In this dynamic discussion from the 2021 Collective Impact Action Summit, Melody Barnes (Aspen Institute Forum for Community Solutions) leads a conversation on the importance of narrative in collective social change efforts. Joining Melody are Crystal Echo Hawk (IllumiNative), Rashad Robinson (Color of Change), and Nayantara Sen (Real Food Real Stories.)
This discussion is introduced by Sheri Brady (Aspen Institute Forum for Community Solutions) and includes a poetry performance by Seattle poet, organizer, and attorney Troy Osaki. This discussion was held on April 28, 2021.
Video and Transcript below. For a podcast version, please visit our podcast page for this session, and you can listen on your preferred podcast platform.
Sheri Brady: So with that I am delighted to introduce to you Seattle artist, Troy Osaki, who along with, as we did yesterday with Azura and SisterStrings, we look forward to having the arts as a part of this session to help us think, feel, and experience in many different ways.
Troy will be helping us set this tone this morning. Troy is a Filipino Japanese poet, community organizer, and attorney from Seattle, Washington. (I feel a bit like a slacker right now but that’s OK.) A three-time grand slam poetry champion, he has earned fellowships from Kundiman and the Jack Straw Cultural Center. His work has appeared in the Bellingham Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, Hobart, Tinderbox Poetry Journal and elsewhere. He writes and hopes to build a safe and just place to live in by uniting the people and reimagining the work in poetry. Troy, welcome.
Troy Osaki: Hi, good morning everyone. Welcome to today’s sessions and welcome to everyone joining. Thank you for that introduction. My name again is Troy. I’m calling in from Seattle, Washington, aka occupied Duwamish territory. I’m a poet, attorney, and community organizer with an organization called Anakbayan, which is a Filipino political fighting organization striving and working towards what we call national democracy in the Philippines.
Today I have the honor of warming up the sessions and discussions with a poem. This piece is inspired by a group of young people including Azura who was here earlier, and they are a group of young people from a group called Youth Speaks Seattle which is a local youth spoken word program.
I had the chance to write a collaborative piece with them in which we imagined what the world would be like if the revolution happened and if social change happened. So from there I wrote this piece and I’d like to share it with you all today in the spirit of what collective action can achieve.
I truly believe there isn’t just one person or one leader that will solve all of our problems in the world but rather it will take millions of people doing a million different things that will then culminate into social change.
So with that said, I’d like to offer this poem to not only dream about a new world but to hopefully spark the kind of inspiration to participate in achieving it through collective action. So thank you all for being here today. Thank you for having me. I hope you enjoy it.
This poem is titled, “In the New World We Laugh and This Time We Mean It.”
Here every detention center demolished. In its place, a really good dance floor.
Every mother separated from her child is now not.
We disarmed the state, strung up its rifles, made wind chimes of its weapons. Each song sounds like ceasefire.
A chorus of checkpoints undoing themselves. The only bullet left spins in reverse, and all the corpses with holes come back to us.
Here every auntie forced overseas to find work returns home, and when they do, they have something to return home to.
Foreign corporations are evicted and the brightest crops since colonization bloom.
Even the massive hole that held a mosque before the airstrike holds a mosque again.
Here no nation occupies another nation. Military bases are sunken lands and armored cars rust below the ocean.
Drones are scraps of unflyable metal, each one reimagined as a spaceship by every child it couldn’t kill.
Lorena blurts out a brilliant smile. Andres’s chest is full of chuckles and the shiny slide they’re racing to is made of melted-down tanks. Something, not a war, is taking their breath away now.
We say caged or forced removal meaning what no one has ever seen. ICE is a memory’s memory. Every generation whispers its name softer than the last.
Yesterday I roamed the Seattle Public Library, learned all of what the old world couldn’t keep alive, the deportation hearing, the no-fly list, the interrogation room, wherever it is.
Outside is a museum of ashes. Everything we incinerated to get here is on display, and we’ve saved enough space in case we ever have to scorch the bones of something else again.
Here in the new world we laugh and this time we mean it.
Thank you all so much. I hope you have a wonderful rest of the day and programming.
Sheri Brady: Troy, thank you so much. That was beautiful. I am so moved. I am hoping you’re seeing the love in the chat for your words. Thank you.
And now we turn to our panel on the role of narrative change in collective impact. I am pleased to welcome our moderator, Melody Barnes, who serves as chair of the Aspen Institute Forum for Community Solutions. In other words, she’s my big boss so I’ve got to be right on point today.
Ms. Barnes also serves as co-director for policy and public affairs of the Democracy Initiative at the University of Virginia where she is also the Dorothy Danforth Compton Professor of Practice at the Miller Center of Public Affairs and a distinguished fellow at the School of Law. (Yes, this whole panel is making me feel like a slacker but that’s all right.) We’re going to ask our speakers—Melody is going to introduce our speakers, our panelists, and they will turn their camera on and come on screen. See you on the other side. Thanks.
Melody Barnes: First of all, Sheri, the last person who is a slacker is you, always on point, and thank you so much for that introduction. I also want to thank the Collective Impact Forum and FSG for hosting this important conversation, and just so glad to be here with all of you and with this wonderful, wonderful panel that I’ll introduce in just a minute.
I believe that we’re all here because we know something very, very basic, and that is that words matter and narratives matter, particularly if our goal is to transform our culture and our policies and our institutions.
When I served in the Obama White House and in the years after with colleagues like Sheri at the Aspen Institute, I’ve been working with and for a group of young adults that we now call Opportunity Youth. There are millions of young people in America who are not in school or not working, and working across the country in urban, rural, and tribal communities, been working with those young adults to build pathways to greater opportunity.
Now many Opportunity Youth experience connected challenges like homelessness, having been in foster care, involvement with the criminal justice system, and our work focuses on removing those barriers and working with them to empower them to realize their full potential.
But in past years, the narratives about Opportunity Youth reinforced a number of negative stereotypes. They supported insufficient and poorly crafted policy—harmful policy—and quite frankly, they aided and abetted the inequities that we see. In fact, up until the 1970s, most people refer to Opportunity Youth as “juvenile delinquents.” “Drop-outs” started to become popular in the 1960s and that eventually became the prevailing terminology. In the ’80s we got “at-risk youth” in large part because of a famous government report on the state of education called “A Nation at Risk.” As we all know, the 1990s very painfully also brought us the terminology “super predator” which caught on in the media and among politicians.
But when we started this work in the White House and working with communities across the country, we worked with young adults and focused on a new narrative that was predicated on the way they saw themselves, their goals, the way they wanted to position themselves in society, the way that they wanted to contribute and believed and rightfully so that they were already contributing to their communities.
That change brought new partners to the table and a critical element to our work. I say all that to say as I did when I started that words matter and narratives matter. Cultural change matters and to better understand why and how, I want us to hear from the three panelists who are about to join me on the importance of narrative strategies and culture change to maximize our impact on the world.
With us this afternoon we have Crystal Echo Hawk who is the founder and executive director of IllumiNative, the first and only national Native-led organization focused on changing the narrative about Native people on a mass scale.
We also have Rashad Robinson, who is the president of Color of Change, which is a leading racial justice organization driven by more than seven million members who are building power for Black communities.
We have Nayantara Sen who is director of Narrative and Cultural Strategies at Real Food Real Stories, where she produces curricula, facilitates racial justice workshops to support movement organizations and nonprofits nationally. She’s also the program designer and manager of the Racial Equity and Arts Innovation Lab in New York City.
I want to welcome the three of you to be with us this afternoon and let you know how excited I am about our conversation particularly because of some of the conversations that we’ve had up until now.
I think there’s a lot to be said and as a friend said to me when I was describing this, this is someone who works in communications, and I’m saying this to tip off our first question. The person said, “You know what? I think I really need to listen to this panel because I think I’ve been thinking about this incorrectly.”
All that to say, just to level set our conversation, that a lot of advocates and activists talk about narrative and communications as though they were the same thing and that they’re interchangeable. But we’re defining narrative in a much broader context today. And I’d like you all to share with the audience how narrative work differs from communications work and what’s the importance of cultural change strategy as we’re doing this work.
In the spirit of basketball that’s just ended in the college world, we’ll do a jump ball. I don’t know who wants to get started on that question. Rashad, do you want to kick us off?
Rashad Robinson: Absolutely. It’s great to be with you all. I talk about narrative a lot as the rules and the norms of society, what is acceptable and what is possible. If we can raise the floor on what’s acceptable and we can push up the ceiling on what’s possible, we open up a whole new space to make change. That’s very different than communications work where we’re oftentimes trying to engage inside of a preset set of ideas or frameworks. We’re maybe trying to pass a piece of legislation where we’re already inside of a power framework. This is why power is so important as it relates to narrative. And power comes in different ways in different communities. We’ll build power in different ways and leverage power in different ways. But power is incredibly important and that is why people are so important as it relates to narrative because it gives us the ability to actually translate things that I talk about as presence, which is visibility, awareness, retweets, shoutouts from the stage, all of those things are presence. And presence is not a bad thing. Presence is actually kind of in a communication space.
But power is the ability to change the rules, both written rules and unwritten rules. When we mistake presence for power, we can sometimes think that we’ve done something that we haven’t done. We can mistake a whole lot of people celebrating Black celebrities as thinking that America loves Black people as much as America loves Black culture. And America can love, celebrate, and of course, monetize Black culture and hate Black people at the same time.
Part of what we have to do through narrative is building a set of power that dictates new rules, forces decision makers to be nervous about disappointing our community, creating a sense that there are consequences. If a school of children, White children, can be shot up and we get no meaningful change in terms of our gun laws, then we actually have a narrative surrounding this that we have to disrupt. There’s a set of rules that have been put in place. There are stories that people are holding tight to. That is why narrative is so incredibly important.
In many ways, narrative changes the field that we get to play on. Communications is the work that we do to actually play on that field. We are playing in the space of the narratives that we have built, the narratives that we have inherited, and the narratives that we can sort of create. That is why it’s so different.
Unfortunately, we far too often put everything that we can’t sort of quantify or everything that doesn’t sort of have a policy label in a narrative bucket. Sometimes we will say things and maybe you all have heard this, “We’ve changed the narrative on that after,” I don’t know, “10,000 people saw a video.” That is not necessarily changing the narrative. The narrative, once again, is about rules. It is about power and it is about creating a different type of engagement that everyday people have with our stories.
Melody Barnes: That was terrific. As you were talking, I was thinking about the period right after President Obama was elected and there was the celebration, obviously not in every quarter, but a celebration and it was some people said, “post racial.” There was a celebration of that but the narrative, the power, the rules, hadn’t really changed and we knew that but we’re witnessing that again in many, many ways. Crystal, Nana, either of you want to add anything to what Rashad just said?
Nayantara Sen: I’d love to chime in to add and Crystal, then I’ll pass to you so you can share a bit too. This is a fascinating conversation already. I wanted to actually contribute for you all a specific metaphor or analogy, if you will, that I found to be really useful in my own work. I have worked in communications strategy and narrative strategy and cultural strategy throughout my career and currently work on narrative and cultural strategies at the intersection of race and a range of different issues. I can’t take credit for this metaphor. It comes from the Center for Story-Based Strategy and the Narrative Initiative. We used it extensively when I was directing the Narrative and Cultural Strategies program recently with colleagues at Race Forward, which is a national racial justice organization. Here’s how it goes.
I think actually to understand where communications, narrative, and culture are linking together, it’s helpful to start with the building blocks, which are stories, our stories, stories that have been silenced, stories that have been lost or erased. The metaphor actually begins with a story, the story as a single star in the night sky. If a story is like a star in the night sky, it is the singular unit of change. We see the night sky and we notice stars because they’re bright, shiny, they grab our attention. By extrapolation, a narrative is like a constellation because it is a pattern of stars congregated together to create a mechanism that brings stories together as a whole, so then an individual story has more meaning when it sits within the narrative that you see as a constellation in the sky.
Narratives are meaning-making mechanisms so the story by itself doesn’t have heft or power unless it reinforces or subverts a narrative. One of the ways I’ve heard it be said is the currency of narrative is not truth or fact. It is meaning. Narrative is a meaning-making mechanism and by extrapolation for that particular metaphor or analogy, culture is like our galaxy. It is bigger than individual constellations.
Actually, our galaxy, for those of you who are NASA nerds and follow science and space news in the world, our galaxy has bazillions of things that we don’t understand. There’s black holes. There’s space debris. There’s dark matter. There’s our actual Milky Way galaxy, which is expanding at a rate that we didn’t even understand fully until recently. There’s more to culture than just narrative but the critical thing to know is that you can’t change culture without changing narrative. The home for narrative is the galaxy. I really have used this analogy a lot because for my work particularly what it’s meant it’s helped me understand we have to intervene at the level of story, narrative, and culture. We work on individual stars. We change the pattern that they sit within a constellation and we change the cultural conditions or the galactic conditions, if you will, for what actually allows narratives to stick.
Another critical distinction that I found to be useful in thinking about communications and narrative and culture change strategies is a lot of our traditional nonprofit, if you will, and corporate communications strategy comes from the world of marketing, advertising, and PR, those sorts of intertwined industries. The underlying logic and the sort of the way the industries have grown, they’re focused on the idea that if you disseminate the right piece of information at the right time to individuals or groups of people, then it will activate something. Maybe it will make them angry. Maybe it’ll make them desirous and then you change individual and collective—it’s a behavioral change and sort of behavioral manipulation, emotional manipulation management system and it activates self-interest and it works. You know it works because we have brands that we are consistently loyal to. We have behavioral patterns that we can track and it’s also a multibillion-dollar industry. We have seen how it works.
But the undergirding logic there is that it activates short-term behavioral change through information dissemination. If you think about most of our organizations have communications departments. It’s that strategy. We get the information out. It hits the people at the right time and that’s how we activate and motivate. Culture change is that and more. Narrative strategy is that and more. It gets deeper because it’s about changing the mechanism that we use to make meaning of the world.
I like to say cultural strategy is about epistemics because culture is epistemological which means it’s how we know what we know. Culture is how we know what we know and why we know what we know. So cultural strategy is about actually doing deep, long-term, sticky sustainable work for transforming the culture so that the narratives stick and it gets beyond short-term activation and I’m not trying to actually disparage communication strategy. They work very well and I’ve done it for a lot of my career. I’ll pass to you Crystal, if you want to add anything.
Crystal Echo Hawk: Yeah, I mean this is an absolute master class here. I don’t know how much more I have to add to the great things my fellow panelists have said. I mean I think kind of boiling it back down is just understanding that, for example, power is held and exercised and rationalized according to these sorts of dominant narratives, and we have dominant narratives here in the United States that order our institutions and the way that power is held and exercised, you know, that America was discovered, right? And manifest destiny and American exceptionalism, and it’s all of this sort of—we’re spoon fed sort of these dominant core ideas that inform our consciousness in the way power works in this country in many ways but what’s unsaid are the real stories of genocide, of stolen land, and stolen bodies, and stolen labor, and the things that happen in this country. So they’re very powerful and I love how a good friend and colleague of mine, Tracy Sturdivant, talks a lot about narrative changes being the hard thing. That’s how we move people. We move hearts and minds and that communications is the air game. It’s important too. It’s about important tactics.
Melody Barnes: Crystal is exactly right. This is a master class, and I think what you all are saying is that there are all these pieces of the puzzle that need to snap together to bring about the kind of change that we want. I also love at any time someone starts talking about dark matter and black holes for the science nerds in the crowd. One of the things that I thought it would be helpful if we just honed in a little bit more is the danger that we have, that we face if we aren’t including all stories and all voices in the narratives as we try to address some of the crises, the chronic challenges that we have in our country as well as the crises, the emerging challenges that we’ve been facing. What’s the danger if we don’t do this work well and comprehensively?
Rashad Robinson: Well, almost like to rewire that question a little bit, because if you have the wrong narratives to begin with and you end up with the wrong stories or excluding the story but it’s hard to insert the right—like inserting the right stories or the diverse stories into a bad framework is kind of like the diversity and inclusion work, right? My friend, Dorian Warren at Community Change calls like, “we don’t want a rainbow oligarchy, right?” So there’s a way in which if you just diversify the table but you don’t change the table, then you end up, right? Has anyone ever got in a computer, a brand-new computer with a new operating system and you try to put old software on to a new computer or vice versa, you try to put new software onto an old computer, and it doesn’t work, right? If narrative is the operating system by which things work and then we think about the stories as the software, then we actually have to sort of operate at the narrative level, and then that opens up a whole set of space for us to then absolutely ensure that the right set of stories and the right set of people, and this is why narrative work once again is different than communications work because we actually have to rewire the foundation by which the hardware by which we are operating on, the operating systems, rather than actually sort of trying to insert things into a framework that is not designed for our success. Sometimes we call things broken that are actually operating exactly the way they were designed, and so our goal is to not try to fix things that are broken but to both be in the project of both not simply tearing down but being in the project of building new.
Melody Barnes: Crystal, I think this would be a good point to turn to you and ask you to dive a little bit more deeply into some of the work that you’ve been doing because we know that you and your colleagues at the Reclaiming Native Truth project found that the largest barrier facing Native Peoples is the invisibility challenge, that in the minds of the public and the media, the narratives, the stories, you name it, that there has been a lot of hard work it seems to me to create invisibility for an entire population of people, and certainly in our education system. I was wondering if you could start by talking about that very challenge and the way that you all have been approaching that.
Crystal Echo Hawk: Absolutely, and this again gets at the core of what we’re talking about. This is about systems. This is about power when we talk about invisibility. I think oftentimes growing up as an individual, as a citizen of the Pawnee Nation, and oftentimes I would encounter these moments where I felt deeply invisible, and “Am I in a bad place?” “Is this just a bad apple?” We’re sort of conditioned to think that, and I think what our research really found is that this is about big systems that are perpetuating the erasure and invisibility of Native Peoples, from K through 12 education that doesn’t teach about Native Peoples past 1900 which literally conditions Americans to not think about us anymore, that we’re a vanishing race, and the kind of falsehoods that are taught in schools such as Columbus discovered America and all these other sorts of things but even looking at our representation in media which hovers somewhere between zero and 0.4%.
What erasure does, and Native Peoples don’t have a monopoly on it at all, but it’s that we understood it as one of our greatest threats is what it does is it erases us and it dehumanizes us, and that’s what social psychologists helped us to understand. When people can’t see us, they can’t read about us, we’re nowhere to be found as far as they’re concerned, and they’re almost taught that we don’t exist, then you can’t empathize with that person. That population is not going to come up as a priority when you’re thinking about policy priorities to address COVID or systemic racism. Oftentimes even in that Native Peoples often aren’t included but it really serves to dehumanize and creates a real vacuum where we are really left out of every kind of major aspect and sort of table so to speak in this country.
What our researchers really found is that invisibility is the modern form of racism against Native Peoples, and this is another facet, this erasure of indigenous, Black, people of color, that’s another part of White supremacy and institutionalized racism that has real consequences. What happens is that it creates a void that gets filled with a lot of toxic false narratives and falsehoods that are not authored by Native Peoples that just serve to justify ongoing bias and discrimination and things happening within our communities.
One of the greatest examples we’re dealing with right now, there’s literally a master case study right now with Rick Santorum on CNN standing up and addressing sort of this right-wing group talking about how America was birthed from nothing. It was a blank slate created by European settlers, and then he caught himself for a minute and said, “Oh, well, you know, Native Americans are still around but there’s really none of their culture that exists anymore,” because it serves to rationalize White supremacy and this sort of push on the right because who wants to really confront that Native Peoples are still here to confront genocide and stolen lands and our treaties and whatnot, and so it’s incredibly powerful in terms of advancing racism and discrimination. It’s powerful when we think about the epidemic of missing and murdered indigenous women in this country in which up until very recently most law enforcement agencies would not even pursue cases reported by families of their missing loved ones. I mean this is the power of erasure.
I always tell people this isn’t about political correctness and that we just want to show up on TV and everything’s great. To Rashad’s point, that presence isn’t it. It’s about these deep systems of power that dehumanize Native People, and when we look at the violence and the discrimination and the things that happen, you know, are incredible. On the flipside of this too, that invisibility causes two thirds of Americans to think that Native Americans don’t experience discrimination so even when we’re having these conversations increasingly about systemic racism and this reckoning, most Americans are wired to think that we’re not part of that conversation because we’re no longer here. That’s how powerful this is and that’s why we work so hard to disrupt and interrupt that invisibility every single day, and not only to let people know that we are still here but we are thriving. We are complex. We are diverse. We are so many different things with significant contributions to society every day but it’s deeply, deeply powerful.
Melody Barnes: I want to ask you a question about how you all are doing that work and how it’s translated into some long, long, long—can I say again long overdue wins and what that means for power but I just have to say as I was listening to you, I reflected on this before. I grew up and live now in Richmond, Virginia, and I think about even the places, the Powhatan, I think about the words and the places that we use, and people don’t connect that to people who are and were here and who developed this land. We don’t make that connection at all, and we talk about the development of the city again as though it just kind of popped up and, you know, there was Jamestown and then there was Richmond, and look what came out of it with no understanding of what happened literally, literally hundreds and hundreds of years ago. The invisibility or even the songs we were taught in school, you think back about it and you think what? Anyway.
Crystal Echo Hawk: Really good propaganda we were all spoon fed in school.
Melody Barnes: Exactly, exactly. But in recent years the change of the name of the Washington football team, the first Native cabinet secretary, these are important steps forward. I want you to tell us how narrative strategies have helped to overcome the invisibility barrier and build the power that we see today that leads to those kinds of changes.
Crystal Echo Hawk: Absolutely. If we take the Washington football team name change last summer, that is a fight that had been going on for more than three decades. I think that’s the first thing. A lot of people were like this is new and this is just happening in 2020, and it’s like, no, no, no, we stand on the shoulders of our elders and thousands that have been fighting for this, and particularly elders like Suzan Harjo or Amanda Blackhorse, and just so many but it really—what was unfortunate and is the important recognition that we wouldn’t have won that fight if it had not been for the murder of George Floyd, if it had not been for the movement for Black Lives in that space, that space that opened up to start having this conversation. It happened pretty quickly that that conversation spun around about racialized branding across corporate America. It was really sort of in that moment that it was on that—if everyone remembers that Blackout Tuesday, and Washington tweeted like “we stand against racism,” and it was AOC, and it was at the time Congresswoman Haaland both tweeted that “if you really stand against racism, change your name.”
Right then we saw that moment and that’s where that rapid response, that communication tactic, can serve that purpose of that was our opening and opportunity to really hammer away digitally and really mobilize. I think also to really organize with our allies because I think you don’t just make big change happen because we’re posting stuff on social media. It’s also that deep behind-the-scenes organizing that’s going on with allies, with key institutions and power, us reaching out and forming alliance with the investors, that 62 billion dollars’ worth of investors that started really putting it to Nike, to Bank of America, FedEx, and so many of them so it was really these forces all coming together in that moment.
What we were able to really begin through that opening that happened was be able to show people that the research shows that those racist sports mascots, that team name, that’s a dictionary-defined racial slur that increases depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation amongst our youth. It depresses their ability to see the future. It causes psychological harm to our children. We were able to get out there and understand how we could change behavior, and so that was the moment but those are all the key factors that go in if we really want to understand that narrative change and sort of these layers of tactics and cultural strategy that we were able to use to get it done but it’s multifaceted and multilayered.
On the other part around the nomination and confirmation of now Secretary Deb Haaland as the first Secretary of the Interior and Native American cabinet secretary, the underlying narratives and the way that her enemies on the right came at her was to really—those kind of like those little dog whistles like she’s not qualified, she doesn’t have the experience, often those arguments that are weaponized and used against women and particularly women of color, and dog whistles too about her past and being poor or suddenly she became the radical left’s boogie person as well. So it was really about hammering away again about her experience, about who she was as a person, about telling the story of how her rise in leadership and all of her qualifications and really the history about why it was so important to have a Native person leading that agency that’s been a vehicle of so much destruction and corruption and theft from Native communities and why this was so important so there were multiple layers of storytelling and cultural strategy and different things that we had to really move on to really get word out. It was a mass mobilization, a lot of people working on a lot of levels to help to see that change happen.
Melody Barnes: Thank you for walking us through that. I want to take a couple of questions or share a couple of questions from the audience before I ask you, Rashad, to talk a little bit more about unwritten rules that you referred to earlier. One person asks how can we make sure we’re honoring the stories and giving the level of dignity to anyone’s contribution to the narrative change fight without perpetuating or dehumanizing them to charity or misfortune when stakeholders/funders often want data, numbers, outcome? Again, how do we honor the stories? How do we honor the dignity without perpetuating this dehumanization when at the same time we’re also trying to meet the requests from those who support the work, people want data or outcome numbers? Any thoughts about that question?
Nayantara Sen: I’ll take a stab at it. The question covers quite a bit but the main thing or a couple of things that come to me in just hearing the question, and I’m thinking particularly about racial justice work and cultural strategy and change work which is both areas where the funders and power brokers more broadly are often looking for impact metrics or indicators of change that we don’t necessarily always have those indicators of change for what is deeply transformative, relational, humanistic, long-term change work, and so in response, and I think this connects to some of what Rashad had shared just a little bit ago as well about our organizations and our strategies, we lean towards a diversity politic you see so a lot of that time that we spend elevating stories, including people, it ends up actually just being about the strategy of diversity and inclusion and not the strategy of repairing narrative harm or strategies that actually translate to long-term culture change.
One way I have seen this over and over again is organizations telling stories of their stakeholders or of their constituents or even of their staff of color that far—the narrative has far outpaced what is actually happening because you’re falsely advertising for success that hasn’t been reached. Overfocusing on a diversity politic gets us there, and also not having appropriate mechanisms for really going deep with storytellers, like who are your storytellers? Are we telling their stories with a layer of fabrication or advertising, actually spinning the narrative in order to make it more palatable to power brokers or funders or donors or board members which, especially in the nonprofit and philanthropic and government sectors, a lot of our stories are spun to make them palatable for a White audience, right? So we lose not just nuance and complexity but we lose the truth of what’s actually happening for staff of color or for stakeholders of color.
I think in response to the question too what comes to me is look at where your stories are—who are your story holders or your storytellers? Look at where they’re coming from and then look at how those stories are being filtered for an audience that has more power than the original storyteller. So building in mechanisms for equity and inclusion and just a deeper politic on narrative and particularly addressing for narrative harm will—it’s deep hard work but we have to get there because otherwise we’ll keep telling stories about our success that are just not the right metrics or the right stories to tell about our success.
I think Rashad was saying earlier like we can perceive presence for power. We can perceive actually just more and more visibility for some of our communities, and I’ll speak specifically as a Brown woman immigrant who—my people historically in the U.S. have been actually, and especially in the last decade or post 9/11, we’re hyper visible. We actually are on TV. We are in cultural spaces and visible in the sense that immigrants and Brown men in particular are visible but we’re not in a good way. I mean most of our depictions are about being perpetual foreigners or not belonging to this country or being terrorists, then the visibility doesn’t work for us. It’s actually perpetuating a story that doesn’t quite match the reality of what’s happening, and that’s happening at the level of broad-based culture change and very granularly inside our organizations too. So that’s what comes to me.
Melody Barnes: Great, thank you for responding to that and I’ll add in some other questions coming from the audience in a minute but, Rashad, I want to turn to you because you mentioned it earlier, you referenced it, and we know from your writing that you talk about the ways in which narrative shapes the unwritten rules of society. I was wondering if you could just talk a little bit more about what you mean by the unwritten rules, and then how you use narrative strategies to shift those rules. I’ll start there.
Rashad Robinson: The unwritten rules of society are the things that are not public policy which is so much about everyday life, how you’re treated in a hospital, how you’re treated in school, sort of whether or not you get the benefit of the doubt, whether or not you get to be seen and visible in society. All of these things are the sort of unwritten rules of society.
Another way to sort of put this is up until this last year where we’ve been in a deep economic challenge, COVID, violent crime in America was kind of steadily going down, a few blips here and there but steadily going down. Every year Pew Research asks Americans what do they think about violent crime, and for that same 20-year period Americans believed violent crime is going up. So it’s actually going down but people believe it’s going up. That’s a gap between perception and reality that drives a whole set of things that people then do with their lives, what they demand in terms of policing, how they view the criminal justice, how they might view advocates who are pushing for changes to the system.
And then how does that then operationalize itself into unwritten rules you ask? That operationalizes itself into what Hollywood does because now there’s a profit incentive structure, to feeding people a whole set of stories every day and that kind of normalizes injustice, keep people on a feedback loop of seeing sort of crime in communities that they may never—people may never go to, have no experience with, and shapes their reality about sort of what things need to happen in our society.
We can sort of look across a whole set of areas, and that really gets me to sort of how we really operationalize our work at Color of Change because we can be in this space of narrative talking about it from the perspective but each of us in our own ways are working to actually engage on the field and in the theoretical space, and sort of moving from theory to practice for Color of Change means that we really think about narrative infrastructure. The vehicles that are actually at scale driving and telling the stories both in terms of building our own narrative infrastructure, being able to have ability to reach seven million people through email, the ability to reach 6.2 million people through SMS, the ability to reach millions of people through our social media platforms, that’s a piece of narrative infrastructure that we own, right?
Then there are these spaces that we don’t own, that through advocacy we have to shape, and rules and the norms, and this once again gets us to unwritten rules. So changing the way that Hollywood portrays your community is not necessarily about passing a law in Washington. It is about building enough power to hold those who get to make those choices accountable, to create rewards and to create consequences.
I’ve been doing this work for a long time and so back when I got to GLAAD back in 2005, and I was at GLAAD between 2005 and 2011, and what you could say about LGBTQ people in the workplace, what you could say about LGBTQ people in the news, some of our favorite news folks would regularly have people who had went through, been forced through reparative therapy as spokespeople for this idea that you can pray away the gay. That was a legitimate—that junk science was a legitimate piece of the range of debate but part of building narrative power was we remove that from the political debate so this gets back to raising the floor on what’s acceptable, creating a new rule, a new set of consequences, and then you can push up the ceiling on what’s possible.
But what ends up happening if we just play in that space of just adding us to the current existing framework, we end up with charitable solutions to problems that are structural meaning that we will make people believe that it is just enough to send water bottles to Flint instead of actually dealing with the fact that the pipes are not clean because of a whole set of tax policies and a whole set of choices that allowed folks to not pay their fair share. We will make corporations feel really good about doing service days at inner city schools while they lobby against actually real funding for public education. They can write off those donations and then not actually have to pay their fair share. People celebrating reentry programs which is good but not actually dealing with the fact that we have to end mass incarceration.
So it gets down to each of these areas, whether it’s television, whether it’s the internet, whether it’s theater, whether it’s books, whether it’s all of these lived spaces, shifting the rules of those spaces so then we shift the content, we shift the stories, we shift the incentive structures, and then we change these sorts of things. You can probably go back to all sort of things from 2005 that was said about LGBTQ people that has changed. It’s not perfect especially as we look at the portrayals of the trans community but we very much can see all sorts of changes that have happened over time, and that absolutely correlates with power that’s built, and that is why infrastructure is so incredibly important. It’s not about dropping in one story. It’s about dropping in many stories.
The final thing I’ll just say is that very often when we talk about these issues, we sort of give away our structural power. We put the active voice on the people and the passive voice on the system so we’ll say Black people are less likely to get a loan from the bank instead of saying banks are less likely to give loans to Black people. Why is this part of narrative? Why does this lead to narrative? If we say Black people are less likely to get a loan from the bank, then we end up with financial literacy programs that try to help Black people do better inside of racist structures which have excluded, targeted, and exploited us from the very beginning. If we say banks are less likely to give loans to Black people, we ask ourselves what’s wrong with the banks, and far too often we end up with situations where communities are impacted and we ask ourselves what’s wrong with Black people? What’s wrong with women? How do we help them instead of how do we remove the barriers, and it all does go back to how do we deal with the fact that if in our stories, in our narratives, if indigenous and Native people, if Black people, if Brown folks, if women, if those at the intersection can be the protagonists in the stories, then we actually tell stories that are different.
And so if we start from a narrative framework of people being the protagonists, of oppressed people being the protagonists in the stories, who is more of a protagonist in the American story of democracy, who has fought harder, stood on longer lines, faced more indignity to be included in a country that never wanted us to be included, and that actually gives you a framework to then focus on the set of stories that we tell but if we just go to the stories, then we end up with charity instead of structural change because we’re trying to be included in something that wasn’t designed for us to be included in the first place.
Melody Barnes: I want to pick up on something that you said and actually also raise a question from the audience. Then, Nana, I’m going to come to you, not for the flipside of it but for another approach to it. Rashad, you referenced a couple of times Hollywood, and I think people know about your work with Hollywood but this is a way to go to scale. It’s changing the way masses of people think. It’s putting something in the bloodstream and rerouting the veins. I’m wondering if you can talk a little bit more about that, and then also from the audience the question was how do you measure shifting narratives so that kind of evaluation work so I’m going to ask you that and then, Nana, I’m going to come to you with a different route into that question.
Rashad Robinson: It’s important for people to know that I got to Color of Change, it will be 10 years on Friday. I never mentioned—I’ve been at Color of Change for 10 years. The organization has been around longer. When I got to the organization, we had six staff. We did not have a Hollywood office. We did not have staff focused on how to—I came from GLAAD and had a vision that this is what I want to do but it took me some time to even get people to trust that at 31 or 30 or whatever I was at the time, I could do the math but I don’t want to. No one trusted—funders weren’t trusting me yet to invest in the way that I needed to but over time what we’ve been able to build is real infrastructure, and that means that we built power around people. We built context around the stories that people are hearing. We built research and understanding so we’ve done deep research with USC and UCLA, and done research on crime procedural shows, stuff they call normalizing injustice. Folks can go to our website and learn more about the Hollywood work, Color of Change Hollywood, and really check out some of that work but we’ve done these deep reports.
Then we actually got ourselves into Writer’s Room. Now they were not welcoming us into Writer’s Room. Crystal talked about the murder of George Floyd, and corporations and people, folks making statements and saying what are you going to do. So with each moment we had to actually force these companies to make good on moving from sort of benign statements to actual action. We’re probably in about 60 Writer’s Rooms across Hollywood. We are in a whole set of reality shows, probably 20 or 30 of them. If you watch a lot of networks, sometimes they’ll have special discussions with Color of Change staff afterwards. They’re not doing that. Yes, there’s a lot of good people inside who want to do that but we will always lose in the back rooms, whether it is in culture or whether it is in policy. We will always lose in the back rooms if we do not have people lined up at the front door. So this carrot-and-stick approach is incredibly important for us as our model to actually force the type of change, and so yeah, Hollywood allows us scale. If I can shift the way a set of crime procedural shows are portraying police unions, that does way more for me than putting out an op-ed piece or even going on TV on news programs. I am reaching people in the millions with narratives and stories that help educate, help bring people in, help shift people’s understanding. That is very much part of how and why we’ve chosen these sort of big narrative vehicles that if we can create new rules around portrayals, if we can dismantle some of the knee-jerk things that happen, then what we get is we get stories that allow us to actually have better opportunities for change. That is how we operationalize, and infrastructure is very important here.
Sometimes I think in the narrative space, and this is why I appreciate my co-panelists because they’ve been in the space of working inside of and building infrastructure as well because sometimes—the quick story I will just say is that I grew up very working class. My dad is a contractor. He wanted me to carry the buckets of cement to the job sites but quickly realized that that wasn’t going to be me and so the outlet mall got put in Riverhead, Long Island, as I was in high school, and I somehow got a job at the Brooks Brothers because I wanted to work at Brooks Brothers, got a job—anyone who knows me will laugh now—so I got this job in the outlet mall at Brooks Brothers, and when I got to the Brooks Brothers, I was the only Black kid they let on the floor which is just part of how you navigate these sort of racial moments but I wanted to work on the windows.
The thing about those windows is I think about that in terms of narrative strategy, the windows. It’s the piece about infrastructure because sometimes we short-track ourselves around infrastructure. We don’t build infrastructure. We think we can just do a quick thing with a poster and put out some videos and think we’re going to change the narrative without infrastructure and people involved, and that’s kind of like the windows in a department store where they pin the shirts and the suits in the back or the dress in the back and they make it look really good, never as good as how it will look on you. It doesn’t actually wear well. It doesn’t look well so you actually have to try it on. You have to be inside of the clothing. You actually have to build for the clothing and far too often we short-track. We pin things in the back instead of actually making sure that we build it, and actually fitting a suit is messy. Fitting a dress is messy. Some days it’s going to look better than other days, and some days you’re going to feel better in it than other days, and that’s the important role of infrastructure. Infrastructure is what allows us to actually live inside of our work, breathe inside of our work, and move inside of our work rather than pinning things in the back just for show when it has no utility in the real world.
Melody Barnes: Not only did I love your analogies, if you were reading the chat, you’d see “Love Brooks Brothers,” and people loving the analogy so thank you for that. Nana, this will unfortunately be our final question but I’m also going to squeeze in another audience question to this. Even if we can’t scale in the way that Rashad was just describing it and working in Hollywood and with the industry, how can we be effective, and how can we—the person in the audience asked for suggestions for doing this work on more of a local level, and talking about your cultural change strategies in that context.
Nayantara Sen: I’ll chime in and then maybe Crystal, if you have a thought, you can add too. Before I answer that question with more specificity, I wanted to actually share a simple concept or resource that I think will dovetail nicely with what a lot of what Rashad is sharing. Narrative and cultural strategy is, as Rashad has said, about changing the unwritten rules of the game. There’s this concept of the Overton Window which you can Google later. I’ll drop it in the chat too. The Overton Window is understood to be the window of political feasibility, what can actually become policy, and ideas go from completely unthinkable to radical to sort of unacceptable to acceptable and then popular and sensible and finally policy. Our job as narrative and cultural strategists is to broaden that window so that the stories of our lives and our experiences go from being on the fringes essentially to the center. So I’ll drop that link in the chat too.
But to speak about cultural strategy, what you could do at the local level, what you could do in your organizations- I’m sure many of you on this call are working across a range of issue areas and have different kinds of functionalities and names and roles for your organization so you can’t potentially just—the way that our work like is our North Star is narrative and cultural change. If you’re not able to reorient your whole organization to have that particular focus, there are still ways to build it in and to engage that strategy, and if you’re not in a place where you can be in the Writer’s Rooms or influence pop culture, the main thing I want to say here is cultural strategy is a massive field because culture is in every space. It is in people’s kitchens, the supermarket, in the mosque or the temple, and certainly on media and television as well but cultural producers and culture bearers and artists in particular, and somebody in the chat already alerted you to this. Art changes culture so one of the most crucial ways that cultural strategy works is by engaging specifically the work of artists, cultural producers, and culture bearers, and I’m using the frame of artists loosely here. I’m talking about artists in your communities, in your organizations, in your constituents, not the fancy celebrity artists who also have wide reach but the truth is, and I just want to bring this next piece into the mix here, people do change when they experience mass popular culture because you’re engaging repeat and frequent information on a high scale but people also fundamentally change their worldview through three things, story, relationships, and experience. A lot of those three things, story, relationships, and experience, happen in the context of people’s local lives.
I just got back from New Mexico in Santa Fe where I was with my aunties, and they are making decisions about whether to take the vaccine or not, not based on what they’re watching on TV, literally based on what their neighbors are saying to them on the street they live on, right? So how do you engage in your own work situations where you can expand stories, deepen relationships, and create more immersive experiences? You do that through the work of cultural producers and artists because they’re already in that space. Artists produce stories, relationships, and experiences in a deep immersive way, and you can find ways to work with artists more regularly, with cultural producers more regularly, and at the core of your issue-based work if you’re doing work in a particular lane. Maybe you’re doing research, maybe you’re doing advocacy, maybe you’re doing policy change work. Think about the fundamental question of what are the unwritten cultural rules that are creating inhospitable conditions for your issue to be successful. That needs to be the core of your strategy so also integrate a lens on cultural—and I’ll drop a couple of resources in the chat or the portal later, in particular an incredible resource on how to work more with cultural producers and artists called Making Waves: A Guide to Cultural Strategy. It came out several years ago but is super useful. I’ll pause there to see if, Crystal, you want to join in and say anything.
Melody Barnes: Crystal?
Crystal Echo Hawk: No, I mean you’ve got it covered. I think again this idea or cultural strategy, and as we think about narrative infrastructure, I love how Rashad just really keeps stressing the importance of that. I think just looking at cultural strategy and as we think about artists and storytellers, and just this expansiveness, and those relationships, those key relationships with artists and storytellers from our communities is powerful. That’s for us it was such an important partnership for our Natives Vote 2020 work, the way we were able to help to mobilize the Native vote, that cultural strategy component is a really important part of it so as you kind of think about your arsenal for change, there’s all these really key components to look at that but again I just wanted to also say it really also comes down to having that infrastructure and to be able to really use the power of that to make a difference.
Melody Barnes: Our time is up and I know how sad that makes me because I could go on and just talk to you all and listen to you all for much longer but I’m not the only one who feels that way. If you look in—someone just wrote, “oh, no”—if you look in the chat, people have so thoroughly not just enjoyed but learned from and appreciated your expertise, your knowledge, and your sharing it with us today. It’s a real contribution to the field and to the work that we’re doing so thank you, thank you, thank you, for all that you’ve done. Thank you for adding things to the chat and the resources so we will get that to everybody. If we were in person, you would have a standing ovation, I know it, so thank you very, very much.
Building Narrative Power (Color of Change)
IllumiNative Insights and Actions Guide (IllumiNative)
Making Waves: A Guide to Cultural Strategy (The Culture Group)
Cultural Strategy: An Introduction and Primer (Art/Work Practice and Power California)
Stolen Land, Stolen Bodies, and Stolen Stories (Stanford Social Innovation Review)