David 'Mas' Masumoto

Discovering the power in our local, authentic stories

Fresno Bee file illustration

I’m tired. I’m weary. Natural disasters overpower my sense of optimism. The national news pounds a negative beat hourly. People sound angry yet stop themselves from dialogue.

But I find comfort in stories. Real stories of authentic people. These stories are too often left out of the daily grind, overlooked in our own Valley, and never about my neighbors. Locally, we can discover stories that inspire, even though they may appear unassuming. These stories need to be told and retold; they deserve our attention and an audience.

Farther afield, a series called “Upstanders” created by Starbucks documents these heartening individuals and organizations from across the nation. Twenty short films speak of people with courage and compassion who are standing up fearlessly.

One story includes a white woman who meets and befriends the African-American man who shot her (he was only 13 at the time).

Another disclosure tells of a Tennessee Christian pastor who opts not to fight but learns to welcome a Muslim mosque and community when they move next door.

Then there’s the account of a successful chef hiring ex-convicts and helping with their rehabilitation.

These are extraordinary acts of ordinary people who act and fight for what they believe in.

I know of local stories with the same honesty – individuals who have a first conversation with a Muslim neighbor, a farmworker who collects funds for the family of a fellow worker who committed suicide. Their stories need to be recognized and honored. They are a cause for celebration, especially on the local level.

These stories may live only briefly in our fast-paced, 24-hour news cycle, yet they can be captured in a local broadcast, newspaper or even in a Facebook post.

I witnessed such positive signs in the Fresno film festival called the “Big Tell,” which aimed to share stories of triumph about people in our Valley.

Learning stories of people around us can open doors to meet others we might not typically talk to and foster a safe environment to talk about differences. We then all become educators and our own type of activist: We have the power to make a difference in our own personal communities.

Much like the Starbucks series, we change from “bystanders” to “upstanders,” problem-solvers and change-makers on the local level.

These stories work because they are authentic. We then relearn core values that define us as neighbors rather than adversaries, especially against the backdrop of nasty politics.

We live in a complex world with all its messiness; I do not believe the solutions lie within me to figure it all out, nor will it come from a national figurehead and policy makers that deliver edicts from the top down. Perhaps change begins with stopping to listen and learn the simple story of an inspiring individual next door.

I may be guilty of sugar-coating life and ignoring some of the harsh realities facing individuals and communities. For many in our Valley, motivating stories lie in the seemingly simple act of daily feeding a family or finding shelter. Some may claim my quest masks a “happy face” facade, speaking from privilege of someone who was never hungry, never homeless and grew up in a stable family.

But I seek emotional engagement and a thirst for real stories. Meaning is discovered and revealed in joy, love, passion, pride, sadness, remorse, shame and grief. A good cry is part of social sharing, reflective behavior can result in genuine connections that are honest and humble. I want to hear stories that make me smile and weep at the same time.

Neuroscience has explored the power of the unconscious mind that contributes to decision making and how people define relationships. We are driven by emotions more than we believe and stories can frame our attitudes and perspective; they appeal to the heart over the head.

The business of life happens through emotions found in the story of our lives. The danger lies in the manipulative nature of all this; “sadvertising” has become a driver of some marketing campaigns, inducing tears to build brand identity and loyalty while distracting us from real-life issues.

Today, we suffer from attention scarcity as we’re bombarded with images and negativity. We are more informed than ever and isolated as well. We are lonely. In response to our constant digitally plugged-in lives, I hope we will seek to be more human: to bridge gaps with real people and real stories.

For example, a wildly popular book and media campaign called “Humans of New York” has now expanded across the nation and world. The author captured photographs and stories of everyday people, sharing “street portraits” and interviews.

In the past, we looked to politicians and policy makers to inform and guide us. Yet many leaders are disconnected in this current era of big data, technology and rapid information, along with a flurry of fake news. Traditional methods to reach constituents have collapsed.

Yet a possible antidote to this confusion and noise may be emotional stories that resonate with the personal relationships that define us. The future leaders who can tap into stories can then stir us to do better and win the hearts and minds of voters.

Local stories matter. Our Valley is teeming with extraordinary people filled with the humility of acting as good neighbors. I’m not seeking heroes but hope to acknowledge and capture our stories ourselves. Little things matter and can give light to guide us.

People still make the difference. Change begins with one step, one conversation, one story at a time.

David “Mas” Masumoto is an organic farmer near Fresno and author of several books including “Epitaph for a Peach.” He can be contacted at masmasumoto@gmail.com.