by Ella Saltmarshe & Paddy Loughman
Stories shape our world.
In recent years, this insight has been changing the way communicators, campaigners and movement-builders work. Today, many recognise that narratives fundamentally determine our reality: from the way politics operates, to the design of our economies, to our inner aspirations, desires and visions of the good life.
As this understanding of narrative emerges and grows, so does the field of people working with it to effect change. In the summer of 2020, we set up a new community to gather some of these people, and anyone else curious about the power of narrative work. They came from charities, think tanks, comms groups, NGOs and funders to form The Reset Narratives Community, which now has over 100 member organisations.
Having been deep in the work for the last 18 months we wanted to take a moment to share what we’ve been doing.
Rewind back to the choppy waters of June 2020. The ‘unprecedented’ year had already seen massive amounts of public spending; millions of people radically changing their behaviours overnight; spiralling inequality; and profound changes to how we live and relate to each other.
For anyone working in progressive communications this was an intense time. Public opinion seemed to be changing daily if not hourly, much planned work had to be thrown aside and new campaigns created at speed, and all whilst organisations were still working out the basics of how to operate and exist in a Covid-19 world.
On the one hand it felt like there could be a much heralded ‘once in a generation’ opportunity to influence change and ‘reset’ our broken world. Polling was showing that as part of a recovery from Covid-19, the British public backed an ambitious transformation of the UK into a greener, fairer, more equal society.
But on the other there was a danger of movements becoming fragmented — less than the sum of their parts. An array of campaigns were all focusing on recovery/ reset/ transition/ build back better, and there was a real risk that this could become a confusing cacophony, worsened by the perverse and competitive incentives of social media and the feverish conspiracy communities they were fostering.
Against this backdrop, inspired by precedents like the Narrative Initiative’s Green New Deal community in the USA, and the narrative community Alice Sachrajda created at the start of the pandemic supported by Unbound Philanthropy, we wanted to create a space for folk to gather, share and learn. We felt it would be helpful for people working on climate, social justice and new economy narratives to have more opportunities to encounter and learn from each others’ work. As Audre Lorde put it;
“There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.”
We had (quite) a few questions in mind when starting the community:
– In this crowded narrative landscape, how can we learn quickly what’s working and what isn’t?
– Can sharing narrative work help us be more effective in bringing about a just recovery?
– What kinds of narrative infrastructure are helpful?
– In this chaotic, confusing and stressful time, how can we create places of support and sharing for people working on narrative?
– How can we help connect the environment, social justice and new economy movements and coordinate emerging intelligence around how best to frame, communicate and shape narratives toward a green and just recovery?
– Can we cultivate a ‘movement generous’ spirit? How can we encourage larger organisations with more funding and capacity, to share insight with smaller ones?
– In this cacophony, what would it take to create a symphony? And is that even a useful goal?
What we had learned already from our own experience, and the examples and research of others like the Narrative Initiative in the US, is that narrative communities can create space for many different things:
– Information sharing — enabling research, insight and strategy to be shared between organisations opens up a greater flow of information and allows research to have a bigger impact
– Approach sharing — enabling organisations to learn from each other’s methods and strategies helps to strengthen approaches across the board and evolve the discipline overall
– New alliance building — narrative can be a helpful way of bringing together organisations who might have different or even conflicting policy agendas, but share overarching goals
– Narrative coherence — depending on the degree of synthesis activities built in, the community can generate strong narratives that give more coherence to messages across different movements.
Armed with our questions, research and initial support from the Environment Funders Network, we dove into designing the Reset Narratives Community, consulting with potential members and people who had run similar initiatives.
We realised that there were many different shapes this could take. Some of the people we spoke to were running focused narrative communities, working intensively with a smaller number of organisations to help them develop coherent effective messaging. Whilst we loved the power of this work, we realised that it wasn’t right for us at this early stage in our process. Instead, it was important that we created a safe space for others to share insight rather than positioning ourselves as the experts, and that our role was that of host rather than of specialist. We wanted to create a culture where people feel comfortable sharing work in progress, questions and uncertainties.
All this could change as there is no one right way of running a narrative community, other than being intentional, reflective and responsive about its role and function in context.
The model we went for was for a bi-weekly newsletter and (roughly) monthly gatherings, where a wide range of community members share their latest work, with each session featuring around five presentations of 6–8 minutes each.
Eighteen months in we’ve seen large NGOs share research data; community organisations share their neighbourhood narrative work; Westminster speechwriters share insight about influencing the government; campaigners share messaging and tactics on issues like climate change, racism, regulation, and social care; people working in commercial creativity share relevant work; trade unions share research and framing; and people share their practice in the evolving fields of culture change, futures work and imagination infrastructure.
Now we’re seeking ways to open up access to the community’s insight, very much still carrying the movement generous ethos that has always underpinned Reset. So we’ve created a simple website https://resetnarratives.org/ to enable you to search an archive of all of our newsletter links, as well as this Medium publication which will feature articles by different members of our community. We’ll also share more in future pieces about our narrative model, key insights from the sessions, and what we’ve learnt about the process of convening a narrative community.
We’re in a particularly reflective moment about the future of the Reset Narratives Community, and how best to be of service to the growing field of folk working with and around narrative in the UK. So if you have ideas, suggestions or feedback — please get in touch — and do let us know via the website if you’d like to be part of the community. We’ve always held firmly to the idea that only by coming together in a spirit of generosity, curiosity and empathy, can we become stronger than the sum of our parts — less cacophony, more symphony.
Reset Narratives Community: the story so far… was originally published in Reset Narratives on Medium.