This article is the fourth installment of NPQ’s series on Community-Driven Philanthropy. In this series, movement leaders explore what’s possible if philanthropy adopts a reparative model—one in which it supports the leadership of BIPOC communities, not just by writing grants, but by shifting assets and control over resources to frontline communities.
Who will tell the stories that shape our future? These days, in the United States, this is a matter of fierce disagreement. On one side, a multiracial majority of people believe the US is destined to become a flourishing democracy. On the other, a white nationalist movement steadily advances its vision for a white Christian ethno-state.
To say that the project of US democracy is at risk is far from hyperbole. White nationalists have amassed a political and narrative infrastructure that churns out a toxic pool of ideas and stories, spreading disinformation ever more widely.
In its first five years, the Pop Culture Collaborative—a philanthropic fund co-founded and led by BIPOC, women, and queer funders and field leaders—has taken steps to learn about this white nationalist movement. We now sit with a hard truth: the social justice sector is being outspent and outpaced by a movement that is rapidly gaining ground.
To turn this around requires understanding that securing democracy in the US will take more than tolerating difference. In our work, we draw on concepts of democracy first developed by the Iroquois Confederacy and other Indigenous societies—political theories that connect the democratic systems and pluralist cultural norms that together make societies resilient.
Given the stark realities of generational trauma and structural inequities, building a pluralist democracy in the US requires a multifaceted strategy—coordinated across many movements, industries, and fields—that is accountable for and seeks to repair past injustices. This strategy requires centering narrative and cultural strategy and prioritizing BIPOC leaders as stewards of this work.
It also requires an historic investment of resources.
A Field Ready to Meet This Moment
When Ryan Coogler released the first Black Panther film in 2018, the narrative landscape was forever changed. Even amid contentious elections and polarization, the film produced a watershed of cross-cultural celebration and creative expression among artists, journalists, cultural critics, social justice organizers, and fans. Coogler’s storytelling also rippled through the racial justice movement; Black-led movements, organizations, entrepreneurs, and brands gained visibility, built power, and expanded their support bases.
While Wakanda’s capture of the American public’s imagination is a shining example of what becomes possible when pop culture and social justice movements come together to create change, it doesn’t have to be an isolated occurrence.
In its first five years, the Pop Culture Collaborative invested nearly $20 million in a BIPOC-led ecosystem of pop culture storytellers, narrative and cultural strategists, researchers, and social justice organizers who are building out a sustainable pop culture narrative change field with the ability to achieve narrative reinforcement of core messages reliably, routinely, and at scale.
Pop culture is one of the most influential arenas shaping how people make meaning and forge identities.
A core element of this strategy is a narrative systems approach to cultural power building—a methodology rooted in the belief that we move through our lives immersed in “narrative oceans” of ideas, cultural norms, and stories. These narrative oceans shape how people think and feel about themselves, other people, and the world.
Pop culture—the big ideas and stories that flow through television, movies, digital and social media, music, books, sports, journalism, political campaigns, and other cultural platforms with which millions of people engage everyday—is one of the most influential arenas shaping how people make meaning and forge identities. It influences how people behave, whether they value or dehumanize others, and how they participate in democratic process and define their truth and reality. Narrative change investments are therefore critical and need to be supported at a scale equivalent to its level of influence on society and coordinated with other essential organizing and policy change strategies.
Indeed, the power of investment in narrative strategies is already evident. The National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), United We Dream, and artist Paola Mendoza led the national outcry against the separation of immigrant children and parents at the US border in 2018. Later that year, NDWA partnered with entertainment company Participant Media and filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón to produce an impact campaign that, along with Cuarón’s award-winning film, Roma, highlighted the stories of domestic workers around the globe.
#MeToo founder Tarana Burke, labor organizers Monica Ramirez and Ai-jen Poo, and a diverse coalition of survivor-organizers created the groundswell around sexual harassment and violence when they launched TIME’S UP at the 2018 Golden Globes, convincing most female attendees to wear black in order to make a statement against sexual harassment in the entertainment industry. Imara Jones of TransLash and Elle Moxley of Marsha P. Johnson Institute are mainstreaming the role that transgender and nonbinary people play in the racial justice movement, the fight for abortion access, and the radical reimagining of this country’s future. Nelini Stamp, Sarah Sophie Flicker, and hundreds of other artists and cultural strategists used the experience of joy and the feeling of abundance as a cultural strategy to bring out the vote during the 2020 presidential election, helping to make possible the largest voter turnout in US history. Civil rights leader Eric Ward sounded the alarm on the threat of a well-resourced, organized white nationalist movement years before the January 6th insurrection.
Yet another inspiring example of narrative strategy is the work of IllumiNative’s Crystal Echo Hawk, whose #TheTimeIsNow campaign forged bonds between Indigenous and Black communities and organized a virtual town hall that drew more than 190,000 viewers, an important tipping point in the campaign to remove a racist slur from the name of Washington D.C.’s football team. This is just one step in a broader Native-led movement to center Indigenous sovereignty in the story of America’s future.
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The next great work of social justice movement organizations, and the philanthropic foundations and donors that support them, is to build out a narrative change field.
Powerful narrative transformations also include the work of artists such as Ava Duvernay, Issa Rae, and America Ferrera, among others, who are rewriting the script inside the entertainment industry—shifting who has narrative power by creating innovative content, tools, pipelines, and studios.
But there is more to do. The next great work of social justice movement organizations, and the philanthropic foundations and donors that support them, is to build out a narrative change field capable of transforming toxic narrative oceans—the interconnected stories, frameworks, and norms that create a surround sound experience for millions of us every day—into healthy narrative environments that reinforce democratic systems and pluralist norms in all aspects of our lives.
This work should focus on resourcing BIPOC leaders who are—and who always have been—the most consistent and visionary stewards of democracy, pushing American society towards a just and pluralist future.
This is no small task. But let’s look at what becomes possible if donors, foundations, and business leaders heed this call.
Cultural Power for Pluralist Democracy
Those working to advance social justice in the US have the resources to contend for narrative power—but these resources are largely locked behind the firewall of white wealth. That needs to change. Across the entertainment industry, social justice movement, and philanthropy, change is possible when BIPOC, women, queer, transgender, nonbinary, and disabled artists, movement leaders, and cultural strategists are resourced.
The Becoming America Fund, launched by the Pop Culture Collaborative in 2020, supports dozens of primarily BIPOC artists and cultural strategists to center abundant thinking and civic joy as an antidote to a caustic political environment and historic polarization. These creators engaged in the first large-scale, multimillion dollar test of what it takes to support a narrative network that can reinforce widespread public yearning for pluralist democracy in the US. This initial experiment, which provided grant support to dozens of groups across the country, reached over 100 million people and helped inspire historic civic participation and ebullient dancing in the streets in celebration of the survival of the democratic process.
What does it mean to relinquish the power to decide how wealth is distributed? This is the soul-searching inquiry that philanthropy must take on.
This fund is one of many efforts to organize artists and media makers to tell a shared story of America’s pluralist future, including strategies implemented by Culture Surge and the Center for Cultural Power’s Movement to the Ballot Box campaign. Yet, despite their impact, philanthropy invested less than $10 million to resource these three initiatives in 2020. The accomplishments of such efforts are testament to how social justice movements and the narrative change field create abundance out of scarcity. They are also testament to the pressing need for philanthropy to go further.
A Philanthropic Strategy for This Moment
What does it mean to relinquish the power to decide how wealth is distributed? This is the soul-searching inquiry that philanthropy must take on, beginning with one critical step: letting go. Foundations, donors, and investors need to consider what it will take to prioritize asset allocation (ie, the investment of their corpus)—not just grants or donations—in their philanthropic strategies. With this historic redistribution of wealth, BIPOC communities can design narrative strategies, build and own media platforms, cultivate movements, and distribute stories that reach millions of people. Implemented at scale, this wealth transfer will generate an abundance that replenishes BIPOC communities most harmed by injustice, while also increasing opportunity for every American.
BIPOC cultural stewards have already established a strong proof of concept for what becomes possible when philanthropy and industry take such a bold step together. The vision of Black economic and political power generated by Ryan Coogler’s bold visualization of Wakanda is one example. Ava DuVernay’s choice to offer her ARRAY creative campus as a home to artists is another. Issa Rae’s decision to focus her HOORAE entertainment studio on young, emergent creators is a third.
Through such efforts, BIPOC social justice and cultural leaders are setting the stage for a collective redesign of our future. To achieve this tectonic shift, advocates will need to resource creators and organizers to not just “change the narrative,” but transform the narrative oceans that validate policies that deprive millions of people of civil rights, access to care and safety, and pathways to survival and opportunity.
Based on five years of grantmaking and learning, we know that substantial financial investment is needed in four areas:
- Transformational content, to seed new narrative oceans and experiences that help people reckon with the past, build power around present realities, and unlock imagination about democratic futures
- Narrative infrastructure, to build and expand the capacity, coordination, and scale that the field of narrative strategy needs to transform narrative oceans
- Fandom and communities, to sustainably move transformational ideas and behaviors into the digital and in-person subcultures in which millions connect, bond, create, and act
- Learning and knowledge sharing, to ensure that a diverse field of practitioners and funders can constantly collaborate, learn, and recalibrate together
Can such an unprecedented rematriation of resources occur? We believe that it can, and that advocates for democracy must take this leap as though our lives and the future of our society depend on it.
Spoiler alert: they do.