What does it mean to tell an aspirational narrative?

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What does it mean to tell an aspirational narrative?

If we want our campaigns to be successful, we need to inspire people by showing them how the word could be (and empower them to change it!). Are we telling the stories of the world we want?

Share your experiences, thoughts, ideas and questions by adding a comment below or replying to existing comments!

-- Danielle Coates-Connor


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As an artist (who has been

As an artist (who has been working with the idea of safety and LGBT issues in Pakistan), i feel that its not only about the possibility of a better future. At times its also about humanizing pain. An aspirational narrative (or painting) can also be one which helps one realize the humanity within the oppressed, and understand their pain. If one understands one's pain, one can relate to them and a new relationship between the oppressed and the otherwise complacent silent audience can be achieved.

the power of not glossing-over what is broken and painful


I very much appreciate your comment.  As a hospice chaplain, and even with people at the dharma center, I am often asked to listen to the stories of suffering that people are faced with.  In the case of hospice patients, the story tellers are at the end of life, sometimes coping with physical discomfort, and spiritual and psychological discomfort (fear, pain, a sense of being alone and disconnected, anxiety, anger, meaninglessness, etc.).  There are also the family members who are often lost in deep sadness and a sense of shock.  At the dharma center, students come to practice mdeitation.  The general goal, if one can even use that word, is the experience of connection and expansive openness, touching upon a vivid sense of presence in which we ar both aware and focused.  Quite often, either after a meditation session, or before, students will share there deep frustrations and dissatisfactions with life, their hardship and their pain, sometimes even their sense of brokenness and hopelessness.

Learning to sit within the telling of another's story as a witness, can create a beautiful intimacy; the likes of which are very hard to describe. 

When I can be there as a witness for others in times of great vulnerability, or amidst a sea of impossibility, I have noticed that the intimacy that is created touches a part of the teller of the story in a way that allows them to be okay with their impossible situation.  It provides a center of gravity that helps bring a sense of meaning to their suffering.  Sometimes this is all that I can do.  Sometimes all there is, is the story that is told.  In my experience, most of the story tellers die, and in a way I function as a collector of stories, the stories of human suffering.

There is exterme violence in trying to modify the process of another telling a story.  Asking the storyteller to tell me a nice story when they feel terrible can sometimes be a significant way of ignoring the feelings and more importantly the experience of the other person.  How we act as a crucible that can hold the germ-seed of the experience of another is vital.  It is difficult for me to sit and be present to the various sufferings that plague those whome I meet with.  Some days I come home and my bones hurt, yet when I recollect the day's moments of intimacy, I feel that I have been in a sacred place with each person I counsel.

Even when we are not telling stories, we are invariably living them.  We operate from a place where we act out our identities in every moment of the day, often without even realizing it.  Without even realizing the stories of others.  I often wonder what would happen if everyone could each expand the container that we use to hold the stories of others (and ourselves) so that they can hold the intense moments of brokenness and pain, to just witness these intense moments and sit with them without judgement.  What I suspect we could find would actually be great beauty and a sense of connection.

Painful stories can help facilitate healing & understanding

Thank you Ahsan and Justin for highlighting the importance of storytelling to help facilitate the realization of "the humanity within the oppressed, and understand their pain" and the development of new, more compassionate relationships. In some cases, storytelling can also help facilitate healing.

We have documented two case studies in which storytelling plays a crucial role in healing, remembering and understanding. One case study titled Public Audiences: Creating Space to Recognize Victims of Internal Conflict in Peru (available in English and Spanish) explains the process and impact of Peru's TRC on the survivors. Here's an excerpt:

The audiences were formal sessions in which a victim or family member of a victim would give an account of what had happened before a group of people that had the ethical authority stemming from the State to listen and express their solidarity and acknowledge ment. Unlike other Truth Commissions, the purpose of these sessions was not for investigation, but instead an audience for the restitution of rights, of citizenship, and of dignity for the victim, an audience to listen in respectful silence, lending ears to and giving voice to those who had never before been given such things.

The second case study titled I'll Walk Beside You: Providing emotional support for testifiers at the South African Truth & Reconciliation Commission, explains how the TRC utilized 'briefers" from the caring community to provide support to those sharing their stories with the Commission.

How have stories of oppression and pain helped to facilitate new understandings and relationships to further social change?

Ahsan's comment also reminds me of the aspirational narrative that the Center for Victims of Torture and other organizations share - that our clients have survived something awful, but they are strong and they are resilient. Torture is meant to take away the dignity of a person, and our work is to help restore it. In that sense, we all have the power to fight torture - we won't let it take dignity from anyone. These survivors continue to work towards healing. It is hard work, and if they can do it, we can do it.

-- Kristin Antin, New Tactics Online Community Builder

"but there are no gays in our country"

Very beautifully put Kristin.

Yes, stories are very important for the humanization of pain, and also to bring forth a context that one is not alone. I think this is also one of the reasons i find documented anthologies - of not exactly stories but snipets of personal life of LGBT people and their experiences in life - coming out in spaces where LGBT visibility is not present at all. Within the absence of any form of localized mass media representation, in print, cinema or otherwise, a person may feel really really really alone! Possibly one of the reasons that uptil my late teens i did very much think that i was the only "gay in the village", and then i kinda found some support online. But nevertheless, the lack of narrative as a form of presence, history or context, is very important. The absence of which allows some fool to stand up and say "but we have no gays in our country!", or that "homosexuality is a western disease". So in such case as well, personal narratives which do not particularly highlight what future one desires, but the struggles of the past, play a very important part in lending a narrative and context in the present.

A world without torture and ill-treatment

Good morning everybody,

I am with the Association for the Prevention of Torture, a human rights NGO in Geneva.

To answer your question: no, I guess we rarely tell the story of the world we want. We talk about the deficiencies of the world we know. And we talk in very abstract terms about the world we want. We talk about the world we want in terms of laws, mechanisms, institutions - in very abstract terms, without telling a story.

A reason for this might be that in human rights work it is very important to be factual (when making allegations of human rights violations, when telling stories of the past). We have not dared to "invent" aspiration narratives. But it sounds like a great idea. I would like to try it!

Looking forward to reading the experiences and oppinions of others.

Kind regards,


Aspirational narratives could come from your vision

Hi Esther - I'm so glad you shared this! I think this dilemma is faced by other human rights organizations as well, so I'm glad you've raised it. I can see how you would want to stick to the facts, but you also want to inspire support for your work. I also look forward to learning how practitioners accomplish both!

In our New Tactics trainings, we facilitate a process to build a strategy for human rights work. Part of this process is building a common vision. A vision is a source of inspiration that answers for us how the world would look differently in the future. It gives people the opportunity to dream and hope for a better world. I think that aspirational narratives are stories that evoke your vision for the world - how you want to make it better. So when I think about the work of the APT and what that aspirational narrative might be, I think about how much better our world would be without torture. How many people would be able to live free of the trauma and guilt of such a horrific act. And that governments would be more accountable to their citizens. Sign me up!

I look forward to hearing from others!

-- Kristin Antin, New Tactics Online Community Builder


Stories, stories everywhere

Esther, i can appreciate the feeling (or "guess") that "we rarely tell the story of the world we want". But i want respectfully to suggest that, while this is part of the truth, that this is also only an apparently true. What i agree with is that our world of activism and struggle against violence and injustice and for human rights, social justice and a better possible world is dominated with stories of "deficiencies" as you say. What dominates headlines is is certainly "what is wrong" with the world. Those Hollywood films that look to the future are almost always dystopian - apocalypse by disease, by robot, by computer virus, by zombies, by asteroid impact, by removal of geological consent, by divine retribution and so on. We are nothing as a species if we are not imaginative about the ways that civilization might meet its doom. But even while this rather bleak litany commands such popular attention, there is simultaneously, an abundance of stories about a "better possible world" (a phrase i am deliberately referencing from the World Social Forums of the past decade). Finding (or seeing) these stories is the tricky part.

The easier ones to find are those from the vast literatures of utopian writing and science-fiction. Many of these are scenarios of possible and probable futures. And while there are few, if any, that i would want to live in (for none are without their contradictions), each has aspects that reflect some aspiration worth considering. And there is also the grand and ancient oral and folk literatures of all cultures that contain many pieces (almost always in playful mixes) of better worlds (from ancient lost kingdoms that will one day be found again, to otherworldly magical lands, to realities that exist beside and underneath our own). Consider the Sufi story, "Once there was a Sufi who was captured by the police and accused of theft. Despite his protests of innocence he was convicted and sentenced to three years in jail. He had a loving wife who visited him every day. One day she was allowed to bring him a carpet on which he could pray. Three times a day he would unroll the carpet and, kneeling and bowing down, would pray. Weeks and months passed in this manner. One day the intricate pattern of the carpet’s weaving caught his notice. There was something unusual about it. Still, day after day, he prayed and gradually the intricate detail of the carpet began to make sense to him. As the days passed and he continued to pray the pattern resolved until one day it was clear to him. The pattern in the weaving was the design of the lock on his prison door. Using his new knowledge he picked the lock and escaped."

Now this is a modest tale but one that i would dare suggest has several powerful messages for us about the worlds we are struggling to bring into existence. And, finally for now, there s another kind of story about a better possible world that often escapes our notice - those parts of our daily struggle that can be seen as prefigurative of the world yet to be. These stories, i feel, are also modest and little but are terribly important. And we are, indeed, sharing them all the time: how we are successful at conducting meetings by consensus; how we have normalized diverse membership and participation in our organizations and movements; how we have won the common sense on matters of public health care (though typically, as here in Canada, we have constantly to fight to maintain it); etc. I think we can find "aspiration" stories in many places and two contemporary examples jump out at me: Bhutan's crafting a new constitution and their practice of Gross National Happiness and the hundreds, if not thousands of participatory budgeting practices around the world (full disclosure: i'm on the advisory board of this latter group).

Foretast of the world to be

Thanks a lot for these inspiring suggestions and ideas. I like the idea of telling stories about "those parts of our daily struggle that can be seen as prefigurative of the world yet to be" which I imagine like a foretast of what could be. In a way such stories might even create more hope for a better future than pictures of a utopian world as they start from where we are and thus strengthen the believe in us (and hopefully also in others) that it is possible. As human rights defenders we are often accused of being "naive" when daring to imagine a completely different world (for example when we speak about a worls in which the police would treat everybody in a human way we are told that in such a world there will be plenty of crime and terrorism ....).

I wrote a blog last week about the struggle of Tunisian activists for our association (my first blog ever). Reflecting on it, I guess that I wanted to tell a story of hope and of a better world possible if we believe in it and do not give up. If you are interested you can find it here:


Comments and suggestions of how to be more aspirational are most welcome!

Looking forward to reading you again.

Kind regards,



At Design Action we almost always try to show images of people being empowered to take action and unseat systems of oppression. The audience defines the context and tone of the image/story. We also want to show the struggle, that justice is being fought for. But if people can see themselves in the main images, and feel empowered and hopeful, that there is something to fight for, then that is most of the battle. The systems of oppression in place seek to defeat and demoralize. If we can move people to take action and know that there are many better worlds that we can fight for, then we are moving towards winning. I believe it is essential to create hope, and show people having control over their lives and options in their own hands (Not showing white saviors, for example, in the story).

That's impossible.

Have you ever imagined the world you want to live in and then stopped yourself because you didn't believe it was politically or culturally possible?

What are examples of social movements that have overcome what was believed to be impossible? 

I think there's a universal

I think there's a universal love for aspirational stories of triumph against the impossible  - and that these stories are everywhere.  But especially in US culture, these stories are Horatio Alger stories about an individual accomplishing the impossible, going from rags to riches or disability to ability or what have you against all odds - all because of sheer individual will and a few magic friends along the way.

Understanding this is key to the type of aspirational stories we have to write as people who believe in the role of organizing and collective action for change - it means our aspirational stories always have to struggle to make groups of people, organizations, grassroots formations, movements the heroes of the story which is not easy to do.  It can't be done through just one story, it has to be done through organized communications - or strategic communications - where the same core story with group attribution gets told in many ways to many audiences using many messengers and many vehicles.  And it has to be backed up with on the ground organizing.

Yep I said it - aspirational stories are nothing without aspirational organizing to back them up.

Quick example: a few years ago Vermont Workers Center took on a campaign for universal health care in the state - something almost everyone said was politically impossible.  foes and allies alike predicted they would have to end up compromising, especially on the inclusion of immigrants in "universal".  They anticipated this wedge and instead of playing to what was supposedly possible began telling a story that would redefine what was possible.  They began saying "universal means universal, health care for all means health care for all" and began organizing vermont residents across color lines by doing shared storytelling about what universal health care meant and how the policy would be weaker if anyone was left out.  Their organizing focused on political education about the role undocumented immigrants played in vermont culture society and the economy and on health care as a human not as a civil right.  When a last ditch amendment came up in their legislature to exclude undocumented immigrants from the bill, thousands of residents came out in protest saying "universal health care means health care for all" and they defeated the amendment, won universal health care for all in Vermont, and redefined what was politically possible.

The struggle now is in implementation, but also in attribution - now a few doctors and other influencers are taking credit for the victory and the role of VWC, organizing in general and the thousands of Vermont residents who fought for the policy was obscured in the national and some local media.  The lesson learned is you ahe to build in processes for sharing that attribution and doing strategic communications to create space for  that harder to digest story of collective victory rather than victory due to a few charismatic leaders shine through.   


Values, Unity, Participatory Framing

This past April, leaders gathered in New York to reflect on how story-based strategy impacted their campaign strategy. We filmed the talks, posted them in their entirety, and they serve as case studies about what aspirational framing, and how it has worked for groups. 

One of the speakers was James Haslam of the Vermont Workers Center. James echoes Jen's point about the power of mixing the right frame with groundbreaking organizing. One interesting point James makes, which speaks to the role of personal narrative in creating a political narrative, is about discovering shared values:  "In our first phase (of the campaign) we just went out to our communities and we were collecting stories, finding people who wanted to get involved in creating organizing committees in every region of the state. That that was the most important part of our campaign. We were just doing a lot to listening and collecting the stories and not talking about particular legislation and policy but about what our goals were." 

Parin Shah of the Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN) elaborates on using partcipatory framing as a way to harness values. He says, "If we are able to strategically link our communications and organizing, and root it in values that we all share, we can build a common narrative for our organization ... We have a strong base and we don't necessarily need help talking to them. We are culturally competent, we are linguistically competent with the folks we work with. But there's this other audience that we need to move in order to shift the power dynamic and in order to shift the policies for the long-term."

Lenina Nadal of Right to the City Alliance describes their national campaign for housing justice. "In order for us to really fight gentrification in a unified way we had to create a unified narrative. One of our strategies was to use the framework of abundance... 'I believe in homes for all'."

Rachel LaForest recently discussed the campaign on the Bill Moyers show. "For a long time it's been that your ticket to the American dream, or demonstrating that you've arrived within the American dream, is home ownership. What does that mean for people who are homeless, who are renters, who are part of public housing? We're challenging the assumption that home ownership means the American dream. But rather that access to equitable housing that is affordable and allows for people to participate in their communities is actually the American Dream."

What we see in these three stories is a dedication to leading with vision, finding ways to bring stakeholders together, and using strategic communications as an organizing tool. Is it possible to turn the stories we tell each other around the water cooler into political strategies that win? 

Patrick Reinsborough told the story of CSS working with California Calls from 2009-2011, during the California budget crisis. At that time, so many social programs were put on the chopping block that the progressive movement was pushed into the defensive. Tax policy had not been changed in decades in CA. California Calls had done extensive work to figure out who they needed to reach in order to win a legislative victory, and the next step was to find a vehicle to reach those voters. 

Patrick used this campaign an example of aspirational framing: "An assumption is what you have to believe in order to believe that the story is true. It's the idea of making the invisible visible. How do we change the frame by bringing in new pieces of information? In the work that California Calls was doing for instance, what was missing from the frame was Proposition 13, California's infamous property tax cap from the 1970's which had slowly bankrupted the state." CSS facilitated a participatory strategy process that resulted in the frame: What happened to the California Dream? "This is the pivot from analysis to narrative," Patrick explains. "What happened the California Dream is a new frame ... recognizing that we had to get out of the crisis mode put forward aspirational framing." 


Danielle, in answer to your question I think the DREAMers are a great example of defying the impossible and going for it with the Undocumented and Unafraid movement! Also as part of the movement, Not One More Deportation, Alto Arizona, etc. The DREAMers are young undocumented Latin@s who mostly grew up in the US who are literally putting their lives on the line by practicing civil disobedience to protest detentions and deportations of undocumented immigrants, who have been working in the US, paying taxes and raising families. Pres. Obama has deported more immigrants than any other president! This social movement has grown since the passing of laws in Arizona which enables local police to pull over and detain anyone they think maybe undocumented, leading to racial profiling, and general fear and unsafety in the communities, and the passing of the DREAM legislation.


The Craziest Thing We Could Have Done

Great point, DesignAction. Do you have any reflections on the relationship between organizing and iconic imagery in the immigration movement? Shifting public opinion? Changing the story of what's possible?

Cristobal Lagunas-Alvarez wrote an essay this summer reflecting on the summer of 2010, strategizing weeks after Arizona passed a racist immigration law called SB1070. The essay explores the decision the DREAMers made to put their bodies on the line to confront Senator John McCain. 

Cris writes in summation about the action: "...That day was only the beginning of the last 3 years of escalation. That day, our story, the story of immigrant young people started changing, we suddenly had power. Since then hundreds of undocumented migrants have gotten arrested to be heard, we infiltrated a detention center and a county jail to organize, and are now we’re continuing to escalate by challenging the border wall. The possibilities are endless and the movement is beautiful. I can't wait for what's to come."  


Cris Lagunas-Alvarez is an organizer with the National Immigrant Youth Alliance (NIYA). Over the past three years, NIYA has used civil disobedience and direct action tactics to move forward the demands of undocumented youth. Their current work is #bringthemhome, a campaign to challenge the border wall, deportations and to bring back undocumented youth who have been previously deported through community organizing. 

 Check out the NIYA Facebook page for up to date information on #bringthemhome. 


What's your "The Craziest Thing We Could Have Done" story?

Relationship between organizing and iconic imagery

I believe there's a huge link that should not be overlooked on this subject. We can look at current iconic imagery, such as the monarch butterfy as a symbol of migration for the immigrant rights movement. Literally they migrate between the US and Mexico, thereby crossing the border every year. They are also a traditional symbol of hope and transformation. And visually beautiful. I have seen them used in multiple posters for the immigrant rights movement, as well as props in street marches and demonstrations.

I referenced the sunflower image also used in the Climate and Environmental Justice movement, in a previous post.

When we think of mass movements, often the symbols come to mind. Think of United Farmworkers, Black Panthers, and the fist used as symbol for the struggle.

Nadia Khastagir


Another World is Possible

Those words have been ringing through social movements around the world through the momentum of the World Social Forums. It is so simple of a statement but resonates deeply and universally. We are so often told "There Is No Alternative" (grimly called TINA in the US), which serves to defeat us, keep us down and too depressed to do anything. The building of social movements gives voice to disempowered communities and individuals through shared experiences.

Even though the struggles continue, there is a lot to be said for shifting the narrative once a certain tipping point is achieved. We saw that with the Occupy movement and the emergence of the 99% meme. That movement served to change the dialogue and bring to the forefront of conversation about the greed and perversity of the Banks, and to question corporatocracy.

Another movement which has changed the narrative is about Climate Change and Climate Justice. At the turn of this century communities of color around the world were beginning to talk about how climate change is a justice issue, how it affects the most marginilized, how the least contributors to climate change were the ones the most affected. At that time the conversation was still at the UN, amongst scientists and the corporations working to debunk the science. Because of grassroots movement building and communities coming together to share their lived experiences, the term and the discussion is now in the capitol and has become more mainstreamed.

Another aspirational meme I love: sunflowers as a symbol for resilience and reclamation in the environmental and climate justice movements. Scientifically they are "bioremediators" which pull toxins from the soil and have been used in Chernobyl and Fukishima. Visually they are beautiful and you can make masses of them for marches and demonstrations.


Envisioning a world beyond fossil fuels

Thanks for leading such a great conversation Danielle, I especially like this talk about 'aspirational narrative'. Is that how CSS is talking about 'foreshadowing' these days? 

I run workshops on story-based strategy in Australia and of the elements of story I find that groups often struggle with the narrative technique of foreshadowing (preempting the outcome, giving hints about the desired future). We are often so absorbed with describing how bad things will be if our called for action (stopping something, or doing something) doesn't happen that we miss the other end - describing a compelling vision of the future that people can imagine and support. 

One Australian campaign that has been doing a great job is 100% Renewable Energy. Their name is their campaign vision. When the campaign was first getting started there was some criticism from policy people in the climate movement who didn't think 100% renewable energy was feasible. Another organisation, Beyond Zero Emissions, published a comprehensive report that showed how it could happen. But even without a big solid evidence base there was plenty of benefit in having such a 'blue sky' campaign vision and brand. The positivity has been incredibly appealing to people run down by the scariness of climate change and difficulties of campaigning in this area. 

Just recently 100% Renewables, along with similar campaigns around the world, have been publicising the fact that Portugal has reached 70% renewable energy. Having examples from other countries, or other times in history, can build people's perception of what is possible. 

Part of what we're talking about when we talk about 'negative' vs 'positive' campaigning is that old process 'Anger - Hope - Action'. People who are angry about an injustice also need hope that it can change, before they can act. Our aspirational narratives can build that hope. 

Holly Hammond, Plan to Win

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