In our work to strengthen and support civic space worldwide (i.e. the space for freedoms of association, assembly and free expression) we often see that certain narratives are used to undermine the work of activists. Narratives – the collection of stories we intentionally or unintentionally use to set our experiences and observations in a larger context of meaning, and shape our understandings of the world – are like layered currents. Sometimes only a part of the narrative is visible, the tip of the iceberg, but beneath the surface it is connected to deeply held and shared social norms and values, history and culture, which are often invisible and difficult to grasp.
The recent EADI conference on ‘Solidarity, Peace and Social Justice’ helped us explore different strategies to influence narratives. The virtual roundtable on solidarity-building narratives affirmed that such narratives can be powerful tools to protect and strengthen the space to practice our civic rights. We also learned that narrative change work is about:
- Hope and Play. Narrative work finds creative ways to move people to new ideas and experiences, tapping into feelings of hope and visioning possible futures.
- Relationships and Understanding. It is a process of mutual learning – demanding openness to have one’s own mind changed too.
- Listening. It is most powerful when you reach out to those you don’t necessarily already agree with, to find shared values and meet in the middle.
- Co-Creating: It is a constant iterative process, requiring interaction with all kinds of actors and individuals, finding expressions of solidarity to create a better future together.
- Showing, not telling. Narratives need to be embodied, and solidarity is best expressed through concrete actions.
- Moving beyond strategic communications: The end goal of narrative change work is a deeper level of social change based on power analysis and social norm change strategies.
So what does this look like in practise? Read about the approaches, tactics and lessons from Bulgaria, South Africa and Colombia….and how funders can support this work.
The importance of Hope – shifting perceptions in Bulgaria
For Fine Acts – a global creative studio for social impact – hope is the thread that cuts through all their work. Research about what makes people care reveals that opinions don’t change through more information but through compelling, empathetic experiences. Yana Buhrer Tavanier explained that if our messaging triggers fear and guilt, people will shut down. We need to communicate hope and opportunity to engage people and gather the positive and creative energy for change.
Fine Acts applied this in their Love Speech campaign, which engaged 35 leading Bulgarian artists in a vast campaign against hate speech, which has been on the rise particularly against Roma, LGBTQI+ people and refugees. The campaign featured a series of urban art interventions, a participatory installation, a viral online video, and a large free-to-use collection of illustrations, and reached more than one million people, raising awareness of the implications of hate speech on wider society. Through creativity, playfulness, hope and wit, the campaign was able to engage people in a non-threatening way to shift perceptions of these marginalized groups and counter dominant hateful narratives.
Yana’s tip: – don’t let trying to do things the ‘perfect way’ hold you back – experimentation is just as good. Try, learn, adapt, learn and adapt again.
The importance of Play – challenging beliefs in South Africa
In order to be effective, narrative change work needs understand the interests and psychology of those whose perceptions you want to change, and tap into culture, humour, history to connect with the audience on multiple levels.
This also requires a certain amount of playfulness – in particular when serious and demanding human rights activism can lead to burnout or feelings of powerlessness. Ishtar Lakhani illustrated this creative and playful mixed approach through the example of raising awareness on the rights of sex workers in South Africa.
The Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT) chose to focus on challenging the specific image of sex work pushed out by Hollywood blockbuster imagery. By instead showing the multiple working identities of sex workers – as mothers, carers, often combining different jobs – the campaign demonstrated that sex work is not the only work that sex workers (can) do. For example, SWEAT also seized the opportunity of the 2019 South African National Elections to deploy their creative activism and started a fictitious sex worker-led political party called SWAG. Through political party posters, convincing social media coverage and a campaign video with the one-liner ‘Your Rights, Your Freedom, Your SWAG’ they gained attention and public space to talk about the rights of sex workers and managed to get the two largest opposition political parties to include the issue in their election manifestos.
Ishtar’s tip – changing the language you use can sometimes create bridges to unexpected allies and new ways of looking at the issue. You can then jointly make a new narrative.
The importance of Relationships and Showing, not Telling – Human Rights outreach in Venezuela
Concrete action, rather than mere rhetoric and general statements about rights, is often what pulls people towards social change activism.
In Venezuela two things came together to change the way a team of pro-bono lawyers did human rights outreach to communities. The team had already been facing narrative attacks labelling human rights proponents as ‘anti-Venezuelan’, and had been working on a series of events that would ‘materialise’ rights in ways beyond their traditional legal accompaniment – by offering opportunities for sports, music, and entrepreneurial training, for example.
With the onset of COVID, the need to creatively rethink how they reached community members became even more urgent, so they held upcycling workshops to make PPE face-shields, began partnering with community kitchens, and formalized a position for creative community activism. These creative approaches resulted not only in more effective community engagement, but also prompted reflections on what it means to be lawyers and how they might give a face to human rights that resonates more with the lived experiences of the communities they work in.
Lucas’s tip: Appeal to people’s ideal collective future, to show how much the values underlying these visions of an ideal society align. Narrative success depends on making relationships and experiences the ends of your project, not the means.
FAILing, or a First Attempt In Learning, is something James Savage from the Global Fund for Human Rights encourages all funders to not only be excited about, but to incentivize and enable. He suggests some key points for funders who are interested in supporting narrative change work to bear in mind:
James’s tip: Funders need to be prepared to FAIL forward and to support others to FAIL forward.