A 2021 narrative reading list to launch your 2022
We’re gathering up the articles, essays, resources, podcasts and more that made us think about how narrative change is working today. Start at the top for 15 key articles and stories. Want to dig deeper? Jump into the full list below. We’ll see you on the other side.
 Narrative organizing is the practice and work at the intersection of narrative change and people-led power. Read Narrative Organizing: How we shift power towards justice.
 In Mindset Shifts: What Are They? Why Do They Matter? How Do They Happen? Frameworks Institute explores how people hold onto their fundamental beliefs and best practices for moving mindsets.
[3 and 4] ReFrame opened and closed 2021 by crunching the data on critical issues shaping culture and narrative. The April 2021 Rona Report looked at how coronavirus was impacting (and would guide) the economy, narrative and politics. Through the Looking Glass, released just last week, offers narrative predictions for 2022.
 In Systems Language for Narrative Power, Rinku Sen explores the need for new stories that define and shape systems change – and reminds us that people on the ground need to be able to live in, believe and share those stories.
 Fieldnotes: Communicating Systems Strategy pulls together a useful range of research, communications guides and design notes that should be in any narrative and cultural strategist’s reading list. Thanks Sam Rye for sharing this (in 2020, we know, but it’s worth re-upping it here).
 Jasson Perez examines the narrative of American exceptionalism in Snatching Victory: Weak American Democracy Lends Strength to Trump’s Insurgent Right.
 Congressman Joaquin Castro spoke about The missing Latino narrative in media after the release of a GAO report on Latino employment in the entertainment industry. Castro notes that “in my home state of Texas, Latinos are 40% of the state’s population, including a majority of Texas students today. But despite our growing population, Latinos still face persistent invisibility in American society.” Invisibility is in part exclusion from a role in telling one’s own story. We should consider how this shapes dominant narratives and who is telling the stories that create them.
[9 and 10] Two great resources came from Race Forward (Guide to Counter-Narrating the Attacks on Critical Race Theory) and Define American (Telling Authentic Immigrant Stories: A Reference Guide For The Entertainment Industry). Check out the full list of resources below.
 The Facility documents the experience of immigrants detained by ICE in a Georgia detention facility as the pandemic across the world and within the walls the imprison them. The 26 minute film by Seth Freed Wessler puts impacted people in front of the viewer to tell their stories with little or no intermediation.
[12, 13 and 14] It’s exciting to see narrative and narrative change presented in art, architecture and participatory experiences. The New York Library’s Narratives of Fugivity & Fidelity looks at the art shaping slavery abolition narratives. Check out this digital version of Mariame Kaba’s New York walking tour exploring the changing narrative of abolition. And the Digging Du Bois Project is a 200 mile participatory artwork in which we can experience America’s long and continuing history of racial injustice.
 Hope you have headphones because 2021 was an extraordinary year for podcasts about narrative change and podcasts that do narrative change work. This Land is superb example of the latter. In its second season, Rebecca Nagle and team analyze, show and teach listeners about Native history and the very tangible ways it is being woven into today’s cultural, legal and political fights.
You’ll find many more podcasts, videos, articles and reports below. We look forward to working with you in 2022.
Reading, listening, viewing and generally big thinking about narrative change in 2021
At one point this year you may have hoped to wrap your arms around 2021 and give it a big hug. Perhaps for no other reason than it wasn’t 2020. We’re guessing the hug would be a little uncomfortable today and carry with it some really pointy bits from the past 24 months.
The old and harmful deep narratives just seem more so. The new narratives of shared health and opportunity face profound challenges.
Here we highlight a few of the case studies, reports and resources. We’ve organized these a bit:
- Narrative includes big picture narrative strategy, tactics and learning.
- Democracy, justice and race looks at the narrative infrastructures and strategies of anti-democratic campaigns, media and plain old White power groups.
- Disinfo and trust. How dis(and mis)info advances and defeats narratives. And the role of trust in narrative.
- A few other things captures some interesting, intriguing and possibly infuriating stories that have us thinking about narrative in new ways.
- Resources, reports and guides for narrative practitioners.
- Podcasts and shows about narrative work and the work of changing narrative with storytelling.
To be sure, this is just a slice of what we’ve seen and used. Which is just a small bit of what’s being learned, studied and shared out there. It’s a big world full of people doing powerful work. And be sure to check out the lists of podcasts, shows and resources at the end. These are super helpful if you’re doing narrative work, learning more, or just want to see narrative change in action.
Narrative change is mostly slow business. And it’s often spoken of in rather academic, even cryptic, ways. It can appear accessible only to the movement leaders and funders with the privileges of data, resources and time. Why put boundaries on narrative change that limit its possibility and potential?
We’ve been talking to generous and smart community leaders and activists to learn about the fertile ground at the intersection of narrative and organizing. We wrote about narrative organizing in October.
Narrative organizing is the act of building, creating and using narrative to shift power towards justice, equity and democracy…When we bring alignment, polyvocality, and community leadership to narrative work we are organizing people to hold and exert narrative power.
— Rachel Weidinger
Phoebe Tickell wrote about the breakdown of old stories and narratives in this time of complexity and information abundance. We need new deep narratives to make senses of the world and hold the nuance of the complicated space we’re growing into.
ReFrame/This is Signals has been tracking and making sense of the waves of information in social media and The April 2021 Rona Report looked at how coronavirus was impacting (and would guide) narrative and politics. The brand new Through the Looking Glass offers narrative predictions for 2022.
Harmony Labs has also been digging into data. Here they explain Narrative Observatory and terrain of deeply held narratives about work (and opportunities to change those narratives)
In Systems language for narrative power, Rinku Sen reminds us that the goal of narrative change is often systems change. New systems need (and offer) new stories about how the world works. But it’s up to actual people to believe and share those stories. We should create and find stories of people changing systems to connect people to their power.
In January, Panthea Lee offered invaluable guidance and inspiration for those working in, thinking about, or worn down by systems change and work of power shift: Towards a politics of solidarity and joy.
- Engineering change through the power of narrative. A conversation with Krizna Gomez.
- How to build a transformative narrative? A conversation with Annie Neimand.
- The Endless Sea. A hopeful narrative project by More in Common.
- The role of narrative change in collective action is a conversation between Crystal Echo Hawk, Rashad Robinson, and Nayantara Sen.
- The UK’s National Lottery Community Fund is thinking about narrative infrastructure. See also digital infrastructure for community climate action.
- Narrative in a crisis reflects on how one day or one event can crack open a deep narrative.
In a country and world awash in negative dominant frames and stories we very much want to highlight positive community-driven narrative change work. Some of this is evolved, visible and able to weigh in on legislation and policy. Care (broadly defined) is one example.
Build Back Better has centered the role of care in national policy conversations. This shines a light on care narratives. How does care fit into culture, community and politics?
Ai-jen Poo and Heather McGhee discussed the narratives and politics of care in the U.S.
…the lack of investment in care and our failure to see care as a collective social responsibility is a huge tool to maintain an existing social order, where the lives and the contributions of women and women of color are valued, seen, respected, and protected less…It’s all rooted in narratives around who is doing the work, who is shouldering the work, and at whose expense our system operates.
— Ai-jen Poo
Building Narratives for a Caring Green Economy – Feminist Agenda for a Green New Deal: “a strong majority of respondents believe care should be central to climate, workforce, and infrastructure policies, and that respondents believe care work are green jobs.”
In Care at Scale, Debbie Chachra writes about how the building of “hard” infrastructure (roads and sewers and water lines and community hospitals and more) reflects a narrative of shared fate.
Others wrote about the power of care and, more politically, who has the power to control or hide those who do the caring. Sarah Jaffe in the Baffler: Who Cares? Moira Donegan in The Atlantic: How Domestic Labor Became Infrastructure.
In The Science of What Makes People Care, Ann Christiano and Annie Neimand explores what moves people from feelings to change and from awareness to action. It’s one thing to care. It’s another to believe AND fight for that belief in the face of opposition, people who don’t express or support your care.
Futures, imagination and grief
Narratives of care can be powerful because they’re not grounded in the past. Or even the present. Caring for you or a family member is about creating a better future. Systems of care are about opportunity and potential. Of course, imagining potential is a threat to current systems, the familiar and the dominant narratives. This scares many and questions power.
We think grief fits into care. We can’t imagine a better narrative unless we reckon with the present one, even if that’s unpleasant. Grief helps us recognize what we lost and move forward. Not get stuck. Grief may also help us identify what’s harmful, even the harms we think we might miss. Can we grieve for harms lost? Yes and we should acknowledge the difficulty of that.
To Build a Beautiful World, You First Have to Imagine It writes Mary Annaïse Heglar.
We’re not sure how narratives of connection can thrive without the generative fuel of hope. In Doing the work of hope, Lina Srivastava challenges creatives to “build new imaginaries, and new models for hopes and dreams and long-term thinking that pave the way to new systems.”
- What is ‘futures studies’ and how can it improve our world? A conversation with Stuart Candy about foresight and futures.
- When we say we have a crisis of imagination is it merely the absence of myth? Was Plato a mythmaker or the mythbuster of Western thought?
- On grief debt looks at the transformative power of acknowledging collective grief and building narratives of care.
Democracy, justice and race
You don’t need to look too hard at 2021 and its immediate predecessors to receive a gut punch from powerful (and very harmful) deep narratives. White power (and supremacy and nationalism…different but related, see below) narratives are flexing power in culture and politics. And changing democracy and justice.
…we need narrative strategies and meta-narrative rooted both in political theory and in concrete policy and institutional change goals.
Scot Nakagawa in a conversation with Lindsay Zafir about organizing to defeat white nationalism.
Earlier this year, Scot Nakagawa shared Terms of Abuse: White Supremacy, Structural Racism and White Nationalism with us. It’s useful to understand the origins, goals and role of these ideas in our narrative ecosystem.
A narrative of American exceptionalism blinds us to the impact of political asymmetry. writes Jasson Perez in Snatching Victory: Weak American Democracy Lends Strength to Trump’s Insurgent Right.
On Cancel Culture, Accountability, and Transformative Justice by adrienne maree brown examines the presence of cancel culture and its use/power in broad society. Brown is asking how we hold love in our organizing, planning, relationships so that we build narratives that don’t other people or reinforce the same us/them power of those we oppose.
Historians Kathleen Belew and Nicole Hemmer spoke in November about White power movements and, in particular, the stories they use to weave together disparate elements. Belew notes that White power isn’t new but it’s being given extraordinary room to breathe to grow by conservative media infrastructures.
A 2019 review of Belew’s book, Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America digs into connections between narratives of power and violence in the wake of the Vietnam war. We should listen closer and think harder about how these narratives surface in media and other public consumption: celebrating soldiers in advertising and at sporting events, camo colored uniforms on football players, blue line flags and more. We tell ourselves we’re celebrating service but we also normalize a violent nationalism central to white power.
Economist Louise Seamster explains the differences between Black and White debt in a conversation with Tressie McMillan Cottom for the the New York Times. Much of this, Seamster notes, is about power and the (often racist) narratives that sustain economic power.
Is climate anxiety white people holding onto power? A look at resilience and stories of interconnection from Sarah Jaquette Ray.
Disinfo is not disappearing
The year opened with the January 6th insurrection and attack on the US Capitol. Perhaps one of the most disinfo-fueled (and narrative shaping) events of the century (so far). Much our reading and writing about disinfo in the following months is shaped by the impacts of disinfo and the growth of white power in our politics. Two events that seem bound at the hip.
Are you tracking “Birds Aren’t Real” and the world of disinfo for good? See Birds Aren’t Real, or Are They? Inside a Gen Z Conspiracy Theory and Birds aren’t real and this man wants the world to know.
Disinfo should make us think about our narrative and network infrastructures. In Impeachment and Deplatforming Aren’t Enough to Move Forward, Whitney Philips argues that we must contend with the infrastructure of division: decades of conspiratorial messages, and sophisticated networks to spread them.
Is Trust a bystander victim of disinfo? Or the target? Jerry Useem chronicles The End of Trust and what it means to the narratives and structures of the economy. Who will invest or trade in (or even work in) an economy in which nobody can be trusted? Disinvesting in social safety nets gave responsibility for economic trust (not to mention health care and retirement) to private corporations who are abandoning that role. Without a connection to care, who can we trust?
In Narrative at the speed of trust, Erin Potts & Tracy Van Slyke address the infrastructure, collaborations and working relationships needed to enable culture and narrative change in rapid response situations.
- Disinfo tactics tap fear: Outrage As A Business Model: How Ben Shapiro Is Using Facebook To Build An Empire.
- Bridging disinfo, trust and narrative: Unmasking Polarization: How Conservatives Make Sense of Covid19 Coverage.
- How disinfo grows and gets used (weaponized?) by extremists (white power): How the Far-Right Is Radicalizing Anti-Vaxxers.
- Defanging Disinformation: 6 Action Steps Nonprofits Can Take.
A few other items
A few stories that aren’t easily categorized. They’re interesting. Sometimes infuriating. And relevant to the how, why and what of narratives floating in America today. And to the how and why of doing this work.
Evangelical women in Texas mobilize for a future without abortion tries to explain the vision of religious birth camps using lots of golden hour photography.
More from Texas which, like it or not, has a leading role in the current American storytelling: The Newest Texans Are Not Who You Think They Are.
“Squid Game” Forces Us To Confront Our Current System questions whether the break out Netflix show is a clever critique of capitalism, as its marketed by Netflix, or a reflection of the power of capitalist narrative and our inability to imagine something different.
A story about the language of mommy bloggers examines the ways language and imagery build community, tribalism and bring people into the orbit of toxic narratives.
A New York Times story story about the spread of disinfo and hostility in an otherwise mundane Great Falls, Montana, land use decision.
- Best practices guide on immigrant representation in film and TV.
- Narrative Observatory for poverty and economic mobility.
- Housing Justice Narrative Project shares guides, insights and strategy.
- A narrative approach to strategy-as-practice.
- TikTok Syllabus: Teaching socio-cultural issues on TikTok.
- Seeing Hope is a visual guide to human rights communications.
- Communicating systems change. A great collection of examples, notes and resources for systems communicators.
- Guide to Counter-Narrating the Attacks on Critical Race Theory.
- Freedom to Learn: Demanding Accurate, Honest and Fully Funded Public Education.
- Measuring Narrative Change: Understanding Progress and Navigating Complexity.
- This almost bottomless sea of TV tropes is a fun and fascinating tool for storytelling in pop culture.
Podcasts, TV, etc.
- This Land is a fascinating chronicle of harmful dominant narratives and, through its storytelling, an example of to shift educate, organize and shift narratives.
- Words to Win By relaunched with new stories about communications and narrative from Anat Schenker Osorio.
- The Other Story from Jennifer Gottesfeld launched with a conversation with Jee Kim, Narrative Initiative’s founding director.
- The power of Black storytelling. A conversation with Stephen Satterfield, creator of the Netflix show High on the Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America.
- Belonging is a four-episode podcast from Resource Media is narrative in action: stories from immigrants or first-generation people about their connections to the outdoors.
- You’re Welcome America. Don’t thank us. Thank IllumiNatives and the Center for Media and Social Impact at American University for this must-see narrative change video series.
- A six-episode podcast hosted by Ella Saltmarshe, The Long Time Academy explores the narratives, powers and opportunities of time.