[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.]
Isabel Crabtree -Condor is a cultural connector and bridge builder with British-Peruvian roots. As a knowledge broker she connects across different cultures, languages, and areas of work to support people to learn from each other and recognise the power of their own knowledge and know-how. She works for Oxfam, an international confederation of 20 NGOs, working with partners in over 90 countries to end injustices that cause poverty. She loves memes.
We see narrative being used to reclaim power and create new spaces for conversation. This anthology is packed with examples of how that is happening. What other ones are you seeing in your world right now? How are you engaging with them?
“Narrative power and collective action” is a collection of curated conversations between Isabel Crabtree-Condor, a Knowledge Broker at Oxfam, and a diverse group of people working in the narrative change and collective action space. This editorial is based on a conversation between the editor, Louise Ball, and Isabel, to find out more about the motivations behind the publication and what she and her organisation has learned from the conversations.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve understood stories as a way to connect with people – I saw them used to disempower and empower, to injure, and to heal. As for many people, stories were my entry point for getting to grips with narratives.
It’s as if there’s something invisible holding things in place, preventing change from happening. For me, understanding narratives and what lies behind or under them, is one way of digging more consciously into that invisible web of forces that maintain the status quo.
How did you find the collaborators?
First, I set out to speak to people who had been vocal or visible on the topic.
When I started, I didn’t really know much about narratives. As I ventured into the unknown, I met a new character, and that person would help me to understand a bit more, then they’d give me directions to the next stop.
You start to see a landscape of people working on narrative change across culture production, marketing, framing, storytelling, strategic communicators, movement starters, connectors, the list goes on.
And what emerged for me was how narrative work is used by different groups to keep ideas in place or to propose alternative ways of thinking about, looking at, or acting on issues.
Why are you interested in narratives and civic space?
As an organisation, Oxfam is exploring how to more effectively understand and respond to changes in civic space in different contexts. One of the drivers of closing civic space was linked to the power of certain narratives.
For us, civic space is the structures, institutions, and enabling conditions that support people to be active citizens. Where people can come together, organise, speak out, and act individually and collectively. It’s the freedom (and right) to assemble, associate, and speak out, which some of us are able to enjoy more than others. Civic space is expressed in the streets, in neighbourhood groups and community spaces, formal organisations, and grassroots or global movements.
We see compelling narratives that connect to old and deep forms of power, prejudice, and fear. These are being used to undermine civil society work, and to attack activists and people claiming their human rights.
They are also being used to persuade people that the status quo is inevitable, change is not possible, and participation or activism is pointless. They keep ideas that don’t serve the majority in place.
Populist rhetoric is increasingly visible. It taps into people’s emotions and values, sometimes even using human rights language. This hurts solidarity, peace, and social justice efforts.
We are interested in understanding this better and in testing the assumption that if specific narratives are used to close space, they can also be used to open space.
It’s not all bad news, is it?
I hope this anthology of perspectives shows that we can all be part of creating new narratives. Regardless of where you sit and what you do.
Narratives are not something that happens over there. We are part of them and they are part of us. That means we can reinforce or challenge them. The question is: can we do it consciously, with others, and can we do it better? Absolutely.
Engaging with diverse perspectives can create exits from our echo chambers. If we are only talking to ourselves and people who are like us then our ‘us’ is not big, diverse or dynamic.
We see narratives being used to reclaim power and create new spaces for conversation. This anthology is packed with examples of how that is happening. What other ones are you seeing in your world right now? How are you engaging with them?
Connections between conversations
Narratives are a form of power
If there is one thing that I take away from this whole exercise, it’s that power is central to this work.
It’s one of the first things I learned about narratives from the feminist approach, and it has really stayed with me.
Narratives can mobilise and connect, as well as divide and isolate. Social, public or dominant narratives help to legitimise existing power relationships, prop them up, and make them seem natural.
It’s useful to think of narratives in terms of power, because then collective action and creative collaboration are clearly the only way to go if we want to reroute or disrupt these power dynamics.
Narrative power through collective action
The good news is that there are loads of cool creative collaborations under way, and as a collective we hope to support many more.
Connecting with people who are different from us can really strengthen our collective action and creative potential.
Narrative knowledge and framing know-how can help us to open civic space, collaborate better, and amplify other voices, helping us to be part of the biggest ‘us’ we can be.
This work is beyond the scope of one organisation or sector. To shift or change sticky narratives that keep the status quo in place is going to require collaboration and creative collective action at a scale not seen before.
Narratives play a role in closing the space to speak out
Many of the conversations talked about how narratives are being used to close the space to speak out. But this also means they are an important way to understand and influence this space for collective action.
Rather than trying to counter these harmful narratives, we might want to focus our energy on collective action to create new or alternative narratives that focus on our values and what we stand for.
And it’s not enough to just talk authentically about our values, or what we stand for, we have to do things differently too. We have to bring those values to life every day, or expect to be called out for it. Doing what you say is important, it builds trust.
Narratives hold ideas in place and they are also made by us
Narratives are made up of many stories, tweets, visuals, videos, memes, online content, offline conversations, keeping deeply held ideas about society and people in place.
In a crisis, people are more open than ever to narratives that activate them to feel and act on fear. But also, narratives that direct them to feel and act on hope and empathy.
There are different routes to shifting narratives. Who you walk with and how you get there are also going to be important in determining who can see themselves in the new narrative you want to share.
Values can guide collective action and strengthen narratives
In a few of the conversations, people mention hope, joy, love, and empathy as values that we need to hold onto and bring to life in our collective work. That’s something we can all just start doing now.
It’s also not about telling people how to do things or that their way is incorrect. There are often reasons people believe what they believe. Values help us to connect with people on a different level.
Unless we start listening better, understanding more, acting in line with what we believe in, we won’t get out of this polarised situation.
There’s a lot of conversations, how should I read this publication?
A bit like a book of poetry, you don’t need to read this from cover to cover in one sitting. You obviously can if you want to. But go at the pace you need to.
Maybe start by looking for perspectives that are different from yours, they might surprise you.
If people learn something new from this publication, or it helps someone to reflect on their practice, to perhaps see something they didn’t see before, or to see it in a new way, then that is of huge value to me.
Of course, there are nice practical tips and tricks that are going to turn your head in the conversations too!
From this project, we have learned the crazy power of conversation. We don’t make enough time for them, yet conversations are the bedrock of collaboration and connection.
So, the next step for this work is to use this publication to build a global conversation around the power of narrative and collective action. We want you to be part of it.
I encourage people reading this to ask themselves: what can this offer me? And what can I offer this conversation?
Oh, and we also have another 11 fantastic conversations in the works for part two, so look out for that.