Want Narrative Power? Invest in Narrative Infrastructure.
Introducing a new guide for social justice narrative infrastructure grantmaking
By Tracy Van Slyke, Chief Strategy Officer, Pop Culture Collaborative
“My truth is I don’t want a chair at the table… I want the table to be rebuilt. In my likeness. And in the likeness of others long forced out of the room.”
— Ava DuVernay, Award-Winning Film Director and Producer
More than 100 people set the table.
It was 2018, in the last few hours of ENTERTAIN CHANGE, a two-day learning and relationship-building gathering for pop culture narrative change field members. Hosted by the Pop Culture Collaborative, ENTERTAIN CHANGE took place at the gorgeous ARRAY campus in Los Angeles, the creative home of award-winning film director and producer Ava DuVernay.
The plan had been for participants to go on break while 10 long tables were combined to form one communal farm table for our final meal together. But as the best-laid plans sometimes go (as in, they don’t), our previous session ran long. But at that moment, when our plans looked like they were about to fall apart, something beautiful happened.
Moving quickly into coordinated action, attendees joined with the Collaborative team to lift and combine tables. As some passed and placed dozens of chairs around the lengthening perimeter, others began laying down tablecloths and settings. And then everyone, together, sat and broke bread. Amid the clattering of plates and passing of food, the rumble of laughter hit the rafters, ricocheting against the sound waves of dozens of cross-table conversations.
It was then, witnessing the ability of these 100 people to seamlessly move from individuals to collaborators, joyfully building together, for each other, that the realization dawned:
“Damn, this field is going to be powerful.”
Just a few years earlier, the pop culture narrative change field was nascent. While there had been a rise in innovative and timely culture change projects — films, music videos, web series, TV storylines, creative campaigns that achieved a measure of visibility and resourcing- — these storytelling initiatives still needed durable layers of infrastructure and financial support to create palpable and enduring change in the beliefs and behaviors of millions of people.
In response, a network of philanthropic leaders, primarily BIPOC, women, and/or queer people, led by Unbound Philanthropy, the Nathan Cummings Foundation, and the Ford Foundation, founded the Pop Culture Collaborative in Fall 2016. Today, the Collaborative is a multimillion-dollar donor collaborative.
We organize and deploy financial and other resources to support the pop culture narrative change field — led by and centering Black and Indigenous peoples, people of color, immigrants and refugees, and Muslim peoples, especially those who are women, queer, trans, nonbinary, and/or disabled — to transform narrative oceans and build narrative power at scale.
Since our launch, we have moved nearly $25 million into the field, with a primary focus on equipping grantees with the narrative power they need to immerse the majority of people in America in an irresistible, wondrous vision of a society shaped by pluralist culture and rooted in justice.
And now, after six years, two things are clear:
- Social justice funders are getting into position to support narrative change work at scale. More philanthropic peers are exploring and expanding their narrative infrastructure resourcing strategies, but also face questions on how to start and where to focus.
- We have no time to wait. White nationalist movements have spent decades investing in narrative infrastructure. Now they are using that narrative power to fundamentally transform this country into a society where most of us don’t belong, or even exist.
That is why, informed by years of learnings and insights from field members, the Pop Culture Collaborative is proud to release, “Narrative Infrastructure for Narrative Immersion,” a new strategic grantmaking framework to support social justice funders on their journey towards resourcing, at scale, the critical area of narrative infrastructure.
What we’ve learned and the urgency of now.
“Narrative power is the ability to change the norms and rules our society lives by. Narrative infrastructure is the set of systems we maintain in order to do that reliably over time.”
— Rashad Robinson, President, Color of Change
It is important to understand that narrative change work has multiple, interconnected approaches, including strategic communications, journalism and opinion, and culture change. Each approach helps millions of people make meaning of the stories and narratives they are immersed in every day. Each interconnects with and reinforces the others. But each approach also has its own distinct methods and strategies, impact and outcomes, and yes, narrative infrastructure.
The Pop Culture Collaborative focuses on culture change, specifically on popular culture, because it’s one of the most influential arenas shaping how people make meaning and forge identities: the big ideas and immersive stories that flow through television, movies, digital and social media, music, books, sports, journalism, political campaigns, and other artistic and cultural experiences that millions of people experience every day. This cultural context influences how people behave, their conclusions of who belongs (or doesn’t) in a society, their participation and decision-making in the democratic process, and the vision they hold about the future.
When the Pop Culture Collaborative first launched, the staff leadership was often asked: “What is the narrative we need right now for XYZ issue?” or “What’s the impact of this pop culture narrative change work?”
Drawing from our collective decades of experience in culture change and related narrative change, we knew that these questions actually landed us at the end, instead of the beginning, of the field-building journey. So in our first stage, as we sought to lay the ground for the field, the Collaborative team asked:
- How does large-scale, enduring cultural transformation happen?
- What narrative power does the field have now, and what narrative power is needed to create enduring, cultural transformation?
- Are the most vital leaders, who sit at the heart of the narrative vision, accessing the scale and continuity of investments that build their narrative power?
- What are the narrative infrastructure gaps or barriers to expanding their narrative power?
To answer these questions, the Collaborative embarked on a multi-pronged learning and testing journey.
First, inspired and directed by the expertise of field members — BIPOC artists working in the entertainment industry, including Ava DuVernay, America Ferrera, Issa Rae, Emil Pinnock, Mauricio Mota, and Sameer Gardezi; social justice movement leaders integrating pop culture narrative change strategies into their organizational DNA such as Ai-jen Poo, Rashad Robinson, Crystal Echo Hawk, and Jose Antonio Vargas; narrative strategists as Erin Potts, Ishita Srivastava, and Brian Walker — we began to resource core capacity and innovative initiatives to expand the field’s narrative power.
Second, based on narrative systems methodology developed and tested over the past decade by culture change leaders and strategists Bridgit Antoinette Evans (now CEO of the Pop Culture Collaborative), Ai-jen Poo, and Ryan Senser, the Collaborative team designed a groundbreaking narrative system framework detailing how new narrative environments can take shape in mass culture. As Evans writes in, “From Stories to Systems: Using a Narrative Systems Approach to Inform Pop Culture Narrative Change Grantmaking,”
We need to challenge our impulse to change the narrative on a particular issue and instead embrace the hard work of transforming whole narrative oceans.
The Collaborative’s narrative system’s framework and methodology is rooted in the understanding that every person moves through their lives immersed in “narrative oceans” composed largely of ideas, narrative archetypes, cultural norms, and stories. These narrative oceans shape people’s identities and beliefs, including how they think and feel about themselves, other people, and the world around them.
And with the learnings from our narrative infrastructure grantmaking and insights from our narrative systems methodology, a core understanding has crystallized:
Narrative infrastructure makes narrative immersion possible.
And we’re not the only ones who understand this truth.
Right now, social justice narrative change work is being outspent and outpaced by toxic cultural movements. We are witnessing the impact of a surging white nationalist cultural movement that, over decades, prioritized building a sprawling, interconnected ecosystem of their own narrative infrastructure in news media, digital platforms, Hollywood, public education, and beyond. They are now using disinformation as a centerpiece strategy to radicalize millions of people, to erase the true history of America’s origins, and disband movements for justice and real belonging. Their goal: to cement the governing authority of a white, Christian patriarchy.
We are at one of the most dangerous inflection points our country has ever experienced. Social justice philanthropy has a calling to invest in a range of narrative approaches and strategies, with a specific focus on the narrative infrastructure that can support our fields to supplant, and become more powerful than, the toxic forces polluting our narrative waters.
Philanthropy can meet this moment.
“When Caring Across Generations launched in 2011, we had no narrative infrastructure, no dedicated funding, and very little internal capacity for this work. In the years since, with the support of philanthropic funding, we have built a culture change team with expertise across the entertainment industry, social impact campaigns, visual arts, advertising, and comedy. We have developed a networked field of practice with artists, filmmakers, showrunners, and journalists, who trust us and collaborate with us. And now, we partner with television writers rooms; create content that is strategic, targeted, and distributed at scale; use comedy to move people; and conduct repeated narrative testing to make sure that the work we do actually resonates.”
— Ishita Srivastava, Chief of Narrative and Culture Change, Caring Across Generations
The urgency is clear. Social justice narrative change fields, especially those that center BIPOC leadership and innovation, need narrative infrastructure for narrative immersion.
Social justice philanthropy can design grantmaking strategies that build the field’s narrative power to ignite the yearning among the majority of Americans to co-create a pluralist culture in which everyone, inherently, belongs.
And those design choices are critical. For example, in the Collaborative’s early years, we were inspired by field partners, particularly disability inclusion advocates, to make the strategic pivot from the practice of Inclusion to Innovation. This core value guides our grantmaking work. We do not invest in reforms (for example, “fixing” existing DEI programs) or narrative infrastructure that reinforces white supremacist standards and systems. Instead, we invest in narrative infrastructure that expands opportunity — and power — for intersectional BIPOC artists, storytellers, industry leaders, narrative strategists, cultural researchers, and movement visionaries.
We are early (and often, the first) philanthropic resources for BIPOC-artist led pipeline infrastructure piloted by ARRAY Crew, Color Creative, Starfish Accelerator, the Center for Cultural Powers’ Disruptors Fellowship, and other grantee partners now working to center BIPOC, trans, disabled, and immigrant artists and workers as a driving creative force in Hollywood. To change how the television industry develops content, we support alternative television writers rooms created by artist-led companies such as Break the Room, Unleashing Giants, and the Barcid Foundation, inspired by the groundbreaking model developed by Wise Entertainment for the hit Hulu series East Los High. And we resource the hubs and initiatives that build cross-sector relationships like Harness, Storyline Partners, and Yes, And…Laughter Lab that support the field to collaborate at scale.
We also prioritized funding the capacity and needed experimentation from movement-led groups that are operationalizing mass audience narrative change strategies, such as Caring Across Generations, Color of Change, Define American, IllumiNative, National Domestic Workers Alliance, and United We Dream, which are transforming the narrative waters on issues of care, gender justice, immigrants rights, indigenous rights, and racial justice.
Now, after years of learning, we are delighted to share our insights and recommendations in a philanthropic tool to support social justice narrative infrastructure resourcing strategies.
“Narrative Infrastructure for Narrative Immersion,” documents the core connection between the Pop Culture Collaborative’s foundational narrative change theory and the role of narrative infrastructure; provides a framework around six narrative infrastructure areas; and offers a design path to develop a narrative infrastructure grantmaking strategy.
The six narrative infrastructure areas include:
- LEADERSHIP. Cultivating visionary leadership, pathbreaking organizations, and field-wide partnerships.
- INTELLIGENCE. Supporting narrative landscape analysis and power mapping, industry and audience research, and ongoing learning and evaluation.
- COLLABORATION. Funding organizational hubs and cultural strategy that braid together creative communities and cross-sector field members via convenings, partnership development, and network weaving.
- POWER. Resourcing artist- and field-led pipelines and industry organizing that creates new entry points and bypasses/and eliminates systemic barriers inside narrative industries.
- INNOVATION. Investing in organizations, companies, and platforms that decide the means of production and distribution.
- COMMUNITY. Building networks and initiatives that create and fortify pluralist communities (i.e. pop culture fandoms).
“Narrative Infrastructure for Narrative Immersion,” provides additional insight on the narrative power building opportunities for each narrative infrastructure area.
The tool’s grantmaking strategy design guideposts, with accompanying process recommendations, are:
- Define your VALUES.
- Know the FIELD.
- Analyze POWER.
- Identify sites of INNOVATION.
- Invest in narrative INFRASTRUCTURE ECOSYSTEMS.
- Support and evaluate over MULTIPLE YEARS.
With enduring narrative power, the social justice field can create the scale and level of narrative immersion that propels us all towards the just and pluralist society we deserve. How do we unleash that narrative power? One last time — say it with me now — invest in narrative infrastructure.
If you are a funder who reads Narrative Infrastructure for Narrative Immersion and you have questions, feedback, or would like a 1–1 consultation on developing your resourcing strategy, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
To learn more about our funder learning community, Entertain Change: Philanthropy, focused on narrative and cultural power building, please fill out our sign up form here.