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Episode 5 | What We’ve Learned

Over the past few episodes, we introduced you to the idea of what Shifting the Narrative is and what it looks like in gun sense, the war on poverty, and the death penalty. To wrap-up the season, we bring together narrative experts to help break down the major takeaways from the series and what they mean in our day-to-day narrative battles.

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Lucy Odigie-Turley [00:00:00] I mean, for most narratives, we ARE fish in water. 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.

Ellen Buchman [00:00:17] You’re listening to Shifting the Narrative, a podcast series about what it means to shift the dominant narrative around critical social and cultural issues of our time.

Will Coley [00:00:26] I’m Will Coley reporting for The Opportunity Agenda.

Ellen Buchman [00:00:29] And I’m Ellen Buchman, President of The Opportunity Agenda, we’re a Social Justice Communication Lab that’s working to advance the impact of the social and racial justice community. We do this by shaping compelling narratives and messages and by building the capacity of leaders in the communications, training and resources that we offer.

Will Coley [00:00:49] in this episode – the final in the series – we’re taking a look back at the stories that we’ve covered, and we’re talking to the researchers who produced Opportunity Agenda’s Shifting the Narrative case studies. Along with Ellen, I’m joined today by…would you like to introduce yourself?

Julie Fisher-Rowe [00:01:05] Hi, I’m Julie Fisher-Rowe. I’m the director of narrative and research at The Opportunity Agenda.

Will Coley [00:01:11] So, Julie, can you start out with telling us what is narrative?

Julie Fisher-Rowe [00:01:15] Sure. We define narrative as a big story, an overarching story, the kind of 30000 foot thinking about any given social justice issue in our case that really has a direction. It has characters, it has an arc, and it’s rooted in values. It really hits people kind of more in the way they’re feeling about things than the way they’re analytically thinking about things.

Will Coley [00:01:41] And what would you define narrative strategy as?

Julie Fisher-Rowe [00:01:43] Narrative strategy is an attempt to shift a dominant narrative. So when we take a look at many of the narratives that are around our issues right now, a lot of them are not going in the direction that we would want. So if we’re strategizing, we’re trying to figure out how to either shift counter bad narratives or in some cases replace them entirely. If we feel like we would have the power to do that.

Will Coley [00:02:07] Ellen, do you have anything to add to that?

Ellen Buchman [00:02:08] Only to say that it isn’t like flicking a switch because we’re enveloped by the narratives every single day, which is why, Will, your question is so important. Strategy is so important.

Will Coley [00:02:19] And can you all tell me a little bit about the origin of this research? Like how did it come about?

Ellen Buchman [00:02:24] Back when we decided to take it on, we knew that there had been quite a bit of success over the years around either shifting, redirecting or countering narratives. And we thought of a bunch of issues as a team and we said, you know what, we would all of us benefit from documenting what went into those strategies so that we could help people better understand what it means to shift narrative on important issues. I don’t know, Julie, if you want to add to that.

Julie Fisher-Rowe [00:02:53] Yeah, I mean, I would just say that our hope was to find the commonalities, things that we can draw on moving forward, both from narrative successes that were in the favor of social justice issues and ones that kind of worked against us just to kind of see where people were doing things right and what some of the missed opportunities most likely were.

Will Coley [00:03:15] So as the three case studies in the podcast, can you tell us more about the other issues that the report focuses on?

Julie Fisher-Rowe [00:03:23] The third was the documentary film Blackfish, and to try to take a look at how that film had a very short term but powerful effect on SeaWorld in particular and the treatment of animals in captivity and whether or not that was a lasting effect or just applied to SeaWorld. The fourth case study is the MeToo movement to really take a look at how social media in particular – because a lot of these weren’t around with social media right within the past 10 years – how that really amplified very quickly and brought attention to the standing issue of sexual harassment and assault. And then finally, we took a look at the campaign to end racial profiling, which moved really from that idea that there’s individual cases of racial profiling, just bad apple cops that were abusing their position to harass primarily black and brown men to taking a look at it from a systemic level to really say that these are system level policies that we’re all complicit in if we don’t protest them.

Will Coley [00:04:39] That’s great. Do you want to say anything about what you found surprising in the research or something you didn’t expect?

Julie Fisher-Rowe [00:04:44] There are a couple of different moments that were a little unexpected. I mean, one is just how little people really were thinking, not so much about narrative because that is a fairly new term, but weren’t necessarily even thinking that they were out to shift the way people are talking about things. They had other goals in mind, but the end result did often be that they needed to intervene at a communications level, at a messaging level in order for things to really change.

Will Coley [00:05:11] So how do you think advocates can apply the lessons that you found to the the recommendations you had from shifting the narrative research?

Julie Fisher-Rowe [00:05:20] Yeah, there are a few things that we found that we would recommend. I mean, one is pay attention to the fact that most of these are rooted in values. They are, you know, when racial justice was reframed from something that was just happening to a few people, to something that was dangerous to our entire system and actually threatening our ideals about how we treat people in the criminal justice system, we were able to reach a lot more folks and it shifted the responsibility from individual bad cops and punishing them to actually all of us taking a look at what kind of policies we want in place in our police system. So, you know, really going to that values level and it really opens up your way of thinking about it in ways that just throwing facts at people cannot and won’t. And another thing that we found is to really make sure that while you’re aware of the counter narrative, which is often the dominant narrative, not to get stuck in it and not to give it so much more oxygen, right? Because a lot of times we can spend so much time just fighting with the other narrative is because then you’re just repeating it and then you’re just giving it more airtime in the long run.

Will Coley [00:06:23] How do you think the research inform this idea of working narrative strategies, working to unite people from very different policy and advocacy standpoints? Can you speak to that?

Julie Fisher-Rowe [00:06:33] To an extent, I mean, I feel like when we are looking at things at this higher level and there are disagreements on more details, it is…if you can go to that higher level of vision and those higher level ideals, it’s something that people can go to even if they aren’t agreeing, right? They can go to the values and then hopefully hash out some of the other disagreements, you know, in a back room, if you will, so that we can just start moving to center the values that we want, at least, which will make, you know, some of the policy decisions easier and more accessible. But, you know, it’s not…it’s not the answer. There are still…it’s still difficult when folks are not wanting the same exact goals. But usually we’re all pointed in the similar…similar direction, which can become more apparent at the narrative level than sometimes it is a campaign or policy levels.

Ellen Buchman [00:07:32] Yeah, and I would just add to that the value of safety, for example, and the belief that everyone who lives in our country should be able to be safe, live safely, whether it’s in their home or in the street or in their car or even whether they’re incarcerated, is a value that I would say most people believe and hold, hold dear and can relate to. As Julie said, though, the question is how to how to realize that value often is within the policy solutions that are offered. And that’s where the rubber hits the road, Will, it’s where the disagreement often lies. And so it’s easy for folks to forget where their agreement is if they’re so focused on the differences in the policy solutions that one person to the next, you know, might want to focus on or achieve. And for me, the lesson there is there’s a difference between consensus and common ground. And if folks who are working toward justice can really get to common ground, then I find they don’t get as caught up in figuring out what the consensus is around a particular solution, because they know that the common ground around the value is is is what should hold the day. And it’s definitely something that takes long term work to achieve.

Will Coley [00:08:56] Julie, could you tell us more about the methodology of the research?

Julie Fisher-Rowe [00:08:59] We had two ways of really taking a look at these. One was through with our researcher, Loren Siegel, who did a lot of reading first around the issues to really see what was just out there, what studies had already been done, what historic analysis there was, and just took a timeline, you know, just kind of see what she could pinpoint about the changes throughout the timing of the narrative shift. And then she interviewed a number of actors within the shifts of people who had played a role in the success of the narrative shift. Our other piece was the social media analysis that was completed by Lucy Odigie-Turley that really took a look at when there was social media available, how people were talking about things and how that shifted throughout the campaign or throughout the narrative shift process.

Will Coley [00:09:58] I spoke to another member of the research team, Lucy Odigie-Turley to understand more about data collection for the case studies loses focus was the online discussion of these issues and how they changed over time.

Lucy Odigie-Turley [00:10:09] Narratives are, let’s say, pushed out to the populous in a variety of ways, whether it’s the news media, we have now social media, various different social media platforms, we have political speeches, public discourse, and there’s a variety of ways in which we can look at that discourse over time and see has it changed? Now narrative is very big. It’s a kind of the overarching story. So you kind of have to look at it in little pieces. What’s the language that’s being used? Is that a consistent language or phrases or terminology that folks are using to describe a particular issue? Does it shift over time? If so, why? How? We can measure that. You know, there’s so much data out there. We’ve seen some really kind of innovative ways in which discourse has been tracked on social media because there’s just so much data available. At the same time, zeros and ones cannot fully represent the nuance of many narratives. And you really need that qualitative side to…you need to talk to people who are on the ground. You need to speak to people who are directly impacted. Unless you have experienced it firsthand as an outsider, you it may be something that’s an enigma. And so I think being able to get that qualitative information and interview folks who are directly impacted by a particular narrative is another key way that we can measure whether or not that has been changed based on those lived experiences. I mean, for most narratives, it’s… we’re fish in water, 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 [00:12:03] Have you all got any final thoughts on the larger field of narrative strategy?

Ellen Buchman [00:12:08] You know, sometimes I think narrative is overcomplicated. There’s a danger in overthinking it. And there are some very specific ways to bend that narrative arc for the long term in the direction that we want it to go. But strategy and time are two essential ingredients that are required.

Julie Fisher-Rowe [00:12:31] Yeah, and I mean, I would just say that, of course, the research on it is important and the academic level of taking a look at really what makes narrative and what makes it work is important. I think we still have work to do in figuring out how to make that accessible to the folks who are really doing the…the communicating around these things without complicating it, as you said, to something that it seems like, oh, I’m doing it wrong. So I’m going to step back because that’s not usually what we need. What are the tools that we give to folks so that they are engaging in the long term shift? But what’s the vocabulary that we can use that doesn’t need a bunch of extra explanation or, you know, certain levels of degrees to fully understand where is that balance so that we can have that long term idea, but also give people what they need to win the short term goals, but make sure they’re trying to stack up to something and that they can see that level at least of strategy without, like I said, introducing tons more new vocabulary, tons more new structures and analysis for folks who don’t always have the time or inclination and rightfully so, to wade in that deep.

Will Coley [00:13:46] Well, thanks to both of you for helping us see and shift the big stories in our society for social justice and for your commitment to being in it for the long haul. This has been a really great discussion and it’s been fun working with you on this podcast series.

Ellen Buchman [00:14:01] Thanks to you, Will Coley, our producer, and again to Julie and the research team for really mining through a lot of amazing information and interviews and getting us to this place. It’s been great.

Will Coley [00:14:16] You’ve been listening to Shifting the Narrative, a podcast series from The Opportunity Agenda. Please visit the website – – to read more Shifting the Narrative Case Studies. I’m Will Coley, the producer. Ellen 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 Behringer, Music provided by Blue Dot Sessions. Thank you for listening. Please write and comment so others will find and hear these stories.

Ellen Buchman [00:14:54] Together, we can shift narratives and create greater opportunity for everyone.

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