Throughout history, stories have been used to transmit cultural values and beliefs from one generation to the next. They shape our understanding of the world and our place in it. If we are dreaming and scheming for lasting, impactful change on the level of narratives and culture, it all starts with our stories – how we tell them, how they connect to one another, and the powerful impact they can make in the lives of others. By sharing stories, we build a sense of community and shared identity. Stories also expand our understanding of what is socially, economically, and politically possible.

Just how do stories shape narrative, and what is the connection between storytelling and the formation of our beliefs, attitudes, and cultural perspectives? Storytelling, framing, and narrative are interconnected concepts that shape how we perceive and understand the world around us. They work together to influence our interpretation of information, and ultimately, our beliefs and actions.

Storytelling is the act of sharing events in a sequence, often with a focus on cause and effect. It involves characters, settings, a plot, and a narrative arc that engages the audience and conveys a message or meaning. Storytelling provides the raw materials – the characters, events, and details – that are then shaped and molded by framing and narrative techniques.

Framing refers to the way information is presented, highlighting certain aspects while downplaying others. It influences how we interpret events and form opinions. Framing is about choosing where we are putting our audiences’ focus. Framing can be used to emphasize specific details, evoke particular emotions, and guide the audience towards a desired conclusion. For example, a news story about a protest can be framed as an important demonstration or a riot, depending on the chosen language, images, and perspectives presented.

Narrative is the overarching story that emerges from the combination of storytelling and framing. It provides context, connects events, and offers an interpretation of their significance.

Narrative is about meaning making, and the big picture. It shapes our understanding of the world by providing a framework for interpreting events and assigning meaning to them. It helps us make sense of complex situations and form coherent beliefs about the world around us. A narrative is made up of thousands or millions of individual stories. Jeff Chang, a historian, journalist, and cultural strategist also uses this metaphor of thinking about stars as stories, narratives as constellations, and the galaxy as culture.

For example, few narratives are as deeply ingrained in the American psyche as what the Broke Project describes as the “bootstraps myth, also known as meritocracy,” which “says an individual can lift themselves up the social and economic ladder through individual effort, hard work, and personal responsibility–without the help of government. A self-made man. These narratives blame individuals for their failures and credit them for their successes.”

This enduring narrative has shaped the United States’ cultural, social, and political landscape for decades. The narrative of individuals rising from humble beginnings, pulling themselves up by their bootstraps to achieve success through hard work and determination is deeply ingrained in American culture – shaping values of individualism and  self-reliance. Stories of individuals who “made it” against the odds are central to upholding “The American Dream” idea. These success stories, often highlighted in media, literature, and popular culture, serve as tangible examples of the dream’s attainability. For example, popular culture is full of stories of people who rose from poverty and hardship to achieve monumental wealth, such as Oprah. There are also stories of immigrant success, detailing the achievements of immigrants who came to this country with nothing in their pockets, and made it through hard work, grit and determination.

Framing plays a crucial role in these stories and we have to ask ourselves what these frames bring into focus and what gets left out? Many of the ways “The American Dream” is framed to emphasize stories of success, progress and potential for anyone to achieve their dreams – without addressing the dream’s unattainability for some due to structural barriers such as education inequity, rising inequality, and structural racism. Stories about immigrants making it through hard work can also reinforce the frame that immigrants only have value when they contribute to the economy. We must ensure the stories we tell about immigrants challenge the underlying assumptions behind these harmful narratives by being careful and intentional to avoid reinforcing them.

Due to this deeply ingrained belief in meritocracy, many of us have internalized the notion that our current status is a direct reflection of our deservingness. In this narrative, success is attributed solely to personal qualities, talents, and hard work, rather than luck or privilege – or a stacked deck. On the other hand, failure is viewed not as a consequence of systemic obstacles or challenging circumstances—such as the scarcity of good jobs, stagnating wages, or the rent being too damn high—but rather as a sign of personal inadequacy. It is in this broader context that poverty is seen as a personal failure – not a systemic one. But as the Broke Project points out, “in reality, thousands of government policies–in employment, pay, education, housing, banking, law enforcement, the courts, healthcare, and other institutions–operate every day to largely determine people’s life outcomes.”

The narrative of the “The American Dream” goes beyond storytelling to inform policy, fuel political rhetoric, and influence societal values – and it also has proven to be largely false. “Research shows that in reality, American social mobility is among the lowest in the developed world. Far from being the Land of Opportunity, a child born poor in America is more likely to remain poor than in any other comparable country.”

This is just one example of how storytelling can shape our understanding of the world, influence our values, and define who we are as individuals and societies. Advancing our movement for racial justice requires that we build narrative power that counters these narrow narratives and, instead, uplifts our values – such as human dignity, collective well-being, and interdependence. When we tell and amplify stories that make visible broader, underlying systems – such as capitalism, racism, sexism, etc. – we make it easier for people to understand the consequences of the status quo.

Those of us working for racial and social justice can connect our storytelling, framing, and narrative change efforts to shape the world we want. We can:

  1. Create engaging compelling stories that connect emotionally with our audience.
  2. Frame thoughtfully by presenting stories from a perspective that highlights the most important and relevant aspects, guiding our audience’s interpretation.
  3. Ensure our stories contribute to a larger, consistent narrative that shifts underlying and harmful beliefs and supports the values we want to seed.