How retelling historical stories helps communicators navigate difficult topics

National Geographic Explorer of the Year Tara Roberts on tackling painful conversations and creating positive change.

Corporate and institutional reputations can sometimes be entangled in a painful past. Some organizations rebrand for a fresh start. Others put the scars of old wounds on display — a difficult step when brands today risk being “canceled” over their public, and even private, positions.

Look no further than Volkswagen for proof. The global auto giant’s roots are in Nazi Germany, a fact the company puts front and center in the first paragraph of its company history. The company even set up a memorial to the concentration camp prisoners and laborers forced to work in one World War II-era plant.

In a polarized environment, many public conversations focus on what keeps people apart rather than what brings them together. And when groups can’t even agree on the facts, communicators must decide: Are past stories worth retelling?

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For Tara Roberts, storyteller, adventurer and a National Geographic Explorer of the Year, now is precisely the time to dive deep – literally.

Roberts, the first African American female explorer featured on the cover of the magazine, is now telling the story of Diving With a Purpose, a group of underwater explorers on a mission to find and preserve the submerged evidence of the estimated 1,000 ships that wrecked over the course of the transatlantic slave trade.

Her pioneering work shows how companies can use the power of keeping and telling stories to have productive conversations about emotionally charged topics.

Taking ownership of the past begins a more productive conversation

Between the 16th and 19th centuries, more than 12 million Africans were enslaved and brought to the Americas on the 12,000 ships that sailed from Europe to Africa and the Americas. It’s estimated that as many as 1.8 million died in transit.

Acknowledging that past and honoring the pain it continues to cause is a first step in moving beyond the feelings of pain or guilt. It’s also the beginning of a shared understanding. Roberts explained how Europe, Africa, North America, South America and the Caribbean are deeply interconnected because of the slave trade.

“With this history, we’ve been afraid to really see it and look at it,” she said. “If we approach it from a loving perspective, we’re also seeing that this can be a history that brings us together instead of a history that pulls us apart.”

Finding your purpose

Becoming an undersea explorer and adventurer is an unlikely outcome for a bookish kid growing up in landlocked Atlanta in the 1980s. Roberts’ story begins with her mother, a reading teacher who would often return from conferences with boxes of books.

Madeleine L’Engle’s “A Wrinkle in Time” was a favorite. Like all good storytellers, L’Engle created connections with readers.

That early influence grew into her ambition to tell stories of her own and eventually led her to the work she’s doing now. Roberts wants to bring those stories back into memory and broaden the historical perspective of the slave trade.

“We look through a sort of singular lens,” she said. “But this is complicated, nuanced, ambiguous history that is served best when you’ve got a lot of voices in the room telling their own truths.”

Roberts is now at work on her next project, “The Return Expedition,” a reverse journey by boat that recreates the route of the transatlantic slave trade and will travel to 27 countries over the next year and a half.

It’s a story that resonates for communicators today who find themselves confronting topics like race and responsibility as business views on DE&I and ESG policies become more difficult.

Moving beyond blame and division with storytelling

For communicators, the message is to acknowledge what employees may be feeling and provide channels with clear guidelines for people to express those feelings. Discomfort is a necessary part of the process.

“When you are looking at the broad strokes of things, it’s so easy to see people in stereotypes,” Roberts said. “But when you start to deal with people individually, it is a whole different ballgame.”

Developing historical storytelling skills can help guide people through difficult conversations and create a shared purpose and vision, if they’re ready to embrace the opportunity.

Choosing to keep those stories alive may be risky, but it is also a reclamation of integrity. As with many challenges, the journey begins with a question, Roberts said.

“Who are we being inside of those companies and how are we using the resources that we have to really move forward this conversation in the world right now?” she asked.

Tara Roberts, National Geographic Explorer in Residence, will be speaking at the Ragan Communications Leadership Council Member Retreat in May. For more information on becoming a CLC member, visit

Mike Prokopeak is director of learning and council content for Ragan Communications. Follow him on LinkedIn.


2 Responses to “How retelling historical stories helps communicators navigate difficult topics”

    Kamau Sadiki says:

    Thank you for highlighting the work of Tara Roberts and Diving With a Purpose. When telling stories about the horrors of the Transatlantic Era of African Enslavement (the so-called Transatlantic Slave Trade), words and numbers matter. Between the 16th and 19th centuries, there were some 12,000 ships that transported captured Africans across the Atlantic Ocean against their will, making more than 36,000 voyages. Along the way, 1.8 – 2.0 million Africans were either thrown overboard, dead or alive, or chose to take their own lives rather than to be enslaved.

    Mike Prokopeak says:

    Thank you for the clarification. I’ve updated the article and included a link to the data source. Daily Headlines

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