Building Narrative Power

Liberation Ventures
5 min readMar 13, 2023

by Trevor Smith, Director of Narrative Change, Liberation Ventures

Culture is, in part, created through narratives. Narratives are the collection of stories we tell each other rooted in shared values and common themes that uphold a particular frame or worldview. Narratives inform the mental models that guide what laws we pass, what we deem as socially acceptable, and whose lives we value.

At Liberation Ventures, we’re steadfast in our belief that a key aspect of building a Culture of Repair and delivering reparations for Black people will require the deconstruction of harmful narratives rooted in the various myths, ideologies, and false narratives, including “meritocracy,”the American Dream,” and “racial progress,” and the construction of transformative narratives rooted in accountability, justice, interdependence, and cooperation.

We are up against strong headwinds: a host of anti-Black, capitalistic, and misogynistic narratives that situate the long Black struggle for reparations as impossible and impractical by painting Black people as undeserving of repair, economic stability, and healthy lives.

Knowing this, we built our narrative change strategy around one goal: Building Narrative Power.

Our Definitions

A full glossary of our terms and definitions will be published later this year.

Narrative is an ambiguous term, and various definitions exist across organizing, communications, advocacy, and academic spaces. Not everyone defines “narrative” in the same way, and that’s okay.

Through a scan of the field, we synthesized existing definitions to use as a basis for our internal glossary of narrative change terms. We thank the many folks who’ve inspired our internal learning about narrative, including Pop Culture Collaborative, Media Justice, Reclaiming Native Truth, Color of Change, IllumiNative, Media 2070, ReFrame, Movement for Black Lives, Narrative Initiative, Frameworks Institute, Race Foward, Center for Story Based Strategy, Harmony Labs, Center for Cultural Power, Othering & Belonging Institute, Opportunity Agenda, Liz Manne, and many others.

Movements: Sustained groupings that develop a frame or narrative based on shared values that maintain a link with a real and broad base in the community and that build for a long-term transformation in power. (How Social Movements Work. Manuel Pastor, Rhonda Ortiz)

Narrative: A collection of stories we tell each other, rooted in shared values and common themes that uphold a particular frame or worldview.

Narrative Power: The ability to tell stories that shift the mental models and cultural mindsets that define our cultural norms.

Narrative Infrastructure: The network of relationships and organizational systems needed to create dominant narratives and build narrative power.

Narrative Weaving: An intentional effort to weave narratives and relationships between and within different movements and social identities.

Narrative Change: An intentional effort to shift the stories that guide our values and shape how people make meaning of information and experiences.

As the feminist scholar, Phumi Mtetwa states, “narratives are about invisible power: how perceptions, belief systems, and ideology shape the way people define what is “right,” and what is “wrong.” The power to determine what is “right,” and what is “wrong,” is essentially the power to decide who lives and who dies. It’s the power to determine who can access things, who cannot, and whose voice counts.”

Our Strategy

With our goal of building narrative power and understanding that power must be built through strong relationships, interconnected stories, and organizing in communities, we created the following theory of change for our narrative work:

If we can support the creation of strong narrative infrastructure within the reparations movement while also creating a broad narrative network between social movements and cultural sectors, then we will build the narrative power needed to shift harmful mental models and cultural mindsets to pass a comprehensive federal reparations process.

Last year, we began our attempt to build a strong narrative infrastructure with our Reparations Narrative Lab. Since August, we’ve had the honor of bringing together 13 leaders across the racial justice movement to create a narrative framework that can inform future organizing, content creation, and storytelling strategies across the movement.

Creating this intentional space for organizations to strengthen our power collectively allows us to mobilize our “choir,” expand our “base,” and move those who are “persuadable” to our side. This will create the environment needed to pass a federal, comprehensive reparations bill. It is critical that movement leaders have the space to explore historical memory, meaning-making, and narrative analysis for our movement to thrive and win. The Reparations Narrative Lab seeks to create that space.

Over the past eight months in the Lab, we’ve commissioned audience research, conducted focus groups, spoken with experts, and consistently asked ourselves the question — “what narratives, stories, and messages will propel this movement forward?” In February, the Lab gathered together in person for the first time at a Rockefeller estate, holding the contradiction between that space and our work, and started constructing the Narrative House.

Inspired by the creative work done in other Lab processes before us, we are working with artists, storytellers, and social influencers to create content based on our discussions and the Narrative House.

Then, we will test this content to measure how effectively it persuades our audiences. This summer, we will publish our learnings from the first phase of the Lab and offer the Narrative House as a tool for anyone interested in using the power of story to inspire action.

As we think about the future of the Lab, our vision is to create an effective research hub that supports the power needed to grow public support for reparations by supporting organizations to critically understand their narrative landscape, create and test messages, analyze their audiences, design experiments, and analyze the impact of their strategies.

Later this year, we’ll start working on the second half of our strategy, which we call narrative weaving — building a broad narrative network across movements, identities, and cultural sectors.

A narrative network, as defined by Pop Culture Collaborative, is a “coordinated community of artists, organizers, journalists, public figures, community leaders, and others who work together to move stories and other narrative experiences — that carry new narratives, mental models, and norm behaviors — into mass culture.”

As we embark on this pillar of the work, our line of inquiry is, “how do we tell and connect stories and people that sit at the intersection of social movements, identity, and/or culture?” How can we weave together a larger narrative and bring more people into the movement for reparations?

We’ve laid out our thinking in this manner as an invitation for feedback and discussion. We truly believe in the polyvocal approach to narrative strategy and agree with our movement partner and Lab member, Rob Thomas, that we must strive for “unity and not uniformity.” We don’t believe narrative work should seek to be critically prescriptive or final. Like the Narrative House, our strategy is flexible, emergent, and accepting of critique.

We know that we can build a new culture transformed through narratives that reorganize our collective understanding of what is fair, just, and equitable!

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Liberation Ventures

Liberation Ventures accelerates the Black-led movement for racial repair.