Can Stories Change the World?

RE:Imagining Cha51Dj8dYe-7L._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_nge: How to Use Story-Based Strategy to Win Campaigns, Build Movements, and Change the World is a useful text for social change activists.

The authors, Patrick Reinsborough and Doyle Canning, advocate the “story-based” approach they developed through working on social change campaigns at “The Center for Story Based Strategy” (formerly “SmartMeme”), which they co-founded. “Story-based strategy” is about using our oldest and most powerful communication tool – stories –  as catalysts for change. The authors contend that the stories we tell each other can challenge the power structures that seek to oppress, subvert old assumptions by connecting issues to people’s values, and ultimately create the changes we need in the world.

The story-based strategy consists of three tools: narrative assumption analysis, to determine what the story is; the battle of the story, to mobilize and persuade people; and points of intervention, to decide when and where to insert the new story. There are also four case studies provided to demonstrate the efficacy of the strategy in real-world examples.

What the book doesn’t include feels like a glaring omission in 2016. Published in 2010, the text does not refer to the digital storytelling that happens on social media channels and other online platforms. It’s almost ironic, since the book champions the “meme” as the means to deliver change messages. Memes are so numerous and widely shared online they have almost broken the Internet. Still, there are compelling, useful and provocative ideas expressed in the book which are well worth exploring.

To understand RE:Imagining Change, one has to understand the vision, which is“to change the world by changing the stories that shape our collective destiny” (11). In the introduction, the authors quote American poet and activist Muriel Rukeyser, who said “the universe is made of stories, not atoms” (12). Doyle and Canning argue that humans have been telling stories since time began, and that the urge is natural. The authors cite a 1944 study where subjects were presented with an animation of a pair of triangles and a circle moving around a square, and asked to describe what was happening. They researchers heard responses like “the circle is chasing the triangles.” The subjects turned the shapes into a story (17).

If stories are the way we make sense of our world, then it seems reasonable to use stories as a strategy to effect social change. Certainly, there is evidence of stories creating impact in social change movements. For example, most people are familiar with the story of Rosa Parks. She was a black woman who refused to give up her seat to a white woman while seated in the “coloured” section of a bus in segregated Montgomery, Alabama in 1955. Not every movement will have a “Rosa Parks” story to share, but the strategy described in Re:Imagining Change provides “a framework that links movement building with an analysis of narrative power, and places storytelling at the centre of social change strategy” (124). Included in the framework are tools to help find the story that connects with target audiences, and to create the “change messages” that challenge status quo assumptions in the dominant culture. The work starts with a “narrative power analysis”.

The authors describe narrative power analysis as “the theoretical framework that includes using the elements of story to deconstruct the stories we want to change, as well as to construct the stories we want to tell” (14). They suggest all stories contain power dynamics, which are often at the root of social problems. Doyle and Canning recommend asking some key questions to understand these tensions better. Which stories define our cultural norms? Where did these stories come from? Which stories were ignored or erased? What new stories can we tell to more accurately describe the world we see (20)?

A story that demonstrates all of the above is the narrative around American Thanksgiving. Doyle and Canning point out that most Americans view Thanksgiving as a celebration of peace. But the day also marks the massacre of over 700 Pequot women and children in 1637. Why is this event not part of the story? The authors claim that’s because stories are created and generated by those in power. The Thanksgiving story is one told by the Pilgrims, not Native Americans. As the familiar saying goes, “history is written by the winners” (25). Thanksgiving is still considered a joyous occasion by the status quo, but there have been challenges to this singular interpretation. Native American activists have marked Thanksgiving as “The National Day of Mourning”, to publicize the slaughter of the Pequot people, and the continuing struggle of all native people against racism and colonialism (25).

How do activists come up with campaigns for their target issues? The authors make some provocative recommendations that challenge many commonly held assumptions. For example, the authors suggest that it is not a good strategy for activists to fight ignorance with facts. They argue that people are not convinced by facts, and challenge the reader to remember a time when they changed someone’s mind about a social issue by giving him or her more data (27). When people express racist or sexist or homophobic ideas and attitudes, the societal response is often that they are “ignorant” and need to be educated. The authors suggest that it’s not what we don’t know that gets in the way, but rather what we do know (27).

The problematic of “what we do know” is what Doyle and Canning refer to as “control mythologies” (24). This refers to assumptions that are widely held due to our constant exposure to stories in the dominant culture, which are often created by those with the most power in society. For example, a popular control myth is “you can’t fight City Hall”. If people hear something often enough, they become resigned to the idea that it must be true, and stop trying to prove otherwise.

The authors also refer to a psychological phenomenon called “confirmation bias”, which is our tendency to ignore information that doesn’t fit our existing framework for understanding the world (28). Quoting the work of Drew Weston, author of The Political Brain, the authors write that when the brain receives information it doesn’t like, “it begins to search for ways to turn off the spigot of unpleasant emotion” (28).

Another provocative idea suggested in the book is that activists should focus less on the truth of a story and more on its meaning. At first glance, this sounds like a licence to lie in the interest of a good cause. But what the authors mean is that we often accept stories as true because they connect with our emotions, our values, and are relevant to our experiences. The truth is ineffectual if we don’t care.

Another suggestion that is worth noting is a concept the authors call “the weight of words”. How the public interprets a story can completely change based on the words we choose. The example given is the difference between saying “Columbus discovers America” and “Columbus invades America” (37). Changing one word completely changes the story.

To spread the story far and wide, the authors suggest using memes. The term “meme” was coined by the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins and refers to “self-replicating units of cultural information that spread virally from person to person and generation to generation, with a life of their own” (32).

A meme can be a symbol like a raised fist, or a slogan like “Hands up. Don’t shoot!” This slogan went viral on the Internet after Michael Brown, a young black man from Ferguson, Missouri, was shot dead by a white police officer. The words refer to witness reports that Michael was running away with his hands up when he was shot and killed.

The authors share another effective meme that demonstrated racism in the media’s coverage of Hurricane Katrina. It displayed two photos that were published in news media. One showed a black man holding food items over his head, while walking through flood water up to his chest, with the text “after looting a grocery store.” The second picture showed two white people also wading through water with food, with the text “after finding bread and soda from a local grocery store” (37). The black man stole. The white people found. Again, changing one word completely changed the story.

Once the story is clear, the next step is the battle of the story, which has two components. “The story of the battle is about mobilization; the battle of the story is about persuasion” (43). Mobilization is the easier task, as it entails gathering the support of people who are already on board. You are preaching to the choir. Persuasion is the tricky part. The goal is to convince people who do not see the issues the way you do. A recommended technique is framing. “Framing helps define a story by setting the terms for how to understand it” (48). Like a frame around a piece of art or a computer screen, framing draws our focus to what is within. Social activists often seek to “reframe” an issue, to shift the perspective from those with “power-over” others (governments, corporations) to those who “power-with”, groups of people who are affected by the actions, or lack of actions, of the powerful (22). For example, the book describes the campaign to “Sell the World Bank on eBay.” The goal was to highlight the Bank’s dismal progress on its mission to end poverty by putting it on sale to the highest bidder. The bidding began at 30 cents, the average hourly wage of a sweatshop worker in Haiti (77).

Repurposing popular cultural narratives and/or “brand busting” are two other tactics recommended. The idea is to “hitch a ride” on specific memes, metaphors and stories. For example, in an attempt to persuade Kraft to stop using genetically engineered ingredients in their products, protestors used the iconic Kraft Macaroni and Cheese box, but changed the name of the product to “Macaroni and Genes” with the added slogans “Untested Genetics” and “40% More Manipulated” (58).

In the story-based strategy, the final stage is determining when and where to insert the message. The authors refer to this as the “point of intervention”. It’s the place “where action can be taken to interfere with the system in order to change it” (67). This interference can happen at the point of production, the point of destruction, the point of consumption, the point of decision, and the point of assumption (68).

In challenging points of assumption, a key goal is often to make the “invisible visible” (67). The authors share the example when U.S. veterans, in uniform, patrolled a number of American cities, simulating crowd control and civil arrests. They were protesting U.S. military in Iraq, and wanted to demonstrate to Americans what occupation looks and feels like. They knew simply telling people the occupation was undemocratic would not be enough. Protestors needed to give people the experience of occupation, to make the invisible visible (80-81).

Though there are examples peppered throughout the text, the book ends by exploring four case studies in more detail. One case study is Greenpeace’s “Save the Whales” campaign where protestors in small boats put themselves between the whales and the giant whaling ships to depict the whales as helpless and the whalers as monstrous (87-89). Another case study is a worker-led coalition’s “Boot the Bell” campaign. It demanded fast food giant Taco Bell “pay a penny more per pound” for tomatoes, to improve wages for tomato pickers, many of whom were low-wage migrant workers (96-99).

The case studies were interesting and, reportedly, successful. But since this text is largely a tool for activists, it would have been helpful to share the inner-workings of those campaigns. What happened around the table? How did the teams decide on the assumptions to target, and the new stories to tell? How did they brainstorm to come up with their change messages, memes and on-the-ground actions? Why did the tomato pickers decide to target the fast food industry, and specifically Taco Bell? Did they try other targets first? What did “a penny a pound” translate to in terms of migrant workers’ wages? Were migrant workers involved in planning the campaign? What has happened since the campaign ended? Has the support for the cause grown, sustained, or waned? This information would have been invaluable to activists in planning their campaigns, but perhaps the omission of this information was not an oversight. After all, the authors are co-founders of an organization that offers training, facilitation services and workshops to activists who are willing to pay for their expertise. Still, the book is a useful tool for all those grassroots activists who don’t have a budget beyond the price of this book. It is time to update the book, though. As stated earlier, the 2010 publication completely ignores the effect of story-based strategy on digital platforms. We know the role Twitter played in the Arab Spring uprising. It has also provided the platform for countless hashtag activism movements like #BlackLivesMatter. If, as Marshall McLuhan famously said, “the medium is the message”, and the message is spread through memes, then surely the medium is the Internet.


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