Putting words into action: personal reflections on supporting narrative change
How aligning principles with practice, addressing the power dynamics of collaboration, and nurturing an ecosystem for narrative power can help narrative work succeed.
Last year, amid a deluge of Donald Trump’s toxic tweets, Boris Johnson’s Brexit tub-thumping, and the nativist, patriarchal, racist, and neo-fascist discourse coming from would-be strongmen around the world, I constantly had to remind myself that publicly repudiating their dangerous narrative—just by nature of repeating it—only amplified their message. I admit, however, that I often failed to heed my own advice.
As the program officer for the Enabling Environment Program at the Fund for Global Human Rights, I support human rights defenders to counter a burgeoning conservative and authoritarian worldview by weaving new narratives of humanity and hope. For the past two years, I have had the joy of working with JustLabs’ Narrative Hub project, as we accompany a cohort of four human rights groups in four different countries on a journey to explore the value, tools, and tactics of successful narrative-building.
A year ago (and one year into the process with JustLabs), I shared some initial thoughts and assumptions about ways that funders might support this kind of strategic communications and narratives work. As a narrative novice, my continued apprenticeship has offered me a reminder of how important and effective it is as funders to align our principles and practice—to be our own narrative. In the spirit of open accountability, here I offer a few reflections on the “glows and grows” I’ve experienced accompanying this work over the last year—and how we, as funders, could equip this exciting, emergent field for long-term success.
Narrative as process vs narrative as product
I took my cue from narrative trailblazers such as ReFrame Mentorship and early funders of strategic communications work like the Thomas Paine Initiative. Based on that, I’ve striven to align principles and practice by embracing uncertainty and flexibility, as well as by elevating processes, learning over product and impact, shifting power, building trust, and collaborating authentically. Easy for me to say, but harder to do when faced with the perceptions and reality of funder power dynamics. Particularly, my experience has highlighted the difference in and connection between narrative as process and narrative as product, and how those dynamics shape the expectations and outputs of the funder-grantee relationship.
After nine months spent working with each group to incubate their narrative prototypes through research and testing, we had reached an important review point. Then COVID-19 hit.
Unable to meet in person, we recognized an opportunity to bring new creativity to both our (now online) workshops and our project’s reflection process. Although our idea—to dispense with the standard grantee-funder report and invest in more of a story-led self-reflection—had been percolating before the onset of COVID-19, the fallout of the pandemic presented a chance to operationalize this novel approach to reporting. Allowing this shift in the relationship between funder and partner relieved ourselves of the product-driven parameters we often operate in and allowed us to instead celebrate the process of experimentation and learning.
From the outset of this initiative, JustLabs and the Fund have supported, encouraged, and created processes for our partners to help them see that for narrative work to be sustainable, it can’t just be a project or product—it must be integral to their organization’s DNA and built into its system.
The power dynamics of partnership
A second reality check came in critiquing the power dynamics of partnership. Despite our best efforts to foster a participatory spirit of collaboration, there remains the uncomfortable truth that each of us still feels somewhat beholden to others’ expectations—activist to accompanier, accompanier to funder, funder to donor.
With our funding, the four groups wanted to explore new, creative ways of doing narrative work by aiming for ambitious prototypes that may, in fact, have been out of step with their everyday work and core capacity. For our part, we needed to see some level of consistency and coherence in the work across four countries while ensuring that it was shaped by context and driven by the interests and capacity of each of the four groups.
In working on this together, I have—imperfectly, I’m sure—tried to walk the line between sharing my ideas and resisting my instinct to solve. For instance, to help one partner meet its concern at over-burdening their in-house communications capacity, we offered additional resources so they had the option to engage an external design agency if they wished. Such active accompaniment has power written all over it—it takes a confident grantee or one with a strong relationship of trust to turn down their funder’s suggestion/offer. But rather than avoid it entirely and lose the benefits that come from thought partnership, co-creation, and shared learning, I wonder if we can better surface and own the forms of power at play to enable stronger collaboration between funders and grantees.
One way we—JustLabs and the Fund—tried to do that was to join our grantees in being interviewed by Rebecca Lichtenfeld, our ally storyteller, so as to also take part in the reflection process. Then, in the spirit of mutual accountability, we summarized and shared our own learning with the four groups, inviting our grantees to further help us define our collective learning process. There is much more to do here, as Panthea Lee has suggested—addressing the power dynamics of co-creation and partnership demands real intentionality.
Nurturing collective narrative power - a challenge for funders
This brings me to my third key reflection from the past year, derived both from my work with the Narrative Hub and from illuminating interactions with narrative veterans. As the points above reflect, my take on power has been mostly internal—focused on navigating the power infused in my relationships. As I think about the sustainability of this process, I realise that it is equally important to nurture the collective narrative power of partners with their peers and allies, rooted in shared values and visions. A critical question for our next year of work together, is whether we are providing the resources and accompaniment that best enables them and their allies to do that.
As Rashad Robinson has explained, narratives that help change the norms and rules that secure economic, climate, racial, gender, and other forms of social justice will come through “equipping a tight network of people organizing on the ground and working within various sectors to develop strategic and powerful narrative ideas, and then, against the odds of the imbalanced resources stacked against us, immerse people in a sustained series of narrative experiences required to enduringly change hearts, minds, behaviors, and relationships.”
As funders, we must act thoughtfully in how we help create such an ecosystem for narrative power. How we show up and how we do narrative work matters just as much as what we do and what we produce. We must center an accompaniment approach that aligns principles and process, starts from the real-world reality and goals of our partners, and invests in the infrastructure movements need to build and sustain their narrative power.
This article is a part of a collection by JustLabs and the Fund for Global Human Rights on bringing narrative initiatives to life in human rights work.
James Savage is program director for the Enabling Environment for Human Rights Defenders Program at the Fund for Global Human Rights. His work focuses on civic space issues, including narrative-building. Twitter: @jamesmsavage