How to Build Narrative Power and Co-Create a Just Future

Imagination is a powerful tool to free ourselves from repressive cultural narratives and social power structures.

Adam Szymanski
Jan 16 · 6 min read
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By Clay Banks via Unsplash

This article is based on content from Seeds, Stories, Strategies: A Climate Justice Web Series, which took place in July 2020 as part of a collaboration between the Center for Cultural Power, Center for Story-Based Strategy, Movement Generation, Movement Strategy Center, and Race Forward.

Before we can set to work tearing down old systems and building up better ones, we first have to imagine where we want to go. Material liberation requires a mental liberation, and imagination is a powerful tool to free ourselves from repressive cultural narratives and social power structures.

Here’s an exercise you can try for yourself: Imagine you’re in the year 2030 looking back on 2020 and remembering society’s response to the twin crises of the pandemic and systemic racism. Then describe what happened by starting with, ‘Remember when…’ and follow it with a sentence about a challenging moment from 2020. For the next step, imagine how these issues were overcome, again using the ‘Remember when…’ framing. Some examples include: how people demanded change, communities organized and protested, politicians enacted policy solutions to climate crises, and companies incorporated social and environmental impact into their bottom lines.

Once you’ve started imagining, you can begin building a narrative strategy. The framing of a narrative is an intentional and strategic choice, determining who is in and who is out of the stories we tell and the approaches we propose. It is important for social movements to introduce their own framing — because if we don’t tell our own stories, others will create them for us.

For a pertinent example of the importance of framing, we can look at media coverage of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, when articles labeled individuals as ‘looters’ or ‘survivors’ depending on race. In this way, framing provides a ‘casting of characters’ and impacts how audiences name movements and their actions. A more concrete organizational case is the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, which made an explicit choice to move away from a narrow anti-pipeline focus toward the more general environmental justice and ‘water is life’ narrative.

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By Pax Ahimsa Gethen via Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Disrupting dominant narratives

Leveraging the importance of framing enables us to reach beyond using magic words in a vacuum, and focus instead on so-called ‘points of intervention’. This, in turn, gives us a framework for understanding where to take action in a system we are trying to change, and is necessary in recognizing the structure of our problem rather than just analyzing a single issue. Points of intervention help us determine how to be strategic in deploying our stories. They provide insight about how and where we can challenge the dominant narratives that shape social mythologies, such as the bootstrap myth of capitalist ethics. More practically, they are points of vulnerabilities where dominant narratives are already weak.

At points of intervention, it’s useful to ‘show’ stories rather than tell them, and to use storytelling to disrupt and reframe existing narratives. Dominant narratives can be further broken down in terms of their points of production, points of decision, points of destruction, points of consumption, and points of assumption — and we can use our analysis to shape strategies for optimal effect.

Humans are narrative driven, and the currency of narrative is meaning, not facts. Take the Big Dipper, a stellar constellation that is not actually shaped like a pan but nonetheless assigned meaning by humans, making it useful for navigation and cultural memetics. Activists often focus on facts, but ultimately it is our human connection with meaning that moves people.

Building narrative power

Narrative power is the power to dictate norms and values in society. This includes the ability to shape what’s possible and determine what’s politically realistic, and even to stretch beyond the possible and establish what is inevitable.

If a story is an individual star, a narrative is a constellation — an aggregate of stories that show us a pattern. To continue the analogy, culture is like a galaxy, featuring a wide range of complexity and movement — and also the context that allows us to make sense of our stories. The purpose of narrative and cultural strategy for justice is to build power for impacted communities. While social movements generate narratives, the work of cultural strategists is to make these narratives sustainable for long-term cultural change.

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The Big Dipper by jpstanley via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Narratives and culture are epistemic in that they frame how we know things. The real praxis of narrative and cultural strategy work therefore involves teaming up with cultural producers in order to re-shape perceptions of reality. This brings us back full circle to the power of radical imagination: narrative and culture are essential to shifting material conditions.

To do so, we have to strategize at each level of story, narrative, and culture. A good example is the #MeToo movement, which can be thought of as an aggregate of narratives coupled with a social proliferation mechanism (the internet) that enables pressure from social action over multiple spheres of society including politics, law, media, and entertainment.

Crafting powerful stories

The true power of storytelling lies in our ability to bring our audience into a shared vision of change. As Antoine de Saint Exupéry wrote: “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

Crafting powerful stories requires a solid understanding of the common elements of story-telling: conflict, characters, imagery, foreshadowing, and underlying assumptions. These elements can be used to show how power is upheld or how countervailing power can be built up.

  • Conflict forms the backbone of a story, revealing how the problem is framed: who or what is the conflict between, who are the bad guys and who are the good guys?
  • Characters establish the ‘drama triangle’ of hero, villain, and victims, and their inclusion or exclusion determines who matters: who are the specific victims and who are the messengers of the story, do they speak for themselves or does someone speak on their behalf? An example is the framing of a domestic workers rights policy as the ‘babysitters’ bill’ in order to undermine support for domestic workers by casting them as frivolous teenagers.
  • Imagery emphasizes the importance of the ‘show, don’t tell’ approach by reflecting and validating specific experiences of the audience. When crafting imagery, consider: what powerful images does the story provide, are there relevant metaphors and symbols or specific examples that embody the larger story? An example is a protest action where activists paint a smoking gun on a factory smokestack.
  • Foreshadowing gives a sense of what each story shows us about the future. The essential question here is: what is the vision that the story offers of how things will be if the conflict is resolved?
  • Underlying all this are a set of assumptions that audiences must tap into in order for a story to be meaningful. What does one have to believe in order to accept the story as true and what values are reflected in the story? An example is the underlying assumption behind the narrative that there are no alternatives to capitalism or a fossil fuel-based economy.

These fundamental elements can be aligned to construct a narrative pyramid composed of a message, a story, a narrative, and a deep narrative. While messages are ephemeral, humans connect and remember stories and narrative thanks to the basic elements of story-building. Stories make sense through the context of a narrative which ultimately proposes responsibility and action, bringing our audience into a shared vision sustaining a deeper narrative to change underlying assumptions.

Find out more about the Post Growth Institute on our website.

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