Photo by Narrative Initiative
Photo by Narrative Initiative

Orienting Together: Mapping your Narrative Landscape

Imagine your roommate asks you to plan a road trip. Logically, you ask them where you’ll depart from and where you’re headed. In response, you hear “I don’t know.” 

At this point, you weigh your options – you could just throw a couple of darts at a map and find the most efficient line that connects them. But, instead, you decide to do some research. You read about the road trips recommended by bloggers and travel writers. You could ask your friends and social media networks for recommendations. You lay your options out on the table before making your final decision.

Imagine you’re a communications manager at a housing nonprofit, and your boss asks you to create a narrative change plan. Before deciding on your destination — the narrative you want to drive —you need to do some research. You need to understand where you’re starting from and where you’re going. Narrative Landscaping is critical to successful narrative organizing and a great place to start. 

Put simply, a narrative landscape is a map of the harmful and helpful narratives that affect how people think about, talk about, and make decisions about your cause. For your housing nonprofit, you might identify harmful narratives like deservedness or paternalism and helpful narratives like abundance or collective power. (For more on housing narratives, visit the Housing Justice Narrative Initiative.)

Once you have your narrative landscape in hand, you can then do additional research to add layers of meaning, like a network map, a power map, a narrative capacity assessment, or a narrative integrity audit (more to come on the latter in an upcoming post), so you know who you are working alongside and what you are up against. You can also begin to map out how you will get to your destination — the stories, activations, art, and campaigns that will bring your narrative to life. 

But first, we need to map the narrative landscape.

Why do Narrative Landscaping? 

Mapping your narrative landscape is vital for accurately ambitious planning. It forces us to think about our work in context. Narrative Landscaping helps people understand each other better, deepen trust and build relationships. It can get you on the same page about the scale needed in your narrative change effort, give you some guardrails for narratives you want to avoid, and help you sketch out helpful narratives you might want to advance.

Changing the big stories we tell ourselves about how the world works is complex and challenging work, so knowing our context is essential. Other reasons to do narrative landscaping include:

  • Don’t repeat the opposition’s messages. Or their narratives. Get on the same page with your stakeholders about what harmful narratives you are up against; otherwise, you’re liable to repeat harmful narratives unwittingly. Harmful narratives are insidious and entrenched and can feel immobilizing. A Narrative Landscape results in a super helpful short list of narratives you know you want to avoid so that you can win.
  • Say what you are for. It’s easy to think you might not need a narrative landscape because you can rattle off the harmful narratives you’re up against, especially because it’s much easier to name harmful narratives than helpful ones. Narrative landscaping forces us to name what we are for and, by doing so, recognize the narrative authorship and power of grassroots organizers and changemakers who have been doing this work for generations.
  • Build comfort at the altitude of long-term thinking. We don’t often work on the narrative level in the nonprofit field, so we need chances to work those muscles together. We frequently work on campaigns with critical messages, policy statements, and powerful direct actions. These are all important ways to work, but if you’re trying to change a narrative, you have to understand what you’re changing from (before) and what narrative you want to change to (after). Narrative landscaping lays the foundation of successful narrative work.

Some extra bonuses of doing narrative landscaping include:

  • Shared language. A Narrative Landscaping process can add to your success by making sure vital stakeholders share some basic definitions of what narrative a narrative change is. It’s a moment to pause, build up shared language and trust, and start to name where you’re headed together. 
  • Helpful management tools. Even a super quick Narrative Landscape you might do in an hour can strengthen your narrative work. You’ll end up with two handy lists – what to avoid and what you and your stakeholders are highly motivated by. 

Narrative landscaping can also raise important questions for further research, like:

  • Who are your stakeholders? Who is on your narrative change team? Who most needs this narrative change to happen? 
  • Whose narrative power do you want to build?
  • How do you define the narrative change work you’re trying to do? Is that written down somewhere?
  • What’s your level of urgency? Is it consistent across all your stakeholders?

How, in general, do you do Narrative Landscaping?

We developed a methodology to build a shared understanding of any issue’s harmful and helpful narratives. 

The most basic and accessible method of narrative landscaping is gathering the stakeholders in your narrative change project and together naming the harmful—perhaps dominant—narratives that hold back your vision and the helpful narratives that will hold the big change you’re seeking in place. To get folks into the right mindset to build a Narrative Landscape together, building shared language about what deep narrative is useful. A narrative primer with definitions with some examples relevant to your project can help people understand how to name narratives and not messages.

We frequently see that organizations and networks find it easier to identify harmful narratives than to identify helpful ones. This is because harmful narratives are often the most dominant narratives and have a lot of muscle behind them. Imagining a future where you’ve won can feel like a big stretch. Plan to invest more energy in this part of the Narrative Landscape process than naming the bad stuff.

At its simplest, any narrative landscaping effort should involve:

  1. Identifying key stakeholders. Who are the people most impacted by the harmful narrative you need to change? Who are the organizers, communicators, and culture makers that can help weave new narratives?
  2. Talking to stakeholders about harmful and helpful narratives they see in their work, including where those narratives appear in media, pop culture, and community organizing. This could be in one-on-one conversations, small groups, or even an all-day convening.  
  3. Documenting those conversations. This could be on a virtual whiteboard, a spreadsheet, or a big piece of paper with lots of post-its. Capturing and making ideas visible deepens participation and helps people inspire each other.
  4. Sensemaking and altitude-adjusting if messages/stories or values/worldviews come up.  What’s the deeper narrative under the messages and stories you surface? What’s the narrative expression of an underlying value or worldview? To make sense you’ll need to compare apples to apples, not apple pie to apples to apple seeds. After identifying the narratives, you can start to group and categorize them. The simplest way to do this is by grouping harmful and helpful narratives. As a reminder, narratives are shaped by values and determine our worldviews – most narratives aren’t issue-specific and affect many of our movements for justice.
  5. Synthesizing the harmful and helpful narratives, briefly defining each and categorizing them in a way that’s accessible to all of your stakeholders and co-organizers. This might result in a table with the names of your harmful and helpful narratives and a dictionary-like list of what each narrative is, with examples for each.
  6. Sharing the Narrative Landscape with your stakeholders, deciding what it means together, and what next steps to take.

Example: Rural organizers mapping their narrative landscape

Recently, Narrative Initiative hosted a day-long gathering of rural organizers, journalists and strategists to reflect on narratives that affect their work. We landscaped harmful and helpful narratives that affect rural progressive organizing and communications work in order to build understanding of how those narratives drive or erode power-building and strategize about resources, platforms, and tactics to transform narratives about rural America.

We started the day by building a Narrative Landscape to meet each other more deeply. Here’s the process we used: 

  • Build some shared language through a brief presentation on narrative organizing 
  • Facilitated discussions (sample facilitators agenda) at tables that started with individual worksheet (template, example) reflections on harmful and helpful narratives, then sharing and discussion. 
  • Recording a few important harmful and helpful narratives on a big worksheet (template, example) at each table. We print this flipchart size, about 25×30”. Each of the five tables at the rural organizer convening came up with different lists of harmful and helpful narratives, but there were many cross-cutting themes.
  • Sensemaking: Narrative Initiative staff gathered all the big table worksheets, read them aloud together, and cut out each harmful or helpful narrative with scissors. On a wall, we tape up the cut pieces of paper and through collaborative conversation, started clustering them into themes. Here are the high level themes that came up in our convening of rural organizers. 
    • Harmful deep narratives: 
      • Rural/urban divide
      • Anti-elitism + anti-government skepticism
      • Fatalism + destiny
      • Dehumanization + extraction
    • Helpful deep narratives:
      • Dignity + value
      • Collective sovereignty + agency
      • Interdependence + community centeredness
      • Hope + reclamation
  • Presenting and discussing the high-level themes back to all participants. After sensemaking, we presented the helpful and harmful deep narratives and their underlying themes in this sensemaking deck.
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