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  • Writer's pictureBrett Davidson

Blurring the Boundaries

In his new book, The Persuaders, Anand Giridharadas interviews activists grappling with the challenges of forming alliances across differences of race, identity, issue and approach. These activists recognize the importance of working with others and building broad, heterogenous coalitions in order to win political and policy victories, but are often labeled sellouts as political differences are increasingly framed in starkly moralistic terms.

Many of us in the narrative change field also grapple with how to collaborate but minor differences such as race and ideology pale into insignificance in the face of a much more insurmountable barrier—issue silos.

Ruth Taylor points out in her paper Transforming Narrative Waters, that to change deep narratives—the underlying cultural currents running beneath any number of the more topic-specific narratives we work on—we need to find common cause with others working on a wide range of social and environmental issues (such as gender, climate, racial justice, health). Rashad Robinson notes that we need to invest in “the underlying ideas and values beneath our issues.”

Most of us recognize that the separate issues we work on are deeply interrelated. The Global Fund for Women’s recent report, The Year in Gender Justice, beautifully illustrates this by connecting gender justice with struggles over climate, workers’ rights, political violence and many others.

Despite this knowledge, we still struggle to work across issues. A large part of the reason for this, I believe, is that foundations and nonprofits are deliberately set up to work within issue silos—and they budget accordingly. Program staff struggle to justify putting money towards narrative efforts that are not direct responses to their particular issue, so budgets end up sliced and diced into ever-smaller slivers. I have been part of so many conversations that run along the lines of: “when you get down to it, the real problem is neoliberalism, but my $50,000 has to fix [climate change in West Africa/education in Brazil/migration in central Spain].” It becomes almost impossible to put together the kinds of resources we need, over the long timeframe we need, to bring about meaningful and deep narrative change.

Rather than trying to patch together work across silos, we need to come up with new sorts of conceptual containers for our work–concepts and buckets for organizing programs, departments and budgets that are inherently integrative and cross-cutting. One way to do this may be to develop structures and budgets based on our visions for the world we want, rather than the specific injustices we are trying to eradicate. In past collaborations with the Center for Artistic Activism, I’ve learned that when people think beyond the immediate problem they are trying to solve, when they envision a world in which they’ve already won, those visions of a just world end up being remarkably similar, no matter what issue they started from.

We need to enlist the creative folk—the artists, the storytellers, the musicians—to help us envision new, integrated ways of re-imagining and re-structuring our work. IRIS is doing exactly this by networking artists with civil society, to craft and advance new, interconnected narratives. To kick things off, here are some promising concepts. Each of the following symbols has pros and cons as a conceptual tool for integrating our work, enabling large-scale budgeting and revolutionary re-organizing. I offer them as a starting point for brainstorming and discussion, to help us tackle not just the surface-level silos but also the deep, harmful narratives that feed into all of our issues. What other symbols do you think hold potential to help us rethink the boundaries of our work?

Breath: This concept brings together issues such as health (think about the respiratory impacts of Covid-19), climate (clean, breathable air, warming and cooling), racial and criminal justice (“I can’t breathe”), among others. Breath is also inherently about connection and flow: we all share the air we breathe—it moves in us and between us—what we breathe out, others breathe in, and vice-versa. The animated short film Breathe, by Marc Silver in creative partnership with Amnesty International, illustrates beautifully how the idea of breath connects all of these issues, as does this article in the New Yorker.

Family: The idea of family as an organizing principle for our work might seem strange at first–because it has been so co-opted by conservative groups. But organizations such as Bridges/Puentes and Camino are working to reclaim the discourse of family and connect it to issues of human rights, gender justice, migration and climate, among others—as the Familias: Ahora (Families: Now) website shows.

Rope (or perhaps a braid?): This article from Future Crunch offers the metaphor of a rope as a way to think about the movement of history, and about the ways in which endless numbers of issues and developments are intertwined: “Each thread represents an individual story line, but they’re so densely braided it’s impossible to label any specific era, or predict what’s coming next. The combinations aren’t random; some patterns seem to come up again and again, but the vast, tangled mass prevents easy characterization.” How would we (re-)structure our organizations, our budgets and our work, if we used the idea of a rope as an organizing principle?

Home: This could encompass community, country, or planet, and evokes ideas of belonging, nurturing and safety. This article in the Nation uses the idea of home to expertly weave many of these threads together. The concept of home can personalize migration narratives and universalize community struggles for housing justice, labor rights, and traditional land use. It also lends itself to location-based work, which can force us to be grounded and specific, while at the same time enabling us to explore (and more easily see) the interconnections of various issues and approaches.

An Update:

After posting this blog, we received multiple responses via social media channels and by email. We are grateful for your thoughtful additions and welcome this type of feedback and engagement from the wider community of storytellers, narrative change thinkers, funders and supporters. We’d like to offer the additional responses–we took the liberty to edit and expand upon some of the suggested concepts.

Oceans–suggestion from Sarah Armour Jones: oceans move and live, and can crash down on us, or be harnessed to feed us, transport us, and more. They are persistent but fluid, powerful and productive.

Roots–suggestion from Emma Pomfret: roots run deep, spread wider & wider & nourish in tandem with the leaves–the various issues that are immediately visible on the surface.

Forests–suggestion from Louise Rubacky: Forests are an apt symbol for new ways of thinking needed in narrative, as discussed by Brett Davidson in his blog post. They illustrate the potential for cooperation and competition within the same sphere, and problem solving for a more vital, thriving world. For an inspiring and fascinating conversation about the relationships among trees in forests, listen to the “How Smart Is a Forest?” episode of the podcast People I (Mostly) Admire featuring ecologist Suzanne Simard.

Glue–suggestion from Thomas Coombes: Human Rights Watch had a good “human family” concept that could work as a core narrative for human rights groups. Additionally, “human-rights” glue is what binds us together in our shared humanity–possibly connected to your understanding of “the rope.

”Finally, not in response to our blog, but also very much of interest to those thinking about ways to foster collective action across diverse movements, the Narrative Engagement Across Difference Project (NEAD), has just released the findings of a literature review outlining narrative practices that support collaboration between groups working to reduce authoritarian systems and strengthen democratic values.

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