People gathered at sunset. Narrative organizing. Photo by Rita Vicari, Unsplash.

Narrative Organizing: How we shift power towards justice

Narrative organizing is the act of building, creating and using narrative to shift power towards justice, equity and democracy. Narrative without organizing is a collection of observations and stories. Narrative without organizing leaves narrative power to others. When we bring alignment, polyvocality, and community leadership to narrative work we are organizing people to hold and exert narrative power.

Narrative organizing is the primary way we work at Narrative Initiative. We do this because our team comes from organizing lineages including community organizing, feminist organizing and grassroots organizing. We do this because narrative change is fundamentally about shifting power, and organizing provides durable, accountable ways to imagine and construct systems of power. We do this because being in consensus-based relationships fills our hearts. We do this because using our full imaginations requires shifting our nervous systems out of unsustainable postures of threats and fear.

Narrative organizing is how we can contribute to both a present and a future of justice, equity and democracy.

Here we look at why we connect narrative to organizing. We will describe narrative organizing and highlight some of the practices and skills we have found necessary to do this work.

Why Narrative Organizing

Narrative organizing should create and sustain a broad network of collective, distributed narrative power. Networks, distributed and diverse, produce polyvocality needed for durable narrative change. Think about the dominant narratives in the U.S. about why people are poor, about what success in your life looks like, about what Black mothers deserve, about the role of women in the economy, and about who voting is ‘for.’ Impacted people and communities do not typically hold their own narrative power, and narrative organizing explicitly works to shift this dynamic.

We believe organizing is essential to creating narrative interventions with the people who live out the impact of those interventions. Ultimately, the changes we seek will only be sustained when the people affected build and hold power to shape their communities and lives. When we organize alongside communities we give voice to all and create power for all. This allows narrative to transform stories into living, durable action.

Narrative organizing also complements economic, political and cultural change. The campaigns seeking equity in these areas use organizing to build movements. Narrative organizing provides ways to hold power in relationship to our values. In other words, narratives ground and contain the stories that let movement change make sense to people.

What It Is: Collaborative Narrative in Action

Narrative organizing is the deliberate practice of bringing together people and organizations to support a shared narrative goal. Only together can we name shared values and harmful dominant narratives.

It is a polyvocal practice. Different people and groups are able, and empowered, to speak to and work towards narrative change in their own voice.

This work is active and relational. We use data, conversations, research and cultural analysis with others to sense and understand the dominant narrative. We ask, “What narratives slow your work down?” We identify and test vulnerabilities in the harmful narrative. And we act with others – those we know now and those we meet through community, network and organizing practice. But deep narratives bind us with values. And organizing binds us to the partners we need as conditions change. Narrative change takes time. Organizing gives us the networked strength to do this work at scale and across time.

Organizing practices can build and strengthen relationships, roles and trust across disparate and sometimes newly woven communities. It is this layering of action, leadership and storytelling that connects meta narrative to the stories we hear daily and use to make sense of the world.

Lessons for Narrative Organizing

Narrative Initiative has acted as both a support to self-organized efforts and as a narrative organizer in networks. These deeply collaborative engagements with campaigns and the stories that define their communities have distilled our current practice into three stages.

  1. Build a narrative landscape of existing harmful and helpful narratives, assess your capacity to carry out narrative work, do narrative power mapping to understand what you’re up against and your combined strength.
  2. Alignment is necessary to work with strength and efficiency. Your collective power will be needed to overcome the inertia of dominant narratives. Clarity on shared values will speed consensus, as Autumn Brown of AORTA says. Facilitated dialogue processes like our Narrative North Star and ongoing practices to keep a living alignment thriving are necessary.
  3. Action taken together is essential to impact and success. This means attending to polyvocal organizing practices. In other words, provide people with space to act and speak for narrative as themselves and their community. Develop examples, guidance, mediums and conditions for trusting one another.

We offer a few observations about narrative organizing from our practice thus far. In the coming months we hope to build these out in collaboration with our team and collaborators: individuals, groups, campaigns and movements across the narrative change terrain.

  • Narrative organizing and narrative expression are polyvocal, held in and by many voices.
  • Narrative alignment is a valuable asset for organized groups, providing a shared pattern for unity of purpose across many perspectives.
  • It takes consistent action to maintain narrative alignment. Networks are alive and growing, and narrative is too. If the people start growing away from their shared narrative orientation, then narrative fragmentation enters the picture and there’s a danger of magnet-ing back to harmful dominant narratives.
  • Narrative change isn’t instant, and it’s an ambitious goal. We think the only way to win narrative change is a combination of brilliant strategy and unprecedented focus. Narrative organizing creates both.
  • Developing new narrative organizing leadership is vital. Our narrative organizing practices aim to uplift new leaders.

Narrative organizing builds and sustains power. Our objective is not to create and tell new stories about culture, politics and global society. It is to weave durable bonds that hold, share and sustain helpful and hopeful narratives over time. Narratives describe ways of living. Organizing makes these ways both imaginable and possible.

Top photo by Rita Vicari, Unsplash.

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