“The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

If you’re familiar with that quote, chances are: you were forced to watch Adichie’s Ted Talk, you’re involved with social justice work, or you stumbled across it on your social media feed due to the uprising of digital activism sparked by the wave of Black Lives Matter protests that occurred in 2020.

And if you’re not: A single story, simply put, is a narrative that only focuses on or only “tells” one part of an individual or group’s experience. This concept was introduced by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, an acclaimed Nigerian author, in her Ted Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story,” which has garnered over 8 million views online since it was posted in 2009.

Watching that iconic video for the third time in another class forced me to critically reflect on the concept of the single story and ponder how I’ve used single stories to describe others and how others have labelled me with a single story to my detriment. Essentially, I began to examine how single stories are perpetuated in social justice work, such as service-learning, volunteering with non-profits, community organizing, protesting, and much more.

In the context of my CSL (Community Service Learning) placement, I realized how the social justice sector – an area that should be radically inclusive and progressive – can still be flooded with single stories and why it endangers the very communities we seek to protect.

A local example of a single story I have seen and been guilty of telling involves the community members of my CSL placement, GROW Women Leaders.

A community full of resilient, vibrant, and diverse women were reduced by society to a single story of “oppressed and vulnerable women facing issues integrating or succeeding in the Canadian labour force.”

While systemic, oppressive barriers that discriminate against Immigrant women and BIWoC exist, the single story told about these women inadvertently made them more “impressionable and vulnerable” (Adichie 1:48) to the system. Knowing the dangers of a single story, it is important to highlight other stories about this community, such as resiliency, diversity, and advocacy.

Women seeking tools and resources from organizations like GROW to empower themselves to better tackle these issues is a story that needs to be highlighted more. Actively demanding a seat at the table despite being turned down multiple times is an act of resiliency. The problem with the single story of a “vulnerable” community is that when you show people as “only one thing, over and over again, that is what they become” (Adichie 9:27).

The single story of the women that use GROW’s services often told is how they are pushed to the margins by society – “marginalized,” but what needs to be told more is how they are resilient. They are not complicit in their oppression. It is crucial to avoid single stories which “rob people of dignity” (Adichie 13:51) and embrace many other stories that empower them in fighting the powers that be. 

The women GROW serves are also diverse, and a single story of “oppressed women” does not do justice to the beautiful diversity and intersection of identities that exist. GROW’s community members are Black, Indigenous, Women of Colour, Queer and Trans Women, Neurodivergent women, Disabled Women, a combination of all these identities and more. They are frontline workers, engineers, artists, accountants, consultants, CEOs, creatives, entrepreneurs, construction workers, and much more. They are diverse women with unique stories that require intersectionality in creating solutions to tackle oppressive systems.

One danger of the single story is that it “emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar” (Adichie 13:55) so telling another story of the diversity of these women unites us as we bond over our similarities. Furthermore, many people that would not identify with the single story of “oppressed women” can identify with another story of people with various careers (lawyers, nurses, welders, etc.) and identities (disabled, BIPOC, neurodivergent, etc.). Hence, it matters to include these other stories in our narratives as they positively shape and expand our view of “others.”

 Additionally, the women GROW serves are advocates, and a single story of “vulnerable women” leaves out this fact. While others may argue that an oppressive system makes women “vulnerable,” that single story creates stereotypes and “the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story” (Adichie 13:12).

Adding this story to the stories told about the community increases awareness of the systemic barriers and structural oppressions in place. Too often, the need is “understood to reside in the individual rather than in the system.” Consequently, highlighting this story of advocacy shifts the “deficiency” of vulnerability from the individual to the system. Telling this story of the community is vital if we are to join forces in fighting all forms of oppression. 

What does this all mean?

My CSL placement experience with GROW Women Leaders made me unravel and dismantle the single stories I initially told and believed about its community members, which allowed me to discover and make room for multiple stories.

Telling many stories about the communities we see or work with, especially on a local level, will enable us to see their complete narrative, creating a better environment. In addition, it gives the community power back to reclaim their narrative and provides us with a “recognition of our equal humanity” (Adichie 13:53)

In my case, a single story of “oppressed and vulnerable” women that I believed about GROW’s community members drastically changed after some time where I got to see other stories. The women GROW serves were not just marginalized; they were also resilient, diverse, advocates and other stories to be told. My rejection of the single-story enabled me to have a better understanding of my placement’s community and myself, as a Nigerian-Canadian with other stories of my own as well.

In the words of Adichie, “when we realize that there is never a single story of any place, we regain a kind of paradise” (18:22). To “regain a kind of paradise,” we must do the work of promoting more stories about the people and communities we work with everywhere, especially in the social justice sector.

Some questions to ponder:

  • How does a single story told about you or a community you belong to affect your life?
  • How have you used single stories, and how could they affect others?
  • Now that you know about single stories, what can you do about them? What other stories can you tell?