Toward New Gravity | Charting A Course for the Narrative Initiative

We dream in narrative, day-dream in narrative, remember, anticipate, hope, despair, believe, doubt, plan, revise, criticize, construct, gossip, learn, hate, and love by narrative. In order really to live, we make up stories about ourselves and others, about the personal as well as the social past and future.
— Barbara Hardy

The field of narrative change is both emerging and eternal; from mythology to marketing, protests to propaganda, 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 and internalize codes and 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 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, subconscious 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.


In September 2016, after more than a year of deep discussion and planning, the Ford Foundation and Atlantic Philanthropies embarked on a collaboration called 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 project 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 initiative 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 letter announcing the project last October, narrative is “critical to advancing transformational change in systems, policies, and practices.” The initiative would also 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. But then, less than two weeks after the announcement of the Narrative Initiative, the world shifted under our feet. Overnight, the issues we had thought would top our do-to 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 have 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 the new conditions, trends and realities that the 2016 election revealed, 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 note, 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 with much more nascent experiments in this system of governance, like Brazil and South Africa. 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 version of this political project, what is the role and responsibility of civil society and social movements?

In early February 2017, we 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. The project sought to gather resources, learn from those steeped in this work, and identify needs, challenges, opportunities and best practices. Over the following eight weeks, we spoke to more than 100 leading narrative and culture change champions. Among them were veteran movement organizers, social justice 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. We expect to design and launch cohorts and other programmatic interventions, make progress and mistakes, share lessons and try again. 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.

But first, we offer a simple taxonomy to help navigate the breadth of individuals and organizations we had the opportunity to engage.

The Narrative Cosmos

The universe of what could be considered social justice-oriented narrative work—from individual experts and organizations to networks and projects —is unsurprisingly vast. It encompasses everything from neuroscience and behavioral psychology to film impact producers and a method of organizing Harry Potter fan communities dubbed “cultural acupuncture.” In the course of our conversations, we identified a number of broad categories that can help delineate and offer some order to this vast spectrum. These clusters are not hermetically-sealed, of course, and there is much overlap and integration within and across these bright stars and planetary systems in the narrative night sky.

Cognitive & Social Science

Pioneered by sociologists such as Erving Goffman, social psychologists like Jerome Bruner and Susan Fiske, and cognitive linguists like George Lakoff, this sector operates at the intersection of neuroscience, language, behavioral psychology and other social sciences. It includes both individual academics and consultancy firms like FrameWorks and Topos. Their work studies how mental schemas, metaphor, framing and the ordering of ideas shape the way humans understand the world, social problems and their solutions. By applying the lessons of psychology, cognition and linguistics to social change communications, organizations can activate narratives that support their goals and help rewire common sense, public opinion and political beliefs.

Strategic Communications

Leveraging the work of both the scientists and researchers, strategic communications experts like Fenton Communications and Burness design values-based, public-facing messaging and media campaigns with the end goal of delivering a particular policy change, electoral victory or shift in opinion or behavior. These messages are often time-limited and aimed at targeted audiences and specific constituencies.

While historically viewed as a siloed, supplementary component of social justice work, efforts by more narrative-focused communications specialists such as Spitfire Strategies and Hattaway Communications are engaging the social justice sector in an effort to embed a media power analysis, messaging and communications strategies on the front-end of campaigns and goals, in concert with the deployment of other tactics like arts and culture engagement, campaign and organizing, and personal storytelling to achieve longer-term impact.

Big Data Research and Analysis

An emerging sector, services like Protagonist (formerly Monitor 360), MediaCloud and Quid dig deep into traditional and social media to measure, analyze and assess the impact of media and narrative change-focused projects. They scrape big data, harness algorithms and offer quantitative approaches to inform campaigns at both their inception and evaluation. For example, the Gates Foundation hired Monitor 360 to inform their Common Core Curriculum advocacy efforts with detailed analysis about what and how teachers thought of their education reform projects.   

Storytelling and Sharing

Some organizations use personal testimony and autobiographical storytelling to powerful and persuasive effect, calling into question deeply held assumptions and biases and expanding capacity for empathy and solidarity. Organizations like the National SEED Project, Narativ, Exhale and Narrative 4 use interpersonal engagement, listening and storytelling workshops to reach individuals across political (and narrative) divides with the aim of building bridges and transforming attitudes and beliefs. Even the oral history project, StoryCorps, can fit into this category, as its popularity and public face often work to universalize individual human experience and help break down barriers of difference and discrimination.

Movement Building

Marshall Ganz, reflecting on the power of narrative to motivate and mobilize people toward a political call to action, has noted, “Storytelling may be what most distinguishes social movements from interest groups.” Grassroots training organizations like the Auburn Seminary and ReFrame Mentorship combine strategic communications and narrative skills with political education and analysis of the context in which organizations, campaigns and movements operate. They train organizations and individuals how to craft and deploy inclusive, collective stories—what Ganz calls “public narrative,” that is, the “practice of translating values into action”—in support of a campaign or longer term objective. For instance, the Center for Story-Based Strategy’s “Narrative Power Analysis” helps identify dominant narratives and how to disrupt them at the “point of assumption.” Other trainers employ tools like the “Hero’s Journey” to structure story arcs, draw out heroes and villains, and articulate and prioritize potential solutions.

A subset in this cluster focuses more intentionally on working with a set of organizations that may already be in motion or formal partnership around a coordinated campaign. For example, Beyond the Choir, Our Story and the Grassroots Policy Project engage networks and multi-stakeholder projects where narrative training is also deployed as a means of developing greater alignment between organizations on shared long-term objectives.

Creatives and Cultural Organizers

Influencing mass audiences through music, TV, videogames, comedy, sports and faith is critical to shifting values and changing public discourse. Visual artists, documentarians and celebrities can play outsized roles in conveying particular messages that inject and legitimize values and diversity of thought into culture with broad appeal and distribution.

This rich and complex network includes not only culture makers, but organizers and connectors like Liz Manne, dream hampton, Ellen Schneider, Michael Skolnik, Lizz Winstead and Favianna Rodriguez who straddle the cultural and social justice worlds. ColorOfChange’s Hollywood Culture Project hosts writers room salons; Culture/Strike convenes and connects artists to social action organizations; BRITDOC’s Impact Producers program trains both artists and advocates on how to increase the reach and ripple effect of a film campaign.

Although there is no set formula for cultural engagement, effective models operate upstream and downstream of cultural and creative content, and are largely based on personal and professional relationships. The fruits of its labor can be as viral as a hashtag, as subtle as blind casting, or as public as Lemonade.

Narrative Strategists

Though this may be a category of our own invention, we believe it is important to name this small but critical cluster of individuals. Narrative strategists bring multiple disciplines to bear and bridge many of the sectors previously identified. They often work closely with social justice groups to help design strategy and orientation at the organizational level, aspiring to fundamentally shift group orientation to cultural change.

With the view that “narrative change is about shifting paradigms and discourse over time,” strategists like Ryan Senser, Tracy Van Slyke, Bridgit Evans and Andrew Slack advise social change organizations in operationalizing a culture change strategy that leverages deep narratives, motivation and cultural rituals in a “long-term, multi-layered approach, designed over time to create profound shifts in the narrative, values, beliefs and behaviors of people, often mass audiences.” Or as Senser puts it, “narrative is a strategy towards an end; a tool for restructuring the way people feel, think and respond to the world.”


While our interlocutors overwhelmingly expressed enthusiasm for the Narrative Initiative and the boldness of 10-year commitments from Atlantic and Ford, we did surface some pointed cynicism, centered largely around the concern that the Narrative Initiative represents a crescendo of a funder trend du jour. As someone succinctly put it, “Are we at peak narrative?” and wondered whether this is just the latest iteration of “magic word solutionism,” a cyclical impulse in donor communities for shortcuts to social change. To be honest, we are relieved that we could draw out such frank reactions, and it underscored the need to be as clear as possible in terms of how we define narrative, our emerging program strategy and our long-term objectives.

It comes as no surprise that the terms narrative and narrative change themselves are deeply subjective and hotly debated. Definitions and understandings abound. To many, narrative change has become a new touchstone of both “woke” philanthropy and grassroots nonprofits, replacing the shibboleths of social science-driven framing and anthropology/advertising infused storytelling as keys to transcending the boundaries of traditional communications and messaging. As Brett Davidson of the Open Society Foundations has astutely noted, “there is always a danger when a term becomes a trend, because it starts to become a shortcut for thinking—a term without precision—where everybody thinks they know what it means, but nobody really does for sure.”

What follows is our attempt to establish some definitional boundaries between the terms story, frames, narrative and meta-narrative, distilled from our dozens of conversations.


A story can be rather simple. It recounts a particular series of events that occur in a particular place and time. In a story, something happens to someone or something. Typically, a story has a beginning, middle and end. Stories often contain certain common elements such as a protagonist, a problem, a path and a payoff.

From creation myths to creative means of preserving cultural tradition and communal memory, storytelling is the common language of human experience. Through the use of commonly understood structure and archetypes, stories communicate and transmit a society’s ideas, beliefs, behaviors, humor, style and trends from one person to another, inherited and imitated memes that collectively create the culture we live in.

Personal values and cultural context—those of the storyteller and the audience—are critical to a story’s intention and reception. As Thaler Pekar notes, “stories provide rich insight into complex emotions and situations, and competing, or even seemingly contradictory, values. They bridge the rational and the emotional. And stories provide context, enabling us to create meaning out of complexity and confusion.” Powerful stories communicate something deeper, something shared, something perhaps even universal, about one’s own values and experiences.

As both a social change and marketing strategy, stories have been shown to build empathy and community, ignite desires, align goals and spur action. It is no surprise, then, that effective and evocative storytelling can be deployed and exploited in endless ways. These resonate not just with a message, but with meaning.


To better make sense of the world around us, human brains rely on constructing internal schemas to process the messages we receive and interpret the meaning of our own experiences. Our brains identify patterns, create categories, and rely on stereotypes to help organize our understanding of a constant influx of information through language, images and symbols.

Cognitive scientists use the concept of frames—“mental structures that shape the way we see the world”—to describe this particular human phenomenon. Frames articulate our worldviews, which are in turn activated by language: cues in communication that generate unconscious, intuitive and emotional responses. Think, for example, about environmental regulations. Now think about environmental protections. These two frames can evoke strikingly different reactions to the same set of governmental agencies and practices. “In politics our frames shape our social policies and the institutions we form to carry out policies,” explains Lakoff.” Similarly, Susan Nall Bales, founder of the FrameWorks Institute, notes that because “even small changes in framing will alter how we think on an issue,” effective advocacy relies on telling the right stories in the right ways at the right time.

Just as the human mind can juggle various values systems simultaneously, it can also hold multiple, even contradictory, frames at the same time. In terms of political thinking, some people apply a liberal frame to domestic issues, while maintaining a rightwing view of foreign policy. Others are simultaneously socially progressive and fiscally conservative. This notion of an internal dual morality or biconceptualism, as Lakoff calls it, can be critical to movement building and political advocacy if correctly framed appeals can animate progressive values that already exist but may be sublimated in persuadable audiences. In this train of thought, the effort of framing is not a matter of political propaganda or message manipulation, but instead is a means of altering popular understanding and activating our better angels. Some, however, are more skeptical of this approach, perceiving framing less as a long-term cultural strategy than a short-term, rhetorical tactic, often driven by election cycles.


Because stories articulate “the agendas of their narrators” and “resonate with the aspirations of their audiences,” narratives are often described as an accumulation of stories imbued with deeper meaning.

Or in other words, narrative as “a collection of stories articulated and refined over time that represent a central idea or belief.” Thus, “stories can be told,” says strategist and trainer Jen Soriano, “while narratives are understood at a gut level and activated by simple words, sounds, signals and symbols.”

For organizers and social movement builders, narrative is closely connected to agency. “Narrative,” writes Marshall Ganz, “is the discursive means we use to access values that equip us with the courage to make choices under conditions of uncertainty, to exercise agency.” He elaborates:

Narrative allows us to communicate the emotional content of our values. Narrative is not talking "about" values; rather, narrative embodies and communicates those values. It is through the shared experience of our values that we can engage with others; motivate one another to act; and find the courage to take risks, explore possibility, and face the challenges we must face.

Consequently, narratives enable us to react deliberately to events, to view threats as challenges to overcome, rather than fears to run away from.  

We also heard a key distinction that can distinguish values-based storytelling strategies and frame-based messaging tactics from narrative work: analysis. Ian Haney López notes that narrative work requires “a substantive analysis of how we got here and how we move forward” as a society. As Rachel Godsil and Brianna Goodale explain, “We cannot separate the problems and pain in our community now from where we have been, where we want to go, or what we feel.” For john a. powell, understanding and analyzing the historical, cultural, structural and political context in which narratives operate is essential to harnessing their power.

In addition to agency and analysis, power was a key theme in our interviews. There are at least two dimensions to the question of power in this context. As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie warned in her 2009 TED talk, stories, just like politics and economics, are defined by power: “How they are told, who tells them, when they're told, how many stories are told, are really dependent on power.” She continued, “Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person.”

This mode of power renders subjects invisible, erases histories and truths. It is a definitional power. If this definitional power is grounded in force, there is another dimension of narrative power that is based in consent.


Foundational narratives, defined by their pervasiveness and stubborn intractability, are called by many names—common sense, frameworks, worldviews. We prefer the term meta-narrative. They structure how entire societies interpret how things work; they animate stories with consistent messages and meanings. Their power is founded in consent because their subjects and speakers reproduce and reinforce them, too often unconsciously. While definitive narratives have the power to render the subaltern silent, meta-narratives have the power to render themselves invisible and have the subaltern speak on their behalf.  

For example, contemporary messages and narratives (poll-tested and focus-grouped) on why the minimum wage in the U.S. should be raised are likely to echo these sentiments: “If you work a full time job, you shouldn’t have to ask for a handout,” and “Hard-working Americans shouldn’t need government assistance to make ends meet.” At first glance, they resonate with our common sense and have been successful in raising wages in states, red and blue, across the country. But what are some of the meta-narratives they unconsciously and unwittingly reproduce? Well, that government assistance is shameful and that government itself should be avoided. And that there is a divide between the “hard-working” and the “lazy” that dictates the extent of our compassion.

Finally, meta-narratives can play a critical role in defining the contours of a society’s Overton Window, determining which stories are fantasy, which are magical realism and which are sober non-fiction. For example, the meta-narrative on the inherent inefficiency of government helps drive a case for single-payer healthcare into the realm of the utopian, instead of the possible, let alone the probable.


These past months of research, conversation and no shortage of tossing and turning has been an important and informative process for the Narrative Initiative team. We developed a sharper sense of key concepts and a deeper appreciation of the breadth of the communities, disciplines and approaches that compose the universe we seek to connect. And we received strong feedback for the program interventions we are committed to launch later this year and a catalogue of previously unconsidered directions that we are inspired to grapple with.

The programmatic implications generated by our conversations fall into three broad categories: the complicated, the complex and the courageous.

The Complicated

Borrowing loosely from systems theory, complicated problems have greater predictably of outcome, relatively fewer variables, and more linear impact trajectories. This first cluster includes the enduring challenge of training and research that struggles to find uptake in organizational behavior or lasting capacity. We heard repeatedly that the field doesn’t lack for practical trainings or useful curriculum or smart research shops; in the last decade, training infrastructure alone has been significantly strengthened via organizations like Opportunity Agenda, Center for Story-Based Strategy and RaceForward. Yet challenges like research accessibility, long-term retention of new skills and shaking up organizational inertia remain.

Thus, the insight and advice we received from expert trainers and field-builders on pedagogy, tools and technical assistance, as well as program design and duration was invaluable. Mapping these elements allowed us to apprehend the depth, breadth and scope of programs engaged in narrative work and articulate findings that will inform the Narrative Initiative’s curriculum development, particularly with the Atlantic Fellows programs. Given that this is the program’s initial charge, we offer greater detail on our takeaways from this process.

Build Capacity and Customize

Trainings and curriculum tend to fall into two broad categories. The first encompasses skills-based training and the practical application of narrative strategies in the field. For example, personal storytelling programs engage directly with individuals and promote the idea of autobiography and intersubjectivity as a way to change hearts and minds. Trainings rooted in strategic storytelling and cognitive linguistics are often deployed within large organizations, in campaigns, or across cohesive networks. Ideally, the lessons from strategic storytelling would be applied to both long-term and campaign-based strategic communications plans.

The second category emerges from the tradition of popular and political education. These trainings begin by generating a deep analysis and a cohesive story about how we—as a community, country, or culture—have arrived at our current political moment. Participants are guided through the development of shared language, common values and tactical interventions. There is also an aspect of this work that fall squarely in the culture space. Exercises encourage a kind of cultural archaeology that unpacks the power that different types of artistic interventions have in reshaping the political and cultural landscape.

For the Narrative Initiative, it is clear we must develop the right balance of practical skills and sophisticated analysis to support both short- and long-term work in narrative change. This balancing act presents a challenge: the baseline understanding that organizations have around narrative work is varied at best, and communications, in general, have traditionally been a low-capacity, siloed and supplemental activity within nonprofit and advocacy spheres. In short, the field is hungry for both the practical aspects of this work (building a strong message, brand and communications plan; engaging target audiences, constituencies and media; enhancing core competencies on an organizational level) and deeper analysis of the current political climate (how we arrived at our present moment and how we might articulate the future). A successful program will wed these two approaches and reinforce their interconnectivity, consequently filling important gaps in the field and satisfying an emerging appetite for embedding culture change into organizational and communications strategies.

Practice, Practice, Practice!

Many of these skills-based practices are difficult to absorb, so we must learn by doing. Trainings ask people to unlearn the very communications lessons they’ve been taught in school, in advocacy, in journalism and in debate. Behavioral change doesn’t happen overnight; people need lots of hands-on practice, especially in the context of their own writing. Lessons learned by the cognitive linguist Anat Shenker Osorio suggest that people need an intensive seminar and ongoing coaching to break old communications habits and implement new strategies. Without an immersive experience, individuals tend to revert back to old behavior and are also not well equipped to share these strategies with their peers and colleagues.

Always Be Iterating

In addition to immersive messaging training and practice, we need to embrace the process of iteration. We have heard this from leaders in the culture space, investors like New Media Ventures, and network builders like Jodie Tonita. The old model of lengthy testing before messaging and strategy are implemented has not served the field and certainly does not serve the political moment. Now is a time to experiment, to hold developing narratives lightly, test in real time, and be okay with failing and trying again.

Raising the Floor

Across sectors, our interviewees echoed the need to train up and scale up changes in communications practices, including the application of cognitive linguistics. Rather than limiting training to a communications department, staff throughout an organization should be literate in the power of narrative. Communications should be viewed not as a component of a specific campaign to be tacked on at the end, but a strategic and core institutional competency. The ceiling for narrative change is high, but the floor of communications and storytelling skills is currently low. Raising the floor—applicable skills and deep understanding—is needed across the sector. Narrative literacy shouldn’t be a specialized discipline. Social justice organizations must first build their narrative muscles in order to flex them.

The Last Mile and the Long Haul

One of most significant best practices to emerge from this project is the need to combine initial, in-person training with ongoing support and engagement. In general, interviewees discouraged any sort of training that lasted fewer than five days and emphasized continued technical assistance and mentorship over the course of a year. Technical assistance could include the auditing of an organizational website and public messaging to ensure participants are incorporating lessons from training into practice. It may also include support for big data analysis across media platforms.

The ability to retain and implement these skills is directly related to the nature and length of engagement. It’s hard to make things stick in one-off trainings. The longer the tail on the support, the deeper and more successful the work becomes. Some of the key components for encouraging retention of new narrative practices include, but are not limited to, one-to-one coaching and mentoring after in-person experiences and the development of strong networks where people can problem-solve and build group capacity in community.

All Narrative is Local

There is no substitute for trust when designing and implementing narrative training. We heard repeatedly that local partners are needed to ground curriculum and trainings in community and culturally-specific locations, whether in Oakland, California or Cape Town, South Africa. Groups like The Rules and Narrative 4, and individuals such as Marshall Ganz and Harmony Goldberg, have established networks around the globe and represent the type of partners we hope to work with to craft responsible, relevant and resonant programs.

Cohort Design

Knowledge retention and implementation of narrative strategies is also dependent on the composition, duration and depth of participant involvement in trainings. Individuals often participate in short-term training, and unless they are bound by a cohort (by issue, campaign, or other opt-in selection), sustained engagement can be challenging. Sometimes cohorts are internal to single organizations and external partners provide long-term support, or bigger organizations will develop internal expertise and training capacity, like Greenpeace International’s story team. There is still much to be learned about how cohort composition and design influences impact. Especially during our incubation period, the Narrative Initiative will be testing differently configured cohorts—leaders from the same country who work on different issues, those that share issue concerns but across geographies, staff from organizations that are in a formal, time-bound campaign relationship, and those that share longer term ambitions and intentions to align on meta-narratives. We expect to learn a lot as we put the mantra of “always be iterating” into practice.   

The Complex

While curriculum and training-related lessons may be the most salient to the Narrative Initiative’s immediate mandate to support leadership development, we heard a number of other observations related to the field at large. The second set of challenges are more complex, with more variables and less (linear) predictability. We highlight a few below that were identified by multiple stakeholders.

New Technology and Tools

A generation of tools—software, platforms and services—that leverage big data and sophisticated quantitative analysis are newly available to social justice leaders and organizations. But available does not necessarily mean accessible. These new tools are powerful and promising, but not silver bullets. They are early iterations that are practically inaccessible for many nonprofits without adequate resources or expertise; they can require significant technical assistance to ensure users are able to fully leverage and utilize their capabilities. As Tate Hausman from the Analyst Institute reminded us, it took decades of constant refinement and countless ancillary supports, trainers and intermediaries to socialize sophisticated data driven civic engagement practice into the nonprofit field. Uptake of these new analytic tools will also take patience and persistence. And finally, early applications have worked best in time-bound campaigns, tending to capture snapshots of the public conversation, rather than long-term efforts to shift cultural values and social norms.

Community and Collaboration

While connections exist between different clusters in the narrative cosmos, many barriers remain to building a network of these diverse fields and actors that can eventually become self-reproducing and sustaining. For instance, we may aspire to connect musicians, advocates and data scientists, but building a stronger trust and community within single sectors is also a significant need. Meg Bostrom from Topos described the need for regular sharing of lessons from success and setbacks between just her peer community of researchers. Also, while many programs share their materials freely, many innovative resources and tools remain proprietary or are scattered across the internet.  

Though the Narrative Initiative isn’t designed to be a grantmaker during its incubation period, we have heard the desire for seed funding for fledgling narrative change-related projects, tools and resources. One idea that emerged from a number of conversations was establishing prizes for important work in this field, perhaps like the LSE Action for Equity Award or the Media Impact Funders Festival Awards, that also create incentives for new networks to cohere and communities to collaborate.

Setting the Strategy Table

A number of seasoned stakeholders we interviewed lamented that there is currently no “strategy table” for narrative leaders; no trusted space to align, integrate and iterate. Once networks and trust are established, can alignment, shared long-term goals and powerful new narratives emerge? “Narrative change is an inchoate field,” Cara Mertes of JustFilms explained, adding her hope that the Narrative Initiative “will galvanize and align, unite and engage the field. The project can give form and structure to energy—undergirding efforts to evolve more quickly toward alignment.” But we were also cautioned not to overestimate our role or ability to single-handedly address this need. As the Perception Institute’s Alexis McGill Johnson counseled, “The Narrative Initiative doesn’t create the narratives, it creates the conditions for those narratives to emerge.”

The Courageous

Finally, we captured some ideas that could be called moonshots, requiring patience, greater risk tolerance, and ultimately, courage. Given the extraordinary 10-year commitment made by Atlantic and Ford, the Narrative Initiative is uniquely positioned to set aside attention and resources for audacious long-term ambitions.

A Gideon’s Army?

One idea that kept growing and adapting over the course of these interviews homed in on the need for a scaled proliferation of talent—campaigners, consultants and communicators—characterized by what Thaler Pekar calls “narrative intelligence—an ability to see the world through a narrative lens, able to recognize, elicit, learn from, and share stories in support of organizational goals and identity.” Or more succinctly, “narrative change needs a posse,” as Alan Jenkins put it.

On the one hand, there is a voracious and growing appetite from civil society leaders, organizations and movements to be more versed in narrative strategies. On the other, there is a desperate need to expand the small cadre of narrative strategists capable of working closely and effectively with social justice organizations. Given the diversity of backgrounds in the current cadre of narrative strategists we encountered—branding and marketing, theater, pop culture engagement, etc.—what are the key qualities that need to be cultivated? Alan Jenkins offered this short list. Vision—the ability to acknowledge and access the power of culture. Experience—actual time spent on the ground working with campaigns. Fluency—a familiarity and reputation within the advocacy field and also in creative and cultural spheres.

And how might we get there? Some proposed a rigorous train-the-trainers model to build out a pipeline of dedicated narrative strategists. Others urged us to look for talent in unfamiliar and unlikely places, like the private sector—branding, marketing and design shops are populated with plenty of people eager to apply their talents to social change and cause. And what about leveraging academic institutions, beyond Atlantic’s current fellowship programs?

This is a long-term goal. The training of hundreds, if not thousands, of sophisticated, diverse and committed narrative strategists will take years, if not decades. Consider the long and uneven evolution of public interest law, movement lawyering, and the public defender system known as Gideon’s Army. Building a new layer, a new arm, a new capacity into our movements is at once thrilling and daunting. Failure is more than likely, but success would be game-changing.


Perhaps one of the most hopeful messages we heard in our dozens of conversations was that the 2016 presidential election results, which instigated this listening project, should be seen as an opportunity. A chance to rethink priorities, broaden bases and expand ambitions. And while the need to defend, react and protect will be constant, the moment demands that we consider a more pro-active, longer-term strategy, one that sets an offensive agenda. Sally Kohn pointedly observed, with humor and sincerity, “Since we realistically can’t win anything in the next four years, we should be thinking about prioritizing a different set of goals.”

Leading with culture shift and narrative change goals in this moment will require unprecedented levels of alignment, coordination and creativity. In her post election roadmap, “Five Ideas on Strategies and Tactics for Cultural Change,” Erin Potts offered up a multifaceted and synchronized approach to organizing, movement-building and political campaigning. She cites Ari Wallach’s conception of “longpath” to emphasize the dire need to expand the horizon of our ambition and subsequent planning: “We need a framework for long-term strategy—one that is visionary yet goal-oriented.” The five ideas may elicit nods, but none of them are simple fixes. Perhaps the toughest prescription, given the funding incentives that weigh so heavily on social justice leaders and organizations, is to:

Stop talking about issues in order to win on issues. It sounds counter-intuitive, but in cultural strategies we may need to develop a strain of the work that stops talking about issues altogether and starts focusing on narrative leverage points--the cultural concepts, cues, and assumptions that sit at the intersections of issues and at the heart of our individual and collective worldviews. These are concepts like “difference,” “opportunity” and  “participation” or the cultural definitions of “family,” “work,” “equality” or “public” that tap into our values and core beliefs.

 Consider Sisyphus. The slow, hard work of progressive policy change is akin to pushing a heavy rock up a steep hill. We know the terrain is tilted against us, as we struggle with deeply ingrained ideas about gender, race, the role of government, religion and market fundamentalism, just to name a few. What we don’t often recall in the urgency of now is that this incline was created over many decades, through long-term planning to shape the terrain of engagement, to create a new common sense. Carefully selected campaigns advanced worldviews, not just issues. As infinite and inevitable as the slope we face may appear, the hill is itself composed of other rocks, stones and boulders that were placed to determine the degree of tilt, the treacherousness of terrain.

Narrative work, the shifting of consciousness and values, is not just a long game, it is the long game. It is not just about finding the right words to spread particular messages, but the ability to activate the underlying values and beliefs behind those messages. Normalizing justice, inclusivity and equity. Instead of pushing rocks up a hill, what would it look like to reshape the terrain? What, after all, would it feel like to have gravity on our side?