[This conversation was originally published in part 1 of ‘Narrative Power & Collective Action’, a collaboration between Oxfam and On Think Tanks. All conversations were edited by Louise Ball. Download the publication.]
Elena Mejía Julca is a young social movement leader from Peru. She’s part of several activist collectives, including the leadership group of Foro Juvenil de Izquierda (Left Youth Forum), a youth collective on issues of inequality and human rights in Peru. She is one of the directors of Búho Teatro Hiphop, a young independent theatre company. Elena is a feminist, rapper, mobiliser and facilitator, involved in creating art, music and political proposals for change in Peru.
You can pay a whole team of publicists to come up with a slogan, or you can give a few kids a spray can and some cardboard and boom, you have one that really connects with people.
The importance of narratives in society
Narratives try to constitute ‘truths’. They are an interpretation of reality that serves the interests of the group that constructs them. And they can have a very direct impact on the action and behaviour of people.
People receive narratives through media and communications: art, novels and so on. The narratives that build the public imagination of a country are in the hands of people who already have a lot of power. They are the ones who dominate in the production and distribution of narratives. They play a role in keeping things as they are.
Let me give you an example of a common narrative: poor people are poor because they want to be, they don’t make an effort. How many people have become wealthy by their own effort alone? Very few. The large majority of the population struggles daily, has many virtues, but no wealth. This shows how important social security systems are in an individual’s development, and how harmful narratives can be.
These narratives are repeated in direct and subliminal ways in the media, to the point that people believe it.
Narratives are a contested space – or at least it should be – for social movements and organisations that want to see change in the world.
Social movements must also have their own narratives if they want to contest power and shift dominant narratives that shape our societies. Narratives that speak truly and propose our vision for a different world.
How narratives are undermining social change in Peru
There are many narratives that characterise those involved in social movements and NGOs, like: ‘they are all corrupt and get into this work to get a good salary and live off people’s poverty’, ‘social movements have no technical knowledge, they’re confused idealists’, and ‘the people that protest are violent and negative.’
These narratives are repeated in social circles, in social media, and all over the internet. We are letting ourselves be characterised by others – by people who have money and resources to do it in a compelling way.
Another really damaging narrative is that if you work in an NGO, a leftist political party, or something social, then you basically need to be a saint. You’re not allowed to make any mistakes. If you mess up, you’re incompetent, inconsequential, almost sub-human.
So, anyone on the right of the political spectrum can commit terrible crimes and no one says anything, because it’s expected. But if progressive or left-leaning people commit an error, the moral penalty dished out by society is a million times worse.
These narratives hurt us and limit our potential for action in society.
At Foro Juvenil de Izquierda Elena runs a political school called From Protest to Proposal. In our conversation with Elena we asked her about the methodologies taught to analyse and co-construct new narratives.
The construction of a counter narrative, to me, is first to reveal the false narrative for what it is. For that you need evidence, analysis and debate.
It’s not enough to tell people the facts or give them data. The formulation of knowledge and narratives comes from the process of building knowledge – arriving at joint conclusions based on joint analysis. From those conclusions you can begin to develop a counter, or new, narrative.
Changing narratives is just the first step to creating change
Sometimes, the journey to get to a new or counter narrative can feel incomplete. For example, you manage to shift the narrative that the poor are poor because they want to be. You say, ‘that’s a lie, the poor are poor because of structural inequalities, the system, corruption, state capture, and a million other reasons.’ But at the end of the day, they are still poor.
The narrative is just the first step. Then you need a proposal for change. This is what we want our school to do: to get people to go from protest to proposal.
The school is about creating spaces for political education and open debate. Where young people can learn together and question the different ways they experience inequality.
Another great space is the Labs for Young Activists: youth-led spaces where we work with other collectives to strengthen young people’s activism across Peru.
Both of these initiatives are aimed at changing and creating narratives, giving people the necessary tools to take action and support broad political participation.
Examples of constructing a new narrative
Some of the bigger campaigns we have been involved in were able to produce new narratives, a stronger connection to the general public as well as policy change.
For example, around the Ley Pulpin in Peru. They said the law benefited young workers, but our analysis proved that this wasn’t true. We showed that really they wanted young cheap workers.
When we took to the streets there were some amazing placards, people can be super creative making catchy slogans. Someone came up with ‘Cholo, pero no barato’. Everyone understood this new narrative, there were more placards saying this and people started using the phrase. It unified the message and cut through the noise.
The ‘Cholo pero no barato’ framing has a lot of cultural baggage – a deep connection to Peru’s history. But those meanings are not static. A great thing about working with young people is you see them appropriating words.
When people are really living the issue, they take ownership of the creative process. It’s their fight and that’s where the impressive creativity flows. Young people can repurpose words really effectively. The whole Hiphop, cultural and counter-cultural movements are proof of that.
The power of art and theatre for constructing and challenging narratives is undeniable. Búho Teatro Hiphop, our young independent theatre company, combines both these art forms to challenge narratives.
Critical thinking put in rhymes, rhythms and scenic pieces, keeping the ‘knowledge in movement’ essence of Hiphop. Our very first play ‘Como Hombre’ (Like a man), is a compelling and truthful piece of six men questioning their privileges over women, the roots of the violence they inflict and how they ‘became a man’ in this society.
By using grounded language, comedy and music, this alternative narrative has resonated with a big group of young activists. It has been performed for prisoners of the Castro High Security Facility and had a deep impact on that audience, sparking questions and conversations.
I’ve realised that what works best is when creatives drink directly from and are part of the movement. Publicists close themselves off in a room, they aren’t aware of what’s happening in the street. That’s what we want to avoid with this work. In other words, you can have a whole team of publicists working around the clock to develop a slogan, or you give a few kids a spray can and cardboard and boom, you get your slogan. But are these young people being recognised for this?
What civil society needs now
Social movements don’t have the resources to take on those with the mass media narrative power. We need more spaces to question narratives in a conscious way.
Sometimes we’re too focused on the product: the counter narrative or creative product. The process of analysing a narrative, creating a different narrative, building strategic communication pieces or a proposal for change is long.
Right now, what we need is to support longer and more sustainable processes. Yes, we need quantity, but we also need quality.
In our school, we try to make sure that each activist leaves not just with capability to produce content, but also to facilitate their own spaces.
“We don’t do politics”
Another narrative is the need to depoliticise humanitarian and social work: ‘we don’t get involved in politics; we just try to help people.’
There’s a narrative that only political candidates are political. To ‘do’ politics you need to have a public role. Politics of the masses doesn’t exist, count or matter.
But for me, Hiphop has been one of the most political things that ever existed. When people say to me, ‘by the way, we don’t do politics’ I think, ‘what is it that you do then, if you aren’t doing politics?’.