Telling Stories for Social Change

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You watch from the audience as the executive from the giant multinational corporation taps his pen impatiently on the table. You are in a town meeting to discuss a proposal to build a one million square foot water bottling plant in your tiny mountain community, population 1,300. Suddenly your town’s governing board is voting. The proposal passes and the contract is signed on the spot.

Whaaat?

The people in your little town enjoy their quiet, rural lifestyle and many realize the plant will bring noise, dust and truck traffic. With your way of life under attack, you call a meeting with your neighbors and begin to organize an opposition coalition.

The corporation has been down this road before. They have experience manipulating the public into seeing things their way. The company crafts a compelling story. They say the new plant will provide badly needed jobs for the town. The plant will provide revenue for the cash-strapped local government. Besides, the only ones against the project are out-of-towners and fanatical environmentalists who are always opposing economic progress.

But your group enlists the help of an outside organization that specializes in harnessing the power of stories, and you start to develop a narrative of your own to counter the corporate story.

Your story revolves around water. Everyone in town is proud of their clean, pure spring water. It is a symbol of the area’s rural way of life. It is a source of tourism and some of the best trout fishing in the country. All that would be at risk with the company sucking up 1,250 gallons of groundwater a minute—nonstop.

The corporation makes a concerted effort to extend their “jobs versus environment” appeal to ranchers in the area, who have had their battles with environmentalists in the past. But your group invents a metaphor involving an invasive plant called the spurge. To ranchers, the spurge is a scourge. It cost them money by degrading grazing land, and can send taproots over 20 feet into the ground to extract water. The story you write equates the water company to the spurge. It is an idea the ranchers can relate to—an invading corporation that wants to suck up groundwater, which will create economic hardship.

Your struggle goes on for many years, but eventually the company scraps their plans and goes elsewhere.

This is essentially a true story, albeit greatly simplified. It happened over ten years ago in the Northern California town of McCloud. The invading corporation was Nestlé, the largest food and beverage company in the world. The outside group that helped craft the stories and guide the opposition campaign was The Center for Story-based Strategy (CSS),1 then known as smartMeme.

Stories

Stories are how we organize reality. They determine our identity: how we think, what we believe and how we relate to the world.

Collectively, national and cultural identities are reinforced by stories. In this country we embrace stories such as Columbus “discovering” America, the US heroically saving the world from Nazis during World War II and humble people becoming rich by working hard.

Sometimes these stories seem so natural and obvious we don’t even realize they only represent a certain point of view, and there may be many other ways of interpreting those realities.

As certain ideas, practices, and worldviews become normalized over time, they form a dominant culture that disproportionately represents powerful institutional interests and perpetuates the stories that validate their political agendas. These stories can become invisible as they are passed from generation to generation—carrying assumptions that become “conventional wisdom.”2

Yet these narratives can be challenged once they are recognized and analyzed. And new stories can be invented and propagated that promote a different way of looking at the world. In social struggles, it is often the side with the most compelling story that carries the day.

Center for Story-based Strategy

This is the guiding idea behind The Center for Story-based Strategy. CSS is dedicated to helping activist groups harness the power of story to build movements.

Their website3 provides plenty of resources for strategizing and inventing creative tactics. You can learn the basics about such topics as framing issues to shape perceptions, inventing compelling memes to spread your story, designing a brand for your movement and much more. A good place to start is to download their free book, Re:Imagining Change.4 CSS can also visit your group to provide customized onsite training (for a fee).

Story-based strategy views social change through the lens of narrative power and positions storytelling at the center of social change strategy. This framework provides tools to craft more effective social change messages, challenge assumptions, intervene in prevailing cultural narratives, and change the stories that shape popular culture.5


If your group has been trained by CSS or made use of their ideas, I’d love to talk to you. I can be reached via this contact page: https://fragmentsweb.org/fourtx/contact.html

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Footnotes

  1. CSS was not the only outside group that helped the people of McCloud organize their campaign against Nestlé. Food and Water Watch and Corporate Accountability International were among those who also provided assistance.
  2. Patrick Reinsborough and Doyle Canning, Re:Imagining Change: How to Use Story-based Strategy to Win Campaigns, Build Movements, and Change the World (Oakland: PM Press, 2010), 20, https://www.storybasedstrategy.org/tools-and-resources.
  3. Their website is https://www.storybasedstrategy.org/
  4. https://www.storybasedstrategy.org/tools-and-resources. Only the 1st edition is available for download. You have to buy the updated 2nd edition.
  5. Reinsborough and Canning, Re:Imagining Change, 12–13.