“I needed this. Thought partnership is incredibly important, peer support can make our experiences and keep us in the work. This cohort is a great combination of head and heart.” - Sheena Rolle, Senior Director of Strategy at Florida Rising and 2022 Senior Narrative Power Cohort member
On an autumn morning in Phoenix, AZ, 11 people in a modest hotel conference room dove deep into self-reflection, and then joined together in pairs and small groups. They leaned into trust and quickly fell into connected conversations about their lives and work. If you squinted you could see new threads of connection, alignment, and vision weaving through the space, glinting in the desert sun that streamed through the windows.
The 11 people in that conference room are strategists leading scaled narrative power building efforts across the country. They come from organizations grounded in the legacy and practice of organizing and movement building. They are all members of ReFrame’s inaugural Senior Narrative Power Cohort - an eight-month program designed to support senior level strategists in their work through peer-to-peer engagement and individual coaching. Through the program, they are afforded access to real-time narrative research and $60,000 each to be applied to a narrative project of their choosing. But the cohort goes beyond support, it is a container for continued network weaving, seeding collaboration, and strengthening the social justice narrative power infrastructure.
“By the nature of this work and our current conditions, it's easy to feel isolated so I'm grateful for the container of this cohort, particularly as I am tasked to build a culture and infrastructure for communications for my organization and the broader movement.”- Jennifer Dillon, Managing Director of Communications at the Advancement Project and 2022 Senior Narrative Power Cohort member.
We called on leaders with a deep understanding and practice of organizing and narrative power building as a key piece in the journey to justice and liberation to participate in the cohort, and they answered.
Since 2015 when we launched the ReFrame Mentorship, we have been investing in leaders and organizations to build a durable, long-term narrative power infrastructure that along with organizing, can bend the arc of history towards justice. In line with this vision, we saw an opening that led us to the Senior Narrative Power Cohort.
With this groundbreaking program, we hope to usher in more strategists into similar programs for the longevity and livelihood of our movements and society.
Over 800 hundred organizers, creatives, and strategists joined ReFrame for Narrative Power 101 (in real-time and asynchronously!), to skill up and build narrative power to win. The room was electric, filled with curious leaders who were joyfully ready to secure a world with more justice, freedom, and healing for all people and the planet. Together we reviewed the fundamentals of narrative and disinformation - exploring the relationship between story, narrative, and power and discussed new approaches and practical steps for people’s everyday work.
“This training allowed me to see the long-term impacts of seeding narratives, to not be afraid to try out messaging, and to invest more time in research and studying culture - and the messages that exist and are yet to be heard.” - Narrative Power 101 participant
During the training, we had a rich discussion about how movements can weave together stories to advance just narratives at scale, lessons we’ve learned in the field, how we find resilience and stay in the work for the long haul and much more.
“A big takeaway for me was the need to work more closely with organizers in the narrative work. We work together now but this training made me think of ways we can do that better, what questions we should be thinking about and how we can support one another to build power.” - Narrative Power 101 participant
Participants from over 500 hundred organizations, based in small towns and big cities in 45 states in the U.S., Puerto Rico, and 15 countries across Africa, Europe, South America, and South Asia signed up to join us. They are advancing Black liberation, the right to housing, LGBTQ+ freedom, ensuring that the economy works for working people, addressing the root causes of the climate crisis, and many other sectors of social justice movements working to bring about a more just, free, and equitable world.
ReFrame will be holding more trainings in 2023. Stay tuned for more opportunities for us to connect, to deepen our practice and build narrative power together!
The Narrative Power Summit brought together over 400 strategists, organizers, communicators, cultural workers and leaders for three days of workshops, fireside chats, and inspiring Ignite talks all focused around building narrative power at scale. What follows is the edited opening statements from ReFrame Executive Director, Joseph Phelan, and ReFrame Deputy Director, Hermelinda Cortés, along with photos from this powerful event.
You can also see a social media round up of the event here.
We all made it here. Looking around this room I see people who I personally look to for wisdom, solidarity, and leadership in the work of building the beautiful world we all want. I see Jen Dillon, the Managing Director of Communications from Advancement Project doing the most to protect voting rights. I see Jonathan Alingu who is leading the fight for worker and community justice as the Co-Director of Central Florida Jobs with Justice. I see the indomitable JaNaé Bates holding down the midwest with ISAIAH and moving the needle on narratives about policing and community safety. I see Professor Shanelle Matthews - founder of Radical Communicators Network, a long time friend, and an inspired thinker and doer when it comes to building narrative power and bringing us all forward in theory and practice.
This room is filled with some amazing people. We all made it here to the Narrative Power Summit.
But why are we here?
As Executive Director at ReFrame it is my job to ask: Why did we put resources - money, time, people, effort, relationships - into building and holding this space with RadComms? Why did we all create the Narrative Power Summit?
The TL;DR is one day, while on a walk in Brooklyn, Shanelle said to me “ Hey, we should do this convening together.”
Underneath this simple idea and provocation was so much more. There were already years of working together - not just as ReFrame and RadComms - but as comrades and confidantes. Before that question, there were hours spent in vision and planning meetings; there were months spent mentoring next generation communicators and narrative strategists; and there was answering each other's calls at incredible moments of movement acceleration and power building.
Even then we were following in a lineage of organizers, strategists, and leaders who had come before.
This Summit grows forth from that lineage, and pulls on the trust, experience, and vision of those times when we called on each other:
From the Alto Arizona movement where we mobilized networks of comms strategists, media makers, and cultural workers across the country to support organizers in Arizona in the fight against a “show me your papers bill”; AND elevating that fight to national audiences, using the moment to intervene on long dominant narratives about migrants and who belongs here.
To the fight against the incredulous HB2 - the infamous “Bathroom Bill” in North Carolina and beyond. The bill built on generations of racialized, homophobic and transphobic tropes - narratives that so many of us are intervening on and changing while bringing joy, hope, and a celebration of life.
To the Ferguson uprising - when the call went out so many of us answered to support either on the ground or where we lived. We elevated stories and engaged in narrative battle fueled by popular uprising which continued through the years.
And so many more examples.
When we answered the call and showed up - we found new allies, new friends, and ultimately we built relationships that undergird movements.
Underneath that idea from Shanelle to create this Summit together there was trust, shared vision, and shared experience. Underneath it, simply, was a relationship that spanned from personal into deeply political.
ReFrame was founded and grew out of a similar call; it wasn’t an acute moment or narrative tipping point. Rather, ReFrame emerged from hours spent planning impactful actions, scheming in bars after marches, panels at the US Social Forum, conversations in the hallways at conferences, and from an informal yet transformational network of communications strategists grounded in power building organizing.
The call was to chart a path for the next generation of strategists, cultural workers, narrative theorists, and organizers.
When we started as a mentorship eight years ago we committed ourselves to the work and proclaimed our dedication to building the next generation of communications strategists across racial, gender and economic justice movements. We pulled together amazing strategists who were foundational to the social movements of our day to mentor emerging leaders and co-create containers for growth, innovation, and networked connection.
Some of those mentors are here today, I see you: Shanelle Mathews, Chelsea Fuller, Jung Hee Choi.
Some of those people who came through that program and are brilliant in their own right are also here today. I see you: JaNaé Bates, Jonathan Alingu, Fresco Steeze, Bia Jackson, Charles Curruthers, Aimee Castenell, Beulah Osueke, Kay Cuajunco, and Elbert Garcia.
Working with this community of mentors, trainers and strategists in our programs - we knew that we needed to do more. The mentorship wasn’t an elite program for a select few but the seeds of an approach that we wanted to grow - to build the ecosystem of leaders we need to contend for narrative power and to combat the ongoing onslaught of oppositional forces who would prefer us more dead than alive. We’ve never mistaken what the stakes are for our communities in our collective work in narrative and communications. The work of the people in this room is not fluff, it is a critical strand in a complex braid of the generational work of building a future and of making meaning that centers liberation and abundance.
So we got to work. More mentorships, more fellowships, more training. We built a state of the art narrative research operation known belovedly as our narrative weather station and we’ve ridden along with many of you in flashpoint and critical narrative tipping points to seize the opportunities to define our identities, policies, and material change in the lives of our people.
Eight years later, we’ve built with thousands of people. Many of you in this room have supported and participated in that work - from learning and leadership development, to narrative research and action, to building and supporting networks and movement infrastructure grounded in people.
ReFrame is here because we answered the call of our movements and organizations, and we are here today at the 2022 Narrative Power Summit because we answered the call from Shanelle and RadComms.
We answered the call because we know that in order to win we have to move beyond an obsession with the latest shiny thing, the latest magic bullet, the latest tool. We know that a hammer is just a lump of metal when there is no one to swing it. In order to win, we need people, we need you, we need the relationships that span geographies, issues, identities and to lean into solidarity in order to be greater than the sum of our parts. We need to encourage each other to take risks, to care for each other and to imagine narratives of the future even when we feel despair, when we’re tired and in grief. We need us and we’ve got us.
When Shanelle called on us at ReFrame we answered. When our lineage called on us we built ReFrame. But we did not answer alone.
Everyone attending the Summit answered this call as well. The work of building narrative power is all of our work. The basis for building power is relationships, and that is what we are doing here.
Sometimes relationship building is hard, effortful and requires us to lean into the values we espouse while managing our own lived experiences. Sometimes relationship building is uncomfortable because it requires growth or bending or challenging what we assume.
And sometimes, and these are my favorite times, building is magic and that connection is inspired, and you can feel that WE are building - that the relationships are exponential in their potential.
So this is the call:
Build relationships that are personal, but are ultimately political and purposeful. Build narrative power. Win the world we want and need.
This virtual training reviews the fundamentals of narrative and disinformation while offering new approaches and practical steps for your everyday work.
What: Narrative Power 101 virtual training with additional tools and resources
When: Live Training - Tuesday, October 25 at 2-4 PM PT | 4-6 PM CT | 5-7 PM ET
Who: Organizers, canvassers, leaders, communicators, directors, digital mavens and activists who want to skill up around narrative power-building, strategic communications, and combatting disinformation.
This October 6-8, ReFrame and RadComms are bringing narrative power builders together for a hybrid summit in Long Beach, CA!
WHAT IS THE 2022 NARRATIVE POWER SUMMIT?
The 2022 Narrative Power Summit (NPS) is a two-day hybrid convening for progressive and social justice communicators. We will network, strengthen relationships, spark and coordinate collaboration, generate new ideas, debate political and ideological assessments, and take stock of the conditions of the social justice communications field and the social movements to which we belong.
This summit is for early-career practitioners, narrative power OGs, and everyone in between. Participants will include communicators, digital strategists, organizers, and other movement workers and leaders with a proven commitment to narrative power building for racial, gender, economic, and climate justice. We’ll welcome ReFrame alumni, Radical Communicators Network members, and others who serve grassroots organizations, coalitions, networks, and other movement formations.
WHAT TYPE OF CONTENT WILL BE COVERED AT THE NPS?
Broadly, the NPS will be focused on the narrative power, strategic communications, organizing, and electoral justice strategies of progressive and radical social movements. Specifically, we will explore past, present, and future narrative terrain; seed and accelerate contemporary narrative strategies and tools; and confront trauma, grief, and crises while honing tools for care and healing in our work.
WHO WILL BE PRESENTING AT THE SUMMIT? ARE THERE VIRTUAL OPTIONS?
Summit presenters will be those who are attending the summit, either in-person or virtually. The NPS will host up to 300 people in-person and will open an additional 200 spaces to participate virtually. The virtual and in-person components will be integrated for main-stage content and set apart for sessions, with virtual participants attending virtual tracks on a high-production virtual platform.
CAN MY ORGANIZATION SPONSOR NPS?
Yes! You can help build grassroots capacity for narrative power by signing up as a sponsor today. If you are interested in supporting NPS, contact us at NPSummit@radcommsnetwork.org to discuss various sponsorship opportunities.
“The saying goes ‘if 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.