Editors’ note: This article is part of NPQ’s cluster about the power of narrative in social change work. (Other articles in this series can be found at the end.) This particular article was originally published by the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society at UC Berkeley, on April 18, 2018, as part of its Blueprint for Belonging project. It has been lightly edited for publication in the winter 2018 edition of the Nonprofit Quarterly.
The culture of the progressive sector—as with all sectors—is rooted in stories. They are stories that convey values, mental models, assumptions, and identities, all of which ultimately guide our behaviors. Unsurprisingly, the most powerful stories that define the culture of our sector are not the stories about the issues we work on but rather the stories we tell ourselves about who we are (and aren’t), and how we should (and shouldn’t) act in the world to make change.
Narrative is now a big buzzword in the field of social change. That is more a testament to people wanting to understand narrative, however, than it is a testament to people actually understanding it. Evaluating our overall approach to narrative, as well as the specific narrative changes we have determined to achieve, comes down to a foundational question: What is our own narrative about the role that narrative strategy plays in social change—our own narrative about what it is, what it takes to do it well, and what’s at stake in our success? We tell ourselves a story about storytelling, a narrative about changing narratives. What purpose is it serving? Is it the right narrative? Is it the one we need?
I believe we have the wrong narrative about narrative.
Because of that, we are often working against ourselves, whether by reverting to bad habits or willfully denying the hard work we actually have to do—much in the way that, when making choices related to our health, we might revert to what feels easier, more comfortable, and more familiar to do, even if it’s not the healthiest thing to do or the thing that will actually yield positive health outcomes. We may say that our goal is to get healthier, but then we slide into the elevator instead of taking the stairs. What is the equivalent, in our narrative work and practice, of slinking into the elevator instead of taking the stairs, and pretending it doesn’t matter?
One way we do it: going to consultants whom we “vet” mostly by way of the habit of having hired them over and over than by assessing whether or not their work stands up to scrutiny and has helped enable a win. Another way we do it: trusting the established “expert” voices in the room, often but not only white men, who cite the familiar conventional wisdom or tactical advice, rather than working to find new and more diverse experts with better ideas, and calling the question on the conventional wisdom. (It’s hard not to default to the established experts we have, even though they have delivered a steady stream of losses, when they are the only people who have been given a platform and the only people let in the room.)
More ways we do it: trying so hard to turn every small success into a “model” that we can instantly use over and over; constantly setting our sights on the vaguely defined “moveable middle” in lieu of having a genuine and rigorously determined set of targets in mind; ignoring the expertise of people on the ground who have often made the right call on what would and wouldn’t work; assuming that a poll showing that the majority of people “agree with us” lessens the work we have to do to make change, and that polls, surveys, and comms-led focus groups are the best way of learning about what people truly believe, what motivates them, and how we can expect them to respond.
It is going to be very hard to break the patterns holding us back. I say that as a leader in the country’s cultural transformation with respect to LGBT acceptance and integration, during the period in which our successful strategies went to scale. And I also say that as a leader in the movement for racial justice today.
Leadership in narrative change, let alone social change, depends on the ability to break through our assumptions and defaults and forge new, better-informed practices.
That is—taking the stairs.
This paper presents a high-level outline of just some of the components of strategic thinking required to create the right story about narrative change within the progressive movement, with a focus on the components related to building the infrastructure we need to build what I call narrative power.
Three needs for change in our orientation stand out:
- We need the ability to follow through on narrative and cultural dispersion and immersion—over time, across segments, and at scale.
- We need actual human beings to serve as our main vehicle for achieving narrative change—people who are authentic, talented, equipped, motivated, and networked.
- We cannot forsake the power of brands—the relationships responsible for the way that most people come to change their thinking, reshape their feeling, and redirect their behaviors.
Further below, I explain these needs in greater detail.
An important note: One critical aspect of building narrative power is building the infrastructure of accountability—i.e., being able to limit the influence of false and dangerous narratives propagated by the right wing and others, whether that necessitates challenging those narratives directly or challenging those who enable them to proliferate. Changing the rules of the media landscape is an enormous part of the work of Color Of Change and my previous work at GLAAD, and is a subject I discuss in detail often—but it is not the focus of this paper.
True infrastructure with respect to narrative is not about
maintaining a listserv for comms staff to align on rapid-response talking points and create more press releases;
or circulating more PowerPoint decks with superficial and unactionable observations created by opinion-focused researchers with a history of losing and selling out strategy for tactics;
or putting more PR firms in the position of speaking for us; or developing framing approaches uninformed by any real narrative or culture change experience; or staging more “convenings” at which frustrated leaders and staff members working in organizing and advocacy (including myself) come together and vent, in detail, about the short-sighted, race-averse, slow-to-change, culturally out-of-touch decision-making patterns of our peer and partner organizations throughout the progressive movement. That