Narrative // Power // Culture // Change

Wanna make the world better? The ideas in this library can help.

Photo by Eli Francis on Unsplash

The Narrative Initiative is a training and networking resource for leaders and organizations dedicated to building fairer, more inclusive societies.

We connect narrative experts, advocacy campaigns, and social change leaders across the globe. Working at the intersection of social science and cognitive linguistics, civic and pop culture engagement, strategic communications, technology and art, we build capacity to use culture, language and stories to shift policy and politics, shape media and public conversation, and broaden perspectives and possibilities.

Talk about changing “narratives” seems to be everywhere these days. And there are as many definitions of what narratives are as there are methods of changing them. Media advocates encourage accountability and consumer pressure. Cognitive linguists promote rigorous research and disciplined promotion of new mental frames. Creatives and cultural workers generate new storylines and proliferate marginalized voices. These existing fields of practice are developing their own standards and norms, to varying degrees, which is a positive development. But they aren’t sufficiently connected across one another to align strategy and build power.

In an effort to elevate and amplify good works, smart thinking, new ideas, best practices, and the inspiring individuals and organizations heavily embedded in this movement, we offer the following reading list as a resource hub to help increase awareness of what’s already out there and spark much more engagement on these complex issues.


N A R R A T I V E

Toward New Gravity

The Narrative Initiative | July 2017

This report is the result of an extensive landscape analysis and listening tour of over 100 experts, innovators and visionaries from a range of disciplines and communities that intervene at the intersection (and sometimes at the edges) of social justice and narrative change.

We listened for commonly identified challenges, hard-earned lessons and pressing needs. We heard a recurring desire for sharper definitions of terms related to story and narrative. We heard audacious wishlists and inspiring best practices.

The Role of Narrative Change in Influencing Policy

Brett Davidson | July 2016

In this essay, Brett Davidson, Open Society Public Health Program’s Director of Media and Narrative, offers some essential background on “narrative change” work, some definitions and delineations of terminology and addresses how narratives are central to the mental models and social beliefs and practices that that guide individuals’ decision-making and behavior, and thus narrative is an important tool for bringing about change.

The article is adapted from a longer white paper on narrative change and how narratives play an important role in policy processes.

Framing Stories For Change

FrameWorks Institute | Spring & Summer 2017

In this article for Change Agent, FrameWorks CEO Nat Kendall-Taylor notes how the popular 
“storytelling bandwagon, driving trends in interactive, virtual, and visual stories, storybanking, and science-based storytelling.”

While acknowledging that “stories have remarkable power to drive social change…appeal to us on a core emotional level and lodge deeply in our minds,” and that “social science and cognitive research show they are more effective than facts, explanations, or arguments in influencing thinking and behavior,” Kendall-Taylor explains that “not all stories work the way we think they do.”

In this essay, Kendall-Taylor seeks to answer the important question of “how can we make sure that the stories we tell advance our issues?”

Heartwired: Human Behavior, Strategic Opinion Research and the Audacious Pursuit of Social Change

Robert Pérez and Amy Simon | April 2017

Advancing positive and lasting social change in a world that grows more complex each day is hard. Understanding how we break through to our most critical audiences — and developing messages that respectfully and authentically connect with their lived experiences — has become essential to inspiring people to come together to create this change.

With support from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, Goodwin Simon Strategic Research and Wonder: Strategies for Good have assembled this strategy guide to share lessons learned from their decades of experience on the front lines of social and environmental change. The guide examines how emotions, values, beliefs, identity and lived experiences affect the capacity to make social change, and provides advice on how to develop effective persuasion strategies. There is a separate introductory document that provides an overview of the guide’s ideas.

Telling Our Own Story: The Role of Narrative in Racial Healing

The Perception Institute | June 2013

Telling Our Own Story: The Role of Narrative in Racial Healing provides an important resource for leaders and practitioners working to overcome our nation’s legacy of racism. The authors present the emerging science of the power of narrative and do so within the context of efforts by diverse communities to find effective ways of communicating and creating new, authentic stories that honor the complexity of the past while forging a more equitable future.

Advocates, researchers, and leaders across multiple domains are urged to integrate this emerging science about the catalytic role that narrative, individual story, can play in meaningful change strategies. We are also advised to recognize that talking is a form of “action,” a precursor to decisions and collaborative efforts needed. We would be wise to remember that trust is a necessary foundation for shared action, and trust is anchored through experiences of gaining deeper understanding.


P O W E R // MOVEMENT-BUILDING

Public Narrative, Collective Action, and Power

Marshall Ganz | 2011

In his essay, “Public Narrative, Collective Action, and Power,” included in Accountability Through Public Opinion: From Inertia to Public Action, Professor Marshall Ganz describes public narrative is a leadership practice of translating values into action. “It is based,” he writes, “ on the fact that values are experienced emotionally. As such, they are sources of ends worthy of action and the capacity for action. Narrative is the discursive means we use to access values that equip us with the courage to make choices under conditions of uncertainty, to exercise agency.”

Ganz’s 2001 essay, “The Power of Story in Social Movements,” is also a great read. For plenty more of Marshall Ganz’s work, go here, explore, and absorb!

Hegemony How-To

Jonathan M. Smucker | 2017

Hegemony How-To is a practical guide to political struggle for a generation that is deeply ambivalent about questions of power, leadership, and strategy. Hopeful about the potential of today’s burgeoning movements, long-time grassroots organizer Jonathan Smucker nonetheless pulls no punches when confronting their internal dysfunction.

Drawing from personal experience, he provides deep theoretical insight into the all-too-familiar radical tendency toward self-defeating insularity and paralyzing purism. At the same time, he offers tools to bridge the divide between social justice values and political strategies, tools that might just help today’s movements to navigate their obstacles — and change the world.

The Four Faces of Power

Grassroots Policy Project | 2017

This new report by Richard Healey & Sandra Hinson of the Grassroots Policy Project explores the notion of “power” as the potential to shape our lives and the world around us, as well as a way of describing a set of relationships between and among people, taking place within an historical context and through social structures.

In a moment when political and economic power are so concentrated, and the federal government is in reactionary hands, it can be hard to think beyond defending and resisting. This report offers a power analysis that shows how to sow the seeds for longer-term realignment of power even as we resist bad stuff.

Additionally, check out this other GPP report, Using Worldview to Build Power.

Re:Imagining Change: How to Use Story-Based Strategy to Win Campaigns, Build Movements, and Change the World (2nd Edition)

Patrick Reinsborough & Doyle Canning | 2017

Re:Imagining Change provides resources, theory, hands-on tools, and illuminating case studies for the next generation of innovative change-makers. This unique book explores how culture, media, memes, and narrative intertwine with social change strategies, and offers practical methods to amplify progressive causes in the popular culture.

Re:Imagining Change is an inspirational inside look at the trailblazing methodology developed by the Center for Story-based Strategy over fifteen years of their movement building partnerships. This practitioner’s guide is an impassioned call to innovate our strategies for confronting the escalating social and ecological crises of the twenty-first century. This new, expanded second edition includes updated examples from the frontlines of social movements and provides the reader with easy-to-use tools to change the stories they care about most.

Beautiful Trouble

Edited by Andrew Boyd with Dave Oswald Mitchell | 2012

Beautiful Trouble brings together ten grassroots groups and dozens of seasoned artists and activists from around the world to distill their best practices into a toolbox for creative action that blur the boundaries between artist and activist, hacker and dreamer.

Among the groups included are Agit-Pop/The Other 98%, The Yes Men/Yes Labs, Code Pink, SmartMeme, The Ruckus Society, Beyond the Choir, The Center for Artistic Activism, Waging Nonviolence, Alliance of Community Trainers and Nonviolence International.

Beautiful Trouble puts the accumulated wisdom of decades of creative protest into the hands of the next generation of change-makers.


C U L T U R E

Five Ideas on Strategies and Tactics for Cultural Change

Erin Potts | March 2017

Veteran social entrepreneur and cultural strategist Erin Potts offers critical thoughts on how cultural change can be the best avenue to lasting political change. Writing that, because the promise of cultural strategies for social change isn’t just about laws that protect the rights of all people and the land, but a culture that believes that all people have rights, that resources are to be protected, and that it is all of our responsibilities to do so, Potts presents key strategies for broad-scale cultural change.

Race In The Writer’s Room: How Hollywood Whitewashes the Stories that Shape America

Color Of Change | November 2017

Did you know that, of the nearly 4,000 professional television writers working today, only 4.8 percent are Black?

How do you think that affects what we, as a society, are watching, absorbing, perceiving, and feeling?

Color Of Change’s new, first-of-its kind, blockbuster report, Race in the Writers’ Room: How Hollywood Whitewashes the Stories That Shape America, examines the relationship between Black representation in the writers room and portrayal of Black characters and storylines onscreen.

Commissioned the nation’s largest online racial justice advocacy organization, Color Of Change, and written by Professor Darnell Hunt, UCLA’s Dean of Social Sciences, the report examines 1,678 first-run episodes from all 234 original, scripted comedy and drama series airing across 18 broadcast, cable, and streaming platforms in the 2016–17 television season.

Among its findings: Over 90% of showrunners are white, two-thirds of shows had no Black writers at all, and another 17% of shows had just one Black scriptwriter. “The ultimate result of this exclusion,” notes Color Of Change, is the widespread reliance on Black stereotypes to drive Black character portrayals, where Black characters even exist at all — at best, ‘cardboard’ characters, at worst, unfair, inaccurate and dehumanizing portrayals.”

The report is chock full of sharable images, info graphics, video findings, data and recommendations.

Pop Culture Works for Social Change

AndACTION| April 2017

This report walks through how to integrate storylines served up nightly to millions of people — on shows like Games of Thrones and Jane the Virgin and in movies like Hidden Figures — into social justice strategic communications in a way that’s effective, reaches beyond the bubble, isn’t time consuming and doesn’t cost a dime.

For more info, check out “Pop Culture as a Powerful Force for Narrative Change,” by Spitfire Strategies and AndACTION founder Kristen Grimm.

Power of POP: Media Analysis of Representations of Immigrants in Popular TV Shows

The Opportunity Agenda | May 2017

Intended to offer advocates, activists, entertainment executives and creatives, media commentators, and media literacy promoters a more holistic understanding of the popular media narratives currently influencing public attitudes and behaviors toward immigrants, this report also offers guidance and tips for improving the portrayal of immigrants in popular entertainment, and best practices for using popular culture to advance a social justice cause and engage new audiences.

#PopJustice: Social Justice and the Promise of Pop Culture Strategies

Liz Manne Strategy | February 2016

The #PopJustice series of reports is intended for funders, advocates, and entertainment industry professionals interested in the promise and potential of popular culture as an agent of change.

All six reports in the series are engaging and valuable reads.

We’re particularly partial to the third volume, “Pop Culture, Perceptions, and Social Change,” which explores two key questions: Can popular culture be an effective instrument for positive social change and can popular culture be leveraged in the effort to counter stereotypes and improve attitudes and behavior toward immigrants and people of color?

Story Movements: Illuminating the Role of Narrative in Contemporary Movements for Social Change

Center for Media & Social Impact | April 2017

Story Movements is a CMSI project that curates and presents research and case studies about the role of narrative in contemporary movements for social justice — across platforms and genres of civic media storytelling.

From documentary film to investigative journalism to virtual reality to participatory storytelling to persuasive gaming to photography, Story Movements examines and captures the current and future-looking moment in story-led demands for social change.

Spoiler Alert: How Progressives Will Break Through With Pop Culture

Tracy Van Slyke | October 2014

Written by culture change guru Tracy Van Slyke with the support of The Opportunity Agenda, Spoiler Alert, reveals the three major strategic investments progressives can make into popular culture and creative activism to achieve transformative societal and political change.

Through Van Slyke’s “Culture Change Triad model,” the report describes the essential investment points into pop culture and creative activism that the progressive movement must make to achieve transformative social change. At the center of the model are the people we want to understand, reach, and engage; they are linked to each of the strategic investment points: connecting to culture, how we are transporting our stories, and creating networks and working partnerships with creatives.

Through her work at the intersection of media and movement building for the last 17 years, Van Slyke has worked with a cross-sector of content producers, social justice organizers and philanthropic leaders to help them develop the profound storytelling and experiences that can catalyze mass audiences for social change. She is currently Strategy Director at the Pop Culture Collaborative.

Culture Matters: Understanding Cultural Strategy and Measuring Cultural Impact

The Culture Group | August 2013

In 2011, The Culture Group decided to investigate how to better support and invest in cultural strategies for social change. Culture Matters is the culmination of this endeavor.

In addition to a review of extant literature about measuring cultural impact in social justice campaigns, this report contains a summary of interviews with cultural strategy experts, a study of sustainable revenue models through cultural strategies, an article emphasizing the importance of culture, and cutting-edge research about implicit bias. We also developed a list of recommendations to help establish cultural strategy as a field of its own and to guide future research.

Making Waves: A Guide to Cultural Strategy

The Culture Group | August 2013

Making Waves: A Guide to Cultural Strategy from The Culture Group explains the concept of cultural strategy — how it works, and why it matters. The report includes historical and contemporary examples to bring the theories and concepts to life, and offer practical steps for initiating and deploying cultural strategy. This reference guide is now available to advocacy organizations, foundations, organizers, and artist activists who want to effectively integrate these practices into their social change work. We can arrange for bulk orders of the book as well as presentations based on materials from the guidebook as a training for advocacy organizations, foundations, funder affinity groups, and others interested in learning more about cultural strategy for social change.

The Laughter Effect: The [Serious] Role of Comedy in Social Change

Center for Media & Social Impact | May 2017

Comedy is a powerful contemporary source of influence and information, both in the U.S and around the world. In the digital era, our appetite for comedy has never been as voracious — perhaps matched only by its influence. And yet, comedy is a little-understood vehicle for serious public engagement in urgent social issues — even though humor offers frames of hope and optimism that encourage participation in social problems.

The Laughter Effect is the first multifaceted research, strategy, and creative project to synthesize what research and practice tells us about how comedy works for social change — and to shape efforts to do it better.


This a living list and can be updated with new reporting and research. Please send suggestions to info@narrativeinitiative.org.