The Promise of ReFrame

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.”

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. 

Please check out the narrative predictions next week, and I look forward to walking this path with you!

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