Discussions of narrative and narrative change work often refer to communities as having a sort of viral role. Narratives exist when a community has enough stories that common themes and values surface and start to bind together. And narratives, like a virus, are transmitted across communities.
In the narrative world, communities are the hosts. We monitor and measure for narrative spread but we don’t often try to understand how a community works. We may see a narrative spreading or weakening but not know why. This short ciruits our learning and strategic thinking over time.
We look at what communities are talking about. But are we understanding how communities talk, why communities adopt or share some stories but not others, and how communities manage storytelling?
Defining Narrative and Community
People define narratives in many ways. I’m talking about narratives as ideas, themes and values gathered together in the stories a community creates, shares and sustains over time. These stories are about community origins, leaders, events, rituals, and ways of being. Perhaps most importantly, these stories explain power in a community and how members are impacted by and access power. This could be the power to lead, power to take action, power to receive benefits, the power of individual and small group agency and so on.
Communities can be expansive and connect people who don’t know one another and will never meet: a country, city, association, company, political party members or British Bake-off fans. Communities can be small places where most people know one another: a neighborhood Facebook group, school PTA, customers of a small business or conference attendees.
Narrative Change in Community
In 2020 I worked with Narrative Initiative to develop a couple case studies of groups doing narrative change work by understanding community needs, how their community functions, and building narrative tools and strategies to fit the community. One group, IllumiNative, is built to serve a single (yet broad and diverse) community: Native people in the United States. The other is a coalition of groups in Minnesota collaborating to advance equality and social justice.
IllumiNative’s mission is to “build power for Native peoples by amplifying contemporary Native voices, stories, and issues to advance justice, equity, and self-determination.” In 2018, IllumiNative released Reclaiming Native Truth: Narrative Change Strategy.
Reclaiming Native Truth was a community-centered research project aimed at defining the gaps in Native narrative power, why these gaps exist, and how to work with the communities that hold narrative power. Research identified how traditional education curriculum and TV/film stories perpetuate harmful narratives about Native people. It focused on how typical non-Native communities interact with educational curriculum – creating it, teaching it, using it – and TV/film.
People have an understanding that dominant narratives about Native communities are incorrect, even damaging. “We knew, anecdotally, about much of what was in Reclaiming Native Truth,” IllumiNative’s Leah Salgado told me for a 2020 article about the project. The research didn’t restate what the bad narratives are and the new narratives should be. Instead, it offered ways to use community behavior like educational curriculum and TV screenplays to deliver narratives and stories to non-Native communities.
Minnesota’s Narrative Justice League (yep, that’s what it’s called), is not an organization. It’s a working coalition of communicators, organizers, program leads and more from 30+ diverse community groups. In 2020, I spoke to JaNaé Bates, Communications Director at ISAIAH, and others working with the Narrative Justice League for an article about its design and operation. The lessons were all how to sustain collaboration in a coalition with generally aligned goals but very different budgets, capacities, missions and skills:
- Build and continually tend to infrastructures that support relationship building.
- Understand that diversity presents challenges. But it also builds muscle if you establish practices that reinforce trust while communicating about these differences.
These community-centered lessons for running a coalition of groups seeking to change narratives also apply to how communities interact with narrative. Every community has a structure that manages (formally or informally) communications, storytelling and narrative power. Every community has infrastructure such as communications platforms, leadership identification and development, and even access to or removal from the community.
Narrative changemakers can recognize how communities operate to create stronger strategies for driving new narratives and weakening old ones.
Bringing Community to Narrative Practice
Here are some questions to ask about a community if you want to seed new narratives and help them grow.
- Who influences and leads the community’s storytelling? Understand who the community listens to and know that it isn’t necessarily the people in charge. There could be written or oral stories passed along from member to member. Figure out their origins, role and use in the community.
- Why do people join? More importantly, why do people stay in the community? Understand if this is a community of shared values, a shared sense of isolation, shared skills or needs. Maybe this is a community defined by geography, political boundaries, racial or cultural heritage.
- What events and/or rituals does the community use to bind people to it? Rituals, from an annual conference to saying the Pledge of Allegiance or something similar, are often built around shared stories and used to perpetuate and deepen one or more narratives. A new narrative may need to accommodate or even challenge ritual and it’s important to know if that’s needed and how it happens.
- What opportunities do people have to act in and with the community? Is it light engagement (being on an email list or making an annual payment) or does the community offer skill-building, volunteer opportunities, leadership growth, support for basic living or family services? Lived experience makes a story real and helps turn stories into lasting narratives. Understand how your narrative change will be lived within the community.
This is just a start and not all that could or should be done to bring narrative into a community. But deep understanding how a community functions is needed to give new stories and narratives a chance of taking root and spreading.