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 255 Comments

  1. Jordan

    Wow. This chapter really highlights the different ways to express our stories. Linking us to our pasts, presents and futures. The songs I think are particularly powerful in telling stories and delivering messages of hope and survival.

  2. Belinda

    Wow, what I take away from this chapter is the unlimited possibilities and creativity that can be explored through a whole variety of projects. Being a social worker it has inspired me to step back into the creative realm to explore working with people and their capacities and strengths.

  3. Chantelle M

    Is there an idea or project that stands out to you most at this time?
    The Little by Little we make a bundle.

    What about this idea or project has sparked your enthusiasm or curiosity?
    This project really broke down at showed the impacts of when a community comes together to recognise the impact an issue, in this case a disease, single handedly affects on a individual level and at a community level. It removed the shame, blame and guilt put on to those who contracted the disease, and for the community to understand, it wasn’t individual faults, and that together, they could create a plan to move forward in solidarity, and victims of the disease could be seen in a different context.

    In what ways might you begin to experiment with these ideas or methodologies?
    As I commence working with families and adolescents who use family violence, I feel that this idea and method, will be significant in separating behaivours from the young person, to help them understand they are not bad, they are not worthless, to help the family understand the impact of the underlying causation of behaviours. It will assist with helping to have young people be held accountable, in that the impact of the behaviours exhibited on other family members, will be addressed and explored.

  4. Sian

    I was interested in all of these projects, but working with individuals in private practice, I resonated most with the songs. I connected with my own relationship with music, and I considered the connection that music has provided me with others and the way in which music connects community.
    I immediately thought of a client that I see who comes in and plays me her favourite songs. These are songs that she resonates with and they more than not have some connection to trauma and her trauma history. I wonder what would happen if she were invited to write her own song and what song she would sing.

  5. Ernie

    Which resource in this chapter particularly caught your attention?
    The Little By Little We Make a Bundle project held in rural Malawi
    What sort of problems could be externalised in your context?
    This concept is very new and unique to me. I believe all problems could be externalised however each issue would need to be individualized as single problem which requires its own personality, quality, trait, motives etc to construct a problem into a living being where individuals, communities are able to question the problem for intentions, locations, historical background future goals etc. A fair amount of practice is needed to develop suck a technique.
    What difference might this make?
    Story tellers need options to determine their journey and like most journeys we hit a bump in the road where tools, knowledge, experience are some of the equipment used to reduce obstacles.

  6. TorCG

    Writing from Naarm
    Is there an idea or project that stands out to you most at this time?
    The tree of life idea particularly stands out to me

    What about this idea or project has sparked your enthusiasm or curiosity?
    I really like the visual metaphor of a tree being used to describe a person’s self, as it is easily understood and personally brings about a sense of calm to me. I think it is to do with the idea of how outside forces such as the rain, soil and sun influence the growing of a tree, just how external forces influence our personal growth and being. And just how a tree can survive storms, fires and floods, we too can survive the challenges that life throws us.

    In what ways might you begin to experiment with these ideas or methodologies?
    I think using the tree of life in group work with the students I work with will help in providing an easy and safe way for students to explore their own personal history, skills and knowledge, and to understand how the influences of the the people around them impact their being. I think this could also assist in building a stronger sense of community amongst the student cohort as they could see how their individual trees fit within the ‘forest’ of their peer’s trees.

  7. Sammy Sahni

    Sammy Sahni. Hyderabad, India. Each of these concepts have stirred and sparked a huge interest in me to pursue narrative therapy practices in my future work. Each of the innovation projects affirmed the immense hope of transformation and healing collectively. The tree of life really called out to me, particularly because I use similar activities in my EXA therapy practices with individuals and groups. I am very keen to pursue more work in the social work sector and really called out to use these practices. The work done India and those projects really resonated with me. Using music and its potential by creating songs is such a powerful approach.

  8. Sean

    From Toronto, Canada

    I have worked with children for many years and I recognize some techniques I use are varying mediums of expression such as art and music, I feel as though this adds a necessary element of thick description as well that it sussed out crucial elements of information surrounding cultural, racial and community identity. It engages the users in such a way that it is not harmful or threatening. From the community work done in Uganda and the externalized conversations in Malawi I get the sense that these techniques can be used in such a way that fundamentally helps the populations it serves engage in content and psycho education in a holistic and non-threatening, non-judgmental way. I really appreciate instead of attacking a problem by assuming what is wrong we provide space to the population to instead invite us into their world to show us what they may need. It is a refreshing look at how to engage, acknowledge, respect and learn to help those with trauma history (from my perspective).

  9. Karen Becker

    Brisbane Australia
    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?
    I love the Tree of Life project. I think it can be used to help the young people I work with identify the aspects of their past that has shaped them in a good way. This is important as I often work with people who have a lot of conflict at home and focus on the hard issues their parents and families cause them. I think it might thicken their stories to think about the way their family histories have shaped them, good and bad. I like the idea of doing it in a group to help share common experiences but also get ideas or perspectives that they might not have thought of. It could be a way of coming up with strategies to build relationships or resources or skills to cope with the storms in their lives.
    In what ways might you begin to experiment with these ideas or methodologies?
    I am thinking I could ask a few young people I work with in one school if they want to meet together. They have similar situations and we could discuss the Tree of Life idea together as a way of sharing their common experiences, supporting each other and developing solutions to problems they face.

  10. Siobhan

    Siobhan, social worker, Wurundjeri Country (Melbourne, so-called Australia)

    I loved hearing about lots of these different ideas which really demonstrate the scope of possibility offered by NP. I loved the Mt Elgon story, and some points really stayed with me.

    “There is always a social history to people’s dreams and wishes. By inviting people to speak about their hopes, and tracing the social history of these, a rich textural heritage is created. This process is referred to as raising heads above the clouds.”

    I love the idea of connecting past and present and future in this way – of facilitating people to trace their dreams back to their histories and honour their ancestors and traditions, weaving links between generations and community members. It’s a beautiful thing.

    A lot of this work reminds me of the ethics and principles of community development work that I learned in my social work degree. That we should never think of imposing solutions on a community from outside, but rather that each community already has the resources, skills and solutions within itself, and a worker’s role is to know how to draw this out and hold and facilitate change in this way.

    I hope that I will have the opportunity in future professional roles to work with groups and communities in such a way.

  11. Crystal Williams

    I am very inspired how through the use of song one can tell their story, and I can totally relate to the sentence regarding the ‘strength in story telling’ that Barbara Wingard is talking about in “Telling our stories in ways that make us stronger.” I am also very appreciative of the innovative project of ‘Young people exchanging Life Saving Tips and preventing discrimination/injustice.’ It reminds me of how through the use of peers, information can be shared that speaks to the target population on a greater scale. (Vernon, BC, Canada)

  12. Henk Ensing

    I’m drawn to using individual’s documents and art as ‘social movement’ (used as a verb) documents to influence very local change. I’m interested in the creation of documents as a contribution to assist others. I have not done this yet. I’m looking for appropriate, ethical and consensual ways to achieve personal healing through small social action.

  13. David Clayton

    Burnie, Tasmania, Australia
    I think what stood out to me the most was the work done by Yvonne Sliep and the CARE counsellors with the project that happened in Malawi using the Mr/Mrs HIV/AIDS and Mr/Mrs CARE.

    The project had stood out for me the most for the nature of one step-removed with the idea of using characters to discuss problems affecting the community in Malawi. I was curious around the idea and how it could be transferrable to different topics and different groups of people and ages.

    As mentioned above. I could see this approach used for different age, culture, topic and gender groups. I would take the idea of a character to represent the problem and another character to represent the solution. It is about viewing a different narrative, one of hope, rather than one of deficit.

  14. Niveen

    The Life Saving Tips really stand out to me, mainly because of the honesty of the story and how relatable they are to my own story but also because it is something I am looking forward to using with a group of clients that I work with that could benefit from this exercise as I have. I want to tweak it to come up with stories of strength or courage in your life to be written as notes with a piece of advice at the end. I want to then get clients to swap these notes with each other as little notes of inspiration in activity we do weekly.

  15. Nikki

    Hi I’m Nikki and I’m from Sydney, Australia.
    I really liked the article on how narrative therapy and the use of documents was used to connect two Aboriginal communities – one in Port August, SA, and one in Arnhem Land, NT. I was amazed by how they were able to help each other and connect by sharing experiences of how they have coped with deaths and violence in their communities. It was great to see how these communities, on opposite sides of the country, could be connected through these documents. I wonder whether this technique could be used for other issues in this country right now – Sydney and Victoria are both in lockdown due to a Covid outbreak. I wonder whether documents such as these could be used to convey strategies for coping with isolation from one state to another?
    I also like the idea of using documents to help young people who are depressed or suicidal. I may consider using this in my work as a child psychologist.

  16. Alanna Campbell

    Alanna from Edmonton, Canada.

    The use of songwriting as ‘rescueing clients’ words and centering their experiences’ was particularly resonating for me as I am also an amateur songwriter and musician, and a social worker. Music is such a collaborative activity, and bringing in the aspect of narrative therapy would amplify the community building aspect of music making – and having a sense of community and belonging can be healing in and of itself.

    I do wonder how difficult or easy it may be to get clients to buy-in to this concept if you are starting out on this type of practice and have no examples yet to inspire (I guess, David Denborough’s recordings could be examples). I also question how practitioners are able to work this into their practice, as creative projects do take a lot of time. Is this paid work (it seems to be for Denborough, but not everyone will be in the same situation as a worker) or done during the worker’s own time?

    Some things I think would be useful to remember when engaging in this process would be to use culturally appropriate musical forms, instruments, language, etc when working with cultural groups. This may be out of our experience and skill set, though, so collaboration with others who could work with narrative therapists and the clients would be beneficial.

  17. tsering

    My name is Tsering, currently living in California. I am absolutely amazed by how Narrative Therapy tools are intelligently adapted in projects across the globe to empower and acknowledge skills and strength in fulfilling community/individual goals and dreams. The Tree of Life projects and Mt. Elgon Self-help community Project were especially empowering. I have used Tree of Life exercise in my work in small groups and on individual levels and found them amazingly useful in making people realize and remember their ancestors, people who touched their lives, their goals and dreams, their skills and abilities, their gifts and what they want to let go. Thank you so much for this space to learn more about Narrative Therapy.
    Thank you.


      Is there an idea or project that stands out to you most at this time?
      Writing from Costa Rica, The Mt Elgon Self-Help Community Project was one of the initiatives that caught my attention due to the way the community’s traditions and ways were honored.
      What about this idea or project has sparked your enthusiasm or curiosity?
      The fact that the Community Project interacts with all members of that specific society, elders and children are not left behind but their participation is considered key in order to continue the conversation about hope and sustainability for the whole village.

  18. Kylie Webster

    Narrative practice transcends the cultural limitations that are present in therapy sessions. Narrative practice allows for the focus on individual stories as a way of bridging the gap between the therapist approach on assisting the healing process along with the social work move towards an approach of social action. This can incorporate a collaborative approach to social action and structural reform that is embodied in the various stories of clients and represents the inherently complex approach required to combine both of these approaches.

  19. Manini

    This chapter really reaffirmed the radical potential of narrative; many of the projects question and try to transcend this artificial divide in social work between between healing work that is focused on the individual and collective social action. I think one of the problematic aspects of psychotherapeutic work is that we are often trying to help individuals cope with and adapt to trauma that stems from structural problems – poverty, systemic racism. Narrative practice offers a means to not only acknowledge the structural nature of these problems, but a way of mobilizing social action through the creative use of song, role play, and art. I think this chapter has given me some tools that can be used to explore the challenges, skills, and strengths that people have, and the ways in which they can use these to further their individual goals and mobilize.

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