A Cultural & Narrative Strategies Reading List

Erin Potts
Mar 12, 2019 · 6 min read

curated by Erin Potts and Liz Manne

Many funders and field practitioners want to integrate cultural and narrative strategies into their work, but feel an urgent need to better understand them. Over the past several years, several reports and articles have been written that combined give a comprehensive overview of cultural strategies, culture change, narrative, story, and audience-centered research practices. We have collected many of them here, and will update this list as more are written. Please use the comments section to make suggestions for additional readings that you have found helpful and inspiring!

“Politics is where some of the people are some of the time. Culture is where most of the people are most of the time.”

~The Culture Group, Making Waves: A Guide to Cultural Strategy

Quick Reads

A Conversation About Cultural Strategy by Jeff Chang, Liz Manne & Erin Potts (Medium, 2018). This article attempts to summarize the work of over a dozen cultural strategists and practitioners in developing definitions, shared values and a theory of change relating to cultural strategy.

What Is Cultural Organizing? by Paul Kuttner (culturalorganizing.org, 2015). Kuttner describes different forms of cultural organizing, which he defines as “a multidisciplinary community of practice at the intersection of art, cultural work, and social change.”

Interconnected Strategic Practices: How to Shift Narratives and Win Campaigns by Liz Manne (Medium, 2018). Progressives need to be great at three types of story-based engagement strategies: strategic communications, grassroots & field organizing, and cultural organizing. This article talks how they can be practiced in an interconnected and coordinated manner.

How to Stop Mismeasuring the People: A guide to research-driven storytelling for progressive change by Kirk Chefitz (Medium, 2019). This article is a guide to combining traditional and non-traditional research to locate the most powerful storytelling for progressive causes and candidates.

A Framework for Measuring and Directing Culture Change by Riki Conrey (Medium, 2018). A data scientist describes how to determine if our culture change strategies and activities are actually working.

Five Ideas on Strategies and Tactics for Cultural Change by Erin Potts (Medium, 2017). This Medium post outlines ways that we can innovate our practice of cultural strategy to win in the face of today’s political context.

Deeper Reads

Below are longer and/or deeper articles on cultural and narrative strategies, cultural research, and case studies.

Making Waves: A Guide to Cultural Strategy by Liz Manne et al (The Culture Group, 2014). This easy-to-read guidebook on cultural strategy is intended to help grassroots and advocacy groups understand how to effectively work with artists and intentionally and wisely integrate arts, culture, and media into their work. It includes extensive timelines and case examples.

How we win with story platforms by Kirk Cheyfitz (Medium, 2018). Cheyfitz explains a new practice designed to discover the core narrative — or “story platform” — of a campaign, candidate or cause. Story platforms are the foundation of lasting relationships between audiences and a campaign or a candidate.

Culture Before Politics by Jeff Chang & Brian Komar (The American Prospect, 2011). Chang and Komar argue that cultural change comes before political change.

#PopJustice: Social Justice and the Promise of Pop Culture Strategies by Liz Manne et al. (Liz Manne Strategy, 2016). This in-depth, 6-volume report series is aimed to foundations and advocates to help them navigate and understand the pop culture industries and the enormous opportunities they offer for social change. Volume 1 is the core volume and provides specific recommendations for investment to funders (including a recommendation that led to the formation of the Pop Culture Collaborative). It includes several case studies.

Toward New Gravity: Charting a Course for the Narrative Initiative by Jee Kim, Liz Hynes & Nima Shirazi (Narrative Initiative, 2017). The Narrative Initiative documents a rich discussion of narrative theory, storytelling, and meta-narrative through literature review and interviews with hundreds of experts.

His Story: Shifting Narratives for Boys and Men of Color: A Guide for Philanthropy by Alexis McGill Johnson & Rachel D. Godsil (Executives’ Alliance for Boys and Men of Color, 2018). A comprehensive report to philanthropy on how to invest in narrative strategy around boys and men of color, and presents a good framework for investing in culture regardless of issus focus.

Pop Culture Works for Social Change by Caty Borum Chattoo et al. (AndACTION, a project of Spitfire Strategies, 2017). This report provides guidance on how to strategically use the power of pop culture to engage people around important causes and describes best practices to help groups harness the power of pop culture as part of their integrated strategic communication efforts.

Change the Culture, Change the World by Favianna Rodriguez (Creative Time Reports, 2013). Artist Favianna Rodriguez, who co-founded the immigrant rights organization Culture Strike, reflects on how cultural undercurrents come together to make waves of political change.

Jeff Chang on Hope, Change and How Culture Can Shape Politics by Jamilah King (Colorlines, 2012). The author of one of the hip-hop generation’s seminal texts talks about shifting cultural images of Barack Obama, storytelling and what’s been inspiring him lately.

Changing Our Narrative About Narrative: The Infrastructure Required for Building Narrative Power by Rashad Robinson (Haas Institute UC Berkeley, 2018). Robinson argues that we need to invest in narrative infrastructure in order to build narrative power.

How Marketing Can Help Expand Progressive Wins by Liz Manne (Medium, 2018). Liz Manne, a former marketing executive for the film industry, shows how both more marketing skills and a market-focused team structure can help progressives win.

Effective Cultural Strategy: What We Know by Erin Potts (Medium, 2017). In this short article, Potts summarizes and links to existing research showing the efficacy of cultural strategy.

“The movement can’t just disrupt the culture; it has to become the culture.”

~Lindy West, The New York Times

How (and Why) to do Cultural Audits by Erin Potts (Medium, 2018). A key component to smart cultural strategy is the cultural audit, a research practice that provides movements and campaigns with a deeper and more emotionally resonant understanding of their audience than traditional research practices do on their own.

Spoiler Alert: How Progressives will break through with Pop Culture by Tracy Van Slyke (2014).Van Slyke lays out the ways in which monitoring and even creating pop culture can become part of the work that social justice movements need to reach new and larger audiences.

You Are What You Watch (and Listen to and Read) by Tessa Baker & Johanna Blakley (Lear Center & Zogby International, 2008). These survey results shows how Americans’ entertainment habits track to their political beliefs and some common areas. (An academic paper was released in June 2018 shows how Americans are coming together and apart around ideology, attitudes, and consumer behavior. It is quite dense, but can be found here for those interested.)

“Duck Dynasty” vs. ‘Modern Family’: 50 Maps of the U.S. Cultural Divide by Josh Katz (The New York Times, 2016). This Times piece and interactive map was published after the 2016 election, and suggests that what you watch on television is more of a predictor for who you voted for in the 2016 election than how you voted in 2012. Spoiler quote: “If you had to guess how strongly a place supported Donald J. Trump in the election, would you rather know how popular ‘Duck Dynasty’ is there, or how George W. Bush did there in 2000? It turns out the relationship with the TV show is stronger.”

Mad Men vs Math Men by Danny Goldberg (The Nation, 2010). Goldberg discusses how some things, particularly around cultural strategy and organizing, cannot be measured in the traditional ways our movements measure success and why expecting them to is holding back our work.

Mind Sciences Yield Insights About How Audiences Perceive Messages by Jerry Olson (The Public Relations Strategist, Fall 2017). Olsen discusses how mind sciences can give PR professionals insights about how audiences understand messaging and how interpretations can be influenced.

“Every moment of major social change requires a collective leap of imagination. Political transformation must be accompanied not just by spontaneous and organized expressions of unrest and risk, but by an explosion of mass creativity.”

~Jeff Chang, Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation

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