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What is Safety Really? Organizing for a New Way

April 19, 2022

Jenny Lee and Damon Motz-Storey were in a six-month fellowship run by ReFrame in partnership with the Northwest Health Foundation. We took a few minutes to check-in on how they are doing. ‍‍

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“The saying goesif you're not at the table, you're on the menu,” says Damon Motz-Storey.  “So it is important for us to organize the Portland community towards collective action to obtain self determination, wellness, justice and prosperity.”

Jenny Lee and Damon Motz-Storey were in a six-month fellowship run by ReFrame in partnership with the Northwest Health Foundation. We took a few minutes to check-in on how they are doing.

Jenny and Damon work for Coalition of Communities of Color (CCC)- an organization in Portland, Oregon addressing socio-economic disparities, institutional racism and inequality of services experienced by families, children and communities. Jenny is the Deputy Director and Damon is the Communications and Development Manager. 

What is one piece of media that has brought you joy and hope recently? 

Jenny: In Portland we organize to create safety for our community by bringing an end to police violence, creating homes for people who need them, and providing support for families in need. Our opposition led an advocacy campaign that pushed for increased law enforcement, the criminalization of homelessness, and the undermining of services like affordable housing and real community safety. Their campaign had a tremendous impact on public opinion. Angela Uherbelau, a community leader who is a woman of color, drafted a letter challenging the opposition's campaign in support for real substantial change. It ended up with hundreds of signatories and was eventually published as an op ed piece. The letter got a lot of attention. She used the media to bring in organizations, elected officials, and expand support for our work. I was filled with joy to see someone from the community take the lead, commit to the vision and give voice to it. 

Damon: Candace Avalos, the Executive Director of Verde and a fellow participant in the NWHF fellowship, has a regular column in the Oregonian. She recently used her platform to rebut the criminalization of homelessness. She put out an alternative vision of what it would be like if we actually gave people what they need and want. She closed it with a reference to a biblical story of Jesus dividing loaves and fish to feed the masses and how it wasn't necessarily a miracle. Jesus was able to take all of the resources that were present communally, and distribute it to make sure that everyone had what they needed and everyone was fed. It was brilliant, joyful and hopeful. It spoke to a common set of values that a lot of people have. It leveraged a very popular story to connect with people. It was awesome. 

What is bringing you hope in the work that you do? Where do you look for inspiration and why? 

Damon: I find hope in everyday people who take action to meet the crisis we are facing in society. I feel inspired by folks who are creative and resourceful and ask themselves questions like, “what can I do to move the needle?” During the September 2020 wildfires in Oregon, the air was some of the unhealthiest in the world. My housemates saw that people on the streets were protesting in dangerous weather conditions. So they played their part by cooking for protestors at the Black Lives Matter rallies and they have kept at it and have continued to do home cooked meal distributions ever since. It’s inspiring to see folks who did not know each other beyond marching together in the streets coming together around common values and care for one another.  

Jenny: Seeing folks make time and space to collectively work on advocacy issues is inspiring. Despite challenges around capacity and questions about who should be leading, I see people stepping up to directly serve the community. It’s been great to see that shift through changes in the movement ecosystem and also through crisis moments. It gives me hope, because we're building the field and we'll have a lot more resources to draw on with our partners. 

What are the narratives and big stories that your organization is advancing? Why and How? 

Jenny: We are advancing a narrative about self-determination and how BIPOC communities should play leading roles. There is a common held idea that Oregon is the whitest state where communities of color don't live so visibility and representation in BIPOC communities has been critical. This narrative about who is an Oregonian undergirds a history of exclusion and discrimination against BIPOC people by those in power. We've been working to elevate voices and center racial justice in policy making, political power, research, and the environmental movement. 

We've started looking into public opinion research as a tool to understand where our community is because we know it's not only about meeting folks where they are but we need to also understand concerns and beliefs so that we can work to shift them. We'll be launching into the application of this research tool for housing and an even bigger project coming down the pike around building out that narrative - it is expensive but necessary work. These types of tools, data, and strategic information cannot just live in the hands of the dominant culture, our communities and our movements need them in order to lead. That’s just one component but we really need it to keep us out of reactive positions. 

Damon: We are telling the story that BIPOC communities are leading on every single issue that there is, and there's valuable and essential perspectives and expertise here that need to be at the table. We’ve made some big gains, and we have shifted the needle as we moved this story out into the world, and we still have a ways to go. The uniqueness of being a cross cultural coalition of culturally specific groups and the solidarity we have is what's so powerful. We are working together for the common good of everybody who's impacted by white supremacy in this state, but we aren't just defensive, we are proactively working for and enacting self-determination.  

What are the narratives at play in society that make you worry the most and who is doing a good job at combating them? 

Damon: What immediately pops into my mind is the work that Street Roots is doing in Portland. One of the things we are coming up hard against is the growing indifference to unhoused people by many Portlanders who just don't want to see homelessness, but aren't mobilized to fix it. That is the extent of their concern around the homelessness crisis, they just don't want to see it. That's a dangerous and disturbing reality that we're seeing pick up a lot of traction. Street Roots is doing an incredible job of letting us hear firsthand from people who are experiencing homelessness about what it is they want, their needs, and the uniquenesses of what it's like to live outside in Portland. That does a lot of good for our community. Street Roots elevates the voices of the people in the community who are continually talked about by every politician and group and provides a platform for them to speak in their own voice.

Jenny: We're in a position where the pendulum has swung. The ongoing impact of the pandemic and economic crises is exasperating systemic oppression. We have seen an increase in homicides and it deeply impacts Black, Latinx, and Pacific Islander communities in the region. The opposition is leveraging the increase in violence to revive harmful narratives about police and safety. We had a lot of wins that we were able to make for community based solutions to end violence through intervention and prevention strategies, rather than increased policing and penalties, which have come under serious fire. This push from the other side feels acutely dangerous. 


What do other community led organizations need to understand or do better when it comes to narrative and comms work? 

Jenny: Understanding your base, your persuadables, and saying the right thing to the right people at the right time. We often communicate toward our base but there are narratives we're not able to push as far because we have to work a lot with dominant culture, entities or institutions. We’re not always able to be as direct as we want to be, but it’s all about how we talk about “the thing.” What issues do we raise up and then how do we bring folks to our values and policy position? So it's really that distinction that folks, especially those who haven't done electoral work, really need to shift. 

Damon: I see communications and narrative as an afterthought for some organizations. We should be rethinking it and have them embedded in the policy strategy work. We have to think about what we are actually doing to move the needle - what we are actually doing to win. We should be intentional in the messaging and understand narrative strategy has to be embedded in it. It’s not just about what we're doing, but also how we're going to talk about it and thinking about that from the very first couple of steps of approaching an issue. 

And again, just coming back to resources and capacity, I think there are too many folks that are having to do the work of two or three in one person's work day. When that happens, it's hard to have the breathing space for the kind of creativity and brainstorming work that needs to happen in order to come up with some really great messaging strategies.

Final Thoughts on the NWHF Fellowship? 

Damon: There are a ton of things that I loved about the NWHF fellowship, but more than anything, getting to know people who we get to work with in our region at other organizations on a deeper level has been wonderful. About six months ago, Jenny and I were talking about what dreams and hopes we had for communications within CCC. We discussed a desire to build up more infrastructure and resources to be able to offer more support to our members. One major takeaway from this whole experience for me is feeling like I am much better prepared to offer that kind of support and those kinds of resources. I'm excited to take this and turn it into some communications planning work and actually get things done.

Jenny: I think hearing from folks who have done work in other states and being able to bring those examples into our space is inspiring. We have many experiences and we are able to learn so much from other communities, which has been great. I also feel like the coaching has been really important as a support place, especially during difficult times. I now feel like I'm able to better reach out to folks, even if I haven't necessarily connected with them all that much. It has just been great to establish that kind of network.

Black father holding child at train stop in Ukraine as they wait to evacuate

Ukraine, Democracy and the Far Right

March 9, 2022

The TL;DR - How the meme of a Ukrainian granny with a gun hides a far right secret OR the fog of war is murky, beware of the far right OR, the fight for multi-racial democracy at home and abroad.

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Last week, in an attempt to figure out how to best support the Ukrainian people in the very early days of the Russian invasion, I wrote an email to a small group of friends. With some encouragement, I turned it into the following post. At the risk of sounding like an armchair commentator, I offer it in the spirit of ReFrame: hoping to offer tools of narrative analysis by example and possible steps we can take to connect our own work to global issues. I hope you read to the end, and that my wrestling with the emerging stories - and narratives they tap into -  about the violent Russian invasion, lands with some very clear steps we can all take. Thanks to Jen Soriano, Felicia Martinez, and Crystal Aryee for the support in writing this.

My heart and mind are with the everyday Ukrainian people who fled their homes ahead of massive violence; those who have faced racism - specifically anti-Black and anti-African racism at the international borders; those who joined defense forces to protect their homes and families; those watching from abroad with deep worry for friends and family back home; and those who already lost loved ones and neighbors to the Russian invasion.

Here are some reflections on the stories, narratives and political conditions surrounding the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and what we can do.  

The TL;DR - How the meme of a Ukrainian granny with a gun hides a far right secret OR the fog of war is murky, beware of the far right OR, the fight for multi-racial democracy at home and abroad. 

I just got off the phone with my dad. I asked after his friend Viktor, an immigrant from Ukraine whose brother joined a local defense force in his city.

Viktor’s brother's story matches the dominant news media coverage of what's happening on the ground in Ukraine - Everyday Ukrainians are turning up and turning out to defend their homes against the Russian invasion. It was captured perfectly by President Zelensky himself when he declared, “I need ammunition, not a ride.” 

This powerful story taps into deep narratives around home, self-defense, nationalism, masculinity and heroism. I call this story “archetypal.” It is not quite a narrative, but we understand it because it shares an architecture with so many others; outmatched hometown kids who, under extreme circumstances, defeat or greatly damage a stronger invader/bully/army, etc. 

An inspiring story that taps into this archetype comes from the Daily Mail - “This woman is my hero”: Praise floods in for the 79-year-old Ukrainian woman with an AK-47 who was pictured training with special forces to take on Russian invasion. 

After that headline, Valentyna Konstantynovska became MY hero. An elderly woman and grandmother taking up arms to defend her people?! We need all the memes and a t-shirt with her face on it. Valentyna’s story messes with the archetypal story’s hidden transcript of the male protector, and if told correctly challenges the more troubling narratives about militarized masculinity and nation. 

But wait a second, who trained this modern day heroine and stereotype-smasher?? According to the Daily Mail, and many other news outlets, it was the Ukrainian National Guard. True, and more specifically it was the Azov Battalion - a former volunteer militia that was incorporated into the National Guard after fighting Russian separatists in 2014. Oh yeah, and they are an armed far right neo-Nazi organization with bodies well beyond the Battalion - including a political party and a vigilante paramilitary group who apparently have an elderly training program. You read that right, the granny with a gun was trained by avowed Nazis with disturbingly growing reach.

Azov Battalion is not just an unfortunate detail that muddies some of the powerful stories of everyday bravery of a people under siege, it is a dangerous reality for the rest of the world. Members of far right organizations across the globe have previously and are currently flocking to Azov in order to gain combat experience (including US white power militants). The mass murderer who killed 49 people in New Zealand in 2019 wore a symbol commonly used by the Azov Battalion

Some point to the Azov Battalion as the evidence for Putin’s claim to want to “de-Nazify,” Ukraine. But while the existence of Azov muddies the simple narrative of heroic Ukraine resistance, we can’t look to it to crystalize Putin’s justification for invasion. As Popular Front points out,  “... [while] the far right problems in Ukraine are serious and have not been properly addressed by the government there, the idea that everyone pro-Ukraine is a Nazi is nonsense.” If we look at the 2019 election to get a sense of which way the wind blows, President Zelensky, who is Jewish, won with 73% of the vote while the far right political coalition only got 3% of the vote - not quite the widespread Nazism Putin is fear mongering about. 

To further challenge Putin’s claims of fighting the right, US based right wing organizations are loving Putin for: pushing back against a ‘globalist’ (read “Jewish”) agenda backstopped by NATO; and for being the Vladdy Daddy of anti-wokeness. Not surprisingly, we see a large helping of trans/queer bashing wrapped up in support for Putin, all at the same time that mainstream US right wing politicians are using trans people as the punching bag in a rekindled culture war (look to Texas and the order by Governor Abbott). 

Outside of explicit organized right wing opportunism, the response by political leaders and everyday people outside of Ukraine exposes the troubling reality that right wing ideology is not just at the margins. Many have pointed out the speed with which European countries opened their borders to refugees from Ukraine and how the outpouring of support in the face of the Russian invasion is in contradiction to how other people fleeing humanitarian crisis or invasions  - Syrians, Iraqis and Palestinians for example -  have been treated, at best ignored and at worst demonized, blamed and left for dead. The mainstream press shepherds this racist double standard forward with breathless war-time reporting showing deep empathy for “civilized” Ukrainians (read white, European, etc.) and comparing them to the forgone conclusion of war embattled Iraqis or Syrians (read brown and not civilized, etc.). This is not just individual unconscious bias and subtle racism, it is the liberal expression of entrenched far right ideology that shows up in language, action (or inaction), and racist and homophobic policies that determine who deserves nationhood and who deserves to be saved. For example, when Polish interior minister, Mariusz Kamiński, recently said  “Anyone fleeing from bombs, from Russian rifles, can count on the support of the Polish state,” he really meant it and the anti-LGBT laws and practice of stopping Black at the border was not a contradiction because, in his mind, queer and Black people are not anyone, they are not people. 

Meanwhile, important stories that could challenge right wing policies and ideologies are pushed to the margins. For example the story of Vikto Pylypenko, Ukraine’s first out military service member who is leading over 100 queer troops and veterans against the Russian invasion, with many seeing this fight for Ukrainian sovereignty and a defense against Russian state sponsored oppression of queer people. What would it mean for this story to be splashed across mainstream (read straight) press vs. having to go find it in the queer press?

So what does all of this mean, and what are we to do? 

First, we must support Ukrainians as they continue to defend their homes and families from Russian violence  individually and collectively. As Malkia Cyril tweeted last week - “I support the Ukrainian resistance to Russian invasion. Full stop.” This support should be in both words and deeds. We should specifically support queer and trans people, women and Black people in Ukraine and among refugees - who, by their existence in Ukraine, are literally on the front line in the face of violent right wing ideology, and whose heroism is made invisible by narratives of masculinity and nationhood. 

Second, Russia and Putin are not the only threats to democracy that we need to worry about.  The fog of war should not obscure the grave threat of the global organized far right and the threat it poses to multi-racial democracy in Ukraine, in the US, and across the world. In supporting everyday Ukrainians we should make sure our support bolsters democracy and progressive values in the country and among all refugees fleeing Russian violence. Russia’s, Poland’s and other countries’ anti-queer rhetoric and laws are a toehold for the far right, which is actively advancing similar laws in the US. Underneath these laws and rhetoric is an ideological commitment to “traditional families,” which calls for the elevation of white supremacy, the criminalization of queer and trans people, and the subjugation of women in service of men - the embodiment of the nation. 

Third, we can push back against right wing narratives that dominate the stories about Ukraine. Again I look to Malkia Cyril, “...I do not support America acting like it knows a damn thing about democracy, or Western media reporting on this as some unique moment because the refugees being made and lives ended are white.” We can choose not to spread propaganda for the right, refrain from spreading disinformation, and challenge right wing ideology where it shows up. We can hold big media institutions accountable by writing letters, calling editors and reporters and pushing for more coverage that advances multi-racial democratic ideals. We can also flex our social media skills and retweet, repost and comment on the inspiring stories about everyday Ukrainians, refugees, and the diaspora that embody multi-racial democratic values while supporting Ukrainian resistance. We can draw true inspiration and hope from stories like the queer troops who, despite being outmatched by a powerful and terrifying adversary, are fighting. We can spread that inspiration, the unifying salve that rescues us from despair, and advance stories that make multi-racial democracy more visible, and therefore possible. 

Fourth, we can double-down on our support of groups that buffer against the far right and build a multi-racial democracy here at home. In the US, the organized far right, which shares both ideological and material connections with an international far right, exerts strong influence over the political mainstream. They float weather balloons to test stories, narratives and meaning making - think CRT and anti-trans laws and mandates - to ignite controversy, expand their reach, and squash multi-racial democracy. Given the linkages between the far right internationally and domestically we must advance a vision of multi-racial democracy at home and abroad. This vision must be put into action through robust organizing, civic engagement, and powerful narrative strategies. Doubling down on multi-racial democracy at home is critical to peace at home and abroad. Organizations doing the daily work of consolidating that vision, holding the line against far right and mainstream fervor, and building the bases of people needed to put that vision in action like LUCHA, Florida Rising, ISIAH, Power California, Virginia New Majority, SONG, Rural Organizing Project (of course there are so many more) should be supported and lifted up for their powerful work.*

Finally, the humanitarian crisis sparked by the Russian invasion will have ripple effects for years to come. As we continue to work on the political and narrative conditions that can push back against right wing authoritarianism, we can also continue to practice mutual aid on a global scale. Here are places to donate, including places that specifically help LGBTQ+, Black and African-Ukrainian refugees. Here are few places you can express your support**: 

* I list these organizations because I am familiar with the awesome work they do, I am not implying they agree or disagree with this post. 

**This is just a small list, please share your recommendations and we will add to it. 

Collective Bargaining for Stronger Communities

March 4, 2022

As we grow the narrative power ecosystem we need to win we are taking moments to highlight the awesome strategists we get to work with. Luo was a participant in the ReFrame Summer Academy and we took a few minutes to check-in on how she is doing. 

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“We are stronger when we fight together and we are not just fighting for ourselves and our immediate workplace issues,” says Crystal Luo, graduate student at University of Virginia and member of United Campus Workers Virginia (UCWVA). “We are also fighting for our students, their families, and our communities to make public higher education a real force for civic good in our commonwealth and in the country.”

As we grow the narrative power ecosystem we need to win we are taking moments to highlight the awesome strategists we get to work with. Luo was a participant in the ReFrame Summer Academy and we took a few minutes to check-in on how she is doing. 

Luo works as a member of the steering committee and at UCWVA, where she is also responsible for communications. The union is based in Charlottesville and is organized under Communications Workers of America and part of the larger United Campus Workers Family. The mission of UCWVA is to bring together workers at Virginia’s public higher education institutions to build worker power by advocating for workers rights, fighting for fair and equitable wages and benefits, and defending the most systems impacted groups. 

What are the narratives and big stories that your organization is pushing against? 

Luo: Not only are we fighting against this big idea that Virginia is not good for workers and our organizations, but also the notion that there is nothing we can do about it. This idea that there is nothing we can do is precisely what bosses want us to believe so that we don’t join together and build the power we need to improve our lives, and those of our families and communities. This idea or belief that we can’t change anything is the narrative that undergirds the legal barriers to workers rights in our state. These laws can be changed and conditions on the job can be changed. Where we find common cause we can find power, we can change laws, change jobs, and change hearts and minds. 

Another thing we are challenging is this idea that teachers and graduate students are not workers in the traditional sense. A lot of academics don’t think of themselves as workers and this belief ultimately benefits the university at the expense of all campus workers. If we look at instructors, they do not own the university, but their labor produces wealth for the institution - they are workers. A lot of our work is helping instructors and fellow grad students see ourselves as people who do labor for a university that is extremely wealthy and our labor contributes to that university's wealth and the well-being of our students. This has been one of the things we are trying to effectively communicate. 

Finally, as a wall to wall union, we are pushing back against the belief that someone in custodial has nothing in common with a faculty member at the same institution. We are sharing stories that show there is more in common between these two types of workers than the university wants you to believe. We build power by fostering solidarity so that all university workers have dignity on the job, equitable pay, and better working conditions.”

What strategies do you use to advance your mission?

Luo: “One is public pressure around single-issue campaigns. We found that launching public campaigns where we exhibit our strength with large majorities in our workplaces, confront bosses directly and large public petitions has helped move certain issues. These work because bosses need public pressure to do what we want them to do - offer concessions to workers and students. And in some cases, even if they don’t want to do it, we know their reputation is staked on having students and workers be in a happy harmonious relationship with them. 

We’ve saved jobs and stopped people from being let go. We’ve made sure  graduate students hold on to dissertation advisors that they want to work with. We are hoping to expand and be more ambitious on what we do next.“

Where and how are you seeing organizations and movements advancing powerful narratives and stories? 

Luo: “In Virginia, there is a lot of great organizing around public education. I’m inspired by teachers unions across the country. Many have done such amazing work with bargaining for the common good framework that we’ve adopted at UCWVA . Teachers are well positioned to use the tool of collective bargaining to win big for themselves and their communities. 

Unions like the Chicago teachers union and the Los Angeles teachers union advanced the narrative that labor organizing is for workers AND it’s for their communities – and communities can be as large as city or state, and I find that very powerful. 

I’ve seen nurses unions across the country advance the idea that workers are embedded in our communities and we can use labor organizing to make  big employers bring  benefits to all of us and not just a segmented few. We are seeing that pay real dividends with Striketober that we just came out of in 2021.  Support for unions is the highest it's been in decades  because people see that when workers do well, those benefits can expand to the entire workplace or community. That is a really successful effort on the part of union members in pushing back against the narrative that they only want more for themselves and they are not here for all of us.” 

What do movements and orgs need to do better when it comes to narrative and comms work and how do we get them to do so. 

Luo: ”I feel like organizations can improve on being a bit more ambitious with who their audiences are. That means crafting language that resonates with where our audiences are while also moving them into action and alignment with our narratives. We shouldn’t default to the forms of communications that may be comfortable for us, like social media. We also need to use channels that our audiences relate to and trust, like local media. 

Also, not letting insider language box us in. As a labor union we have a set of terms and rhetoric that we can easily draw on but we also want to be an organization that is embedded within the community. So it is important for us to be a bit more clear, creative and not let past preconceptions about our organization shape our language too much.”

What is bringing you hope in the work you do and where do you look for inspiration. 

Luo: “The people that I organize with give me a lot of hope. I’ve never met people who I trust and are as mutually committed to me and I to them as the people I organize with. They give me a lot of hope for the work we are doing. 

I also find hope in Charlottesville. The people there have been through a lot and continue to go through a lot. It was amazing to come into a community of people and see such resilience and the will to not let the events of 2017 become the thing that defined them, and instead, build something better. So I’ve been encouraged by the sense of civic obligation that’s arisen in a lot of people in that city and has been there for decades. I think that is one of the veins which we draw from in our work as an organization of campus workers who live in the city as well and feel very deeply connected to it. 

Lastly, I feel inspired by the state of the labor movement and what other workers across this country are doing. Seeing them win lets me know that we can make requests and accomplish wins in our own workplace as well.”

Through the Looking Glass

December 14, 2021

Through the Looking Glass: ReFrame's 2022 Narrative Predictions

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We are excited to launch our inaugural 2022 Narrative Predictions! Our devoted team of researchers and strategists tracked everything from COVID-19 to pop culture moments, labor organizing to America’s perception in order to support strategists with real-time, data-driven insights into the narrative landscape. 

Our predictions reflect the transitional moment we are in. In the last two years, we have faced uncertainty, chaos, fear, mourning and trauma. This has been a generation’s looking glass moment. Covid-19 turned  the way we live upside down and shook loose the ideas, beliefs, and values we have about  how society should be organized.

Through the Looking Glass is a compilation of predictions, narrative insights, opportunities and risks for anyone seeking to build narrative power in service of liberation and justice. We hope that it will be a useful guide to your work in 2022. 

Read or listen to the full report here

What the South Taught Me About Predicting Narratives

December 9, 2021

The God's honest work and lineage of organizing in the South taught me that understanding not just the political terrain but the narrative landscape is essential to building power. Our movements can contend for power at the level of ideas, beliefs, and values and set the narrative arena in which we organize.

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I woke up early in a tent in Tennessee, and that’s when I first heard about the mass shooting at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando. 

I wiped the sleep from my eyes as my cell phone pinged away with worried messages from friends and family, not to mention reporters and editors from across the country wanting a comment. This was a severe wake up call. I was at  Southerners On New Ground (SONG)’s annual Gaycation where LGBTQI+ people from across the South gather for storytelling at the knees of elders, singing anthems, dancing Cumbia, performing political theater, and breaking bread over picnic tables and campfires. As queer and trans people of color, we were choosing to celebrate our abundance in the middle of fighting for our lives. That summer was intense. We were wading through the waters of the Trump campaign’s explicit targeting of Black people, immigrants, and Muslims; a rapid response effort to overturn a violent anti-trans bill (HB2) in North Carolina and its copycat legislation; and mobilizing several campaigns to transform the police, court, and bail systems in the region.

As the rest of the camp woke up, I kissed my infant child, passed him along to trusted beloveds, took some brief moments to grieve and got to work confronting this latest nightmare for my people. 

I wasn’t just a member of SONG at Gaycation. I was one of the organizers who held our communications and narrative strategy. Our members across the region needed to hear from us and those reporters needed to be called back. Less than six hours had passed since the massacre, the body count was still rising and the countless news stories were already weaving together and solidifying narratives that undermined SONG’s vision of liberation in our lifetimes. This deep and painful crisis moment for us was a tremendous opportunity for our opposition. Their stories decentered queer people of color, targeted and blamed Muslims, and called for more police in our communities. 

While we were running in circles, our opposition was running game. To overstate a metaphor, we were bringing a knife to a gun fight. Organizations like the National Rifle Association, state gun lobbies, police unions and other far-reaching anti-LGBTQI+ politicians and lobbying groups, were pouring millions of dollars into ads, mobilizing their bases to mass produce “organic” content, and coordinating the news media with legions of PR agencies and firms at their fingertips - all this within minutes of news breaking about the massacre. 

While we didn’t have access to fancy polling and message testing, media databases or the resources to leverage dedicated capacity to wage a scaled and timely cultural battle, we did have the deep commitment of our members and the fire in our hearts.

SONG’s years of coalition organizing and network building made it possible to work with organizations like Mijente, Transgender Law Center, Auburn Seminary, and the Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity to build a strategy that included organizing, communications, and cultural and spiritual resilience at its core. We leveraged our integrated strategies to intervene on Islamophobic and pro-police narratives and to fortify our spirits. We successfully kept several southern Prides from increasing police presence, we increased the number of SONG members working on police accountability campaigns, and won some demands at the municipal level. Like many organizers I worked with, I felt the power in what we were able to do, but I was tired of being on the defensive. I wanted to win bigger. I wanted a more robust capacity for our communities to shift and seed narratives, in real time, in critical moments of opportunity like these.

I wanted the breadth and depth of resources our opposition used to build the arena in which we were organizing and pushing campaigns uphill. I wanted more movement-owned media infrastructure like radio and tv, more trained up leaders with keyboards at the ready not just reacting to fires set by those who would see us dead but able to start fires they would be forced to respond to. I wanted the resources to leverage the data and technology that would move us from defense to offense. Ultimately, I want us to own the arena in which the battle is fought.

What I wanted wasn’t just a desire but a strategic imperative.

Years later, I came to research and understand some of the technology behind the narrative strategy we were up against following the PULSE massacre and other rapid response moments. Our opposition isn't just polling and message testing. They’re running command centers with real time tracking of the movement of stories and information built on massive data pipelines. They are adjusting their content and earned media strategies not by the week but by the minute. Their work is not just about establishing brands and political profiles but about shaping common sense understanding on topics and issues critical to their strategic aims. The ongoing realization of how un-level the playing field is can be overwhelming, but the God's honest work and lineage of organizing in the South taught me that understanding not just the political terrain but the narrative landscape is essential to building power. If our movements could grow this capacity, we could contend for power at the level of ideas, beliefs, and values - we could set the narrative arena on which we are organizing. We can do this, I thought. 

Inspired by generations of southern organizers who make a way out of no way, for the last three years, alongside ReFrame Mentorship alum Renee’ Mowatt and a brilliant team of researchers and strategists at ReFrame, I’ve worked to incubate and scale the capacity to assess the narrative landscape. This work is what brought you the Rona Report, has supported various campaigns over the last two years in understanding the narrative conditions in which they are working and now we’re launching our inaugural 2022 narrative predictions. This is just the beginning. In 2022, we’ll release more narrative content that supports us all in building the arena we need. 

Check out Through the Looking Glass: ReFrame’s 2022 Narrative Predictions. Our report tracks everything from COVID-19 to pop culture moments, labor organizing to beauty trends in order to support strategists with real-time, data-driven insights into the narrative landscape.

Con Fuerza, 


Deputy Director

The Promise of ReFrame

December 7, 2021

ReFrame’s Executive Director, Joseph Phelan, recounts his time as a communicator and organizer at Miami Workers Center as part of the inspiration for the vision and promise of ReFrame to build narrative power at scale. “I could see a future where we were touching these contacts with targeted messages and stories that overtime lead to a shift in worldview.”

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I remember the first time I saw the Voter Activation Network (VAN). I was sitting in the windowless organizer and comms office at the Miami Workers Center. A colleague pulled up the database and I saw all these names, phone numbers, addresses, and voting models based on massive amounts of data. I clicked through some of the modeling, cut lists based on different criteria, and saw geographic layouts. I almost fell out of my chair. 

My strategy brain went wild with the possibilities. I could see a future where we were touching these contacts with targeted messages and stories that over time lead to a shift in worldview. My head spun with super detailed ladders of engagement - visions of micro actions like patch through phone calls and mail back mailers. I knew the tool was built primarily to be useful for election seasons, but I could see the potential in long term power building both regardless of and in relation to external conditions. 

The slow list building we did as organizers - knocking on doors, throwing events, etc. - and our attempts to categorize the lists weren’t supporting our organizing goals as well as they could be. We were using the important skills of our lived experiences, instinct and gut, but we were still wandering through the woods in a dense fog looking for a clearer path. The VAN was a strong wind that blew the fog away illuminating a path and shifting how we could see the world around us. 

This inspiration 13 years ago transcended the boundaries of VAN itself and showed what we could be doing differently with powerful tools and massive data sets based in the rapidly changing media, social media, and personal technology landscape. That moment in the back room in Miami was one of the many moments leading to now and the work we do at ReFrame.

Next week we’ll be releasing our inaugural 2022 Narrative Predictions - a narrative landscape analysis painting the picture of what is to come next year. 

When Jen Soriano and I started the ReFrame Mentorship in 2015 we spent hours talking about the ecosystem and infrastructure we needed to build and sustain narrative power. We weren’t talking at the scale of one organization or coalition, we were talking about the scale of society. We knew that there were people in the private sector who were using massive amounts of data to know things about us like if we were pregnant, the pillars of our personality, or simply when our light bulbs need to be replaced in order to sell us things. We knew that selling a product wasn’t the same as building a powerful movement, but we still saw the usefulness in clearing the fog from the forest. 

Those conversations led us to launching the mentorship program, bringing the SPIN academy into our capacity building programming, launching fellowships, expanding an alumni network of amazing narrative strategists and rolling alongside organizations and movements on the leading edge of shifting this world toward racial, economic, gender, and climate justice. 

Jen and I chose to lean into the human part of the ecosystem and infrastructure first. For two people with deep creative practices steeped in organizing and some of the many who were inheriting the lineage of the civil rights movement, international anti-colonial movements, labor organizing, this was an easy choice. 

We start with people because when people are organized there is power. Technology, data and tools all depend on having people developed and aligned, moving in the same direction, sharing practices and analysis, leveraging whatever tools and resources they have with creativity to develop the next best way of building power.

We always had a desire, as we built out the mentorship, to experiment with the big data, the big technology, the big predictions that would take us from wandering in a forest shrouded in fog to a clearing that could reveal the many paths forward. 

Enter Hermelinda Cortés, an alumni from the mentorship program, a former mentor and a founding staff member of ReFrame as we transitioned from solely being a training program into an organization. Grounded in multi-racial, queer, feminist working class led southern organizing, Hermelinda brought experience in organizing in a deeply red-state region where cultures and values of domination, racism, and patriarchy touch nearly every aspect of life from: where grocery stores are located; to confederate shrines plastered on highways, dirt roads, and street corners; to access to gay bars and abortion clinics.

Hermelinda spent the next several years standing up a new arm of ReFrame’s work focusing on narrative research and action where we use human based acumen, large datasets, and analysis to predict patterns and trends in the narrative landscape based on the theory that we can leverage rising opportunities and crises to accelerate narrative changes. This work is what's behind the Rona Report and Rona Reports 2.0 that we released in 2020 and earlier this year, respectively. In a few days, we will hear from Hermelinda about this important work and the evolution of the seeds of the ideas of this work to what we’ve now come to call our narrative weather station!

The promise of this movement facing capacity is so big, and we are still in the early days. Similar to when I first saw VAN, whenever I look at the narrative weather station my strategy brain spins, the implications for what could be gets clearer as we remove the fog from the forest. We work to make ways for clearer paths, but we never forget that the path can only be traversed with fellow travelers, the people we move with, shoulder to shoulder. 

Check out Through the Looking Glass: ReFrame’s 2022 Narrative Predictions. Our report tracks everything from COVID-19 to pop culture moments, labor organizing to beauty trends in order to support strategists with real-time, data-driven insights into the narrative landscape.