How to Build Narrative Power and Co-Create a Just Future – Resilience

This article is based on content fromSeeds, Stories, Strategies: A Climate Justice Web Series, which took place in July 2020 as part of a collaboration between the Center for Cultural Power, Center for Story-Based Strategy, Movement Generation, Movement Strategy Center, and Race Forward.

Before we can set to work tearing down old systems and building up better ones, we first have to imagine where we want to go. Material liberation requires a mental liberation, and imagination is a powerful tool to free ourselves from repressive cultural narratives and social power structures.

Heres an exercise you can try for yourself: Imagine youre in the year 2030 looking back on 2020 and remembering societys response to the twin crises of the pandemic and systemic racism. Then describe what happened by starting with, Remember when and follow it with a sentence about a challenging moment from 2020. For the next step, imagine how these issues were overcome, again using the Remember when framing. Some examples include: how people demanded change, communities organized and protested, politicians enacted policy solutions to climate crises, and companies incorporated social and environmental impact into their bottom lines.

Once youve started imagining, you can begin building a narrative strategy. The framing of a narrative is an intentional and strategic choice, determining who is in and who is out of the stories we tell and the approaches we propose. It is important for social movements to introduce their own framing because if we dont tell our own stories, others will create them for us.

For a pertinent example of the importance of framing, we can look at media coverage of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, when articles labeled individuals as looters or survivors depending on race. In this way, framing provides a casting of characters and impacts how audiences name movements and their actions. A more concrete organizational case is the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, which made an explicit choice to move away from a narrow anti-pipeline focus toward the more general environmental justice and water is life narrative.

ByPax Ahimsa Gethenvia Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Leveraging the importance of framing enables us to reach beyond using magic words in a vacuum, and focus instead on so-called points of intervention. This, in turn, gives us a framework for understanding where to take action in a system we are trying to change, and is necessary in recognizing the structure of our problem rather than just analyzing a single issue. Points of intervention help us determine how to be strategic in deploying our stories. They provide insight about how and where we can challenge the dominant narratives that shape social mythologies, such as the bootstrap myth of capitalist ethics. More practically, they are points of vulnerabilities where dominant narratives are already weak.

At points of intervention, its useful to show stories rather than tell them, and to use storytelling to disrupt and reframe existing narratives. Dominant narratives can be further broken down in terms of their points of production, points of decision, points of destruction, points of consumption, and points of assumption and we can use our analysis to shape strategies for optimal effect.

Humans are narrative driven, and the currency of narrative is meaning, not facts. Take the Big Dipper, a stellar constellation that is not actually shaped like a pan but nonetheless assigned meaning by humans, making it useful for navigation and cultural memetics. Activists often focus on facts, but ultimately it is our human connection with meaning that moves people.

Narrative power is the power to dictate norms and values in society. This includes the ability to shape whats possible and determine whats politically realistic, and even to stretch beyond the possible and establish what is inevitable.

If a story is an individual star, a narrative is a constellation an aggregate of stories that show us a pattern. To continue the analogy, culture is like a galaxy, featuring a wide range of complexity and movement and also the context that allows us to make sense of our stories. The purpose of narrative and cultural strategy for justice is to build power for impacted communities. While social movements generate narratives, the work of cultural strategists is to make these narratives sustainable for long-term cultural change.

The Big Dipper byjpstanleyvia Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Narratives and culture are epistemic in that they frame how we know things. The real praxis of narrative and cultural strategy work therefore involves teaming up with cultural producers in order to re-shape perceptions of reality. This brings us back full circle to the power of radical imagination: narrative and culture are essential to shifting material conditions.

To do so, we have to strategize at each level of story, narrative, and culture. A good example is the #MeToo movement, which can be thought of as an aggregate of narratives coupled with a social proliferation mechanism (the internet) that enables pressure from social action over multiple spheres of society including politics, law, media, and entertainment.

The true power of storytelling lies in our ability to bring our audience into a shared vision of change. As Antoine de Saint Exupry wrote: If you want to build a ship, dont drum up people to collect wood and dont assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.

Crafting powerful stories requires a solid understanding of the common elements of story-telling: conflict, characters, imagery, foreshadowing, and underlying assumptions. These elements can be used to show how power is upheld or how countervailing power can be built up.

These fundamental elements can be aligned to construct a narrative pyramid composed of a message, a story, a narrative, and a deep narrative. While messages are ephemeral, humans connect and remember stories and narrative thanks to the basic elements of story-building. Stories make sense through the context of a narrative which ultimately proposes responsibility and action, bringing our audience into a shared vision sustaining a deeper narrative to change underlying assumptions.

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How to Build Narrative Power and Co-Create a Just Future - Resilience

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