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.
Photo Credit: Sasha Matthews - Green Tangerine Photography
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.
Photo Credit: Sasha Matthews - Green Tangerine Photography
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