Charting a Course for the Narrative Initiative


The field of narrative change is both emerging and eternal. From mythology to marketing, the human impulse – no, necessity – to make sense of the world, to justify values and bolster beliefs, is innate and immutable. We build, inherit and rely on schematic shortcuts for our own cognitive comprehension and physical survival. We learn codes and internalize signals meant to protect us: which colors and sounds represent safety or danger, whose authority we trust or reject, whose lives and dreams matter.

Humans, as pattern-seeking social creatures, assemble collections of mutually-reinforcing stories, in turn establishing shared common sense and constructing stereotypes about people and places, communities and cultures, ideologies and institutions. These core narratives, fundamental to our understanding the world and to our ability to navigate through it, nurture feelings of belonging and marginalization; that is, they subconsciously delineate who is in your group and who is not—who “we” are and what “they” do. We obtain, maintain and challenge systems of power based upon tribal affiliation, nationalist affinity, class and partisan distinctions, and constructions of coalitions. These deeply-rooted paradigms are mental models of how the world works and one’s place in it. Often formed and fed by media, politics and pop culture, and ossified by personal experience, narratives often determine who deserves our solidarity or our scorn, our compassion or our contempt, our fear or fealty.

Narratives are messy. Nonlinear, emotional and contradictory, they often resonate with visceral meaning, feel authentic and ring true, regardless of their relationship to facts and evidence. They provide us with frames of reference that determine how we comprehend complex realities and define the important boundaries between what we imagine to be possible, probable or practical. They facilitate interpretation of the past, understanding of the present, and a vision for the future.

Narratives are powerful. They can swing juries and elections. They can fill prisons.

But they can also fill the streets.

- Jee Kim, Liz Hynes and Nima Shirazi

May 2017


In October 2016, after more than a year of deep discussion and planning, the Ford Foundation and Atlantic Philanthropies announced the creation of the Narrative Initiative. Sparked by the recognition that pervasive and systemic narratives permeate every aspect of our daily lives, animate our popular culture and influence our politics, the multi-year collaboration was designed to support social justice leaders, advocates and organizers to better understand and deploy the power of narrative to build fairer, more inclusive societies.

The architects of the project imagined deep partnerships with well-positioned and experienced organizations to develop curriculum, trainings and placements through which participants in Atlantic Fellows programs and Ford grantees would strengthen their ability to drive narrative change. This approach is grounded in the realm of language, meaning-making and symbols, but also critical to unlocking change of the structural, the institutional and the material. As noted by Ford’s Darren Walker and Atlantic’s Chris Oechsli in their joint announcement last year, narrative is “critical to advancing transformational change in systems, policies, and practices.” The initiative was also created to connect a geographically and thematically diverse network to promote alignment, collaboration and shared learning on narrative-focused work related to racial, social, economic and health equity.

We on the small team assembled to get the project off the ground were ready to get to work and eager to see the conclusion of a long and dispiriting U.S. presidential election season. Less than two weeks after the announcement of the Narrative Initiative, however, the world shifted under our feet. Overnight, the issues we had thought would top our to-do list in 2017 changed drastically. The new political landscape, in the United States and abroad, was both shocking and sobering. Political theater, of course, has always been an amalgam of the rhetorical and the real, a careful and calculated balance of hope and fear. But the power of narrative and the weaponization of language had rarely been leveraged so effectively by a candidate and a campaign, and the aftermath of the election demanded we step back and take stock.

The interventions we envisioned required recalibration in light of new conditions, trends and realities revealed by the 2016 election, including:

  • The evolving use of data and social media. The profusion of digital communications tools, mediums and platforms have made it even easier for memes—in both the evolutionary biology and social media senses—to spread and gain traction. There is no doubt that symbols can succeed over substance in the new public square. Combined with increasingly sophisticated harnessing of big data, psychometrics and profiling, and “fake news,” the 2016 election saw techniques of meaning-making and technologies of influencing behavior in ways previously unseen. As Jeremy Heimans from Purpose and Peter Koechley from Upworthy told us, the coordination of these capacities into contemporary “full stack media movements” demand increased attention.

  • The vulnerability of democratic institutions, both young and old. Under the weight of right-wing populism, established democracies on both sides of the Atlantic buckled, as they did in countries like Brazil and South Africa, with more nascent experiments in this system of governance. Many conditions are variable—political party resilience and reaction, the role and relationship of civil society and social movements—but the similarities are striking. Common threads are stitching together populist narratives—xenophobia and racism fueled by migration and demographic change, disaffection with economic liberalism and market fundamentalism, and disenchantment with establishment political parties.

  • A reminder of the particular power of political campaigns and candidates to shape narratives, especially ones that realign constituencies and redefine the “we.” Of course, campaigns that contest for national identity are not new, even when they aren’t always remembered that way. In 1981, only a couple years after the Tories ascended to power in the UK, Margaret Thatcher offered this self-reflection in an interview: “[I]t isn't that I set out on economic policies; it's that I set out really to change the approach, and changing the economics is the means of changing that approach. If you change the approach you really are after the heart and soul of the nation. Economics are the method; the object is to change the heart and soul.” Given the contemporary iterations of this project, what is the role and responsibility of civil society and social movements?

In early February 2017, the Narrative Initiative set out on a targeted, though wide-ranging, listening tour of stakeholders from a range of disciplines and communities that work at the intersection (and sometimes at the edges) of social justice and narrative change. We sought to gather resources, learn from those steeped in this work, and identify needs, challenges, opportunities and best practices. Over the following 10 weeks, we spoke to more than 100 leading narrative and culture change champions. Among them were movement organizers, advocates, media producers and content creators, trainers, scholars and scientists, communications professionals, and other influential voices.

The ideas, advice and insight gleaned have been crucial to helping us refine our thinking and how we embark on the next three years, which we approach as an incubation period. The interviews were especially important as we approach curriculum design and cohort commencement dates, and imagine the steps required to catalyze community, collaboration, and perhaps even catharsis, across disciplines, cultures and borders. We expect to design and launch cohorts and other programmatic interventions, make progress and mistakes, share lessons and try again. This report is a living document that will be revisited, revised and rethought as the Narrative Initiative incubates. It is not meant to conclude or decide; it is meant to observe and orient.