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Storytelling has always been central to the work of organizers and movement builders. Narrative is the lens through which humans process the information we encounter, be it cultural, emotional, experiential, or political. We make up stories about ourselves, our histories, our futures, and our hopes.
In today’s media saturated world, soundbyte news coverage seamlessly blends with “image management,” misinformation and the global advertising-marketing-complex. To keep our work for positive change from getting drowned out, grassroots activists need a sophisticated grasp of the cultural environment and deeper understandings of how power operates through narrative.
Often times those of us working for change make the mistake of focusing on what the public doesn’t know (“If they only knew the facts…”) Story-based strategy flips this approach to examine what people DO know – what are the existing stories and assumptions of the people we are trying to reach? What is their existing story relating to the issue and how does that story limit possibility? Story-based strategy works to reach past people’s narrative filters and change the dominant story around an issue or campaign. Working through the story-based strategy framework can create a common narrative to integrate messaging, media, advocacy and organizing efforts by focusing on a few key cornerstones of storytelling:
The Conflict: What is the problem we are addressing? How is it framed? What is emphasized and what is avoided? How can we change the framing?
The Characters: Who are the characters in our story? This can be a profound organizing question: Who are “we?” Are we amplifying the voices of the most impacted people? Who are the other characters in the story?
Show Don’t Tell: What is the imagery of this story—what pictures linger in our minds? Are there anecdotes that we tell people to show them what we’re talking about? What about songs? Poems? Metaphors that describe the issue?
Foreshadowing: What is our vision of resolution to the conflict? What is our solution to the problem? How do make the future we desire seem inevitable?
Assumptions: What are the assumptions underlying the story we want to change? How can we expose and challenge them? What assumptions and core values do we share that unite our communities around a common vision?
Memes are like capsules for larger stories. When we reproduce the meme, by using the phrase, discussing the idea, or replicating the ritual or symbol, we spread the story. Memes can of course be carriers for oppressive stories (like the myth of white supremacy), or become misleading sound byte packaging on complex systems (like the story of “better living through chemistry”). But memes are also an effective way for social movements to create a common story that unifies people to make change – “Think Globally, Act Locally” or “Black is Beautiful.”