It’s not about you, nonprofit.

Kristen Hess Deo knows people. She spends her days listening deeply, trying to understand the complexity of human lives, and sharing the true stories of people in poverty. She does this as a storyteller at a big food bank in the Bay Area, supporting the messaging that educates the community about their mission. I got to have a conversation with her about her work as a story-gatherer and story-sharer. This is an edited version of that interview. 

Cat Slack: What is the story you are trying to tell? 

Kristen Hess Deo: The story that has the potential for the biggest impact is the person’s experience. It is about the their experience. It is about them. The nonprofit they are getting help from is playing a role in their life and they may feel grateful, but we have to understand how the nonprofit plays a role and is one of many reasons this person’s life is changing. We have to change the narrative that has been in existence for so long: 

Sad client in need. Sad client gets help from nonprofit. Nonprofit saves the day. Client is happy and better. 

CS: That has been the trope: let’s show the hungry kid, the kid with bugs in its eyes, and not show the whole story. It really is important to remember that that human will see that depiction of their story mirrored back and own the narrative. So if our narrative is pity, not the authentic version of their experience, it demeans the person. 

KHD: Yes, and it looks like the nonprofit is exploiting their pain. Your discussion on telling stories from the scar and not the wound is critical in this. And telling the true story, not the story you think someone wants to hear. This stuff is complex and these stories are the truth of it. 

CS: So you regularly go out to a distribution site for the food bank and talk to clients. How do you determine who to talk to? 

KHD: I look for eye contact. During COVID we distribute food in drive-thrus as well as farmers markets, so I am often walking up and down lines of cars. It is hard, because people are in their cars with their windows up, afraid to catch a virus. Some people keep their faces forward. Some people are curious and some have their windows down and arms hanging out – they want human interaction. 

I work with translators and interpreters and we noticed that if we started talking to one car the next might be open. Then we’d move down the line. It is so important to be present with each person. Other people see that and want to engage. At farmers market distributions we walk up to people and sometimes it gathers a crowd!

CS: I’ve talked to a lot of nonprofits about this, and the staff and volunteers are often scared to start the conversation because they don’t know how. It’s a tall order to approach a stranger and truly want to get to know them. How do you start? 

KHD: I start with “what do you think of the food here?” Small talk opens the door. We comment on the distribution: “the line is long today.” Then they might open up about how early they got in line or how it was last week or who they know there. Be present and hear it. And you’ll learn that all sorts of things happen at distributions! I’ve witnessed kerfuffles, frustrations, people getting scared because they won’t get food. Some people there are at their most desperate moment, most anxious moment.

CS: That is an important thing to keep in mind. When discussing how hard it is to swallow your pride and get help, I ask people to truly consider what steps they’d take before going to get in line at a food distribution at the food bank. I mean, really consider it: you’d first skip your meals and make sure your kids are fed; you’d add water to milk; you’d go to McDonald’s for the dollar menu a lot more; you’d stop buying so many other things. You would exhaust everything before saying, maybe I need help. It is harrowing for families and individuals to get there. 

KHD: Yes! And that is why you have to start a conversation as a human, with curiosity: “Wow, is it like this here?” Start with empathy and often that will connect you and they will share about what it’s really like.

CS: What do you hear the most? 

KHD: Gratitude. But you have to give it time. Every single client that I spent time talking to, whether it is for 10 minutes or for one hour, when they finally get the chance to reflect on getting food they always land on gratitude. But this is so hard to land on at the distribution site, when the anxiety about a basic need is high. Because of all the things that they are feeling – shame, fear, uncertainty, disbelief that this is where they are – gratitude comes later. 

CS: How do you know if it is appropriate to explore a client’s story? Again, you don’t want to re-traumatize someone by asking them to re-live pain, so how do you explore that?

KHD: At the site we ask a few questions to establish if they are a fit. Some clients we only talk to at the distribution and don’t follow up with. We look for people that are open to talking to us, and it does happen that we have people that are closed off, where we get only yes or no answers. Some people don’t want to engage. Give them respect and space. With COVID we were also doing follow up interviews on Zoom. There we found people were more in a place of reflection. The quantity of interviews at the site leads to quality eventually. How many people can we get contact info for? Out of all of those there might be one that has a story we’ll run. That can come up with one or none, even.

CS: You are a joyful person and use humor in this work. Tell me more about that.

KHD: Ha! There is one common denominator for the majority of clients we end up working with: the clients that can find joy or humor. They can see hope. For example, we were at a farmworker distribution and the people there were waiting for food behind a fence. Me and my colleague thought this might be tough because of the fence – it was separating us from the clients. She said to the people in line, “We are here to do interviews. Don’t all rush at once!” People laughed. Those people who laughed were more likely to be open to talking. Be present and observe and you can find that light in the darkness. Those people can articulate their whole experience.

I use humor a lot. It helps to relate to a struggle. I often call out something silly at a food distribution, noting that there are lots of eggs that day, I’ll say, “I hope you like eggs!” 

CS: Ha, yes, dad jokes for the win! Your work is not all about gathering stories, though, is it? 

KHD: Oh no. That is often secondary. If a person is in crisis the most important thing is not to get an interview but to connect them to resources that can help them. That may be staff at the nonprofit, or finding a better food distribution site closer to their home or work. The job is not marketing, the job is helping them. We’ve stopped and pivoted interviews if someone is in crisis, if the trauma is happening right then. And what an inspiration to see that strength! When a client is up against stress, anxiety, fear they had the courage to ask us for help. That is strength, resilience, resourcefulness. If you change the point of view it becomes a more powerful story. And it is a long game because you develop lasting relationships with people. I remember telling a colleague, “Remember that man we met last month? He just reached out and got a job and wanted to share good news!” And interestingly, it is then we get the interview because they are more stable. They remember us because of how we treated and honored them and responded to their request for help. 

People remember how you made them feel when they were in their most desperate time of need. 

CS: Why are translators important? 

KHD: They are imperative. They are a door to unlock so much more depth, truth, joy, sorrow – all of their emotions can be expressed in their native language. People tell more authentic stories when we meet them where they are, when they are the most comfortable. Thinking and translating in your head leads to a more simple and shortened story. They skip the articulation of details. I mean, if I am talking in Spanish I simplify things because it is not my native tongue; the same goes for our multilingual clients.  

A translator needs to have warmth and must be able to connect with other people. Spanish, Vietnamese, Mandarin, Cantonese – people’s eyes open up when they hear their native language. People want to talk in their native language. At distribution sites people crowd around or hover nearby waiting because it is comforting to know someone understands them. 

CS: What advice do you have for a new story-gatherer and story-sharer? 

KHD: Get ready to be vulnerable. I come to interviews and distributions ready to tell people my own truth so they can see it is safe to do. I bring up that I am a mother, that I have a young child that struggles with eating, that I have experienced isolation. I find it necessary to reveal aspects of my experience. Often these people have never met me, so my opening up levels the playing field. It is a natural conversation, not a transaction. And remember that when working with a translator, everything they translate does not need to be a question. I validate a lot. It is important for the client to know that what they are doing is hard and that we are grateful. It is so important to spend time on that – it is more important than asking another question for content. Let them know they are not alone. It is vital to be humble: I often think, “I can’t believe you trusted me, a perfect stranger, with your story. I am so honored.” Many times people do want to open up and it is so important to acknowledge that. This is beautiful and rare and I got to be here for it. At the end of the interview I am grateful for them.

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