Policy of Engaged Neutrality

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    NSN wants to hear from you. Information was provided via email and the NSN website about NSN’s response to a recently enacted controversial legislation in Georgia. If you haven’t received the information you can read about it HERE. This discussion is NOT to debate the political issue, rather it is to discuss the Policy of Engaged Neutrality and NSN’s plans to move forward with the 2020 Summit in the Atlanta area. Please keep the dialogue on this post, and the NSN forum, respectful. We welcome your input on this matter.


    It is important that we honor the views of all of our members. And we should not penalize our members because of any political actions of the area they happen to live in. Of course we should accept the offer of the Southern Order of Storyteller to host us.
    Also if we want to survive as an organization we should not even think of looking a gift horse in the mouth.
    —Margaret Read MacDonald


    As a long-standing member of NSN, I should like to state my view regarding holding the 2020 Summit in Atlanta, GA. To paraphrase the Irish storyteller, Liz Weir, it is difficult to dislike someone once you have heard their “story”. I believe in the stated policy of “engaged neutrality”. Given the highly controversial legislation that has been recently passed in Georgia, I do not feel that it is venue given to supporting “neutrality”. It will be impossible to “ignore” the milieu. SILENCE is an action, just as DOING NOTHING is an action. From my perspective, to hold the NSN conference in Georgia is tacit support of said legislation. I also think that regardless of NSN’s stated position, either side of this debate will use the actions of NSN as a sign that “their” position is the “right” one. Heads [going there] I win; tails [ finding another place] you lose. NSN can’t win for losing with this one. I suggest we find a place that is much more, truly “neutral”, and support our membership in an environment that allows all of us to “listen” to the other’s perspective. Do what we’re doing now: have the debate OUT of Georgia, and not in it.

    Doria Hughes

    Georgia’s proposed legislation is frightening and dangerous, and has the potential to do tremendous harm to women, particularly low-income women, and their families. While it is true that all citizens are entitled to their own views, not all of those views are equally honorable, nor should they all be tolerated, much less endorsed by NSN and its members. No organization (or person, for that matter) is truly neutral, especially one that purports to uphold standards of decency and tolerance, pluralism and acceptance. Tolerance in this case should not extend to the toleration of those who seek to subjugate women and imperil the health and wellbeing of those who are historically disenfranchised and downtrodden. Legislators and voters who threaten the poor and oppressed in the way that those in Georgia intend should receive neither our financial support nor the tacit approbation implied by our presence in the form of an official conference. Under the current circumstances, holding the NSN conference in that state would compromise the organization’s ethics and those of its members. If NSN continues on this so-called path of “neutrality” – which, as Elie Wiesel once rightfully pointed out, serves only to support the oppressor at the expense of the oppressed – I will cancel my membership.


    NSN should continue to maintain a policy of neutrality towards state, regional, and national issues, Our organization should continue with the plans to hold the 2020 Summit in Atlanta. Let us set an example of how people should treat each other. Why punish any storytellers in a given region for the decisions of a few politicians? A decision by NSN to boycott any place due to controversial policies or practices, does not hurt the “offending party” as much as it hurts the storytelling community in that area.


    I applaud NSN for asking those who wish to weigh in on this issue to do so. Just five statements above show that there are already different perspectives and approaches, which given the complexity of these times, and that emotions are running high on all sides, is no surprise. While I don’t have a clear cut “should” convene in Atlanta or “should not,” I do think that NSN should name what is going on in Georgia–newly passed repressive abortion laws that will cause tremendous anguish known and not known to countless people. I would like to see NSN use language that fully acknowledges the controversy of these anti-abortion laws. Even as NSN strives for “neutrality” this is a serious issue and I think that the entire NSN membership should be given a chance to vote “yes” or “no” on whether or not to meet in Atlanta. Women, children, the earth, the “other” are targeted and harmed by many current policies and they all go beyond neutrality.
    m hecht


    While I respect NSN’s policy on engaged neutrality, and I understand the intentions of the 2020 Summit, and I know how hard it is to find a host organization; I personally, choose not to spend my discretionary income in a state that passes such repressive and abhorrent legislation.


    Thanks for accepting member feedback. I have found that when I remain neutral, all parties seem to think I am on their side unless I am explicitly vocal about my neutrality and what it means. If the NSN remains neutral then we need to speak publicly about it. What makes Georgia a higher stake is the severity of the issue. By choosing to remaining neutral, we would honor the diversity of our membership and our mission. But in this case the issue has clauses that move beyond politics and religion and into a human rights issue. That’s where I step away from neutrality as an individual. Does the NSN have a limitation on its policy of neutrality?
    Ad. Booth


    I support the Policy of Engaged Neutrality. We must remember there are many people in Georgia who are not happy with current policy in their own state.
    We are a small organization, and any outcry from us is probably going to go unnoticed. But given who we are, we are always in a position to let our views be known. Just as the pen is mightier than the sword, so the story is mightier than just about anything. Engaged Neutrality in no way silences us or diminishes us. Pippa White


    I agree that engaged neutrality in no way silences or diminishes. To me, the question isn’t whether or not the next NSN Summit should be held in Georgia. The question is whether or not NSN should become a political arm for various issues and policies upon which people hold passionate and polarized viewpoints. There are many platforms and organizations that people may use to achieve those aims. Should NSN be such an organization?


    The world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing. (Albert Einstein)
    This state had decided the strip half the population of autonomy over their lives. I will not look the other way. In ignoring their actions and taking a neutral stance, I believe this organization is essentially condoning it.


    I support NSN’s policy to not organizationally articulate or otherwise provide support for or opposition to any specific candidate for office, legislation (pending or finalized), or policy, apart from the advancement of the art of storytelling.

    I fully support each of NSN’s individual members to speak out on any position, and to direct their discretionary spending to support or boycott those causes they believe in. This issue has come up before (e.g. Arizona in 2014)

    Based on my knowledge of the amount of time it takes to plan a Summit, I do not support the selection of an alternative location in 2020. There is simply not enough time to plan an alternative location. Given the time needed to lock down a venue, I support NSN’s continued discussions with the Southern Order of Storytellers to host the 2020 in Georgia, and to make a go-no-go decision about whether to hold a summit at all in 2020 based on a survey of the membership’s likelihood to attend in Georgia.

    Denise McCormack

    Engaged Neutrality suggests that no action or lack of action can be interpreted as bias; however, for an organization to deliberately select to create a circumstance that will arguably demonstrate a strong bias can only be construed as supporting bias and actions and tenets.

    Moreover, any suggestion that this conference is a means to “building bridges” of understanding concurrently suggests that the mission of the conference is, conversely, to address a political stance.

    In this case, the message rings something like “Can’t we all just get along?” In fact, it seems to call for a willingness for members to comply with and encourage individuals to give up their civil liberties, to be good sports and reasonable folks who can certainly compromise and give away just a little bit of their rights to personal autonomy and freedom. Where is that line?

    The only relevant point on which everyone might agree is that the Summit is not an appropriate platform for such diliberance, and this is exactly the speak that isn’t wanted. Other industries are boycotting Georgia. Aren’t we crossing a “picket-line” here? Isn’t that a big statement?

    The sheer act of having to ask this question is an acknowledgement of its weight and its perceived potential consequences. Thus, it irrevocably removes the organization from qualifying as a neutral entity participating in “engaged neutrality”.

    I can certainly elaborate further, but this rationale is the most unbiased, apolitical argument that I can muster. For me, the personal is the political. Politics is about people and their connection to the world, the community. To abstain from the political, is to turn away from the plight of people, a sin of omission.


    Agree that one does not want to reject any human being because of the views they hold, but governments and institutions are broader and more influential. There are times when we should speak, as a community. We might also choose to remember this Lutheran Minister from post WWII Germany:
    First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—

    Because I was not a socialist.

    Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—
    Because I was not a trade unionist.

    Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
    Because I was not a Jew.

    Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

    When do we speak, as an organization, to stop atrocity or promote life giving policies or behaviors. These are indeed serious things to contemplate. Being Switzerland isn’t equal to being moral.

    Denise McCormack

    I don’t know if this is up to date, but let’s check: https://thehill.com/policy/healthcare/445460-states-passing-and-considering-new-abortion-laws-in-2019. I do not wish to attend a summit in any state that tries to restrict rights to autonomy.


    I support NSN’s policy of engaged neutrality as written. It is especially important in times of widely varying opinions and sociopolitical divisiveness to provide a forum where all sides of an issue can be examined. In my experience, to act otherwise is to essentially become a political action committee in the eyes of the government. NSN could maintain a federal non-profit status, but donations to the organization would no longer qualify for tax benefits as charitable deductions. Someone with more recent and deeper legal knowledge should look into this aspect of the law.
    Whether to hold the conference in a “heartbeat law” state is a separate issue, but to change venues now, after a location has been announced, may put our current legal status at risk.

    Denise McCormack

    For those folks who cannot reply here, I’ve created a collection at https://forms.gle/XVAnrQmuT71gEaRv9 and have shared it with affiliate organization members. Please feel free to share it with NSN members and affiliates in your organizations.


    Regarding legality: A non-profit organization cannot support, financially or advocacy-wise, a candidate, but they can educate and support legislation and issues.


    I agree that this is a difficult decision to make: when does an oppressive act of government reach the level where NSN, with its intention of including members with all points of view, in the interests of supporting storytelling nationwide, decide that a political issue requires an active response?

    For me, our situation is this: the additional of justice Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court makes it likely that a state law limiting or banning abortion in all cases would be heard by the Supreme Court and result in an overturning of Roe v. Wade. Believing that their passage of restrictive laws will gain favor from voters, legislators in several states have proceeded to enact laws likely to be challenged by proponents of women’s right to choose. Such a challenge, these legislators believe, will cost them nothing; majority of their voters will only be pleased by such legislation.

    The only pressure that could change these legislators minds (or at least change some of their minds) would be a hit to a state’s economy. If there is no impact on a state’s economy, the calculation is clear: oppose abortion in all cases and be re-elected.

    We know that refusing to do business in states with oppressive laws can put economic pressure on legislators; think of the recent example of North Carolina’s infamous “bathroom law.” The refusal of businesses (nearly all “non-political” put pressure on the legislature to repeal the law.

    In this case, a decision to pursue “business as usual” is a decision to support an oppressive, sexist policy. I don’t believe that our “engaged neutrality” should go that far! NSN is a small business, but the more businesses that boycott Georgia explicitly because of this law, the more likely it is that the voters and legislatures will decide that the gains do not justify the cost.

    I agree that we should not be engaged in political lobbying. At the same time, we don’t want to add support to oppressive policies. I favor moving the conference from Georgia.

    Bill Wight

    As the originator of this topic, I am refraining from personal comment (I’ve said my piece). However, I have received some input via direct e-mail, from people who have not subsequently posted in this forum. I have offered to post those responses on behalf of those who responded to me in this manner. Before I post anything on someone else’s behalf, I am forwarding them an exact copy of what I will (with their permission) post. For the sake of brevity, I will preface each such post with: “Posted on behalf of <name>, with permission:”

    I want all voices to be heard, and have made this offer to all such respondents who are members of NSN, regardless of their viewpoint


    they have already made a post of their own.

    Bill Wight

    Posted on behalf of Julienne Ryan, with permission:


    I gave your recent post about NSN event locations some thought. I thought about how we and other organizations/companies need to look at how they use their $’s /visibility as “opportunities” to teach or demonstrate a position.

    When the film industry dialed back their location shots, I said I get it. Lot’s of money is getting pulled out… that might put some pressure on but unfortunately some in the state may take it as a “win.” Unfortunately, as you know small businesses like caterers, make up artists, tech crews, maintenance crews will feel the hit… so the lesson’s impact won’t be a clean and simple one.

    We on the other hand, don’t have large dollars to leverage but we can offer something to those areas with our presence. Our art form is about sharing and helping people communicate and appreciate other’s circumstances….

    So many there is an opportunity here to be more than revenue from another booked conference and a suite of rooms. We have an opportunity to touch people and make an impact. Fringes and ripples are two visuals that come to mind when I think stories and encounters interact.

    Bill Wight

    Posted on behalf of Laconia Therrio, with permission:

    Thank You! I believe this is the right call for our organization. It honors each member’s personal values and simultaneously calls us to Story’s place in promoting healing in the marketplace.

    Laconia Therrio
    Past President, NSN

    Bill Wight

    Posted on behalf of Kristin Pedemonti, with permission:

    Thank you for your mindfulness in how NSN is moving forward. You and the Board are an inspiration of building bridges!
    Gratitude from my heart to yours,

    Bill Wight

    Posted on behalf of Kathryn Weidener, with permission:

    I disagree with Naomi Shahib Nye, people do reject the stories of others – that is the world we are in now. NSN should not plan a convention or Summit in a state that is retreating from science and knowledge. Storytelling can be a bridge – but we should not build a bridge to nowhere!

    Kathryn Weidener, President
    New Jersey Storytelling Network


    Growing up in Atlanta, GA during the Jim Crow era, I had much to learn from local faith leaders and community organizers who set the example of putting their bodies on the line and speaking into being a world committed to equal rights for those who have been historically marginalized. I took the stage as a storyteller in 1980, in part, so that another woman’s voice could be added to the fray.

    My grandmother was forty-two years old before women gained the right to vote in 1920. My mother was 51 years old before birth control was legalized for all Americans. The services of Atlanta’s Planned Parenthood allowed the young women and men of my generation access to birth control so that we would not need abortion services. Now I am 65 years old with two young adult daughters. I want them to have our gender’s long awaited equal rights under the law.

    Thus, I am deeply disheartened by NSN’s policy of engaged neutrality in the face of recent legislation in my home state. Bill Wight’s invitation to this forum notes: “It is from NSN’s Values — Responsive Innovation, Cultural Awareness and Engagement, Inclusion, Collaboration, and Integrity — that we draw the…policy.” Here’s NSN’s vision: “A world in which all people value the power of storytelling and its ability to connect, inspire, and instill respect within our hearts and communities.”

    There is nothing connective, inspirational or respectful about saying nothing in the face of this latest attempt to legislate women’s bodies in Georgia (and elsewhere in the US). Strange to say, there is little or no mention in the recent draconian legislation across the country about punishing the men whose uncontrolled ejaculations get women pregnant in the first place.

    During the confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh, Senator Kamala Harris asked if he could think of any law giving the government power to regulate the male body. You can see him struggle to answer before saying “I’m not thinking of any” here: https://www.c-span.org/video/?c4747580/law-giving-government-power-regulate-mans-body

    Unwanted pregnancies have been effectively reduced in other countries with comprehensive sex education, free birth control and unfettered access to abortion. With that trio of strategies in place, abortion numbers drop. But every one of those strategies is threatened in the US. I believe that by whatever small and large means at our disposal as citizens, we must push back against the legislation of women’s bodies for political gain. Here’s hoping the men in our lives and within our communities will join us in articulating the justness of our cause.

    Meanwhile, I would like to see NSN pull out of its Atlanta commitment, though I love my hometown and have dear friends and respected colleagues among the Southern Order of Storytellers. In the event that the organization decides to hold the conference there, I would plan not to attend. What would change my mind?

    Engaging Stacey Abrams as a keynote speaker. Offering a strand of workshops on how to educate our legislators about the hardships caused by their deeply cynical, scientifically uninformed, and discriminatory efforts to use vulnerable constituents as political pawns. These could, of course, address any number of social justice issues: immigration, climate change, mass incarceration.

    Providing an opportunity to connect with local social justice organizations to offer our storytelling prowess to their tool kits. Given that GA legislators only need give an ear to those who vote in (or contribute significant dollars to) their state, interested conference attendees could volunteer to accompany GA tellers to meetings with their representatives.

    Offering a field trip so that those who are prepared to do so can stand in front of the GA capitol building wearing tee shirts asking when the government intends to start legislating punishment for those who cause unwanted pregnancies: that is to say, men. In that case, I’d be happy to contact friends in the local media who could help that peaceful protest get some coverage.

    So those are my thoughts, offered here with respect. When I began writing about this subject, I felt uncomfortable sharing my thoughts even in an email with a handful of beloved colleagues whom I have known for decades, much less in a public forum. What does that say about the risks involved in sharing our stories in America today?

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