Whole, Not Half, Stories

“I think it’s important that people know not half stories but whole stories that happened here- all the circumstances that [are] happening.”

Roz, affectionately known in her community as Mama Sunshine, shared with me that she was appreciative during our (then present) interview that I, as a student and anthropologist, “want[ed] to know everything that happens here.” At the beginning of our interview, I asked Roz to guide our conversation and discuss what she saw as necessary. For that time, my role would be to listen and ask clarifying questions. In our conversation, Roz described herself as a community activist residing in Kensington, a neighborhood in northeast Philadelphia. Her message that I gleaned from our interview centers around the need for peace in a community plagued with multiple forms of violence. Perhaps equally important, she felt it imperative to address that there is good, positivity, and productivity that grows from communities who suffer from structural violence. While Roz deals with obstacles such as the opioid epidemic daily, she juxtaposes this concern with the emergence of collaborative art practices that residents perform as an act of community healing.

The opioid epidemic is a particularly visible manifestation of structural violence

The story of the opioid epidemic in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, is a complex one: while the story is commonly told in terms of the Kensington neighborhood’s geographic isolation, the epidemic affects the lives of all Philadelphia residents. 

Philadelphia is a unique city in terms of its infrastructure (public transportation systems, presence of major university health systems) and the health crises that characterize the region. Examples of these crises include childhood lead poisoning and the opioid and heroin epidemics. 

One of my major questions for this thesis was why is there a geographic density of the opioid epidemic in Northeast Philadelphia neighborhoods? What factors, actors, and relationships contributed to this “isolated” epidemic’s formation?

This website addresses how population-wide health crises, such as the opioid epidemic, are not necessarily the result of “poor” individual choices but result from an aggregation of structurally violent relationships. 

But first, some data context

This visualization aims to acquaint you with some of the patterns and relationships that exist in the neighborhoods of Philadelphia. It will provide some definitions of critical terms and present some questions that influenced the subsequent visualizations. Each slide represents a different dimension of the website; these topics, and the data that accompany them, will be expanded upon in different sections as a piece of the “whole story.”

Telling stories, by uniting data and narrative, is one mechanism to dismantle structural violence

The story is a social product of the human; as Bill Nichols articulates:

“Stories offer structure; they organize and order the flux of events; they confer meaning and value.”

Stories are not essential truths of the world but constructions made by humans to explain what it means to be human. Nichols tells us that stories do not occur naturally, like ore in the ground, but are socially constructed and produced by experiences, relationships, and culture.

Acknowledging that stories are socially constructed is one step towards understanding the difference between whole and half stories; as Roz implied, structural violence thrives when we tell half stories. 

To frame a story as “whole,” it needs to articulate not only the “bad” and not only the “good.” Whole stories show the complexity of what it means to be human in different contexts. Additionally, whole stories include invisible factors that we cannot physically see or touch; an example of this are relationships. A relationship is not made of matter, of atoms, like our bodies are, but is just as socially real and significant. 

Whole stories in the context of Philadelphia, and Roz’s life, acknowledge the role structural violence plays in society and the manners in which it manifests, such as in individuals’ health. However, whole stories also show the positives; they depict individuals not as passive receivers of violence but activists attempting to dismantle these structures and relationships. 

Whole stories are important because most of our current media consumption does not contain whole stories; more often than not, they are the half or partial stories that Roz mentioned. News articles produced about the Philadelphia Riverwards, specifically Kensington, often highlight the community’s obstacles without addressing the positive contributions that are coming from the same place. Additionally, these stories frequently discuss the health obstacles that plague residents without providing any historical context on how these specific narratives emerged. 

The combination of data and narrative, of historical context and stories, can be a methodology to visualize structural violence’s hidden, invisible nature. Our society views data as objective truth; however, it is essential to reframe data, and data visualization, as a subjective interpretation of the world that only points to patterns, not solutions. The layering of stories with data, producing a more “whole” product, can visually depict the dissonance between the problem and the solution. This dissonance often represents the relationships that forge structural violence.

We need to tell whole stories while acknowledging that “whole” stories are impossible to tell

The word “whole” implies a discrete beginning and end; however, since stories are social constructions, they have infinite connections. This adds complexity to our idea of the whole. 

In addition to the infinite connections, a story is inherently subjective, as told through the narrator’s voice. While subjectivity is usually frowned upon in society, storytelling favors subjectivity over the objective viewpoint. The subjective acknowledges individual experiences as real, without seeking an ultimate truth; the yearning for an objective story is essentially utopian as there is no one “correct” way to interpret the relationships of the world and the human.

In summary, we will never reach the ideal “whole” that stories set out to accomplish; it is impossible to trace every single relationship a story is tied to or acknowledge every possible subjective viewpoint a story can be told. However, that should not stop us from grasping a complex whole that acknowledges the limitations while not interfering with the overwhelming possibilities. 

This thesis attempts a subjective, whole story in collaboration with my interlocutors in the Philadelphia community. I hope you find their stories, told through their words, as impactful and inspiring as I have.