Creating the Conditions for Transformation: A Guide to Narrative Change Work

  • Essential Common Future

Feb 28, 2023 Lauren Paul

Lessons on building political will from Trevor Smith, Liberation Ventures’ Director of Narrative Change

Narratives move people, and people move policy. Late last year, we were thrilled to have Trevor Smith—Director of Narrative Change at Liberation Ventures and Common Future Policy Entrepreneur—lead us in a workshop: Narrative Building for Policy Change.

Trevor Smith is an expert in narrative development, specifically around subjects that have the potential to disrupt oppressive economic systems. Through his role leading as the Director of Narrative Change at Liberation Ventures and publishing via Reparations daily-ish, Trevor has developed a nuanced, visionary and audacious approach to narrative change. 

Trevor also supported the creation of an economic narrative change grantmaking approach at the Surdna foundation and has supported successful campaigns to end cash bail and legalize marijuana in New York State. In our 90-min session, Trevor walked us through the fundamentals of narrative and movement building, and encouraged us to weave essential narratives around our work into existing conversations. For ease of use, we share highlights from Trevor’s session below.

“The real goal around narrative is not just simply moving someone in the short-term…it’s really about shifting mindsets and worldviews in the long-term.”

What are Narratives?

Liberation Ventures defines narrative as a collection of stories we tell each other, rooted in shared values and common themes that uphold a particular frame or worldview. Narrative Power is the ability to tell stories that shift the mental models and cultural mindsets that define our cultural norms.

The goal of narrative is to shift perceptions, values, and build collective power. Too often we toil with messaging that meets people where they are instead of actually sticking with the story that communicates our true beliefs.

Narrative change is a shift in the stories that guide our values and shape how people make meaning of information and experiences. It requires knowing what narratives you’re up against, and putting narratives out there that counter these stories.

Narrative power is the ability to tell stories that shift the mental models that define our cultural norms. 

Movements shift narratives. Building collective power around a social issue is an important factor in long term narrative and cultural change.

“You can’t shift the narrative without a movement.”

Where nonprofits and grassroots organizations can expand on narrative:

In the nonprofit industrial complex, we generally organize ourselves to focus on what is traditionally known as strategic communications. When we think about strategic communications, it’s generally more about communicating an organization’s mission or a campaign and not creating strategies that will allow us to organize around and go deeper around the set of narratives that surround the issues we care about.

In progressive advocacy spaces, we too often rely on statements instead of relying on story. Protagonists, paths, payoffs, etc. need to play more of a role in our advocacy efforts.

Instead, think about:

• How can we get our strategies, issues, and organizing in the mainstream media by weaving our narrative with an existing narrative?

• Verbal and nonverbal messaging by phrasing things to fit the audience.

Building coalitions wherever possible

• What is the story around what you’re advocating for?

• What are the deep narratives, messages, stories, and core narratives that make your narrative framework tangible and digestible? 

 “In progressive advocacy spaces, we too often rely on statements instead of relying on story. Data doesn’t move people, stories do.”

Why is narrative change critical?

Traditionally, in conventional advocacy campaigns, there are three buckets of campaign strategy: The Air Game, the Inside Game, the Ground Game. Narrative Change is critical because it adds something different–the Heart Game.

Air Game: Strategic Communications

Inside Game: Public Policy and Advocacy

Ground Game: Grassroots and Field Organizing

Heart Game: Cultural and Narrative Strategy. Stories have a character, evoke emotions, tell about events with both happy and unhappy endings. Think of narratives as the averages of stories.

Narrative Change and Policy

Big policy wins start and end with political will. If we’re to build political will in the direction of racial equity, economic justice, and economic sustainability, then we need to make space to build narrative power.

If you participate in an organization that is interested in doing more narrative work for the end-goal of policy change, ask yourself: What narrative changes would need to happen for your big policy win to become a reality? What dominant narratives are you up against? How can you support shifting narratives in your desired direction?

Spotlight: Liberation Ventures

A great case study to further learn about narrative change strategies can be found in Trevor’s own organization, Liberation Ventures, which fuels a Black-led movement for racial repair in the United States. 

They focus their attention on federal legislation and reparative frameworks that have both financial and nonfinancial components. One of their most exciting initiatives is their Narrative Lab, a program that organizes 13 experts across the reparations and racial justice movement, building space for these leaders to come together and co-create a narrative framework and content in their joint pursuit to better understand their audiences and win on securing reparative policies, across the country.

The Narrative Lab in Practice

The Lab is built on four pillars: Learn, Create, Broadcast, Immerse. After spending the last several months learning, the Lab is now starting to construct the narrative framework, and test messages and stories through pieces of content. 

The conversation online around reparations generally falls into four buckets: Who pays, who benefits, who deserves, national vs. local. Though support among Black reparations has always remained high, hope that it will happen has always remained low. What’s more, support for reparations processes for police brutality is higher than reparations for slavery, and conversations around reparations are only seen in 4% of race-related media—with most conversations happening on Reddit.

In order to effect narrative change, we need to overcome the following:

Philanthropy and charity should not be confused with reparations

We need to develop a collective language about colonialism.

Negative economic and racial stereotypes were associated with lower support for financial payments

Dominant narrative the reparations movement is up against.

The reparations movement has many dominant narratives to overcome. In order to progress, the movement will need to develop counter-narratives to replace easy, go-to rebuttals. Here are the major themes Trevor and his team have found:

Anti-Blackness/Personal Responsibility 

The American Dream/Meritocracy (ie: With enough hard work anyone can pull themselves up by their bootstraps) 

Individualism/Individual Freedom

Colonialism/Manifest Destiny 

The Racial Progress Narrative (e.g. slavery was too long ago) 

The Myth of the Free Market 

“Economists, lawyers and academics have dominated this space and so that’s one of the goals of the Lab–to position other folks as thought leaders.”

For Your Toolbox

Understand the dominant and harmful narratives you are up against, and start to name the counternarratives needed to replace them. How can we build power around a new set of narratives? 

To weave narratives, explore how you can facilitate the telling of stories that sit at the intersection of movements, identity, and/or culture

Narratives ebb and flow, so keeping a pulse on how and where to reach your audience is imperative to the success of telling and using a story for lasting change.

The goal of narrative change is to shift perceptions and values so building power around the real story is essential. Don’t compromise on your vision—people need to see where we’re going and what is possible.


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