A Conversation about Cultural Strategy

by Jeff Chang, Liz Manne & Erin Potts

Many of us working in the field of cultural strategy feel that there is both confusion and conflation amongst key terms and concepts that is holding our work back. To address this, several groups of practitioners came together earlier this year to discuss definitions and relationships between terms, as well as to develop generalized values and a theory of change that connects them. We offer this article as a summary of where those conversations are at this moment in time, knowing that our colleagues will agree and disagree with parts of it and that these concepts and practices are still evolving. We invite comments here, as well as conversations far and wide, in the hopes that it will advance this important work.

“Dreams of Solitude” image © 2018 Favianna Rodriguez. All rights reserved.

What is cultural strategy?

Cultural strategy is a field of practice that centers artists, storytellers, media makers and cultural influencers as agents of social change. Cultural strategy speaks to our broadest visions and highest hopes. In the realm of social justice, this means forging and preserving equitable, inclusive and just societies. Over the long term, cultural strategy cracks open, reimagines and rewrites fiercely-held narratives, transforming the shared spaces and norms that make up culture. In addition, it has a role to play in near-term campaigns — helping to shape opinions, beliefs and behaviors that lead to electoral, legislative and policy wins.

In practice, cultural strategy takes many forms, with practitioners specializing in different aspects: strategic, tactical, near term, long term, transforming societies or protecting and preserving them. Like all strategic practices, it requires goal-setting, a theory of change, an understanding of audience, and a commitment to meaningful evaluation and learning. Activities and tactics include building and organizing networks of creatives; narrative design, discovery, and expansion; story-driven content creation such as digital production and live events; and, crucially, effective distribution and engagement to ensure impact through a real-world connection with audiences.

What are the values for our practice of cultural strategy?

While cultural strategy can be used for many purposes, those of us doing it in the social justice movement want to differentiate ourselves from the efforts of others such as Glenn Beck, and determined that our intended goal is to protect, preserve and forge ever-more equitable, inclusive and just societies. To orient our practice and field towards that goal, we have developed the following values to guide our practice:

Our goal is justice, equity, and mutuality. Dr. Cornel West says, “Justice is what love looks like in public.” Our goal is a culture oriented towards justice. We define equity as the minimal condition of a fair and free society. In a society that is truly fair and free, we are connected to each other in ways that move us to seek fulfilling lives for all.

Our field is collaborative & cross-disciplinary. Like culture itself, our field is inherently cross-sector. We believe that the nonprofit world does not have an exclusive relationship with justice, but rather is a key partner along with artists, creators, and private sector expertise and institutions. We believe in the power of bringing together people with diverse talents, and that this is critical to innovation.

Our work is creative & innovative. Our leaders, our strategies, our research and our relationship with audiences and communities will look and feel different than other forms of social justice work, including embracing — indeed, centering — the role of art and artists in this work.

What is a shared theory of change?

Theories of change are typically complex expressions of how change happens and how to achieve it. While each organization and practitioner of cultural strategy has its own theory, a simplified one for the field of cultural strategy is:

  • Stories and narratives change how people perceive themselves and their role in the world.
  • When activated and brought together by the new ideas and the common spaces of stories and narratives, people have the power to come together to change cultural norms, policies and systems through their life choices, including, though not exclusively, as voters and consumers.
  • Therefore, as a field we invest in the artists, storytellers and other cultural leaders, and the strategies that activate them as catalysts for change, to create a culture of justice and equity.

What is story, narrative, and culture?

The field of cultural strategy involves many close but distinct terms that need firmer definition in order to avoid confusion or conflation. Here we spotlight and expand upon some definitions.

Story: In its publication Toward New Gravity, The Narrative Initiative describes stories as “discrete and contained,“ and organized around a beginning, middle and end.” They go on to say that “stories recount a particular series of events that occur in a particular place and time and often contain structural archetypes such as a protagonist, a problem, a path and a payoff.” Stories, along with other immersive audience experiences, constitute the core ideas of larger narratives. When personal, broader and deeper, stories help narratives come to life by making them relatable and accessible. Stories can be told through almost any medium, and should be thought to include words, visuals, music and other expressive forms.

Narrative: The Narrative Initiative also defines a narrative as “a collection or system of related stories that are articulated and refined over time to represent a core idea or belief. Unlike individual stories, narratives have no standard form or structure; they have no beginning or end.” Narratives infuse individual stories with deeper meaning by connecting many stories together to form the basis of how groups of people think about themselves and others. Dominant narratives define and reinforce social norms — who is “us” and who is “them,” what is true and what is false, what is proper and what is improper, what can be done and what cannot be done. Narratives, whether dominant or alternative, can produce and reproduce injustice and inequity, or they can create possibilities for more equity, justice, and freedom for all. Professor Michael D. Slater, a pioneer in the study of narrative persuasion, has found that “Narrative overrides our natural tendency to challenge information we don’t agree with …When you have a strong narrative that’s really absorbing, it tends to suppress counter-arguing. It’s hard to suspend disbelief and counter-argue at the same time.”

Culture: In earlier work with The Culture Group, we wrote that culture has two definitions: (1) The prevailing beliefs, values and customs of a group; a group’s way of life. (2) A set of practices (including all forms of storytelling and art-making) that contain, transmit, or express ideas, values, habits and behaviors between individuals and groups. So culture is the sum total of a group of people’s prevailing beliefs, values, customs and way of life as well as the practices that transmit culture. Cultures, like the narratives that define and are being defined by them, can produce and reinforce injustice and inequity, or they can create increasing possibilities for greater inclusion, equity and justice for all.

This image from Making Waves: A Guide to Cultural Strategy illustrates the many disciplines that make up cultural practices. It is not a coincidence that these disciplines are also the vehicles of story and narrative.

What is the relationship between these terms?

It is sometimes easiest to understand definitions and relationships through the use of a metaphor. But because metaphors can also be taken too far, we offer this one as a guide only until it ceases to be useful.

Stories are like stars. Individual, shiny and bright, they move and inspire us.

Narratives (and narrative systems) are a collection of stories like constellations are a collection of stars. Stories can be connected together into narratives, like stars can be connected together into constellations, make a deeper kind of sense and meaning.

Image courtesy of: https://www.freevector.com

A culture, then, is like a galaxy. Ever expanding and evolving, a culture is comprised, in part, of narratives as the galaxy is comprised, in part, of constellations. The galaxy is where stars and constellations live — it is their home. Likewise, culture is home for story and narrative. And like all of the elements of the galaxy, story and narrative are in a constant state of motion and interaction — each influencing and being influenced by the others. As a result, culture is not static either.

Why the relationship between them is important?

To be most successful, we believe we need to be working on all three elements both sequentially and simultaneously. In other words, we must create and amplify stories, particularly from affected communities. We must also discover core stories or narratives that can help give deeper meaning, moving from a thousand isolated stories into a thousand connected ones that only together can change perceptions, behaviors, and systems. And finally, through cultural practices, we must bring these stories into people’s real lives.

As an example of how these can work together to create change, consider the stories of gay people ranging from Ellen Degeneres’ character announcing that she was gay in 1997 to Macklemore’s “Same Love” song and video in 2012. Along with many others, these individual stories advanced a “love is love” narrative around LGBTQ+ equality which in turn led to policy and societal changes around gay marriage and other rights for the LGBTQ+ community. You can see this at play below between what happens in the cultural realm (the top of the timeline) and the political realm (the bottom of the timeline) below.

More timelines like this can be found in Making Waves: A Guide to Cultural Strategy.

Furthermore, the relationship between these terms and the many strategies to enact change through them is important because cultural and narrative strategy are often used by the social justice field interchangeably. While the term “cultural strategy” tends to be favored by those working in arts and culture, “narrative strategy” tends to be favored by those working in organizing, policy and philanthropy. But culture and narrative are not interchangeable terms. Narrative is part of cultural strategy, and therefore the broad transformation of power such that worldviews and social norms have been realigned that is the goal of cultural strategy. Put another way, cultural strategy is most successful when a convergence of multiple narrative shifts move us toward social transformation. In this way, cultural strategy asks more of us — which is to think and act strategically to accomplish or amplify multiple narrative shifts in ways that add up to an ever-more equitable, inclusive and just world.

This article was informed by and developed in conversation with many cultural strategists and organizers. We want to thank all of those who were thought partners in this conversation, in particular Michael Ahn, Marya Bangee, Kirk Cheyfitz, Wyatt Closs, Crystal Echohawk, Miriam Fogelson, Michael Hasting-Black, James Kass, Mik Moore, Thaler Pekar, Steve Place, Favianna Rodriguez, Jason Rzepka, Ellen Schneider, and Nancy Vitale. It is also important to note that our thought partners do not necessarily agree with everything we’ve written. It’s actually hard to get twenty smart people to agree on everything!