From Hollywood Headlines to Economic Policy

by Janelle Treibitz, The Opportunity Agenda

I have always believed in the power of art and culture. From my early years working in theater, I saw the potential for using art to build community, visualize a message and inspire an audience. But it wasn’t until I began organizing with social justice campaigns that I saw how culture shapes our values and beliefs. As I attempted to push for anti-poverty programs, I ran smack into the middle of the reinforcement loop that links cultural stories, Hollywood and our country’s laws and policies.

Cultural reinforcement loops make false stories feel like truth, making art and entertainment the most potent of allies or the most challenging of foes. Fortunately, advocates, organizers and creatives are on the innovative edge of how we can interrupt these loops and use culture to uphold the stories that push us forward toward a more just future. These leaders are increasingly setting their sights on how these stories are created and reinforced in order to dismantle and shift them.

Cultural reinforcement loops make false stories feel like truth, making art and entertainment the most potent of allies or the most challenging of foes.

One of the most popular cultural reinforcement loops entangles culture and policies around poverty. Exemplified in the increasingly mythical story that people in this country can achieve economic mobility through hard work, this story-turned-belief enjoys powerful loyalties across political divides. Heavily reinforced through movies, novels, and political stump speeches, it inspires the conclusion that people living in chronic poverty are there due to their own personal failings. Belief in that story produces national policy “solutions” that attempt only to address people’s perceived personal failings (rooted too often in stereotypes and racial bias) rather than the underlying systemic causes that actually drive poverty.

Hollywood is filled with “rags to riches” plot lines, with story arcs showing how people can overcome poverty if they just work hard enough (or meet the right rich, white person). An example of this pervasive narrative is The Pursuit of Happyness starring Will Smith. Based on a true story, this film depicts a brilliant man who, along with his young son, manages to move from homelessness into a fancy Wall Street job by proving his genius and economic prowess. Or The Blind Side, which follows a wealthy woman played by Sandra Bullock as she and her family adopt an African American teenager, lifting him out of poverty and helping him excel in football. (Note: the other African Americans in the boy’s life were depicted only as violent drug users or drug dealers who stayed poor—a problematic, and common, depiction.) Or take Pretty Woman, in which Julia Roberts as a hard working sex worker makes good by falling in love with a rich client. These cultural touchstones reinforce the story that the way out of poverty is merely hard work and a bit of luck, though our current economic system presents structural barriers that often trump an individual’s efforts.

Innocuous on the surface, these types of stories have shaped our cultural understanding of poverty and race and have helped pave the way for politicians to push through damaging legislation (like the 1996 Welfare Reform Act which was justified by quoting the stereotypes depicted in films). In turn, these policies weave their own narratives (“welfare dependency” = “folks who don’t want to work”) that reinforce the stereotypes and continue the erroneous cultural storyline.

That is why it is necessary for advocates working on economic inclusiveness to engage in those underlying cultural narratives that drive common ideas and policies about poverty. The Opportunity Agenda’s research has shown that most Americans (75%) think that unequal treatment of poor people is a problem. So how can we challenge these stories that erase systemic causes and reinforce bias? How do we create and popularize the stories that offer a holistic, intersectional understanding of poverty? And how can we activate the shared values of equal opportunity and interconnection that would build support for real solutions?

To that end, we’ve done an analysis of media and other places where advocates have used cultural opportunities to advance, shift, or change the dialogue. Below we offer a few tips based on the case studies we’ve gathered from the Creative Change Retreat and regional strategy session alumni, and other creative change-makers who are disrupting prevailing storylines around economic opportunity, climate change, mass incarceration, and racial justice.

Tip #1: Tell an Affirmative Story

It’s easy to focus on communicating all the problems we see, but communicating our visions of the future we want to see can hold incredible power and can often find more support. For an example of affirmative storytelling, we love the story of Hypotopia. When Austria’s Hype Alpe Adria bank failed, it created a national economic crisis that revealed corrupt politicians and was bailed out for €19 billion. After an online petition calling for an official inquiry failed to get much public support, students from the Technical University of Vienna designed and created a scale model of a fictional city that could be built for the same price tag as the bailout. They displayed the model city, which they named “Hypotopia,” in one of Vienna’s main squares. The fictional city was designed to be completely sustainable, running on renewable resources and hosting inclusive economies, and was large enough that, had it existed, it would have been Austria’s sixth largest city. Over 40,000 people, including politicians and Austria’s president, visited the project and the word “Hypotopia” was the runner up for Austria’s word of the year. The project revealed a new economic paradigm and demonstrated that policy makers had more choices than people had at first believed. Other examples of the transformative power of the affirmative can be seen in efforts such as CultureStrike’s Migration is Beautiful and The Harry Potter Alliance’s Imagine Better campaigns.

Tip #2: Show, Don’t Tell

In this era of 24-hour entertainment with its attendant barrage of visual stimulation, we cannot simply rely on talking points and fact sheets to capture an audience’s empathy and attention. Help audiences connect to your cause by illustrating or enacting the stories that not only support your narrative but help embody it. One powerful example is Angad Bhalla and Lisa Valencia-Svensson’s Emmy Award-winning documentary Herman’s House that takes us inside the lives and creative dialogue between artist Jackie Sumell and Herman Wallace, who was held in long-terms solitary confinement at Angola Prison. The power of the film is in witnessing the verbal, visual, and physical depiction of the hopes and dreams of the man serving the longest solitary prison sentence. As artist Sumell states, “…I knew the only way I could get [Herman] out of prison was to get him to dream.”

New technologies are also powerful tools in this effort. A recent example is when The Guardian, in collaboration with directors Lindsay Poulton and Francesca Panetta, created a virtual reality experience of solitary confinement that puts the viewer in a cell and features the voices of former inmates who tell their stories of how they survived solitary confinement. The combination of a virtual reality experience with formerly incarcerated people’s personal stories serves as visceral evidence that supports advocates’ narrative that solitary confinement is torture. The project, 6×9: An Immersive Experience of Solitary Confinement, premiered as an installation at the Tribeca Film Festival 2016. You can experience the project online or through this mobile app.

Tip # 3: Make Your Own Media

This is the first moment in human history in which almost all of us have the ability to speak and tell stories to millions of people and hear back from them without having to go through mainstream media. Issa Rae is an example of the powerful new digital storytelling generation. When the new media phenom found a dearth of relatable storylines featuring black female nerd characters in contemporary sitcoms, the author, producer, and writer created her own award-winning web series, The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, that injects a new, realistic perspective on the lives of young black women—and it went viral. Rae told the audience of “Changing the Script: Media, Culture and Black Lives,” convened by The Opportunity Agenda last summer, that she created the series to provide “an alternative depiction; a real depiction, showing that [African Americans] are capable of doing anything and being anything.” Importantly, the narrative advanced by Rae’s series reinforces the way artists and activists are working to change the way we portray and value black lives in America.

Or, if creating a fictional series is too out of reach, consider something simpler like an Instagram account or podcast. Everyday Incarceration is an Instagram account started by photojournalists that looks at the legacy of mass incarceration through photographs. The artfully curated account has nearly 75,000 followers and has spawned national conversations and media attention on the subject. How could you team up with content creators with aligned values to make your own media?

Tip #4: Piggyback on Pop Culture

Piggybacking on popular memes, movies, songs, or events can allow you to reach larger audiences than you would otherwise be able to access. Piggybacking can take many forms, including using a viral hashtag, linking your issue to newly released movies, tweeking recognizable memes, using pop culture formats to communicate your stories (comic books, superheroes), etc. For example: anticipating the release of the Oscar-nominated movie The Help (about the struggles of African American domestic workers in 1960s Mississippi), the National Domestic Workers Alliance started their #BeTheHelp campaign, capitalizing on the movie’s popularity to raise awareness of the struggles of modern domestic workers. Using the #BeTheHelp hashtag, the campaign pushed out videos of domestic workers, organized Oscar-watching parties across the country, and helped coach the actors in the film on how to talk about domestic worker issues. They invited everyday people to learn about simple ways they could “create respect, recognition and protections for domestic workers.” The link to the popular film attracted the attention of both news and pop culture media outlets, which served to further push out the stories of modern domestic workers, helping audiences understand the issues and the need for change.

Tip #5: Create Decision Dilemmas

A decision dilemma is a framing tactic that puts the target of your campaign in a situation where any decision they make tells a story that works in your favor. The New York-based activist art collective Not An Alternative provides a great example of this with their campaign The Natural History Museum. Calling upon museums to divest from climate deniers and the fossil fuel industry, the campaign aims to “affirm the truth of science” in relation to climate change. They build art installations based on the aesthetics of natural history exhibits, conduct workshops, and host creative tours that highlight the role of museums as accountable institutions that should uphold science. Their brilliant decision dilemma is this: if museums refuse to change and continue getting their funding from climate deniers, they look like they are undermining their own mission; if they choose to divest, then the campaign wins their demands. By holding museums accountable to science, the campaign has built a successful narrative that frames climate denial as unscientific and antiquated, and climate change as important and scientifically indisputable.

If you’d like to learn more about shifting the narrative on poverty, check out The Opportunity Agenda’s Messaging Memo on the subject, which includes tips for talking about poverty, insights from public opinion research, and messaging and storytelling recommendations:

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