A bunch of multicolored sticky notes are stuck to a white board inside circles.

“A story is the shortest distance between two people.”

– Unknown

Only recently has philanthropy begun to grasp what organizers have always known to be true: the stories we tell one another and ourselves are critical to social justice and change. The written and spoken words we absorb on a daily basis melt together to shape our personal politic, daily actions, and even our sense of self. Building narrative power is essential to our movement’s pursuit of safe, joyful, and autonomous futures. Because telling our stories—those of grief and marginalization, but also of wins and reimaginings—is how we secure greater love and ease for our people, buy-in for our emergent ideas, and the political power necessary to make our dreams reality. 

Last year, Borealis Philanthropy’s Communities Transforming Policing Fund (CTPF) and Spark Justice Fund (SJF) partnered with Resonance, a progressive communications hub, to provide narrative change support to grantee partners working to end criminalization, police violence, pretrial detention, cash bail, jail expansion, incarceration, and de-carceration. Over nine months, the two Funds and Resonance worked in partnership to co-create a peer learning and visioning space for organizers to develop stories, language, and messages to deconstruct harmful narratives of capitalism, ableism, and racism and share visions of a world free of carceral systems. 

The cohort, consisting of 23 members, attended four learning sessions and subsequent deep-dive workshops and gained access to Resonance’s coaching support. Perhaps most importantly, participants gained a peer network of organizers and storytellers representing the forefront of the abolitionist movement. Together, this group explored the process of crafting narratives across interconnected areas, such as national security, militarism, and policing—and weaving visions of justice by applying a decolonized storytelling lens. In tandem, the trainings and dialogue helped participants refine and advance their work on liberatory campaigns related to securing reparations for survivors of police violence, banning facial recognition technology, reinstating voting rights for formerly incarcerated folks, demanding police-free schools, and more. 

In recognition of the time necessary to undertake capacity-building support—and the value and wisdom each individual leader brought to the program—each participating Narrative Power Building cohort member received a $5,000 honorarium. 

Borealis is sharing these details with our peers in the philanthropic sector in the hopes that funders will resource the grassroots organizers leading narrative change work and also provide their grassroots partners with the capacity to build narrative power. 

We are also honored to share ten takeaways from these learning sessions, which reflect the work and wisdom of the Resonance team and grantee partner participants. It is our hope that the following learnings support actors across the movement ecosystem in advancing campaigns for justice and joy:

  1. Narrative, an interwoven system of stories, can be harnessed to disrupt harmful narratives, shape new realities, and document our lives. We tell stories to persuade or move others to action and heal, connect, and build community power. 
  1. Language matters because it is the truest, most baseline reflection of our belief systems. Language shapes perception. When crafting a narrative strategy, begin by thinking about language and consider the new futures that new words might inspire. (Would DACA have been possible without the shift from “illegal” to “undocumented”/”people without papers”?)
  1. You will encounter tension when identifying messengers for your stories—between those in power and those with lived experience. Embrace it. Based on your goals, you may need spokespeople from both groups. In best-case scenarios, you’ll find people who belong to both. In even better ones, your work will help elevate the people closest to the issues into positions of power.

  2. Follow this simple formula to develop messages: values + problem + solution + action. Pair stories with data to bring them to life; your stories are what people will remember with the passing of time. Avoid passive language when developing messages, and engage mainstream media to do the same. (Schools aren’t underfunded; lawmakers are withholding funding.)

  3. Don’t feel constrained by current narratives. Abolition, in particular, is a movement born of experimentation and dreams. Apply this lens to narrative work—vision all that is possible, and allow the future you imagine to drive your storytelling today.

  4. Decolonize your storytelling. Harsha Walia, a Punjabi-Canadian organizer, defines decolonization as the “movement for political liberation, social transformation, renewed cultural kinships, and the development of an economic system that serves rather than threatens our collective life on this planet.” She also reminds us that “decolonization is as much a process as a goal.” Traditionally, violence has been inherent to knowledge production. Join the lineage of storytellers who reject this. Center your protagonist(s) in your story and your process. Let them lead. Give them a byline. Compensate them. And connect them to deeper healing resources as needed. 
  1. The digital space is one to organize, too. Use it to disrupt stubborn, long-held, capitalist, and White supremacist narratives about the American dream, police, and community safety. Highlight abundance to challenge messaging around scarcity—whether that be related to funding, resources, or wisdom in our communities. Consider the unique opportunities available to you on digital platforms: podcasts, petitions, fundraisers, or quick-recorded videos from the front lines. Transform your existing partnerships into digital ones to build power quickly and forge new ones by connecting with values-aligned organizers. Finally, prioritize your safety and security above all. 
  1. Shape your work to match your capacity. Find ways to make it sustainable for the long haul. Develop messaging and graphic templates for easy reutilization. Cross-post across platforms, schedule content ahead of time, repurpose quotes and images from events, and reshare often.

  2. Measure your impact, and take stock to celebrate your wins. While measuring impact can often feel nebulous in the narrative space, you will, over time, witness shifts in language and messaging across the sectors you engage (nonprofit, philanthropy, media, lawmakers, etc), achieve policy wins, and experience culture change. The latter is the hardest to track, but you will know and feel the turn of tides.

  3. Above all, pivot to share your voice across issue areas to meet the moment. Solidarity is how we win. The pursuit of freedom is an interdependent, intergenerational, global struggle. We envision joyful futures free of anti-Blackness, ableism, transphobia, occupation, criminalization, militarism, and violence. 

Additional Resources

Equality Lab’s Anti-Doxing Guide for Activists offers proactive security measures and best practices to adopt before becoming the target of a doxing campaign. 

The Opportunity Agenda’s “Build Your Own Message” tool helps you create messages aligned with its Vision, Values, and Voice: A Communications Toolkit, which provides guidance for building messages using their Value, Problem, Solution, Action structure.