This is my 10th year building narrative power for social movements, and I’ll talk a little bit more about what narrative power is and how we deploy it, but in that time the field of strategic communications has grown profoundly, and that’s one significant change that we’ve seen—more and more institutions working to eliminate oppressive systems and build inclusive ones are coming to understand that stories and storytelling are the backbone of an inclusive society, and how they’re told defines whose lives are valued and whose are not, and that narrative power shapes all other types of power, such as social power, economic power, and political power. And so the growth of this field is instrumental in defending democracy and building genuinely inclusive societies over time, and it’s been the critical efforts of communicators and organizers, whether they call themselves that or not, whose work is rooted in understanding and centering the challenges, and experiences, and insight, and wisdom, and stories, and knowledge of everyday people who are experiencing domination and exclusion, that have changed the hearts and minds of people that have set political agendas, and that have transformed culture to create a more equitable society.
And so in recent years, social change communicators, who are deeply embedded in community-based struggles—and I’ll talk a little bit more about what I mean by grassroots framework later—they have used the power of cultural work, of digital organizing and journalism, of storytelling to combat the ascent of the far right. From women-driven movements in Argentina, to Poland, to #MeToo here in the United States and the Movement for Black Lives, issues rise and fall from the media all the time. But it’s our job to maintain that existing drumbeat, and also to infuse a kind of radical assessment into strategic communications and power building. So, growth in this field is incredibly instrumental to long-term power building efforts, and organizing those communicators toward a radical narrative framework is a big part of that shift, and it’s a big part of the role that I play in the movement, and I want to just tell you a little bit about the Radical Communicators network, which I mentioned earlier.
So, this community of practice has over 5,000 members globally, and it’s a good example of how we optimize the field, enlarge opportunities for growth—when we have opportunities for growth. So, RadComms creates infrastructure that communicators need by facilitating collaboration between and across movements, by sharing and incubating strategies, by creating in-person and virtual events to build trust and relationships and community building, but also to leverage resources—democratize those resources to share them—and to create more opportunities for people in the field who don’t have access to significant resources because they work at forums and large institutions.
What’s different about RadComms, although I founded the network, is that it is completely decentralized. It’s organic, it’s driven by people in the field, and it’s not tied to any individual organizational brand. This is incredibly important; we are not using market-based strategies for liberation. We believe that our job is to be a conduit for grassroots communicators, to disseminate radical frameworks for strategic communications into more mainstream and academic spaces, and to train people up in narrative power strategies that democratize our field, that put people closest to oppression at the center of our efforts, as opposed to marketing or marketing strategies, which in many ways are antithetical to true freedom and liberation.
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We believe what sets us apart is that we don’t sacrifice principles or ethics for strategy, but that the most important role that we can play is to build narrative power for social movements. So, we organize an already connected group of people and change makers, and in the last year we’ve seen that group grow significantly, so lots more people entering the field coming in, which is why it’s so important for us to take the time to offer political education, professional development, and also relationship building so that communicators coming in are doing it from a place of genuine and meaningful radical transformation, as opposed to kind of just tinkering around the edges.
And then I want to name just one other quick development that I’ve been tracking from a narrative perspective, which is that the progressive sector is becoming more and more honest about the fact that we don’t always agree about how change happens. We’re ditching fake unity and homogenous strategies, which in my opinion is an excellent thing. So, one example from last year, during the 2020 uprisings in the US and globally, “Defund the Police” permeated the streets, the airwaves, the halls of Congress, the digital spaces, and it transcended borders and regimes, languages and culture, and it quickly became a rallying cry of the globally oppressed. Instances of police terror and the resulting uprisings gave us narrative strategists an opportunity to proliferate visionary messages and build narrative power for ideas, and stories, and policies that advanced innovative approaches to community safety and peacekeeping, but when Movement for Black Lives (M4BL) and our allies made the demand to defund the police, we were shamed and stigmatized on a national level by “progressives,” people who were really upset with us, you know, and they reached out to us, like, wagging their fingers telling us all the ways that we were being “divisive” and “unstrategic.” And I just want to point to you that this happened when I was the comms director at Black Lives Matter. This happened to us. They said, “Why are you saying, ‘Black Lives Matter’? Can’t you just say, ‘Black Lives Matter, too?’” It was just people being really afraid of a radical assertion that “Black lives matter” and wanting us to kind of water it down in some ways.
But it wasn’t just people in nonprofits; it was also the president—the incoming president and the former president—who were chastising us, right? People wanted to know why we couldn’t say things like “Reimagine Public Safety”—which, by the way people are using that frame—or “Divest from Policing.” Why were we saying “defund”? The reason why this is important is that these ideas that we’re espousing now are unpopular, but that’s what tends to happen with civil rights work. They will be the norm in the future; in the meantime, we’ll be considered kind of provocateurs. But I want to point to something that maybe won’t be reported on in kind of long-form analyses of last year’s power-building opportunities, which is that we played a flanking role to the moderates and to the centrists who won kind of progressive-ish wins in 2020. So, a positive radical flank effect can occur when the bargaining position of moderates is strengthened by the presence of more radical groups (i.e., us) and those radicals can provide a militant foil against which moderate strategies and demands are redefined and normalized—in other words, kind of made more reasonable. So, it’s kind of simple psychology: We offer constituents something wild and shocking to them, and kind of more pacified and reformist ideas become appealing, and this is why it’s so important.
So, I’ll talk later about the successes and challenges of “Defund” as a demand and as a modern example of systems and belief change, but in terms of engagement, communications and mobilization for social movements, both the growth of the field and the emergence of different factions, have made our ideas more potent and are allowing us to get to the root of the problems instead of tinkering around the edges of those problems.