Narrative Engagement Across Difference (NEAD) Project

The work of “deep narrative” engagement calls for identifying and curating a wide array of tools informed by multi-disciplinary insights, combined with adaptive and inclusive movement-building strategies (“inclusive” broadly defined). With the clear rise of authoritarianism, abuse of security frameworks, toxic polarization, and violent conflict around the world, the actors within the ecosystem of social change cannot afford to stay siloed in single issue advocacy if we are to turn the tide of these global trends. The Horizons Project is joining forces with funders, researchers, and movement leaders to test out and refine a set of narrative competencies that can be applicable to a variety of actors concerned about these trends that will help to: break down those siloes; create a shared understanding of the problems we are facing from different perspectives to find common cause; and, determine joint actions to take in the short-term that will also help to build towards a shared future in the long-term.

Any “engagement” strategy must begin with a first step of self-reflection, and there are several (potentially uncomfortable) considerations as we embark upon this work: 

We must consider how each of our own worldviews and narrative strategies to date have been helping or hindering our goals. For example, the tension, between the “progressive” and “conservative” group identities, homogenizes a spectrum of actors, which include those who have been disinclined to support or are sometimes hostile to social justice causes yet may be engaged on some levels. In the growing recognition that we need to come together across movements (feminist, youth, environmental, disabilities, race, etc.), how can we reach beyond our natural allies to find common cause – perhaps with “strange bedfellows” – that communicates our commitment to and vision for true pluralism and diversity of thought? In the face of such disruption around the world, the future we want to create is going to take all of us to address the existential threats facing humanity and offer alternatives to the ‘security playbook’ increasingly relied on to deal with them. An ecosystem approach to deep narrative engagement that includes inter-movement organizing, together with bridge-building approaches to other constituencies will bring about the societal changes needed to face our most vexing challenges.

If the breadth of a movement is a critical factor in how likely it is to be successful – as some research suggests – efforts to counter authoritarianism trends will require a diverse coalition to think about how to reach key constituencies like religious leaders, businesses, and a variety of other civic actors. This requires organizers to grapple with the thorny question of how such broad coalitions form and forge their common agenda. And coalition-building must be balanced with the need to foreground the voice and agency of historically marginalized communities enduring structural and physical violence. Narrative strategies to engage with these audiences therefore become critical to achieving the ideals of democratic, inclusive, and peaceful societies. Developing strategies to partner, not always to convince, is a tactic that incorporates concepts of building power with others, not power over, as well as engaging in strategic coalition-building to right power imbalances. Systems of power and injustices must change, and yet when we approach systemic change through an abundance agenda rather than on a zero-sum power struggle, our deep narrative engagement strategies can also shift to be more inclusive.

During this moment in history, however, when the entire world has faced the collective trauma of a global pandemic, the barriers to forming these broader coalitions in practice are more fraught than ever. The pandemic has been used by many in political power to further divide populations, fomenting and feeding on our fears and anxieties to clamp down on political opposition through expanded security laws and technologies, and to further demonize the exercise of people power, those organizing to address injustices and forge a different future. A trauma-informed approach to deep narrative engagement therefore is also needed, including tools and strategies that are restorative of societal relationships and reflect the future state we want to create together (with all our fellow citizens). 

As funders and practitioners working closely with movements in a range of countries and political contexts, we have come together as the NEAD Project to explore these concepts in practice, at a grounded level with coalitions and movement leaders who are committed to this kind of self-exploration and broader ecosystem approach. This is long-term work that must be complementary with those addressing the urgency of current threats and the need to deploy narrative strategies in the short-term. It is not an either/or proposition, however. Within an ecosystem, the long-term and short-term can be mutually reinforcing, and the deep narrative exploration can be complementary with more specific narrative campaigns (and vice versa). 


(1) Multi-disciplinary inquiry to inform action-research design: There is an abundance of existing materials and insights that we are in the process of compiling and synthesizing to inform the development of some action-oriented research questions – what should the development of a new theory of narrative engagement incorporate? Moving beyond the current world of communications experts, the team is working to summarize key findings and theories that include brain and behavioral sciences, the study of social norms and sacred values, deradicalization, misinformation/disinformation, the impact of AI and technology on sensemaking, trauma-healing research, civil resistance and social movements, democracy/authoritarianism, as well as depolarization and peacebuilding research to inform this practical approach to deep-narrative engagement.

In addition, our review is looking at systems thinking and movement building literature on the relationship between reformers and radicals (as well as those working from within and those pressuring from outside) within social change ecosystems. We are exploring questions of “ripeness” for engagement regarding who within the ecosystem is best suited to engage with other peoples’ narratives and who is better positioned and called to be organizing narrative power and infrastructure, within movements.

The relationship between these actors and approaches to narrative work to meaningfully address authoritarianism and democratic decline is a key question for our exploration:

What narrative competencies contribute to support movements made of diverse groups to come together for collective action/collaboration against authoritarianism and in support of civic freedom?

At this moment of our exploration, we are not centering any specific narratives/frames/messages, but rather on what is driving our sensemaking as humans during times of such divisions and complexity. Our aim at this phase of inquiry is to produce an overview document that lays out the key research questions and recommendations for an action-research design process to be carried out in several countries. The goal is to be able to identify and test out narrative competencies that will inform engagement tools and strategies for broad coalition-building in polarized contexts, (those that promote democratic values and human rights) and to create more fertile ground in which the seeds of new narratives articulating our shared future can germinate and grow.

(2) Consultation with movement leaders, bridge-builders, and key systems network nodes: In parallel with the compilation of these materials/insights, the NEAD Consortium will build off other convenings taking place within the field that are already unfolding to support and build narrative infrastructure systems. Our team is committed to listening to movement leaders, bridge-builders, network nodes, and academics to understand where effective narrative engagement and broad coalition-building is happening, and to convene specific conversations that will explore tensions unfolding within different social change ecosystems, including the challenges to operate in broad coalition (to be able to act collectively at this level of deep narrative engagement).

In community with others, we seek to explore potential interventions or tools that could help to alleviate and/or manage some of the challenges and uncover the types of support that would be the most useful to narrative practices within broad-based coalitions. For example, some of the areas of exploration might include:

  • How could narrative competencies help address intra/inter-movement conflicts?
  • How might narrative strategies be deployed when working on long-term change, while also confronting the urgency of the now?
  • Is it helpful to focus the competencies on building bridges to those considered “other” – and if so, how can narrative strategies help to create trusting relationships in the context of deep division?
  • What are the main challenges of working within a complex ecosystem? Is the main problem keeping track of who is doing what regarding various narrative strategies, and how these different streams may flow in parallel?
  • How can we create synergy or mutually reinforce efforts, or at least not undermine each other’s narrative strategies?

As we embark on this series of consultations, our goal is not to be solely extractive of information from our colleagues, but rather, we are committed to relationship-building and proactively sharing our learnings and strategies to hopefully expand all our knowledge and potential for collaborations throughout the project. The insights gleaned from these consultations will also feed into our action research design, questions to test in practice, and the learning framework around these that surface narrative competencies for deep narrative engagement. 

NEXT STEPS: Later in 2022, the team will launch the second phase of the NEAD Project to put the action-research design into practice through multi-year, learning partnerships with movement leaders and coalitions in 3-4 countries (that will be jointly determined during the consultation process).

PROJECT PARTNERS: The NEAD project is being implemented in partnership with The Fund for Global Human Rights, Funders Initiative for Civil Society, Narrative Praxis Group, and the European Center for Not-for-Profit Law.