $500 US and the trouble of crossing the border to Seattle to access abortion services. I saw what this meant played out in the lives of young women/friends around me. Reynolds recalls learning that while white women were striving for reproductive rights/services in Canada, indigenous women were being forcibly sterilized in Canada. I have been aware of forcible sterilization, but until these two realities were juxtaposed in this video — I did not see the stark relief. Wow.

  13. Polly Rodgers

    Hi all, I’m Polly from Stroud, UK. I’m a freelance facilitator and researcher. I became interested in narrative practices about 10 years ago when I was volunteering for a community mediation charity in London (at the time the only mediation org – I believe! – in the UK using narrative approaches, sadly closed now). It’s continued to be a thread through my work and now I’m looking for ways to make it more central. I knew about narrative therapy and narrative mediation, but for a long time I’ve been looking for a narrative approach to working with communities. I only came across collective narrative approaches recently. This module really excited me. I was particularly struck by the ‘Little by little we make a bundle’ project and the work of the CARE Counsellors & Yvonne Sliep. I loved the playful way that AIDs and CARE were externalised and given voices as characters with the potential to harm or help the community. I also appreciated the way that symbolism and ritual were incorporated at the end of the project when each member of the community was given one of the sticks that formed the unbreakable bundle, as a reminder of collective strength and the power of standing together.

  14. Kim Leebody

    I really enjoyed this chapter, especially using stories of survival, to talk about resources, skills and hopes for the future. It shifts the conversation from despair to a conversation about internal resources and drive to make life better. The practice enables the whole community to witness each other’s dream and its the community spirit that allowed each member to take their individual steps towards change. I think that the tree of life is an excellent tool for helping people see themselves from another position. It enables an individual to look at their story and the strengths gained from their life. It enables the restoring of sometimes traumatic experiences into the learning that came from the event not withstanding the pain. It offers a both and perspective which can be helpful in helping the person build on their strengths, resilience and experience.

  15. Eleanor

    The project that had really fascinated me was the ‘Little by little we make a bundle’ project which helped to address AIDs and HIV in Malawi. I think like with the sugar paper in the previous chapter, the project involved constructing separate characters to help make the topic of HIV and AIDS a lot less stigmatising so people were able to express their concerns and issues. Since a virus cannot be seen, having the characters ‘Mr/Mrs Care’ and ‘Mr/Mrs AIDS’ provided Malawi citizens a discourse to be able to confront and express their worries without judgement. Another important and incredible part of the project which was introducing a physical metaphor (collectively breaking the tree branch) to emphasise the importance of being there for one another in helping to overcome AIDs and HIV as a community – it must have been very empowering for the Malawi citizens.

    1. Deliwe Monyemangene

      Deliwe Monyemangene from South Africa.

      I got lucky to be trained on tree of life by Mrs Ncazelo Mlilo and I also got a chance to witness trained Facilitators implementing it in the communities. I was very much touched by how people received it and how it brought up on change in their lives. This chapter was amazing because it focuses on stories of survival and talk about skills, hopes and dreams for the future. The practice enables members of the community to witness each other’s dreams and it allows an individual to take steps towards change.


    I really enjoyed this chapter. . As a counselor this chapter is extremely beneficial to me as it helps me to create a safe space for my clients and gives me a better understating of the external factors which are disturbing the client. I work with clients who have faced abuse , the tree of life approach will be extremely beneficial for such cases

Leave a Reply