Change the Story: Harnessing the power of narrative for social change

Conversation Details

Dates of conversation: 
Monday, October 14, 2013 to Friday, October 18, 2013
Conversation type: 
Type of tactical goal: 

Summary available

Thank you for joining the Center for Story-based Strategy (CSS) and the New Tactics community for an online conversation October 14 to 18.  

People and communities use stories to understand the world and our place in it. These stories are embedded with power - the power to explain and justify the status quo as well as the power to make change imaginable and urgent. A narrative analysis of power encourages us to ask: Which stories define cultural norms? Where did these stories come from? Whose stories were ignored or erased to create these norms? And, most urgently, what new stories can we tell to help create the world we desire?

This conversation helped human rights defenders to learn more about story-based strategy and how to integrate it into campaign planning. It was an opportunity for those practitioners using story-based strategy to share their experiences, questions, and ideas with each other.

Tactical Examples Shared in the Conversation:

What is Story Based Strategy?

Story-based strategy approach looks at social change strategy through a narrative lens.  The Center for Story-Based Strategy (formerly smartMeme) believes it is about reframing and changing stories in the dominant culture to create more political possibility for social justice movements.  Narratives are transformative and have power, often using existing narratives to challenge dominant paradigms.  Judeo-christian and folklore stories are commonly used.  Using known narratives and changing them taps into collective social and cultural consciousness, drawing on a wealth of metaphors, symbolism, images and strategies people are already familiar with.  From these metaphors, symbols and images, story-based strategy creates Memes, which CSS defines as, “contagious ideas, stories, images, and rituals that spread from imagination to imagination, generation to generation, shaping and shifting human cultures.”  Some examples of successful Memes are Bank vs. America or Think Globally, Act Globally.

A story-based strategy can be effective communicating the efficacy of non-violence and other social justice themes.  These strategies ground message in what is factual but have persuasive stories and visual communications.  Sharing meaningful information should change social norms in positive ways, such as Tostan’s work to eliminate Female Genital Circumcision practices in rural communities in West and East Africa.  Effective and powerful narratives work on a spectrum of who’s benefitting from injustice vs. who's trying to do justice rather than a ‘benefitting the needy’ model.  

A narrative and story-based strategy presents several challenges. Trying to defend existing/negative narratives with counter-narratives can be counter-productive and distract from the social justice issue being addressed.  Stories have limits and are subject to commodification by opposing parties.  They are often contradictory, offering numerous interpretations.  In addition, reframing narratives must work with and break down the ‘narrative filter,’ which CSS defines as the existing assumptions people have about the world that screen out new information that doesn’t fit with their existing mental frameworks.  Thus, social justice campaigns should work within established group processes to tell stories in a way that generates new visions, critiques, solutions, etc.        

How do we frame our message to go beyond the choir?

Stories have power.  How do organizations harness and disseminate this power in their narrative?  Organization shared the strategies and narrative methodologies they used to make distinct analytical contributions to their audience.  One participant shared an example of using narrative to explore intersectionality, such as being black and a feminist in America.  Other methods suggested include connecting the narrative to universal elements of human experience and creating change from below rather than above. The organization Waging Nonviolence uses this technique and is currently working on book about motherhood and activism.  Their approach problematizes static notions of activism and suggests that everyone is an activist in some way, from mothers to children to workers, etc. Design Action shows how design can be used as a metaphor to tell a story in a different way and pull the audience in, motivating them to take action.  They give an example of a visual report they made about Nigerian refugees in Benin displaced by Shell OIl.  This report is an example of how reframing and packaging narratives can incite change.   

How can organizations use narratives to expand beyond a base audience? CSS provides several frameworks and worksheets for creating powerful narratives that help define the meaning and framing of a situation.  Their Battle of the Story strategy ask questions that contextualize the story--its conflict, characters, intended audience, underlying assumptions etc--for social change narratives with the goal of persuading people who aren’t necessarily already in agreement with the social change effort.  It is important for an organization to know who their audience is and who the organization is trying to move to action.  In addition, organizations shouldn’t assume audiences far outside of their base are inaccessible.  One participant shared an example of reassessing women over 60 in the South and finding that their values correspond to the values of immigrant women.  Thus, it is important to expand beyond an organization’s base to reach diverse audiences.  

How do we change deeply held cultural narratives and open new space for our stories?

Powerful narratives and effective story-based strategy change cultural norms and creates a space for new stories, ideas, and norms to flourish.  CSS believes there is a moment they term a ‘psychic break’ that is the process or moment of realization whereby a deeply held dominant culture narrative comes into question, oftentimes stemming from a revelation that a system, event, or course of events is out of alignment with core values.  Participants offered various methods on how to realize a psychic break and utilize it in social justice and human rights campaigns.  One method is to search for localized stories for support and use them to fight existing narratives.  Other methods shared include ‘brand jamming’, ‘cultural jamming’ and  ‘Naming the Moment.’

Balancing cultural sensitivity and human rights reform presents a challenge to creating pyschic breaks.  Campaigns to end Female Genital Circumcision exemplify this.  Organizations such as Tostan navigate human rights injustices and cultural norms, attempting to address these human rights issues while still respecting the culture and its beliefs.  Other challenges to changing the story are the use of reductive memes, as one participant noted.  Without rhetorical power and enthusiastic campaigns backing the meme, it will not be effective.  

What does it mean to tell an aspirational narrative?   

Storytelling can be an empathic tool for healing pain and reinserting humanity into human rights and social justice issues.  Stories of overcoming oppression and pain create aspirational narratives that promote change and a view of a better world.  These stories reframe the notion of what is impossible and what is possible.  Often, it is challenging to move beyond narratives of pain and what is wrong with the world.  However, story-based strategies rely on changing negative narratives into positive, aspirational ones.  One way of doing this is to build a common vision that an organization or alliance is working for.  This vision helps craft what specific narratives look like so that they fall underneath the umbrella of the common vision.  Furthermore, creating narratives that show empowered images help create an aspirational vision. 


New Tactics:


Books and Articles:

Conversation Leaders

nathanairplane's picture
Nathan Schneider
Waging Nonviolence
danielle.coatesconnor's picture
Danielle Coates-Connor
Center for Story-based Strategy
storyfool's picture
chris cavanagh
Catalyst Centre (One-Stop Pop Ed Shop Worker Co-op)
Jen Soriano's picture
Jen Soriano
RoadMap Consulting, Lionswrite Communications
designaction's picture
Nadia Khastagir
Design Action Collective
Shreya Atrey's picture
Shreya Atrey
University of Oxford
doylecanning's picture
Doyle Canning
Center for Storybased Strategy (CSS)
clbergpowers's picture
Cara Berg Powers
Press Pass TV
Innosanto Nagara's picture
Innosanto Nagara
Design Action Collective
KPequeno's picture
Kathleen Pequeño
Progressive Communicators Network
krendahl's picture
Kristi Rendahl
Center for Victims of Torture
Justin von Bujdoss's picture
Justin von Bujdoss
New York Tsurphu Goshir Dharma Center