Shifting the Narrative Podcast Our Tools

Episode 1 | What is Narrative?

Join us as we explore what The Opportunity Agenda means by “narrative” and how we can build our narrative power to change how Americans view important social justice issues. In this episode, you also get a preview of how Ellen Buchman experienced a shift in how she understood the struggle for marriage equality.

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Will Coley [00:00:00] On a recent Saturday morning, I went to the farmer’s market in Black Mountain, North Carolina, to ask some crucial questions. Is there anything you’ve ever changed your mind about and what was it?

Farmer’s Market Reaction [00:00:10] A lot of things, really. It’s hard to pick one.

Farmer’s Market Reaction [00:00:13] I could say I change my mind about religion and about how the environment is being taken care of.

Farmer’s Market Reaction [00:00:18] I would say recently I changed my mind about being a Democrat.

Farmer’s Market Reaction [00:00:22] I changed my mind about moving here.

Farmer’s Market Reaction [00:00:24] I liked skim milk. I like whole milk now.

Farmer’s Market Reaction [00:00:26] I was married and I changed my mind about staying there.

Farmer’s Market Reaction [00:00:30] Didn’t know if we wanted to have kids. And now I think we want to have kids.

Farmer’s Market Reaction [00:00:33] I’d always like Blue until like a year ago and I like green.

Farmer’s Market Reaction [00:00:38] Hahaha you changed your mind about me. Yeah, I did. We dated three separate times before we…before he decided he was ready to settle down.

Will Coley [00:00:48] The other question is, what do you think it takes to change everybody’s mind about something?

Farmer’s Market Reaction [00:00:53] Oh, I think I see what you’re talking about.

Farmer’s Market Reaction [00:00:56] Maybe having a lot of good stuff to support your idea of changing it. Yeah, you got to have evidence.

Farmer’s Market Reaction [00:01:05] I don’t know how many people’s minds I could change about like vegetables hahaha.

Farmer’s Market Reaction [00:01:09] I’d love to change everybody’s mind to be kind and come home and breathe.

Farmer’s Market Reaction [00:01:14] I don’t think it’s worth my time to try.

Farmer’s Market Reaction [00:01:17] I think personal narratives. And um talking to someone who has lived experience.

Farmer’s Market Reaction [00:01:24] I believe that you need to be articulate, yet compassionate…compassionate spokesperson for that particular issue, and you just need to push it out with love rather than stridency.

Farmer’s Market Reaction [00:01:37] You really have to listen to people and understand where they’re coming from. If you can do that, I think you can get to a good place.

Farmer’s Market Reaction [00:01:46] I do think I changed my mind about gay marriage. At first. That concept sounded very foreign to me and over a period of time, I became a person who thought, why not?

Will Coley [00:02:01] And what changed? What made you change your mind?

Farmer’s Market Reaction [00:02:04] I would say just opening it. Opening my mind changed it.

Will Coley [00:02:09] And what do you think it takes to change everybody’s mind about something?

Farmer’s Market Reaction [00:02:12] I would say sort of relaxing and letting your mind be open to other people’s ideas, kind of get off your own soapbox and just be open-minded.

Will Coley [00:02:26] That’s the question we’re asking in this podcast series. What does it take to get people to open their minds and change the way they think about critical social issues? I’m Will Coley. And you’re listening to shifting the narrative brought to you by The Opportunity Agenda, a social justice communication lab that works to advance the impact of the social justice community through powerful narrative and cultural strategies. In this episode, we’re going to talk about what we mean by stories and narrative. As you know, stories have a beginning, middle and end. They follow a series of events at a certain place and time. Dominant narratives are collections of stories that express core values or beliefs that we all share, and these change and shift over time. So when social justice advocates want to change public policy, they first need to strategically shift these narratives to make the policy change possible. So here’s an example. Smoking bans. I grew up in North Carolina, a tobacco-producing state, and went to college across the street from the R.J. Reynolds factory in Winston-Salem. I’ve never been a smoker, but I remember smoking sections in restaurants, bars and even on airplanes. Back in the day, there were no grounds to ask someone to put out their cigarette smoking. Was your choice like in this Winston commercial from the 1970s?

Winston Commercial [00:03:44] Yeah, me and my Winstons. We got a real good thing, real good taste.

Will Coley [00:03:56] But then we learned about the health effects of smoking. Flight attendants and restaurant workers fought for smoke-free workplaces. Soon the narrative changed and public policy followed.

News report [00:04:06] Restaurants and bars across North Carolina are now free of cigarette smoke. A statewide ban took effect at midnight. Smokers must now head outside or face a fine.

Will Coley [00:04:15] It wasn’t just scientific facts that made this possible. The dominant narrative shifted from your inalienable right to smoke to considering the effect of smoking on others. Today, smoking is often seen as selfish, inconsiderate or rude in many situations. To further explain the connection between stories and dominant narratives, I’ll have the help of Ellen Buchmann, president of The Opportunity Agenda. Hey Ellen, how are you?

Ellen Buchman [00:04:40] Hey, well, I’m great. Really excited about this series.

Will Coley [00:04:45] So, Ellen, do you have anything in common with people that I met at the farmer’s market in North Carolina?

Ellen Buchman [00:04:50] Yeah, I mean, I can certainly relate to the people you were talking to, Will, about how they’ve changed their minds. On marriage equality, I would tell you this. I’m queer and evolved around my view on the importance of marriage equality for the LGBTQ community. So, yeah, I guess I can relate, but maybe not for the exact same reasons that perhaps people might think.

Will Coley [00:05:17] So let’s back up a little. When did you first come out to yourself and others?

Ellen Buchman [00:05:21] I came out in my early 20s to the world previously to that I think I was in my teens when I knew

Will Coley [00:05:27] What was the narrative around marriage at that time?

Ellen Buchman [00:05:30] At that time, I was focused on the AIDS crisis and life and death, you know, issues related to our health care system. Marriage equality was kind of secondary, at least in my mind. So when it would come up, it was something that I sort of glossed over. No way. Why would we talk about that when we have these other more pressing issues?

Will Coley [00:05:51] And then what happened?

Ellen Buchman [00:05:53] So in 1989, I started working with the Citizen Labor Energy Coalition canvass networks, and I had just graduated from college. And I said to myself, let me just give this grassroots activism a try. And at that time, I met amazing people, including Patty Snee, and we were fast friends. Let’s just say one thing led to another. Well, and we became involved. And so I don’t want to say marriage was not in my head, but it really was not in my head as an issue that I felt like I would number one ever benefit from because gay people just weren’t able to do it then and nobody was really talking about it in my circles. But number two, I wasn’t prioritizing it. I was, again, prioritizing, fighting other injustices.

Will Coley [00:06:42] Hmm. And can you remember any key moments or milestones that started changing that narrative?

Ellen Buchman [00:06:47] When I think about the 80s and the 90s, I think about people like Ellen DeGeneres and Martina Navratilova and other celebrities who, not only were out and about doing their thing, and they had a lifestyle that we not only through being rich and famous, but through living their lives, really wanted to aspire to being. You know, the other thing that I remember that definitely was a tipping point was when President Clinton signed into law the so-called Defense of Marriage Act. At the time, I realized how wrong, how discriminatory it was because I’m sort of wired in my DNA to be working with others toward justice. I knew that I would have to do something to help to overturn it. So I remember thinking about it as what we didn’t have access to at that time, as opposed to what the aspirational story could be.

Will Coley [00:07:38] And so why did you decide to get married?

Ellen Buchman [00:07:41] You know, we we talked a lot about the question why when we decided why go ahead and do it? And really, it came down to something pretty simple. Being together for twenty five years was definitely something that was cause for celebration. And we found that we wanted a way to affirm together ourselves, our love, our families and our dear friends who supported us and who shared our lives for all this time. But I’ve evolved over time in how I think about the institution itself, because I can tell you right now, Will, that if you had asked me, maybe even five years ago whether we were going to get married, I probably would have said, why would I want to be a part of that hetero affirming, sexist structure? Probably not. But then, you know, when I came to really think about it, when friends started to get married, when the laws changed, the culture shifted, I realized that I wanted to live what I was trying to affirm, not what I was being left out of. And that was part of, for me, my my own personal tipping point and decision-making process to do it.

Will Coley [00:08:52] And so tell me about the wedding. Like, what was it like?

Ellen Buchman [00:08:55] You know, it was a really beautiful event, really marking a culmination of all of that.

Darlene Nipper [00:09:02] You already know what it is to be married. You have been together for twenty-five years. Well, they called me up and I said, “you’re getting married? aren’t you married? OK, OK.” But you’ve been there. Your love has been through what everyone else is nervous about when they step into this place. Will this love hold up? And yours has already shown all of us that. Folks, by the power vested in me, I now pronounce Ellen Buchman and Patty Snee, married!

Ellen Buchman [00:09:48] People who would say to us, y’all give so much in your work and in what you do every day, let us give to you by celebrating together with you will come.

Lynn Rheinhardt [00:10:01] When I say love, you say forever.

Wedding chant [00:10:03] Love, forever, love, forever, love, forever. Here’s to you and your love forever.

Ellen Buchman [00:10:11] And so I mark this narrative shift for what it is for myself, but for them to the same degree.

Will Coley [00:10:22] It’s great. So based on what you’ve seen in your life, Ellen, what are some of the lessons that you’ve learned about shifting narratives

Ellen Buchman [00:10:29] Be aware of the significance of the sort of tipping points that will suddenly or not so suddenly appear in your life and try and think about about those as opportunities as hard or as challenging as they may be. You know, DOMA is the perfect example of that, of one of those tipping points for me and be on the lookout for people who will actually join you and link arms with you. And then, you know, in every case of narrative shift, we can point to the heroes and the villains and we can say that we can actually learn from them if we let ourselves. And I think about, you know, how those who supported it then now are regretful that they did and shifted themselves to. So I would say those are the three, I think, most prominent lessons for me in this context. And really the lessons for me are those that we came out with in the report.

Will Coley [00:11:21] Ellen is referring to recent research from the opportunity agenda called Shifting the Narrative Six Case Studies. It’s the inspiration for this podcast series. The research team looked for lessons and commonalities in six examples of narrative change. They collected data and interviewed experts and activists who are eyewitnesses to these larger shifts. So Ellen’s story is about an individual changing the way she thought about marriage equality. At the same time this was happening, many, many Americans collectively changed their minds on the same issue. The dominant narrative changed. So how does stories connect to dominant narratives? There’s a great metaphor that our colleague Jeff Chang uses. Stories are like stars, which are individual, bright and inspiring. Narratives are like constellations. A collection of stars, constellations, connect stars together which give them a deeper meaning or pattern. And culture is like a galaxy which is the home for constellations and stars. And all of these elements are in a constant state of motion and interaction. Narratives, influence stories and vice versa, and culture changes as well. Our society did not fall apart when same-sex marriage was legalized. Instead, it’s become normal to say his husband or her wife. Smoking is now an issue that affects the air we share and not just individual freedom. In the next few episodes, we’re going to meet several people who in their own way, are shifting the narrative. We’ll meet an accidental activist from Indiana who witnessed the change in how Americans view the death penalty.

Bill Pelke [00:12:55] I had a friend and I ran into him. And when he came up to me, he he just looked at me and he said, “Bill, I hope that bitch burns,” because he’d read in the paper she’d been sentenced to death. And I kind of stood back. I looked at him. I said, I don’t.

Will Coley [00:13:10] We’ll also talk to a New York City theater company that helped people with different views of guns tell their stories together on stage.

Jenna Worsham [00:13:17] When I was 16 years old, all I wanted was a 12 gauge to call my own. And Christmas morning, 2004, my dreams came true. It was love at first sight

Elaine Lane [00:13:29] Before Jenna talked about her story. I really liked her. She’s such a warm and wonderful person and I really connected with her. Then I found out that she likes guns and I kept saying, “Well, do I hate her now?” And I just realized I can’t do that.

Will Coley [00:13:46] And we’ll see how. Two photographers captured a 50-year-old national campaign to change the narrative about poverty in the U.S.

Martin Luther King Jr. [00:13:53] We’re coming to Washington. In a poor people’s campaign. We are coming to demand government will address itself to the problem of poverty.

Will Coley [00:14:06] In our final episode will talk to the researchers for the opportunity agenda, shifting the narrative case studies.

Lucy Odigie-Turley [00:14:12] You can’t see the narratives when you’re in it and you’re living it. And so that was the most difficult thing about this research is we were effectively fish trying to prove that water was around us, which is hard when you’re in it.

Will Coley [00:14:28] Each of these episodes is available now. Wherever you get your podcasts search for shifting the narrative to see photos of Ellen Buchmann and Patti Smith wedding, listen to Ellen’s full interview and read more. Shifting the narrative case studies. Please visit the website You’ve been listening to Shifting the Narrative, a podcast series from The Opportunity Agenda. I’m Will Coley the producer, Elen Buchman is the president of the Opportunity Agenda. Our research and production team includes Elizabeth Johnson, Julie Fisher-Rowe, Lucy Odigie-Turley, Loren Siegel, Charlie Sherman, Lashaya Howie, Christiaan Perez, Brian Erickson, and Rachel Reyes. Our editor is Alison Barrenger, music provided by Blue Dot Sessions. Special thanks to Ellen and Patty for the audio from their wedding, as well as Darlene Nipper and Lynn Rheinhardt, who appear in the clips. Thanks for listening.

Ellen Buchman [00:15:28] Together, we can shift narratives and create greater opportunity for everyone.

Will Coley [00:15:35] Its for this nonprofit, I’m asking people if you’ve ever changed your mind about something and what it was.

Farmer’s Market Reaction [00:15:39] I change it daily minute by minute. I have a lot of minds. They all come in at different times. What nonprofit?

Will Coley [00:15:48] It’s called The Opportunity Agenda. Yeah, they’re based in New York.

Farmer’s Market Reaction [00:15:52] Have a blessed day! She twisted my arm to come here.

Will Coley [00:15:58] IThank you.

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