“Every moment of major social change requires a collective leap of imagination.”
– Jeff Chang
To advance social change and racial justice, we must seed new narratives and shape existing ones to reimagine and expand what is possible. Narrative change focuses on shifting deeply held values and beliefs at scale and depth. We have to tell stories of where we are and where we can be in a way that moves hearts and minds.
Narratives are how we make meaning, and as Rashad Robinson says, narratives build power for people. So when engaging in narrative change we must ask ourselves: What are the existing narratives that uphold the systems and policies we are trying to change? Who are dominant narratives building power for? Who do they purposefully leave behind? And what new narratives can we create to build the world we desire?
As communicators for racial and social justice, our goal is to disrupt harmful dominant narratives and grow public acceptance of the narratives about what our communities need to thrive. For example, there is a dominant narrative in the United States that poverty is a result of individual behaviors and choices, rather than systemic barriers to opportunity built into the economy. Imagine instead if we accurately placed the blame for poverty on the intricate network of systems built upon systemic racism. Imagine if we truly believed that poverty is a failure of our policies, not our people.
Narratives help us shape how people conceive of problems and create the conditions for the solutions to emerge. In that way, engaging in narrative change work helps set the stage and create the political and public will to pass bold policy, elect leaders who are accountable to all of us, and fight injustice where we see it. When we replace stereotypes and tropes with the full, true story, injustice becomes more visible to more people and harder to ignore or feel powerless against.
Below we share some guidance for building narrative power with some helpful resources from some of the best thinkers in the field of narrative strategy.
1. Get curious about the underlying values beneath a certain narrative.
First, take time to better understand the narrative you are aiming to change. Since dominant narratives are refined and repeated over time, trace how they have evolved and think about what they bring into focus, what gets left out, and how the narrative helps define and reinforce social norms.
Pay attention to racially coded language or imagery that might appear neutral but communicates specific values. Check out the Race Class Narrative for research-backed messaging guidance for dog whistles.
2. Challenge the underlying assumptions of dominant narratives and expose the contradictions.
When dissecting the dominant narrative you want to disrupt, consider what your audience needs to believe in order for that story to be true for them. Think about the elements that make up your opposition’s narrative, from how the central conflict or moral dilemma is framed, to how the characters are portrayed or threatened. Are there cracks or contradictions in how it’s set up?
Battle of the Story from Center for Story-based Strategy is a helpful tool to help craft stories that effectively intervene in the opposition’s narrative.
3. Monitor the landscape to observe emerging narratives and recurring themes.
To create lasting, impactful change, we need to look at the connections between stories. One way to do this is to constantly monitor the landscape. We also need to know where people are before we can meet them there. Look for what narratives are gaining traction and for whom and how they are informing the conditions for seeding new narratives.
The FrameWorks Institute offers some helpful questions to ask as you diagnose narratives: Do the stories have a common type of character or narrative arc? Do they share a specific point of view or have a particular intended audience? This can help you determine whether and how these new narratives should be amplified or contested.
Two excellent examples of tracking emerging narratives are ReFrame’s 2023 Narrative Predictions and Broke Report: Narratives on Wealth and Poverty by Radical Communicators Network.
4. Keep your stories and messages in constant circulation.
Once we get our stories or messages out, our communications strategy can work to immerse our audience in our worldview through a variety of mediums – continually. Look for ways to tell the same story in different forms. The constant repetition can turn counter narratives into common sense. By sharing a messaging guide or digital toolkit, we can give people ways to illustrate our messages with their own stories which can inspire broader collective action.
As patterns that emerge from a collection of mutually reinforcing stories, narratives are repeated and refined over time. The Narrative Initiative explains that since humans are pattern-seeking creatures, we look for patterns of meaning that tie together specific stories. Just like stars from a constellation, those individual stories have deeper meaning when they sit within a narrative.
5. Combine forces with others working on similar narrative change efforts on your issue and across issues.
Narrative change doesn’t happen in a vacuum and benefits from sustained collaboration. Shanelle Matthews of the Radical Communicators Network says, “Narrative change doesn’t happen one organization or one individual at a time, it happens with all of us in community with each other.” We must build power across issue areas and build networks of trusted messengers to break through the noise so our narratives can gain traction and power.
To learn more about what this can look like, the Greater Than Fear case study in Creating an Ecosystem for Narrative Power by ReFrame is a great example.
6. Work with artists and storytellers who can help move your narrative into public discourse.
Since all stories and narratives are culturally embedded, one of the most critical ways to engage in narrative change is by partnering with artists and cultural workers to co-produce content for mass distribution through spaces in which people shape their values and build community.
Imagery of the monarch butterfly in art by Favianna Rodriguez and others have become central to immigrant counter-narratives and used in campaigns around immigration bans, border walls, and DACA. Representing the beauty of migration and the right of living beings to freely move, the monarch now triggers a deeper narrative for audiences about belonging, which shows why our narratives must be understood at a gut level and can be activated by simple words and symbols.
The Center for Cultural Power and Just Seeds have also forged a partnership with migrant and Indigenous artists and environmental justice organizations to create We Are The Storm, a portfolio that highlights community-based solutions to combat the climate crisis.
7. Remember that narrative change is long-term work.
As new narratives can only make their way into discourse through heavy repetition, we need an echo chamber to achieve narrative change. We might think we can create a video and think we’re going to change the narrative but 10,000 views of that video – no matter how exciting – won’t get us there.
Narrative change doesn’t happen overnight. We have to push beyond short-term activations and make our narratives stick. The more we echo messages and narratives, the stickier they become across our movements.
If you’re interested in partnering with our team to support your narrative change efforts, reach out to us at email@example.com to learn more about how we can help.