As we continue the collective work towards a just, inclusive and peaceful democracy, it is important to be able to understand and talk about the shared values and ideas that underpin it. We often use frames to help us make sense of these ideas and values, and we share stories to illustrate how these ideas and values might show up in everyday life. Narratives offer ways for us to package these stories and “provide a coherent view of the world based on our lived experience, our culture, and our education.” Narrative competency is the ability to collect and understand these narratives and share them in a way that can help make meaning of the world around us.
At the Horizons Project, we know that the narratives we use matter, especially during times of deep division. How we communicate can either invite or block collaboration; build or break down trust; uncover or bury shared values and goals. As agents of social change, we have our own cognitive biases that are based on our own stories and experiences. These biases influence how we and others perceive narratives, regardless of how they were intended. To develop narrative competency, it is important to start from a place of self-reflection, to explore our own biases so that we may be curious of other narratives and how we can engage with them. The purpose of developing narrative competency is not to change narratives we disagree with or prove them wrong. It is to better understand how they came into being and describe the current ecosystem. Rather than simplifying complex stories into “black or white” frames, an approach to narrative competency embraces complexity and nuance to better understand how different people make sense of the world.
Developing the competency to cultivate and share narrative frames of our country’s past, present and future is critical to inspiring and mobilizing people towards a society in which everyone feels a sense of belonging and can thrive. It will require curating insights from a diverse array of organizers, community and civic leaders, and activists representing different ideologies, geographies and backgrounds. At The Horizons Project, we are committed to leveraging existing platforms and sources of cultural influence to galvanize the larger ecosystem of social change around inclusive narratives that will help us form the broadest coalition possible to work towards a pluralistic, just and peaceful democracy.
Interested in learning more? Check out these resources on Narrative Competency that are inspiring us right now.
Healing US democracy starts with understanding our values, norms, and narratives, The Horizons Project
“What are the common values that underpin US democracy? What is the “big story” we all share about how society should work and how we fit together as citizens? In the US today, with levels of toxic polarization astoundingly high, the narratives we use to make sense of the system and the sacred values we hold around democracy seem to be as divergent as ever. But by understanding these narratives and values, we can begin to rediscover how to respect different world views and commit to America’s future together. Experts shared some of their latest research and practice in a recent session on Democracy Narratives and Sacred Values co-convened by the Horizons Project with the Alliance for Peacebuilding for their Spring Series on Preventing and Reducing Conflict and Instability in the United States: Shaping What Comes Next.”
Engaging with Narratives of Peace, Toda Peace Institute
“Narrative competency must be a fundamental aspect of our work as peacebuilders in the modern age. The term narrative is ubiquitous today and commonly used interchangeably with story. However, within the peacebuilding field there is currently a lack of understanding of the concept of narrative fundamentally as a cognitive framework that resides at the level of our unconscious minds, which allows human beings to make meaning of the world. While much has been written about how activists can address narrative change, peacebuilders have a special calling to engage with narratives in a way that is self-reflective, curious, seeks complexity and constructs meaning with others.”
Short Video on Restorative Advocacy & Narrative Engagement, Narratives and Civic Space Convening by OXFAM and the Ford Foundation
“Julia Roig, in her segment, focuses on PartnersGlobal Engaging Narratives for Peace research and approach. She explains that social change agents must acknowledge their own cognitive biases and mental models. This affects how social change agents engage effectively with narrative change, and/or can further polarization and isolate potential allies by how issues are framed. She also explores how narrative engagement can contribute to Restorative Advocacy when our goal isn’t to change others’ narrative understanding or identity, but rather when we seek to “complexify” narratives, especially in the public sphere.”
A Call for Investment in Narrative Competency in Divided Times (Part One), Alliance Magazine
“Narrative is a central and cutting-edge topic in a variety of well-established academic fields… The study of narrative bridges the artificial divides between rationality and emotion or interests and identity that were once typical in the scientific literature and it offers important insights that need to be more widely embedded within the philanthropic ecosystem. To summarize a complicated topic: ‘narrative‘ is an abstract template for sensemaking, the central intersection of multiple, related stories that makes it possible for us to see the world in a meaningful way. Narrative is the lens through which human beings see the world and understand how it operates, and for whom it is the basis of political and moral decision making.”
In Part One of this series, Horizons’ Chief Network Weaver, Julia Roig, argued the importance of investing in Narrative Competency. In Part Two, she and co-author Melanie Greenberg offer recommendations for how. “By using a cultural lens for programming, philanthropy can help overcome the oversimplification of narrative and identity arising out of deep polarization and can help sustain curiosity about the other.”
“Narratives are a form of power that can mobilize and connect, as well as divide and isolate. Social, public or dominant narratives help to legitimize existing power relationships, prop them up or make them seem natural. As an anthology of perspectives this knowledge offering is one way to amplify different and diverse ways of knowing and doing narratives.”
The Role of Narrative in Managing Conflict and Supporting Peace,Institute for Integrated Transitions
“A helpful way to visualize narratives is as trees making up a narrative landscape. The roots contain a mix of facts, stories, and parables about a common collective past. These are the foundation for people’s political/moral views or their identity/history. The trunk is the central framing that grows from all or a bundle of these roots. The branches are the policy preferences, actions, and outcomes attached to the truck, which are resilient, but liable to change.”
How to Use Stories to Bring ‘Us’ and ‘Them’ Together, Annie Neimand & Samantha Wright, Stanford Social Innovation Review
“Advocates often recycle the same type of stories to build a base of support, but this can create story fatigue among supporters and lose the opportunity to engage new ones. Choosing the right kind of story depends on your audience’s exposure to the issue and your opposition’s power. A familiar plot structure can help an audience understand complicated dynamics, but if they are familiar with the topic, an unexpected framing can make it feel new again. Issues with strong organized opposition pair better with stories that humanize or offer new insights.”
This short webinar from the 2021 Collective Impact Action Summit is a Master Class on narrative change. Melody Barnes (Aspen Institute Forum for Community Solutions) interviewing Crystal Echo Hawk (IllumiNative) Rashad Robinson (Color of Change), and Nayantara Sen (Real Food Real Stories.)
“The metaphor actually begins with a story, the story as a single star in the night sky. If a story is like a star in the night sky, it is the singular unit of change….a narrative is like a constellation because it is a pattern of stars congregated together to create a mechanism that brings stories together as a whole, so then an individual story has more meaning when it sits within the narrative that you see as a constellation in the sky…There’s more to culture than just narrative but the critical thing to know is that you can’t change culture without changing narrative. We work on individual stars. We change the pattern that they sit within a constellation, and we change the cultural conditions or the galactic conditions…for what actually allows narratives to stick.” – Nayantara Sen
How America Fractured Into Four Parts, George Packer, The Atlantic
An essay exploring four dominant narratives in US that since the 1970s, emerged around four moral identities:
- “Free America,” which focuses on individual rights and freedom from government intervention and draws on elitist traditionalism and anti-communism.
- “Smart America,” which embraces capitalism, meritocracy, and globalism, but not patriotism.
- “Real America,” which encourages popular democracy, anti-intellectualism, and nationalism, and is primarily white.
- “Just America,” which is critical of institutional injustice and oppression, but has its own trappings.
Our Futures Now: Turning Imagination into Narrative Power, The Narrative Initiative
This article describes how we can use imaginings of the future in narrative work. “Once we know the history, power and role of today’s dominant narratives we understand our present assumptions…then we can really name, describe and even map paths towards possible futures that aren’t dependent on today. That’s where this work gets exciting.” Márquez Rhyne, Program Manager at Transmedia Story at the University of Chicago
Keeping Democratic Ideals Alive During the Pandemic, Frameworks Institute
“The way we talk about leaders, leadership, and institutions now sets the context for what comes next. We won’t revitalize democracy by leaving people to assume that politics is, and always will be, broken beyond repair. But if we remind people of our democratic ideals—and show how they connect to this crisis and our future beyond it—we can rebuild demand for leaders and systems that put people first. Framing advice: (1) Lift up democratic values; (2) Make the truth compelling and clear; (3) Show how issues and incidents are connected. Frameworks also has valuable materials on Shifting Mindsets and how we can think about advocacy in both the short and long term.”
“The exploration of narrative and sensemaking is informed by many disciplines, and Karen Stenner has spent years researching why some people seem to have a psychological predisposition towards authoritarianism on both the right and the left (in the right conditions,) which has led her to argue that “liberal democracy has now exceeded many people’s capacity to tolerate it.” The podcast interview discusses why support for authoritarianism is so widespread, what we can do about it, and what’s next in countries like the US where right wing populism has been surging.”
Changing the Narrative about Narrative: The Infrastructure Required to Build Narrative Power, Rashad Robinson, Nonprofit Quarterly
“Narrative is now a big buzzword in the field of social change. That is more a testament to people wanting to understand narrative, however, than it is a testament to people actually understanding it. This paper presents a high-level outline of just some of the components of strategic thinking required to create the right story about narrative change within the progressive movement, with a focus on the components related to building the infrastructure we need to build what I call narrative power.”