To change the world, transform narrative oceans
by Bridgit Antoinette Evans
I’d like you to imagine a vast, swirling ocean. In this ocean, picture a tiny fish swimming around. (In the spirit of pop culture, let’s call him Nemo.) Nemo is doing fish things: eating plankton, checking in with his fish friends, going to fish school. Doing his life.
What Nemo is probably not doing is swimming around thinking, “Water. Water. I’m in water. There’s water all around me.” To Nemo, water isn’t water, it’s reality. It’s his world.
Like Nemo, we are all swimming in a kind of ocean — except instead of water swirling around us, there are narratives. And like Nemo, few of us walk through our days thinking, “Narrative. Narrative. There are narratives all around me.” And yet, these narratives influence everything about how we live, see, and think about ourselves in the world. These narratives feel like reality to us — like the air we breathe. They are our world.
The hard truth is that large swaths of the narrative “ocean” in which we currently swim are toxic — poisoned with terrible ideas about who we are, who belongs, and who does not. My question to you: In this toxic environment, what becomes of our imaginations? Our willingness to believe, to fight, to build something new? And if this generative superpower is destroyed, how can we possibly see the future that could exist beyond this messy, brutal chapter in America’s story?
At the Pop Culture Collaborative, we are convinced that if social justice movements hope to one day create a just and pluralist society in the U.S., the pop culture for social change field — storytellers, organizers, researchers, cultural strategists, and funders — must commit to the hard work of transforming the narrative oceans in which we all swim.
Since 2017, Collaborative’s community (including staff, Managing Partners, grantees, Senior Fellows, and cohort members) has commissioned research; convened grantees for learning retreats, work sessions, and community gatherings; and conducted dozens of interviews with field practitioners. With this work we have investigated the question of how narratives and stories could become catalysts for widespread cultural change.
Our most important revelations:
1. THE GOAL IS TO TRANSFORM NARRATIVE OCEANS.
As a broad sector, we need to challenge our impulse to change “the narrative” on a particular issue, and instead embrace the work of transforming whole narrative oceans — that is, the ecosystems of narratives, ideas, and cultural norms that shape the behaviors, mindsets, and worldviews of millions of people. Efforts to change the narrative often result in specific one-directional communication plans, message frames, campaigns, or story projects that may have a short-term effect, but do not measurably transform cultural norms. These tactics are akin to squeezing a drop of red food coloring into a vast ocean of blue water and expecting the ocean to turn purple.
We believe that transforming entire narrative oceans is necessary, and that this change process begins when millions of people begin to experiment with new behaviors that, when embodied by a majority of people in a community or society, create the conditions for enduring shifts in cultural norms, and ultimately, in values and worldview.
2. THE WORK IS TO ACHIEVE NARRATIVE IMMERSION.
To transform narrative oceans, we have to achieve a depth of narrative immersion such that people experience a fictional way of life as possible, and begin to express first yearning, then desire, and finally, demand for this fiction to be made real. The depth and scale of cultural change we seek simply cannot be achieved through philanthropy’s continued support of only individual, one-off story projects or campaigns. Instead, widespread cultural change is most reliably achieved when millions of people are immersed, over time, in new narrative oceans powered by a multitude of coordinated story experiences and organized communities (e.g., pop culture fandoms) that express diverse and complex perspectives while also holding the same core ideas.
During a long-term culture change process, narrative immersion can occur in different ways and at different scales for different audiences. In some cases, smaller segments of people become immersed in different stories that carry similar ideas, and the cumulative effect of these different viewing experiences creates a shared experience of narrative immersion in a narrative ocean–for instance, when television crime procedurals across different networks, characters, and storylines all normalize harmful police behavior as justified.
Narrative immersion can also happen because a majority of people in a society are experiencing the same cultural moment at the same time. The #BlackLivesMatter groundswells of 2014 and 2020 have fundamentally recomposed the narrative ocean around policing for many Americans.
3. TO ACHIEVE NARRATIVE IMMERSION, FUND NARRATIVE NETWORKS.
The sheer scale and depth of narrative immersion we need can’t possibly be achieved by one organization, company, or person. By studying a range of sectors that have achieved large-scale narrative immersion in new ideas, narratives, and behavioral norms — the entertainment industry, Civil Rights and marriage equality movements, anti-smoking and other health advocacy programs, governments, corporate brands, educational systems, religious communities — our team came to understand that they all rely on narrative networks of individuals, groups, and institutions we call “narrative drivers.” These narrative drivers (artists, organizers, journalists, public figures, community leaders, and others) work together over time to coalesce into a narrative network that moves stories and other narrative experiences, ones that share new narratives, mental models, and behavioral norms, into the public imagination.
4. NARRATIVE SYSTEMS ACCELERATE THE PACE OF CHANGE.
Our analysis also revealed one component common to many successful culture change processes: an intentionally designed and activated narrative system, that is, a framework that outlines the coordinated ecosystem of pop culture stories, narrative archetypes, mental models, and behavioral norms that are deliberately designed to work together to gradually replace one narrative ocean with a new one.
While new narrative oceans emerge in many ways, use of a narrative system framework can dramatically accelerate the pace at which a new narrative ocean takes shape. Moreover, when a narrative network shares a clear culture shift goal, theory for how a new narrative ocean will evolve, and a strategic framework that operationalizes this theory, this network can attain far greater reach and coordination, and, ultimately, narrative transformation.
How Narrative Systems Work
The Collaborative’s narrative systems approach is predicated on the belief, reinforced by George Gerbner’s Cultivation Theory and other social, neuro, and cognitive science, that when consistently immersed in pop culture storyworlds that carry transformative ideas, characters, behaviors, and ways of living, people begin to feel that the alternate realities depicted in these worlds are not only possible, they are preferable.
Grounded in this belief and guided by evidence emerging in our field, our operating theory supports the idea that these pop culture storyworlds, seeded by professional storytellers (in entertainment, the arts, advertising, and media), social justice organizers, fans, and community-based creators from historically excluded communities and coordinated through a narrative system, can produce cultural change at scale.
To refine our thinking, our staff, Managing Partners, and a working group of grantees and partners worked with Senior Fellow Ryan Senser and his research partner Eleanor Morison over an 18-month period to develop a narrative system framework that expresses our theory of how narrative systems drive towards a specific culture change goal.
It goes like this:
Specific pop culture stories — shaped by narrative archetypes that carry new mental models into the cultural waters — gradually spark an inciting experience or series of experiences that inspire people to experiment with new behaviors. These behaviors, when routinely embodied by a person, gradually diffuse harmful mental models, creating space for these new mental models to live and thrive in the imagination. These new mental models and behaviors, once expressed by millions of people, create the momentum needed to achieve a specific culture change goal.
The proliferation of the Love Is Love narrative system, which worked to normalize same sex marriages in the U.S., illustrates how narrative systems can take shape through intentional, collaboratively designed strategy and activation by a multi-sector narrative network spanning movements, advertising, the arts, entertainment, and big media. But narrative systems can also emerge from the bottom up, when a specific story experience sparks a pattern of similar stories that form an immersive narrative ocean over time. When the COVID-19 pandemic began to shut down economies and communities around the world in early 2020, a new tradition emerged: nightly applause for the doctors, nurses, and other hospital staff who were on the frontlines of the medical response. The National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) — a social justice organization representing over 2 million childcare workers, home health aids, and house cleaners — recognized that hospitals were not the only frontlines of this crisis. Acting quickly, NDWA and allies like Color of Change and Resilience Force began to tell the story of the largely BIPOC and immigrant care workers, construction workers, food delivery, and farm workers who were also essential to the nation’s crisis response. This story gradually became the norm in movements, philanthropy, journalism, public discourse, and ultimately, public policy. The positioning of care work as infrastructure in federal budget proposals would not have happened without the narrative power that these grassroots communities built.
Transforming Narrative Oceans
The goal of a narrative system design and activation process (described in the full paper in more detail) is to catalyze an ecosystem of coordinated stories — an immersive narrative ocean — that reflect and reinforce transformative mental models and behavioral norms. In this narrative ocean, different kinds of stories play different roles in the culture change process.
In From Stories to Systems, I focus on five types of story experiences: pop culture experiences, spectacles, revelations of belonging, “big sky” moments, and portal moments.
1. Pop Culture Experiences
In the narrative system activation stage, professional and nonprofessional storytellers, fans, and community members leverage the power of narrative archetypes to tell wildly diverse stories that all carry the same underlying mental models into the cultural waters. These stories can take the form of movies, television shows, digital content, advertisements, songs and music videos, books, video and board games, comics, immersive experiential projects, VR/AR, fan-generated content and cosplay, news stories, essays, and even political speeches.
As new narrative environments take shape, a specific story experience can operate like a vortex around which the broader ecosystem of coordinated stories begins to swirl. These are “spectacle moments,” stories that express the core ideas of a narrative system and help audiences interpret other stories they encounter through the lens of specific mental models or behavioral norms. The image of the Black Lives Matter letters painted on the street leading to the White House, or of activist Bree Newsome scaling the flagpole to yank down the Confederate flag from South Carolina’s state capitol during the 2015 Black Lives Matter uprisings, were spectacles that conveyed the story of a youthful, defiant movement rising to cultural power in the wake of tragedy.
3. Revelations of Belonging
As more and more people become immersed in a new narrative ocean and begin to experiment with new behaviors, individuals may experience revelatory moments in which they discover that many people share the same private beliefs, yearnings, or pain points as they do. The awareness of their place in a crowd of like-minded people is an important meaning-making moment within a person’s journey of change. Often, the realization that their views or beliefs are also experienced by many others inspires the confidence a person needs to more publicly test new behaviors once deemed too dangerous or unpopular to express.
In a Kaiser Family Foundation poll conducted in June 2020, researchers found that 10% of the U.S. population had “personally attended a protest or rally in the last 3 months either to protest police violence or in support of Black Lives Matter or other anti-racist causes,” making them collectively among the largest protests in U.S. history. In these crowds were millions of people of every race, young and older, in cities, suburbs, and rural towns, who were likely attending their first protests against anti-Blackness. There are a myriad of reasons why people embraced new behaviors, but one of them was surely the effect of discovering, through social media posts and news stories, that millions of other people also yearned to stand up and cry no to America’s legacy of racial terror.
4. “Big Sky” Moments
When Ryan Coogler and the Walt Disney Company released the first Black Panther film during Black Futures Month in 2018, it’s fair to say that American culture was transformed. In every corner of our lives, celebration and discussion of Blackness — our culture, genius, joy, creative innovation, and resilience in the face of generational trauma — moved centerstage. This was what we call a “big sky” narrative moment, when the majority of people in a community or society are all looking up at the same narrative sky. Achieving this height and scale of narrative immersion requires intention, long-term strategy, and the nimbleness to constantly track cultural currents and sense opportunities before most people glimpse light on the horizon.
5. Portal Moments
Often born out of crisis, disaster, or other great change, portal moments are unplanned but cataclysmic events that force an abrupt cracking open of the public imagination about what is possible, where old habits of life and society are destabilized to such an extent that the prospect of a new way of living suddenly feels reasonable, even necessary, for our survival. Crises become portal moments when narrative drivers — social justice organizers, pop culture storytellers, journalists, educators, and politicians — use narrative strategies to make meaning out of them.
Millions of people began to view the COVID-19 crisis as a portal moment when Arundhati Roy’s searing essay, “The Pandemic Is a Portal,” spread like wildfire on social media. Roy’s piece suggested the pandemic was an opportunity for humankind to leave behind old, outdated ways of being in order to step onto a path towards justice. Similarly, the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and Tony McDade sparked a national crisis that the Movement for Black Lives transformed into a portal moment that has accelerated the pace at which deep systemic change can be achieved.
Not all crises lead to prosocial portal moments. September 11th was a tragic event that could have deepened America’s bonds with the global community. Instead, the government built the narrative power needed to advance catastrophic legislation, cultural norms, and mental models of the inherent danger of Muslim people and cultures. Today, over 20 years later, we are still climbing out of this toxic narrative ocean. Narratives tested shortly after 9/11 have helped legitimize migrant abuse, the Muslim ban, the hyper-militarization of and surveillance by law enforcement, the expansion of mass incarceration, and much more.
It’s worth repeating: crises become portal moments when narrative networks help people interpret them as such. In the fight for social justice, philanthropy needs to invest in the narrative infrastructure that will enable the pop culture for social change field to recognize portal moments as they emerge, and effectively shape how the American public makes meaning out of them.
Together, pop culture stories, spectacle moments, revelations of belonging, and when present, “big sky” and portal moments, work together to churn the waters of an existing narrative ocean, gradually transforming these waters to reflect just ideas and behavioral norms.
Testing the Theory & Frameworks
As a queer, disabled Black woman, artist, cultural strategist, and funder, I engage in narrative and culture change work while also navigating a painful truth: while narrative systems methodology builds on the legacy of prosocial worldbuilding practiced around the world over thousands of years — in which people told and retold stories and myths in order to cultivate shared social values, history and culture — these methodologies have been misappropriated, distorted, and weaponized by authoritarian governments, religious factions, and other toxic forces in order to spread harmful disinformation designed to divide, dehumanize, and oppress millions of people, especially BIPOC, women, transgender, nonbinary, queer, disabled, Muslim, and immigrant communities. This is cultural theft, and the impact has been devastating.
But as we have seen with the “Love Is Love” strategy, narrative systems practice is now being reclaimed by people actively engaged in the hard and delicate work of creating a just and pluralist society, and the Pop Culture Collaborative is among those experimenting with these methodologies.
In 2020, the Collaborative launched the Becoming America Fund, a philanthropic strategy that supports a narrative network of pop culture for social change practitioners to use narrative systems methodology to ignite imagination, curiosity, and yearning for something new in the U.S.: a pluralist society where everyone belongs. The fund is our first large-scale exploration of how narrative system design and network organizing can help our field and movements achieve cultural change at the scale of hundreds of millions of people.
The path forward is clear: to create the world we seek, we must transform narrative oceans. Because if just systems and structures are the bones of a healthy democracy, pluralist culture is its heartbeat, breath, blood, and muscles. One cannot thrive without the other, and now, we have evidence-based methodology that integrates policy and organizing strategies with the equally powerful narrative and cultural strategies that philanthropy needs to resource.
We are honored to continue building out this work in community with a growing ecosystem of practitioners and funders, and look forward to evolving our thinking and these ideas with you.
Excerpted from From Stories to Systems: Using a Narrative Systems Approach to Inform Narrative Change Strategies by Bridgit Antoinette Evans (Pop Culture Collaborative, 2022). To request the full paper, please email learning [at] popcollab.org.