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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.

Through The Looking Glass: 2022 Narrative Predictions

December 3, 2021

SAVE THE DATE: Through The Looking Glass - 2022 Narrative Predictions

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We started the ReFrame Mentorship in 2015 to invest, build and sustain a robust ecosystem for narrative power. We’ve trained thousands in narrative strategy and have expanded our capacity to support leaders with real-time, data-driven insights into the narrative landscape.

Using our narrative research, we predict patterns and trends to identify the emerging opportunities that can be leveraged for narrative change for justice, freedom, and liberation. Later this month we’re releasing our inaugural annual narrative predictions to support strategists in seizing narrative possibilities and guarding against narrative risks in the coming year. 

Join ReFrame Co-Founder Jen Soriano in discussion with founding staff Joseph Phelan and Hermelinda Cortés on December 13 at 1pm ET/12pm CT on Instagram Live to learn more about ReFrame’s evolution and the narrative opportunities and risks we predict for 2022. 

Shifting the Culture of Crime and Punishment

November 18, 2021

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.

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“‘Culture eats policy for lunch’ is a quote that I think about a lot,” says Talia Gad, Communications Director at Partnership for Safety and Justice in Oregon. “If you don’t shift the culture, you can pass all the policies that you want but they won’t necessarily be implemented appropriately. A culture shift must happen whether we pass laws or not… It’s essential.”

As we grow the narrative power ecosystem we need to win we like to highlight the awesome strategists we get to work with. Gad is a participant in the Northwest Health Foundation Fellowship and we took a few minutes to check-in on how she is doing. 

Gad enters her work from a public health background and currently spends her time at Partnership for Safety and Justice (PSJ) working to change the way the public safety system is viewed and operated. PSJ is about transforming society’s response to crime and violence in a way that centers accountability, equity and healing. It is the first policy-advocacy organization in the country to take a holistic approach of bringing together folks who are victims of crime, folks who have been convicted of crime and the families of both to address the challenges Oregonians face when dealing with the root of the issue, public safety and the lack and dysfunction in the criminal justice system. 

What narratives do you believe are important to lift up in the work you do?

Gad: “One narrative would be that public safety looks different for different people. What our systems put forth as public safety is rooted in systemic racism and punishment, and it just doesn’t offer true public safety for real people, in particular for communities of color. Another is that we cannot solve homelessness, addiction and mental health crises with the carceral system. Those are a couple of the main narratives and narrative frames that we need to rebuild in order to make our public safety system more effective.” 

I often think about if we could eliminate barriers in education, housing, healthcare, public health, transportation, and all of these other public services and deliver true healing services for people who seek treatment and other approaches to healing, what then could our public safety system look like? So there's a big prevention component here. There are certainly elements that we are working to get rid of but we really don’t frame our work in terms of what we are trying to deconstruct. We are framing our work in what we are trying to build.” 

What are the goals of PSJ and what work are you doing to push towards those  goals? 

Gad: “PSJ has 3 strategic goals: Invest in local solutions to build up a public safety system that achieves true accountability and healing, shrink the current corrections system that disproportionately harms Black and brown families, and transform people’s expectations and ideas of what the public safety system is supposed to look like.

We are currently testing the way we talk about needed policy reforms and framing them as values that we share. When we view needed policy changes as values that we all want for our own families, and when these values are communicated by the right people, our hope is that we can create a more vivid picture of why we need to eliminate unnecessary barriers and give more people an opportunity to succeed.”

What brings you hope in the work you do and what keeps you inspired? 

Gad: “I am really excited about this current wave of the civil rights movement. As a person who has not been systemically impacted by the system, I have to be led by people who have something to say about it. There’s humility in stepping back and making space for the right voices and right stories to be leading the movement and I am deeply influenced by those people. The movement also makes me feel hopeful because folks are taking the time to listen to impacted people, and you can’t unknow those stories. There is a wealth of knowledge and information that people are constantly being exposed to and you can’t unknow things that are now in the water.”

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

Gad: “Stories inspire emotions, stories inspire feelings. If you can make people feel things, you can make them change things. This is the heart of why it's so important to make people feel what the status quo is doing to families and communities and the urgency to rethink what true public safety should look like for communities in Oregon.”

To learn more about the fellowship, check out this blog

ReFrame x NWHF Narrative Fellowship

September 30, 2021

ReFrame and Northwest Health teamed up to train leaders in community organizations in the Pacific Northwest to engage in narrative work to win.

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ReFrame teamed up with @northwesthealth on a six-month program to support organizations in Pacific Northwest to build narrative power. Leaders in this cohort are trained to leverage stories that disrupt the narratives driving inequality and to seed a new common sense. Click here to read more.

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THe Rona Report 2.0: “It’s Still the Economy, Stupid!”

April 30, 2021

Rona Report 2.0 explores narrative trends, content, messages and stories around the economy, jobs and workers under Covid-19

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This May Day we’re releasing Rona Report 2.0, a comparative narrative analysis of the inaugural Rona Report we released a year ago where we explored narrative trends, content, messages and stories around the economy, jobs and workers under COVID-19.

Read the full report here!

In an era of pandemic exacerbated by climate chaos and state violence, the ongoing and often unseen collective trauma is still palpable one year since the latest coronavirus made itself known. COVID-19 has uprooted our reality, and at the same time, offers us a chance to reimagine what our world can look like if we adopt values of care, interdependence, and social solidarity.

We believe the moment is ripe to continue reshaping narratives to imbue new meaning that projects and creates the world we want for the next seven generations.

We are all witnessing firsthand how the pandemic is cracking open narratives about the economy and workers in new ways. Over the last year, we developed and iterated upon our analysis from the first report revisiting the narrative landscape at the intersection of the pandemic, the economy and workers.

During that time we saw an enormous response of the collective care we so desperately needed all across the country —  mutual aid and grassroots mobilizations to get friends, family and neighbors the help they needed, a summer of uprisings where millions of people demanded the end to hyper militarized racist policing, and an election that was won by the sweat equity of Black, Latinx, and Indigenous organizers in battleground states.

At the same time, we saw the opposition respond in earnest through widespread voter suppression and intimidation tactics and a riot at the Capitol, which was born out of authoritarian policies and inhumane actions propagated by the right wing over the last four years. Within this context, chaos agents and unwitting participants have pumped an exorbitant amount of racialized and gendered misinformation and disinformation into the media ecosystem, further destabilizing public discourse. Indeed, we are living in difficult yet transformative times.

The Rona Report: One Year On identifies dominant, emerging and enduring narratives that have shaped the landscape between May 2020 and April 2021. Within this iteration of the Rona Report, you will find in-depth narrative insights and trends as they relate to the economy and workers. You’ll also find key narrative networks and influencers, narrative threats (including the ever present strains of disinformation and misinformation), narrative openings and concrete action steps to mitigate the risks we are to face.

Read the full download on narrative openings, threats, and actions here!

For many of us, the pre-pandemic ‘normal’  was a crisis in and of itself.

The Trump administration’s inaction had a devastating effect on all of us, especially those of us who live at the intersections of being poor and working class, trans and queer, incarcerated and undocumented, disabled and at the throws of white supremacy and nationalism. This state sanctioned, criminal negligence resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of our friends, family, neighbors, and members of our global community.

As we move from red bar graphs highlighting the waves of sickness and death across the United States to the race for herd immunity under a new administration, many of us hold the deep desire to be free of the pandemic and restabilize our lives, and the narrative landscape reflects this desire and the shift in our attitudes about the economy, jobs, and workers over the last year.

COVID-19 has created a dynamic narrative space.

There is a robust set of narrative openings to leverage the current moment and shift narratives around COVID-19 and beyond.

  • We have an opportunity right now to redefine the role of government and build governance that prioritizes people, not profits. Conversations around Big Tech and big business also suggest a narrative opening to move the needle on the role the government plays in meeting peoples’ basic needs. The lack of public internet infrastructure and the digital divide,  #FreeTheVaccine conversations, democracy and voting, and the forthcoming national infrastructure bill provide opportunities to expand the notion of what is priceless and what resources should be held by the public.
  • Amplify and drive conversations that center workers. Make connections across industries. COVID-19 has left a big crack in the conversation about the economy. While productivity and growth are still primary drivers, we have seen the reemergence of #RaisetheWage, and support of unions and an expansion of the social safety net in 2021.
  • While we need to tell a clear story about where we’ve been, the crisis moment we’ve arrived at, and where we’re headed, a focus on criticism can often depress action. The harms caused by capitalism, racism, and patriarchy need to be balanced with a clear vision. Project an aspirational vision of the future that speaks to peoples’ material conditions — weariness, exhaustion, and hanging on — and underscores that change is possible. Stitch stories together about mutual aid, creative governance, and people-centered economies that have come out of the pandemic and draw on rich histories. Regularly connect the dots between these disparate stories to weave  a bigger narrative on transformative and just governance.

Read more about how we identified these opportunities in the full report!

In the coming weeks, we’ll bring you opportunities to connect with us on the narrative research and action steps from Rona Report 2.0 and share more about how to get connected to our exciting project, Signals In The Noise!

If you haven’t already, make sure you sign up to our mailing list here so you don’t miss a thing.
Can’t wait to get in touch with us? Give us a shout!