Thank you for joining the Center for Story-based Strategy (CSS) and the New Tactics community for an online conversation October 14 to 18.
People and communities use stories to understand the world and our place in it. These stories are embedded with power - the power to explain and justify the status quo as well as the power to make change imaginable and urgent. A narrative analysis of power encourages us to ask: Which stories define cultural norms? Where did these stories come from? Whose stories were ignored or erased to create these norms? And, most urgently, what new stories can we tell to help create the world we desire?
This conversation helped human rights defenders to learn more about story-based strategy and how to integrate it into campaign planning. It was an opportunity for those practitioners using story-based strategy to share their experiences, questions, and ideas with each other.
Tactical Examples Shared in the Conversation:
- Catalyst Centre used a resistance framing strategy called ‘Naming the Moment’ to rebrand Columbus Day in Canada. They called it “Celebrating 500 Years of Resistance and Survival” to problematize Columbus Day and highlight indigenous struggles.
- The Design Action Collective distributed a visual report to the Benin government, the UN and the media highlighting Nigerian refugees who fled Nigeria after protesting Shell Oil’s practices. This tactic succeeded putting pressure on the Benin government to safely relocate the Nigerian refugees.
- We Belong Together: Women for Common Sense Immigration Reform employs a vision based storytelling strategy to turn tactics into a larger narrative campaigning for immigration reform.
- smartMeme partnered with Unity Alliance to create the meme Bank vs. America, reframing and ‘brand jamming’ the Bank of America logo during the Occupy Movement in 2012.
- The National Immigrant Youth Alliance employs direct action and civil disobedience in coordination with their campaign #bringthemhome, challenging border control, deportations and to bring back undocumented youth who have been deported through community organizing.
- In Egypt, the Women and Memory Forum challenged gender roles in fairy tales and traditional stories by bringing Egyptian women together for workshops to rewrite these stories.
- A conversation participant wrote and illustrated a storybook for health care providers to communicate to Pakistani children the dangers of prostitution without breaking social taboos.
- Tostan uses a holistic Community Empowerment Program that frames Female Genital Circumcision in nonformal human rights education and highlights its health consequences to address the problems of FGC practice.
- The Puppet Underground created an extreme visual juxtaposition by using beautiful butterfly puppets to stand up to police in protests. This and other puppet tactics here.
What is Story Based Strategy?
Story-based strategy approach looks at social change strategy through a narrative lens. The Center for Story-Based Strategy (formerly smartMeme) believes it is about reframing and changing stories in the dominant culture to create more political possibility for social justice movements. Narratives are transformative and have power, often using existing narratives to challenge dominant paradigms. Judeo-christian and folklore stories are commonly used. Using known narratives and changing them taps into collective social and cultural consciousness, drawing on a wealth of metaphors, symbolism, images and strategies people are already familiar with. From these metaphors, symbols and images, story-based strategy creates Memes, which CSS defines as, “contagious ideas, stories, images, and rituals that spread from imagination to imagination, generation to generation, shaping and shifting human cultures.” Some examples of successful Memes are Bank vs. America or Think Globally, Act Globally.
A story-based strategy can be effective communicating the efficacy of non-violence and other social justice themes. These strategies ground message in what is factual but have persuasive stories and visual communications. Sharing meaningful information should change social norms in positive ways, such as Tostan’s work to eliminate Female Genital Circumcision practices in rural communities in West and East Africa. Effective and powerful narratives work on a spectrum of who’s benefitting from injustice vs. who's trying to do justice rather than a ‘benefitting the needy’ model.
A narrative and story-based strategy presents several challenges. Trying to defend existing/negative narratives with counter-narratives can be counter-productive and distract from the social justice issue being addressed. Stories have limits and are subject to commodification by opposing parties. They are often contradictory, offering numerous interpretations. In addition, reframing narratives must work with and break down the ‘narrative filter,’ which CSS defines as the existing assumptions people have about the world that screen out new information that doesn’t fit with their existing mental frameworks. Thus, social justice campaigns should work within established group processes to tell stories in a way that generates new visions, critiques, solutions, etc.
How do we frame our message to go beyond the choir?
Stories have power. How do organizations harness and disseminate this power in their narrative? Organization shared the strategies and narrative methodologies they used to make distinct analytical contributions to their audience. One participant shared an example of using narrative to explore intersectionality, such as being black and a feminist in America. Other methods suggested include connecting the narrative to universal elements of human experience and creating change from below rather than above. The organization Waging Nonviolence uses this technique and is currently working on book about motherhood and activism. Their approach problematizes static notions of activism and suggests that everyone is an activist in some way, from mothers to children to workers, etc. Design Action shows how design can be used as a metaphor to tell a story in a different way and pull the audience in, motivating them to take action. They give an example of a visual report they made about Nigerian refugees in Benin displaced by Shell OIl. This report is an example of how reframing and packaging narratives can incite change.
How can organizations use narratives to expand beyond a base audience? CSS provides several frameworks and worksheets for creating powerful narratives that help define the meaning and framing of a situation. Their Battle of the Story strategy ask questions that contextualize the story--its conflict, characters, intended audience, underlying assumptions etc--for social change narratives with the goal of persuading people who aren’t necessarily already in agreement with the social change effort. It is important for an organization to know who their audience is and who the organization is trying to move to action. In addition, organizations shouldn’t assume audiences far outside of their base are inaccessible. One participant shared an example of reassessing women over 60 in the South and finding that their values correspond to the values of immigrant women. Thus, it is important to expand beyond an organization’s base to reach diverse audiences.
How do we change deeply held cultural narratives and open new space for our stories?
Powerful narratives and effective story-based strategy change cultural norms and creates a space for new stories, ideas, and norms to flourish. CSS believes there is a moment they term a ‘psychic break’ that is the process or moment of realization whereby a deeply held dominant culture narrative comes into question, oftentimes stemming from a revelation that a system, event, or course of events is out of alignment with core values. Participants offered various methods on how to realize a psychic break and utilize it in social justice and human rights campaigns. One method is to search for localized stories for support and use them to fight existing narratives. Other methods shared include ‘brand jamming’, ‘cultural jamming’ and ‘Naming the Moment.’
Balancing cultural sensitivity and human rights reform presents a challenge to creating pyschic breaks. Campaigns to end Female Genital Circumcision exemplify this. Organizations such as Tostan navigate human rights injustices and cultural norms, attempting to address these human rights issues while still respecting the culture and its beliefs. Other challenges to changing the story are the use of reductive memes, as one participant noted. Without rhetorical power and enthusiastic campaigns backing the meme, it will not be effective.
What does it mean to tell an aspirational narrative?
Storytelling can be an empathic tool for healing pain and reinserting humanity into human rights and social justice issues. Stories of overcoming oppression and pain create aspirational narratives that promote change and a view of a better world. These stories reframe the notion of what is impossible and what is possible. Often, it is challenging to move beyond narratives of pain and what is wrong with the world. However, story-based strategies rely on changing negative narratives into positive, aspirational ones. One way of doing this is to build a common vision that an organization or alliance is working for. This vision helps craft what specific narratives look like so that they fall underneath the umbrella of the common vision. Furthermore, creating narratives that show empowered images help create an aspirational vision.
- Powerful Persuasion: Combating Traditional Practices that Violate Human Rights Online Conversation, New Tactics’ Kristin Antin connects to this tactic.
- Cultural Resistance: The Arts of Protest Online Conversation, New Tactics’ Kristin Antin connects to this tactic.
- Using Humor to Expose the Ridiculous Online Conversation
- Using Theater for Human Rights Education and Action Online Conversation
- Public Audiences: Creating Space to Recognize Victims of Internal Conflict in Peru, New Tactics Case Study: storytelling plays a crucial role in healing, remembering and understanding.
- CSS Drama Triangle worksheet: tool to think about the implications of a framing strategy
- CSS Battle of the Story worksheet: tool to reframe existing narratives.
- The Ruckus Society Action Framework: worksheet for initiating direct action.
- Catalyst Center Naming the Moment Manual
- Beautiful Trouble: various resources
- New Tactics’ Building a Common Vision worksheet.
Books and Articles:
- Art, Propaganda, and Will to Meaning by Barry Clemson: blogpost on the relationship of art and narrative.
- How Swedes and Norwegians broke the power of the “1” percent by George Lakey: example of a nonviolence narrative in the occupy movement.
- Discovering the Unexpected Power of Nonviolence: Street Spirit Interview with Erica Chenoweth by Terry Messman: example of a nonviolence narrative.
- Ethical and Effective Storytelling for Advocacy by Rachel Ball of the Human Rights Law Centre
- Telling Stories to Change the World Edited by Rickie Solinger, Madeline Fox, and Kayhan Irani Rickie Solinger, Madeline Fox, Kayhan Irani:a collection of essays from around the world on how communities are using storytelling and narrative processes to build community and make social justice claims.
- The Whole World Is Watching: Mass Media and the Making and the Unmaking of the New Left by Todd Gitlin: significant study of shifting the narrative.
- Rewriting traditional stories to gain a gender-sensitive perspective: Using folklore and fairytales to include social justice narratives in Egypt.
- The Merry Pranksters And The Art of Hoax: NY Times Article about the practice of cultural jamming
- Never again: Faysal Baraket's friends continue the struggle for justice blogpost by the Association for the Prevention of Torture