We need creativity and imagination as much as (or more than) ever

On Tuesday night, while I was half-watching MSNBC, I kept one eye on Twitter. As the outcome of the election became clear, the rise in emotion was palpable. People were processing the result in so many different ways: in tweets of mourning, in calls to action, in blame and recriminations, in critical analysis, in “I told you so’s,” and in silence. I certainly had no idea what to write.

Since then, a lot of thoughtful things have been said about the election. My inbox is full of essays by progressives and activists of all stripes exploring what this means, what went wrong, and what comes next. I don’t have any ground-shattering wisdom to add. But I do want to take a moment to share some thoughts, as I look at this election through the lens of cultural organizing. These are things I’ve learned from the amazing artists, cultural workers, and organizers I’ve had the honor to connect with. I find some comfort and direction in them. More than anything, I offer this essay with love and gratitude to all of you.

1. We need creativity and imagination as much as (or more than) ever

Among the many dynamics at play this election season was a failure of political imagination. Liberal politicians could not fully grasp the levels of anger and frustration coursing through the nation. Meanwhile, conservative politicians fell back on fear and hate, when hope is what was needed. But while imagination at the highest levels of power may be stunted, it continues to thrive in communities across the country where artists, cultural workers, organizers, and so many others are imagining and crafting new possibilities. We will need all of our combined creativity in the coming months and years in order to push back hate and make room for transformation.

2. We are more than just red and blue states

Every four years we are forced to channel all our hopes, fears, values, and dreams into an either-or choice between two people. We are then given a map covered in red and blue, and fed a story about “two Americas.” This is a deficient narrative that does little to explain the complexity of our country, and even less to guide us forward. There are certainly many divides in our country, which were brought into stark relief during this campaign. But to address them we will have to put aside this single story, and get back to telling the multiplicity of true stories that capture who we really are.

3. The cultural shifts of the past decade are still underway

The country that elected Trump is the same country that elected Obama. We enter into this new era with a powerful movement proclaiming the value of Black lives, an increasingly diverse and politicized pop culture sphere, a large cohort of young immigrant rights leaders with skills honed in recent struggles, and a plethora of new voices amplified through creative use of social media. I don’t believe, as some have said, that the “whitelash” we saw in this election is necessarily the “last gasp” of the old order. Whiteness surely has more tricks up its sleeve. But the strength of the backlash should signal to us how strong the forward movement has been.

I don’t share these thoughts to deny anyone their anger or sadness, to say “it’s going to be fine.” There are dark times ahead, and many fights coming. If you need to mourn, mourn. If you need to organize, organize. This is where my mind goes as I try to sort through all my thoughts and feelings. I would love to hear your thoughts as well. Sharing our stories is a necessary first step toward healing and change.

In solidarity,



Map image from Mark Newman, Department of Physics and Center for the Study of Complex Systems, University of Michigan

The Danger of the Simple Story: Kony 2012

Tonight the Kony 2012 campaign kicks into high gear with “Paint the Night.” This can serve as a moment to reflect on the power of narrative in social change, and the danger of the simplified story.

A big focus of this blog is on the stories that we tell about ourselves — the stories that trap, the stories that marginalize, and the stories that liberate. Cultural organizing, in many ways, can be seen as a centering of the narrative of social change. We can offer new narratives, show the flaws in mainstream narratives, and uncover narratives that are kept out of the conversation. New media has become a major way such narratives are constructed and negotiated, and powerful strategies have been developed to center narrative in organizing efforts by groups like SmartMeme.

The Kony campaign, in some ways, has been very adept at this kind of strategy. They have taken the meme of the campaign poster and flipped it, using it to make someone famous who currently does not want to be found. And with the creative use of documentary and social media, the reach has been incredible. The story Invisible Children is telling is one that has appealed to thousands of young people in the US. It more or less goes like this:

Once upon a time there was a very evil man, who forced children to do horrible things in war. He needs to be (individually) brought to justice, and you can be one of the heroes of this grassroots movement to save Ugandan children.

Despite its wide appeal, this story has drawn much valid criticism. The issue, from the narrative standpoint, is that while well-told and engaging, the story itself is flawed. There is truth in it — the crimes are very real and horrible, and putting Kony on trial in the international criminal court could be one part of a strategy to address the use of child soldiers in war. But there are a few issues:

I don’t know what exactly the best narrative would be, as an outsider to the conflict. But I do know that it would need to be created by those who actually experienced the war. This debate reminds me of a number of questions we should ask ourselves as we develop the narratives that drive our organizing efforts:

  1. Does this narrative explain the real core problem being addressed?
  2. Does the solution it offers address that core problem?
  3. Does it include the most important actors?
  4. Are those most directly affected by the issue presented as active agents rather than just victims?
  5. Does it feel authentic to those experiencing the situation first hand?
  6. Does it draw on other, problematic or oppressive narratives in our culture?

There is power in the well-told, media-savvy narrative of social change, but without deep reflection, there are plenty of pitfalls along the way.

Book Review: Storytelling for Social Justice

Storytelling for Social Justice: Connecting Narrative and the Arts in Antiracist Teaching
By Lee Anne Bell
Routledge, 2010

Last week I reviewed Re:Imagining Change: How to use story-based strategy to win campaigns, build movements, and change the world. Today’s review is of a related book, this time from the perspective of an educator. Like the previous book, Storytelling for Social Justice is about deconstructing the dominant narratives that under-gird oppression — in this case particularly those that reinforce racism — and uncovering or creating counter-narratives using tools of art and storytelling.

But today’s review will not be from me, because a colleague of mine, Irene Liefshitz, has already written a fantastic one in the most recent issue of the Harvard Educational Review. I’ll give you a teaser below, and you can CLICK HERE to read the whole review.

A Review of Storytelling for Social Justice, by Lee Anne Bell
In our so-called postracial society, we have trouble talking about race, even in spaces intended for such conversations. In Storytelling for Social Justice, Lee Anne Bell expands our understanding of storytelling as a vehicle for race talk, builds a typology of stories to conceptualize racial discourse, and reaffirms the role of the arts in creating community. For educators who have struggled with race—and talking about race—in their personal lives and their classrooms, for social scientists who want to see how empirical and theoretical works influence pedagogy, and for the general reader who wants to learn about storytelling, this book is a great find...Continue Reading

The World Still Needs Heroes

“The decision to act heroically is a choice that many of us will be called upon to make at some point in time.”
– Dr. Philip Zimbardo

This past week DC comics — home of Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman — began rebooting 52 titles, starting them at #1 and rewriting decades of complicated, often contradictory, fictional history. While this is a rather cheap ploy to excite readers and lift up declining sales, I’d like to use this moment in comic publication history to muse on the power of superhero myths, and the usefulness of these myths for social justice organizing.

As I discussed in a previous post, one of the ways that power is wielded in our society is through story and myth. Myths like the American Dream, or the Thanksgiving creation story, help to uphold the status quo as good or at least natural. At the same time, myths like the story of Rosa Parks help us to envision ways that individuals can change unjust systems. While the term “myth” is often used to refer to something that is not true, I’m using it here quite differently. A myth is simply a story that is retold time and again, and helps us to understand something about the way things are, and how the world works. The “truth” of a myth lies not so much in its literal truth (though that varies) but in its ability to guide our lives in useful and positive ways.

One set of myths that are as alive as ever in our society, marked by a current deluge of movies, are those surrounding the superhero. U.S. superheroes are a modern extension of the eons-old hero mythologies most famously outlined by Joseph Campbell — though they have arguably been adapted in peculiarly American ways. Superhero tales, introduced in their current form by Superman in 1932, offer us models of morality, and of how “wrongs” are made “right.”

On a literal level, traditional superheroes offer us a pretty weak model for how to improve the world. They generally function in stark binaries of good and evil, and their solution is almost always physical violence. There is no real accountability — people just have to trust that they will do “good.” They often work alone, and are seen to stand apart from the rest of humanity. And when they take on social issues like crime, it is generally by punching and arresting people in alleys, rather than addressing any of the systemic roots of the problem. (This is to say nothing about the underlying racism, sexism, and heterosexism rampant in the superhero genre, but that is a story for another time.)

Some of the best comic book authors have explored these limitations. In one of my favorite examples — Superman: Peace on Earth — Superman takes on world hunger. In an effort to inspire more equal distribution of food reserves, based on the charity model, Superman announces to the UN that he will spend one full day carrying massive amounts of food from rich countries to poor ones suffering from famine. It starts out all right — people are happy to receive free food. But problems begin piling up. In one country the food he brings simply isn’t enough. In another, nobody trusts the food and so it’s left for the rats. In another, a military dictatorship is more than happy to take the food, with no intention of sharing it across the country. Finally, seeing Superman as a threat to national sovereignty, one country fires a missile and blows him out of the sky. In the end it is a failure, both for this particular mission, and for the superhero model of change. (At the end Clark Kent, who after all grew up on a farm, teaches young people to grow their own food. Also not a systemic solution to world hunger, but a human-sized occupation that can have its own empowering results.)

It may be that this model of the individual hero — though not originating with superheroes — harms attempts to organize for social change, as we rewrite our lives to fit our myths. In many ways the civil rights movement is taught as something of a superhero myth, with Martin Luther King as Superman. This has the danger in the moment of discouraging the development of other leaders, leaving the movement in trouble when tragedy takes our hero from us. In the longer-term, it can leave us, as they say, “Waiting for Superman” rather than taking action to change things now. Would we be better off with more focus on stories that highlight the less hierarchical, collective work that formed the base of the civil rights movement? The work of SNCC and the Freedom Schools for instance?

Rosa Parks is a perfect example of this. Her myth is one of a single, principled individual taking a stand, and igniting a movement. This is for sure an inspiring story. But would it be more helpful if the myth clung closer to reality — the story not of an individual making a spur-of-the-moment choice but a trained and committed organizer working with many others to plan out an incredibly successful action?

But I am not ready to throw out superheroes all together. Perhaps it’s simply because I like reading comic books. Or perhaps it’s because I didn’t grow up on Superman so much as the X-Men. While the X-Men fall into some of the traps outlined above, they are far from the shiny, American Way Superman, or the rich, unstable renegade Batman. They are outcasts, facing constant discrimination. They have powers, but these powers are often odd and sometimes debilitating. X-Men generally can only succeed when they come together as a team, uniting their diverse skills. And they are flawed in clear and not-so-clear ways.

So to me, superheroes continue to be an inspiration, and a set of myths I come back to. One reason is because of their unabashed celebration of power (or “powers”). As Alinsky wrote decades ago, if we want to change systems we cannot shy away from the idea of “power.” Power does not equal oppression. It is the unequal distribution of power that leads to oppression. Power, in organizing and in superheroics, is where change comes from — whether power from collective social capital, or a radioactive spider.

I personally like to stress the collective aspects of superhero myths, since I believe collective action is the only route to systemic change. (After all, superheroes are forever forming “leagues.”) But we should not be too quick to discount the importance of the individual hero. My partner recently shared with me the writing of Philip Zimbardo, who conducted the famous Stanford Prison Experiment in which students pretended to be guards and prisoners. It got so brutal that it had to be shut down after six days — and that was already too long. Zambardo writes about the Lucifer Effect, the way that good people can end up carrying out evil acts through obedience to authority or passive observation. His solution? The celebration of heroism, of the individuals who resist inertia and choose to act differently. He has founded the Heroic Imagination Project whose mission is to “encourage and empower individuals to take heroic action during crucial moments in their lives. We prepare them to act with integrity, compassion, and moral courage, heightened by an understanding of the power of situational forces.”

Zambardo’s message could be summed up by the inscription Eric Masterson found on the hammer created for him by Odin, after he stopped being the superhero Thor. Despite their problems and limitations, despite their mixed history of success, and despite all the critiques offered above, “The World Still Needs Heroes.”

Book Review: Re:Imagining Change

Re:Imagining Change
How to use story-based strategy to win campaigns, build movements, and change the world.
by Patrick Reinsborough & Doyle Canning
Oakland, CA: PM Press

Human beings make sense of the world through stories. The narratives we as individuals construct about our lives — based on our experiences — tell us who we are, where we came from, and how we came to be this way. The myths societies produce tell us who we are collectively, how we should relate to one another, and what constraints and possibilities we face. Just as we see faces in all kinds of unexpected places, we see stories everywhere. And numerous industries in our modern world are dedicated to story production: from movies, theater, and television, to advertising, journalism, motivational speaking, and political campaigning.

Just as stories can aid understanding, they can also inhibit it. Just as they can open our eyes, they can blind us. So stories are inextricably linked to power. They make up what John Gaventa (1980) calls the “third dimension” of power — the power to create meaning, to shape what can be thought about and what is inconceivable. Some stories are told so often that they become “common sense” or “the way things are.” Such stories, or dominant narratives, maintain the current power structure and imply that it is “natural” or “right.” But these stories are constantly being contested by counter narratives, alternative stories that challenge these common sense notions of truth.

To some extent the importance of story is common knowledge in the world of social change. Sharing personal stories of struggle or empowerment is central to organizing — first in personal conversation, and later in the public sphere. But though many know stories are powerful, few have taken it as far, or gone as deep, as SmartMeme, a San Francisco-based movement-building organization that offers training and consulting on how progressive organizations can use “story-based approaches” that “amplify the impact of grassroots organizing and challenge the underlying assumptions that shape the status quo.” In Re:Imagining Change: How to use story-based strategy to win campaigns, build movements, and change the world, SmartMeme co-directors Patrick Reinsborough & Doyle Canning outline the theory and practice behind the organization’s work. They describe how organizations can disrupt dominant narratives and shift discourses in ways that facilitate change.

After a brief introduction, the authors walk readers through the process of narrative power analysis, in which participants deconstruct the dominant stories, or control mythologies, that under-gird oppressive systems. Next they explore the battle of the story — creating and disseminating counter narratives based on the truths of those marginalized by mainstream discourse. The central tool used in communicating these narratives is the meme. A term first coined by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, and made popular by viral on-line media, memes are the smallest unit of culture: “self-replicating units of cultural information that spread virally…with a life of their own” (p. 32). Next the authors map out what they call points of intervention, the specific moments and spaces — both physical and discursive — where the new story can be inserted. Finally, the authors offer four case studies of campaigns that used a story-based strategy.

Throughout this step-by-step guide, Canning and Reinsborough introduce key concepts on which they base their ideas, coining a number of terms along the way. But they do not claim to have invented story-based strategy. Rather they see it as something that has emerged — and will continue to develop — through on-the-ground organizing practice, both by them and by others. They also are purposeful in clarifying that story-based strategy is not the totality of organizing, or even the most important part; it is not a replacement for the more traditional work of relationship building, mobilizing, etc. But they do make a strong and compelling argument that this aspect of political change is under-appreciated, or at least underutilized, and that movements for social justice could benefit from more intentionality around the stories we tell, and how we tell them.

Canning and Reinsborough are obviously very interested in their book being widely accessible. While a book on political strategy will never quite read as easily as a Dan Brown novel, Re:Imagining Change succeeds in being eminently readable. Considering how complicated and dense questions of cultural narratives can be (If you’ve ever given reading Foucault a shot, you’ll know what I mean) this is a remarkable achievement — paired with a huge amount of useful information packed into an non-intimidating 118 pages. Though the occasional chart can get a bit overcomplicated, the authors do something that many social scientists and political writers should pay close attention to: they clearly define every one of their terms. They even have a glossary, but everything was so well explained that I never needed to use it.

One core assumption that underlies the book’s argument is that story-based strategies are effective in helping to bring about social change. As an artist and writer I personally am on board, and the fact that the authors are able to pull examples from decades of activism to illustrate their ideas implies that the collective, hard-won knowledge of activists and organizers supports this assumption as well. Still, there were moments in the book where this assumption was stretched.

For instance, one action highlighted was Earth First’s banner that looked like an enormous crack in the Glen Canyon Dam. This, the authors argue, was meant to challenge the dominant narrative of dams as permanent and immovable. In the next paragraph they say that, twenty-five years later, this narrative has shifted and dams are seen as something one can remove. The implication is that this “iconic action” helped to make that happen, but is that true? How much did it, and similar story-based techniques, really have an effect — compared to other aspects of anti-dam campaigns?

Certainly these are difficult, if not impossible, questions to fully answer, and I say this not to put down the argument — which I think is sound — but because this could be a useful area for further exploration. When an organization is trying to decide where to put its limited resources in a campaign, how much should go to this kind of work? And perhaps more importantly, how can one gauge the effectiveness of such framing actions afterwards? Where do we look for evidence that our stories took hold and really changed the discussion?

Almost immediately upon reading Re:Imagining Change, I found myself using it. An organizing campaign sprung up at the Harvard School of Education, which sought to challenge the school around how it addressed (or didn’t) issues of race, community, and organizing in education (among other things). We had many different takes on the campaign, and a real tough time coming up with a clear message. But as the person in charge of our online media work, and making buttons (since I had the button maker), I desperately needed a clear name or short statement of who we were. I needed a meme. After a number of conversations with my partner, and a lot of emailing, I picked up Re:Imagining Change and skimmed through it again looking for advice. Two pieces popped out at me. The first was the concept of a meta-verb, a single verb that summarizes the logic of a campaign. The second was the idea of repurposing popular narratives.

These concepts inspired me immediately, and the result was a new slogan and name combined: Reform the Ed School. The verb “reform” very much captured the kind of systemic change we were looking for, but perhaps more importantly it took a popular discourse at the school — we were constantly talking about reforming schools — and turned it back on itself. After all, who at the ed school could argue against “school reform?”

I offer this example not because it’s that great of an illustration. It is a mediocre meme in a very small campaign (though I was pretty proud of it). I offer it to give what I think is one of the greatest compliments you can give to a book like this: While playing with very big ideas, it remains relevant to the day-to-day work of organizing. It is usable knowledge, and it will change your work for the better.

Gaventa, J. (1980). Power and powerlessness: Quiescence and rebellion in an Appalachian valley. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.