Toward New Gravity Today
Recapping, and reflecting on, what over 100 changemakers told us about narrative change.
The human impulse–no, necessity–to make sense of the world, to justify values and bolster beliefs, is innate and immutable.
Two years ago, the Narrative Initiative (NI) team interviewed over 100 people working in and around narrative change. We spoke to campaigners and funders, activists and storytellers, academics and trainers. We spoke to people focused on pop culture, strategic communications, filmmakers, social media and data. People shared with us how they use narrative to advance social change and how they see the field evolving.
Narrative Initiative was designed to support social justice leaders, advocates and organizers to better understand and deploy the power of narrative to build fairer, more inclusive societies. As such, we learned about the infrastructure, skills and tools needed to do narrative change work.
What did these conversations teach us about narrative? Toward New Gravity, released in May 2017, summarized our learning.
Toward New Gravity also reported on, in something close to real time, a collective sense that narratives could quickly shift and shape society in extreme ways. Our conversations, after all, occurred shortly after the 2016 presidential election and the Brexit referendum.
Looking back two years later we want to recap and reflect on what we’ve learned since writing it.
Can we Create Narrative Change at Scale?
Many points in the report feel as needed and relevant today as they were in 2017. One is the need for the field to innovate and learn together, at scale, and with an ambition matching the weight of problems we face:
One idea that kept growing [ was] the need for a scaled proliferation of talent—campaigners, consultants and communicators—characterized by what Thaler Pekar calls “narrative intelligence—an ability to see the world through a narrative lens, able to recognize, elicit, learn from, and share stories in support of organizational goals and identity.” Or more succinctly, “narrative change needs a posse,” as Alan Jenkins put it.
We spoke to practitioners about how to train and support narrative change practitioners – people who can develop, iterate and mobilize storytelling and strategic communications at scale. The skills they use in campaigns, organizations and movements include the ability to bring complex narratives into focus, identify cultural assumptions and cues, and organize messaging across art, politics and policymaking over time.
Interest in narrative strategy continues to grow and few would argue that much work remains if we’re to build, train and engage a growing field of narrative change practitioners. Just as important, there remains a need for further connection and alignment among narrative strategists across disciplines and geographies.
Can we, as a field, create the conditions for narrative change to occur at scale? Can we train and support campaigners and communicators? Can we invest in creating and spreading narrative change infrastructure capable of advancing shared narrative change strategies?
In two years of deep work with changemakers in U.S. states, most notably a coalition of 22 organizations in Minnesota, the Atlantic Fellowship Programs, and others, we found that narrative change takes focus, commitment and testing. But over time, it produces important results. We remain as committed today to the long haul work of building narrative power as when we wrote the report in 2017.
The Complicated, Complex and Courageous
In Toward New Gravity we wrote about the programmatic implications of these 100+ conversations as falling into three types of activity: complicated, complex and courageous. When woven together, these strands of work become the basis for creating narrative change.
Complicated problems have less predictable outcomes, more variables, and less linear impact trajectories. We have created individual training and organizational learning programs to address complicated questions of how, when and why to develop narrative change programs.
Our trainings the past two years have confirmed that narrative work is an ongoing practice, not a one-time act. One can continually learn, adapt to new situations, and develop an ever-growing repertoire of expertise. Like a muscle, narrative work becomes stronger through daily use.
We’ve also found that it’s only in community that we’re able to go deeper. In the last two years, we’ve continued to expand our connections beyond the 2017 interviewees, uncovering new-to-us narrative change lineages and ways of working. We’ve also continued learning a great deal from those who have generously shared their wisdom and hard-won insights, gleaned from decades of experience. We’re excited to continue finding new ways to tackle big problems together and to expand our community of practice.
Our conversations with the field in 2017 identified a complex set of concerns and problems facing practitioners. These included:
- How campaigners, communicators and leaders identify, integrate and use a new generation of software and services that leverage data, artificial intelligence and quantitative analysis.
- How the field shares lessons, collaborates and learns from colleagues in the field as well as other sectors. This concern relates to social platforms and listening tools (see above) but is also grounded in field awareness, the need to build trust, and developing common terms that describe our work and let us talk to, and strategize with, one another.
We know there aren’t perfect solutions to many of these challenges. Many of our programs this year are meant to bring practitioners together to think about how they might be tackled, to share lessons, and to build trust.
One concern we heard was the need for the field to think big. Then, and now, this was made more salient under the bright light of tangible threats: income inequality, rising authoritarianism, and weakening democratic institutions. As a field, we need to take on populism and understand the global, authoritarian populist wave we face, and how narrative strategy can be a powerful means of confronting it. We must use narrative change to shape, not simply react to, economic systems that constrict constrict equality and confine our response to climate change. We continue to see an urgent need to think big and outside the box about the world we want to live in and how we can get there.
Toward New Gravity Today
Toward New Gravity, written in 2017, reflected a field shaken by current events and challenged to rapidly counter narratives that were creating space for economic inequality and authoritarian populism. The field was perhaps skeptical of “narrative change” itself.
Looked at two years later, Toward New Gravity seems to spell out some of the ingredients needed to pursue the long game of narrative change while facing the daily pressure of media, politics, and social media.
We continue to see a need for exploration and experimentation in narrative change work. We need to test ourselves and share the results of these tests so that we collectively learn better and faster from one another.
Today, we’re continuing to create new spaces for narrative change work. Threats to equity and social justice continue to mount. Those of us working in culture change, the arts, strategic communications, grassroots advocacy and other sectors of narrative change need more collaborators, additional skills, and opportunities to innovate and learn from one another.