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.
more blog posts from reframe
What is Safety Really? Organizing for a New Way
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.
Ukraine, Democracy and the Far Right
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.
Collective Bargaining for Stronger Communities
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.
What the South Taught Me About Predicting Narratives
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.
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.”
Through The Looking Glass: 2022 Narrative Predictions
SAVE THE DATE: Through The Looking Glass - 2022 Narrative Predictions
Shifting the Culture of Crime and Punishment
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. Talia Gad is a participant in the Northwest Health Foundation Fellowship and we took a few minutes to check-in on how she is doing.
ReFrame x NWHF Narrative Fellowship
ReFrame and Northwest Health teamed up to train leaders in community organizations in the Pacific Northwest to engage in narrative work to win.
THE RONA REPORT: THE ECONOMY, WORKERS & UNEMPLOYMENT
Exploring the narrative weather of Covid-19. The Rona Report is a project of ReFrame and Solea Signals. COVID time is confusing. It can feel like light speed and sloth slow all at once.
GOTV: Tools for Fighting Disinformation NOW & Beyond
Many who believe in justice are fighting hard for victories at the ballot box. However, our opponents are spreading disinformation that threaten the just future we are all working towards.
Threat Modeling & Swot Planning
At ReFrame, drawing from our experiences inside of other crisis moments, two of the tools we’ve been using to coordinate our team in the time of COVID-19 is individual and organizational threat modeling & SWOT planning.
A Movement Moment: Narrative in the Time of Corona
We are here with you. Our hearts and thoughts are with everyone who is struggling right now.
Creating an Ecosystem for Narrative Power
The political landscape is shifting by the week. What we need to stay above the current is what will allow us to build narrative power for the long-haul.
A Spectacular Start to the 2019 Reframe Program
The fifth class of the ReFrame Mentorship kicked off in May with a spectacular Opening Convening in Denver and Breckenridge, Colo.
5 Minutes With Power California’s Jung Hee Choi
Jung Hee Choi is a Senior Advisor and mentor for ReFrame and the Associate Director for Communications and Policy Strategies for Power California.
Introducing the 2019 Reframe Mentorship Cohort
At ReFrame, we envision national and international movements buoyed by hundreds of thousands of strategists who are collaborating to develop and advance deep narratives that bend the long arc of history toward justice.
Black Panther: The Movie About Blackness That Reflected Back Gold
First things first, if you have NOT yet seen Black Panther, stop reading right now and go watch it. Yes, RIGHT NOW. Then come back later and read this.
ReFrame Gives Me Hope (Video)
Some of the ReFrame mentors reflect on their mentees and the hope they have for the future.
It’s Humanizing (Video)
Shanelle Matthews, ReFrame mentor and Communications Director at Black Lives Matter Global Network, reflects on why learning and collaborative spaces like ReFrame are humanizing and powerful for oppressed communities.
Build The Story (Video)
Brandon Hill, who works with Cook Inlet Keeper, talks about why he applied for and participated in ReFrame.
We Have a Responsibility to Our Ancestors (Video)
Fresco Steez, who works with BYP100, talks about the importance of story and the responsibility of building power towards action to end oppression for all people.
Hope & Liberation (Video)
JaNaé Bates, who works with ISAIAH, talks about shifting narratives away from fear and towards hope and liberation.
ReFrame For Our Future (Video)
The ReFrame Mentorship is a six-month program that builds the next generation of strategic communicators in social justice, and supports organization to integrate communications as a core strategy.
Lessons From the Field: Fighting Trump’s Deportation Machine
Immigrant rights organizations like Juntos, a Latinx grassroots group in Philadelphia, have been mobilizing powerfully in the months since Donald Trump took office. For Miguel Andrade, the communications manager at Juntos and a 2017 ReFrame mentee, strategic communications has played a critical role in their organizing work.
Lessons From the Field: Climate Change Organizing in the Trump Era
For 27 years, Cook Inletkeeper has worked to protect Alaska’s waterways and the life and people that they sustain. According to Brandon Hill, the organization’s Communications Director and a 2017 ReFrame mentee, that work is always an uphill battle.
Lessons From the Field: Winning the Fight to Save the Internet
Fake news, corporate control of the internet, digital surveillance, law enforcement agencies using big data to target communities of color — all of these issues have taken on increasing importance in recent years. The Center for Media Justice (CMJ), founded in 2008, is at the forefront in ensuring that communities of color are at the center of the debate and policy solutions to these critical problems.
Lessons From The Field Strategic Communications For Statewide Organizations
For statewide organizations that work on a variety of issues, it can often be difficult for their communications staff to manage and plan strategies to effectively get the word out about all of their organization’s work.
Lessons For The Movement
When we launched ReFrame in 2015, we had one mission in mind: to develop the next generation of strategic communicators — leaders rooted in grassroots movements who understand how to shape and control the narrative and stories about the issues they work on and, equally importantly, have the strategic thinking and skills to do so.
Dream of Where to Go
Reflection and evaluation allows us to understand if we are on the path to realizing our dreams. Heading into our third year of building the next generation of social justice communicators, we took time to reflect on what we have done so far.
Why Add Communications to Organizing Strategy? (Video)
Aquilina Soriano Versoza, Pilipino Workers Center
Fighting Disinformation, Building Narrative Power
We are organizing and telling stories on an uneven playing field, where the underlying narratives have long been shaped by highly conservative forces. This is the playing field on which mis-and-disinformation is spreading. So how do we combat it?
Announcing the new Disinfo Defense Toolkit!
Curated by ReFrame and PEN America for the Disinfo Defense League. Powerful tools to push back while continuing to advance our work for justice
We Came To Win: Reflections on Narrative Power in the 2020 Election
How key strategists built narrative power in 2020 during a global pandemic, the rise of the largest demonstrations for racial justice in US history, the highest rate of voter turnout and a significant defeat of Trumpism at the polls.
Defanging Disinformation: 6 Action Steps Nonprofits Can Take
Disinformation has become more effective at generating chaos and seeding doubt in reality. As part of our work with the Disinformation Defense League, ReFrame and This is Signals have committed to sharing lessons learned with the field and action steps on how to slow the spread of disinformation.