Audio Transcript: “The Battle of the Narratives: Organizing for Transformative Change”
Gerald Lenoir: Hi, I’m Gerald Lenoir from the Haas Institute for Fair and Inclusive Society at UC Berkeley. Welcome to this special audio recording from the Haas Institute’s Blueprint for Belonging project. This interview, which we’re calling “The Battle of the Narratives: Organizing for Transformative Change,” focuses on issues facing 21st Century social justice movements.
This conversation between Haas Institute Director john powell, and Christina Livingston, who is the Executive Director of the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, or ACCE, explores the urgent need for advocates to organize around a shared story that has a radical analysis, and resonates with people’s lived experience. In the next hour, john and Christina delve into the power of stories, the influence of the dominant narrative in the United States, and the challenge for social justice organizers to tell a different story that changes people’s hearts and minds.
john a. powell: First of all, I think most people will not resonate with the idea of a strategic narrative. Go back five years ago, people weren't talking about narrative at all, and now lot of people are talking about narrative. People use narrative, because people aren't talking about it doesn't mean people using narratives. But it's become more conscious, and I think it's really important. It's a new thing. It's a sexy thing. It's whatever. But it's also the old thing.
So, one way of thinking about it is we live in stories, everybody, and social psychology has said you don't have a self until you have a story about yourself. So, we have internal narratives like, "Who am I?" We have family narratives. We have national narratives and they're not coherent. They're not always what we call accurate, and they compete. In essence, you can think of it as: if you don't have a language for something it's hard to think about.
So, a story actually orients us in life. Who we are. It gives us meaning, and they're competing stories. The reality is people shift stories without knowing and there are things we can do to actually activate one story or another story. So, that could be a story about abundance or a story about scarcity and they can be about the same conditions. This election, in 2016, demonstrates that, to some extent, the United States is almost at full employment. And yet everyone's talking about this big economic crisis. It's like, what economic crisis? The economy is better than it's been for 20 or 30 years.
A story actually orients us in life.
They say, well, people are worried about the future. Well, once you say anxiety about something that hasn't happened that might happen, then you can think of anything, you know? I'm worried about what's gonna happen when trees stop growing, but it's actually real for people. A story is not just "a story." Joseph Campbell talked about myths—and I'll just say that, when I talk about this, my father is a Christian minister. He doesn't think of the Bible as a story, but it is a narrative. It is a story. That's not saying it's not true, but it's how he orients his life. So, when he has heart issues or he's trying to make sense of things, he draws on that and the reason, I think, we need a different narrative and become more conscious of it is that the dominant narrative in this country is actually negative, in terms of consequences.
So: individuality. You're on your own. So, if you need help from the government, if you need help from another person, there's deep shame attached to that. Then, whereas if you're in a different country where it's like “we're all in this together,” there would be a different response. Not just by the dominant, the elites, but even by people who are "recipients." So, that's part of it. I think we need a narrative, a story that really reflects our better angels of what we hope to be and then, just to practice that over and over again so you that it becomes real.
Christina Livingston: I feel like one place where people have pushed back on some of the narratives that have been tried out is that—it’s sort of like where's the line between something that's aspirational and positive and something that's believable, something that people actually can see as common sense? As a world view, as a way of thinking about their conditions, that feels like it's grounded in some reality? I think, particularly for folks who are organizing, we're constantly trying to figure out how to turn jargon or theory into accessible language, and I don't think that we've really found the right line yet.
I also think that there's not enough time for people to really focus in on-or there hasn't been yet enough time carved out for people to focus in on how to do that. How to agree on what the broad concepts are and how to best tell those stories to people so that it resonates.
The problem, I think, in organizing is that the way that we are currently set up, so many of us anyway, is that we are responding to very real, immediate needs that people have and so we craft very real, immediate messages to relate to those needs and sometimes they come into conflict with themselves. Sometimes they're in conflict with whatever our individual longer term goals are, and they are usually in conflict with what other people are saying.
We're very siloed, so even within an issue area, we are saying things to win in the short term and sort of leaving out the longer term piece because we are less—we just have less time to really think that all through. We're sort of running from moment to moment trying to win campaigns to deliver for people on the ground. So, when I started organizing 13 years ago, I think that was more of a reality than it is now. I think we've come to a place, at least in the circles that I'm working in, where we acknowledge that that short-sightedness is always going to bite us in the end and we've got to get to that place where we are spending more time on the longer term questions, spending more time on how we're talking about it.
But we haven't figured out how to carve out enough energy to do that that isn't taking away from the delivering of those really real needs on the ground. So, that's sort of where we are. Where I and those folks that are working with me are. Trying to figure out how we can put in enough time and energy to do that.
I guess one thing that we've been talking about, at least to some extent, at ACCE are what are the major areas of the story that we need to have something to say about. We talk a lot about the economy and we talk a lot about capitalism and its relationship to people and what it could and should look like. I think for many folks, that actually, what we're saying it could and should look like, doesn't feel possible.
So, I guess how do we contend with that? The difference between what we're saying about the conditions and what they could be and what people feel like is possible.
john powell: Those are really important questions, and I think the problem is actually harder and easier. So, I think at the profound level, like when you said about looking at people's conditions and reality and then thinking about the narrative. In some ways, it's the opposite. There is no reality. We don't see the world just as it is. Reality is always mediated. So, something happens and the meaning of it is actually mediated through language, through images. I think one of the common mistakes is like people have their own experience. Actually, it's not true. Our experiences are social experiences and, so if you drop people in a very different society or group, or even in a family, something happens. What happened? People, husband and wife, argue, but they'll be talking about the same thing, but from different perspectives.
We are so deeply immersed in our narrative or in our context, that we're not aware that it’s even a context. We think it's just reality. This is just the way things are. Your point towards how you actually help people develop more aspirational story, narrative to help give their lives meaning. Help them endure. Help them move into a different place. The really dominant narrative, we're not aware of it. We think, for example, in the United States that we're all just individuals. It's almost uncontested. It seems true. And the implications of that are so powerful and actually so wrong. It's so limiting.
We are so deeply immersed in our narrative or in our context, that we're not aware that it’s even a context.
It affects the way we see ourselves and organize our reality, and even when we have these short term fights, we're still forced to have some story about it. Whether it's a story about the economy, whether it's a story about immigrants, a story about language like disability, story about queer, story about being Black in America, the story about being American. All those are stories and they're contested stories. Usually they work or don't work, but they're not conscious. One of the things that's interesting is that usually most people don't go around and consciously construct a narrative. They fall into one. They certainly don't go around consciously constructing language. Children learn to speak. They don't think, "Well, I need some words so I can talk to my parents."
They're ushered into a language and that language has implications. Part of what we're saying is that the dominant narrative in the United States, which we wouldn’t have called it a narrative, is like American Exceptionalism or you know, here's an example: (social) mobility.
People think if you work hard in America you can make it. This hasn't been true maybe ever, but in terms of the rest of the world, we're slipping further and further behind and yet many people still believe that. And belief in that means in part, as you know, in terms of opiate suicides, it's the highest among whites. They're not the worst off materially, but their narrative doesn't serve them.
We've actually gone out to communities, Black communities, Latino communities, white communities who are relatively similar in terms of economic condition, whatever that means, and the whites by far do worse. Part of it is they internalize the shame, thinking “I need government.” We literally went to homes where children didn't have diapers and they were ashamed to ask their neighbor for diapers. When you go to a Black community, it's the "same" economic conditions, but it's like, well, my neighbor has a couple extra diapers. I'm gonna borrow some from her.
But it's interesting, right? People are not intellectuals (about this)—People are grappling with this in their everyday lives. One of the white communities we went to, I can’t say where it is, but they hate the government, the government created these conditions but they hate the government because the government is helping them. It’s interesting, right? It's like, "I'm ashamed I need help and I hate you because you're helping me."
Christina Livingston: Yeah.
john powell: So now, if you're organizing and you organize in that community as opposed to the Black community or Latino community, you need to be at least engaging their story as you try to help them develop new stories. We don't have a new story in this country. We don't have another story. We just had the largest tax redistribution in the history of the country. At the time we were extremely unequal and Trump pushed it through. Republicans pushed it through. We'll see if they pay at the polls, but there wasn't a huge outcry, you know?
Like you say, when we don't let Muslims in, it's like you have the Proud Boys marching in the streets. So, it really is important, I think, to understand the narrative, the story that people are living and allow them to participate in giving it shape. The elites have more influence in that regard.
You go to a movie, I mean, I grew up with John Wayne. That's a story that kids in the '50s and '60s, everybody knew who John Wayne was. John Wayne never cooperated with other people. Rode into a town, shot it up, killed the bad guys, and rode out. That was the American hero. If you look at most American movies, they're like this. One person, not organizing a community, who stands against the system. So, that becomes the hero and some people have written that Christianity was, in some sense, the end of the age of the hero, because it ushered in a new kind of relationship. And even more strongly, in Catholicism than in Protestantism. We don't think of those as stories. We don't think of the Protestant ethic of standing alone, having a one-to-one relationship God that doesn't involve anybody else, so how do I know something's right? I look deep inside myself and I commune with God. That's Martin Luther.
But that's not really how the mind works, but it does create a sense of: whatever I feel my self-conscious says, "That's what truth is." Linguists and social psychologists will say, "No, that’s not how reality is created."
So I think there's some complexity to it and a pretty big part of the complexity is since organizers are on the ground running—and they have already have stories. Whether it’s the Karl Marx story, or whatever. But it's a story and it may work, it may not work. But it's not normal that you say to a population, “Go create your own narrative.” It normally happens in a much more organic way. It happens over a long period of time. It happens, largely, in an unconscious way. People are not aware of it that they're living out a story. They call it reality. They call it their life. The challenge, I think, is quite profound.
Christina Livingston: I feel like a lot of the work that we do starts with an issue and then we craft the message on the back end of what we know what the issue is, we know what we're trying to win. Then we ask ourselves, what do we say to people that best convinces them that this is the way forward? That has obviously proven itself to be useful in winning those short term campaigns, which is why we do it over and over again, but the question in my mind is what happens is what happens if we flip it? What actually happens if we say, "What we are trying to do as organizers, is give a different story about individualism, about identity, about government, about the economy?” We should test out which campaigns help us best move that forward.
First of all, I have no idea if that works. Secondly, how it would—There's a lot of questions there, so I do think there's some experimentation that I would love to find time and energy and resources and all of that kind of stuff to do, to test, or if it really doesn't work in that way.
It seems to me, there are certainly really great storytellers, but we are not all storytellers. And yet, the work that we all do does help tell a story, is what you're saying. So, it's not that my organization should become a storytelling organization, but I'm not quite clear yet on what are the best ways to flip the way that we are doing the work so that we're not actually starting with, what's the thing? Even if it's a longer term goal or fight. Even if it's a ten year goal or fight. That's still way shorter term than what we're talking about in relationship to shifting people's hearts and minds and shifting the frames that they use to interpret their "realities."
There are certainly really great storytellers, but we are not all storytellers. And yet, the work that we all do does help tell a story
john powell: Well, I think it's important. If you think about, take an issue like gay marriage. In the 1950's, in virtually every state in the country, it was against the law to be gay. We know about the guy who created computers. He killed himself. He committed suicide, because England vilified him. He was a criminal. He was a deviant. He was bad. Even though he basically helped win World War II for England, very few people came to his defense. That wouldn’t happen now.
There's still people, obviously, who are against gay marriage, but even think about marriage. Think about it between a man and a woman. For most of human history, that wasn't the way marriage was structured. And yet people think that's the natural way. They naturalize whatever story they're telling and I think the challenge is that because there are conflicting currents in their story, even in a dominant story, you can use those. I think that's what you do with messaging. You try to look at contradictions and market stuff towards that. But that's too limited, because you're still within the dominant narrative. So, even if you win, you win based on certain assumptions that makes it hard to achieve that ultimate goal. People are worried in the gay community, people worry are we buying into a concept of family relationships that's problematic?
They ask: “We get to serve in the military and go kill people just like straight people. Is that really what we want?” I think you have to be strategic in all that and part of fight around gay marriage, I'm just using this as an illustration, was that if you allow gays and lesbians to marry, first of all it was against God's will. But secondly, it would destroy the institution of marriage. The response from much of the left was gay couples were just like straight couples. And it's like, really? Similarly, when immigration happened in terms of schools in the 1950s and 60's, and conservatives were like, "Races should be separate and God made us separately. We should be separate and that's the natural order of things and if kids go to school together, it will destroy—actually, literally, some still use this language: "it will pollute the race."
Part of what they argued was that if kids go to school together, they might get married and even have sex. This was 1967, almost 20 states outlawed interracial marriage and it seemed natural. Eighty-five percent of Americans though there was nothing wrong. So, part of it is sort of understanding what happened. How do change that? You have to confront it, but how you confront it matters, because what liberals responded to the conservative attack on gay marriage and on integrated schools by saying, first of all, schools have nothing to do with marriage. This is not about marriage. This is about education.
So, they were saying nothing's gonna change except maybe a Black kid's gonna be in the classroom with a white kid. Everything else is gonna stay the same. Gay person, a man and a woman, a man marries another man, a woman marries another woman, nothing's gonna change. The institution of marriage is gonna stay stable. That was assurance and we keep giving, from my perspective, an incremental assurance. Everything's gonna be the same, except maybe you'll have assurance. Maybe you will have this, but the overall structure is left off the table. It seems that part of the challenge is that, for me, organizers, they actually have a much more radical vision, but they like the term. Because they know if they say, "Well, we need to break up the banks . . ."
It's like, okay, now who are you talking to? Now you're talking to two people. You're not talking to poor Blacks or poor whites. You're sort of not doing that in Alabama, where we just won an important election. So, part of it is also to make sure that the message supports a longer narrative. I'm not saying ever give up on messages, but we don't win at the cost of losing.
Christina Livingston: Right
john powell: Lee Atwater, when he was crafting the message for the right, he spent two years just going around the country listening to working class and poor conservatives. What he did, very artfully, he took what they said and gave it a new coherency. So, he didn't just make something up. That's the other thing. Narrative is not just something out of the sky. It has to resonate with people. It has to be, as you said, believable. Fortunately, there's a lot of things that people believe that are contradictory.
Like we should all be separate and just care about ourselves, and at the same time we're all a part of each other. Both of those have some currency. Just look at the new princess of England. African-American.
Christina Livingston: Meghan Markle
john powell: It’s testing people, it's like, "What? You're gonna have a Black princess? That's not right." At the same time, it's like, "Race doesn't matter." They said that they actually argued that more strongly in England than in the United States. People are like apoplectic about race doesn't matter, "but a Black princess?"
So part of it, I think, is listening. Hearing people, and giving it back to them in something that resonates with their life, but also moves them to a different place. I think that's what, as organizers, you do, but I think if you just focus on winning this one thing, it may actually dig you a hole that makes it harder to get to that more radical place.
Christina Livingston: Right. I feel like another challenge that comes up for me is, we're obviously in an era where the pace of change that people are used to is really fast because of social media. Actually, part of it is too because we've had a couple of really important social movements that have dramatically shifted the way that at least a subset of people think about race or the economy, with Black Lives Matter or with Occupy. So, I think it's easy to get lured into a belief that things should happen faster than they might otherwise. The pace of organizing, generally, is actually much slower even on short term wins, much less longer term initiatives that are about changing people's perception of reality and their stories, etc.
It feels like what we in organizing know is that if you have a small number of people and you work deeply with them, you could see radical shifts, but the broader the scope of the work, the more narrow the impact that we're able to really have on people. Unfortunately, with a lot of major organizing efforts, scale is seen as a priority. It actually is important, of course it's important. But that age old fight of organizing of scale versus depth, I think, is really live when we're talking about this kind of work because narrative both has to be believable to the group of people you're talking to, but it can't only work for them, because we're not individuals in this country. We're collectively building this thing together.
So, given both that the pace is slow and that where I think we could see the most evidence of it working is small scale, it feels like that's in a pretty serious contradiction with the kind of organizing that gets well-funded and where you can actually carve out the time to actually do the work. It feels like that's a thing we have to figure out. It feels hard.
john powell: Well, I think it is hard. Although I would say, things are slow and fast. Things are actually moving at so many different speeds at once. If you think about Trump, Trump is a movement. The white nationalist movement in this country, two years ago was marginal. A lot of people thought it would die a natural death, because every year more people seemed, on some level, to embrace the notion of equality even if they didn't actually believe it in their lives, they embraced it. The whole idea was that you could never be explicitly racist anymore. Most white people, let alone people of color, would not accept that. Then Trump came along. Interestingly, because Trump did not have ground game and the country has shifted. The number of people who self-identify as conservative whites has doubled. This was very fast. . .and yet it wasn't very fast.
The whole idea was that you could never be explicitly racist anymore. Most white people, let alone people of color, would not accept that. Then Trump came along.
So, part of the thing is understanding the conditions. So, if you're riding a wave and you want to make a turn consistent with the wave, you have a lot of power behind you already. If you're going upstream and the wave's coming downstream, it's a different struggle. So, part of the thing I think is happening in the world and some people are saying we're the age of acceleration. If you think 300 million people live outside the country they were born in. That number's gonna increase. That's been happening at a fairly rapid rate.
Technology. Everybody now has a cellphone, or virtually everybody. The iPhone is just ten years old. Ten years. So, the way we actually process information, the way we actually drive, the way we collect information on computers, the idea of social media. Social media didn't exist in any meaningful way ten years ago. Here's a whole new planet. It's not just about a little platform. It actually changes us. Changes our relationship and it does create anxiety.
So, that's the thing that Trump really traded on well. The anxiety of rapid change is gonna continue. The world is getting smaller. There's gonna be more people moving. All the stuff in Europe, with traditional, white Europeans now. There's some projections that by the end of the 21st Century, there will not be one major city in the world that will be majority white. You go to Amsterdam. The majority of kids in school in Amsterdam are not born in the Netherlands. That's Amsterdam.
The world is changing and the change is happening exponentially. People's capacity to deal with the change is happening arithmetically. We're falling further and further behind. But you can flip that story. Trump or those behind Brexit, they're always talking about going back to an imaginary past. That's the story they tell. Make America Great Again. They're great at it. What's our story? From my perspective, the liberals have not had a compelling story. It's been the story of static. Again, things are not changing that much. Okay, so we need to do something with jobs or whatever. We haven't really helped people embrace the future in a positive way.
So, that seems to be part of the story for organizers. The story for all of us. How do we actually tell a story that we can show up in, that meets the future, that it seems like we're inevitably gonna have? Climate change is gonna happen at an exponential rate. It happens very slowly and then it...pfew. How do we deal with that? Part of it is, again, not a just telling a good story made up, a good story has to have both good analysis, it actually has to resonate with people's lived experience, and it gives an experience different meaning.
I talk a lot about my dad. My dad is almost 100 years old. He saw Race: the Power of an Illusion and he cried. He said, "Everything in that video I already knew, but I hadn't put it together. I was there when they talked about the flooding and taking Blacks and making them build these sand bags to try to save white land. That was me." But he hadn't created a really coherent story. So, what that video did for him was to take all his experience and link them together in a story that made sense to him. It's like, this was when he was already 70. He's like, "I'm looking at my life differently. You're showing me something in my own life, that I lived, that I hadn't put together.”
So, it seems to me, that's part of what we need to do is to help people take stuff from people's lives or people's conditions and put them together into a narrative. That's what Lee Atwater was doing. He was going around, "I wanna hear from everybody and when I play it back, you're gonna recognize stuff in it, but it's actually gonna be a different story."
Christina Livingston: This is more on sort of the siloed fights and the messages than the narrative, what I'm about to talk about, but I think it might have some limiting relationship to how we think about doing the narrative work, because on the progressive side, I'm sure we've all experienced where we broadly think we are going in the same direction, but we have a million different fights about how and who and when and where and . . . it ends up having a splintering effect, even if we do believe in the long term we're on the same page.
We actually don't know if we're on the same page in the long term, because those conversations, of like really what it is we're trying to build, are much more hazy than what we're doing right now, obviously.
I was thinking about narrative and I was thinking about the relationship between believing in core concepts collectively, like agreeing on core concepts and leaving space to not have to agree on all of the ways forward and on all of the fights. I feel like there's not a lot of, just in general, practice of organizing. There's not a lot of tolerance for people to think differently from one another. It's sort of like you're either down with this thing or you're in the way and you're not progressive enough or you just believe in reform.
There's lots of ways that we tear each other down in that way and I think that narrative work could be freeing from that fight, but it is hard to imagine the process of creating agreement around narrative that doesn't bring that up in people and then cause us to walk away from the conversation and say, “First of all, it doesn't feel immediately impactful and secondly, it doesn't feel like I'm really gonna get anywhere.” So, that just, I don't know, feels like something we should talk through more, is how we can disagree on several things and still be in agreement around the major pieces, concepts of the story that make sense for people's lives.
john powell: I couldn't agree with you more. The way I've framed it is in terms of bridging and breaking. I'm not the only one who's done work in this area. There's a book by Scott Page called The Difference and he argues a couple of things. He argues that when you have diverse group working on complex problems, they actually get to better solutions faster and more global. So, he's a scientist, so he's arguing that diversity actually is not just a nice add on, it actually creates better analysis and problem solving. But there's some limitations. What he says is that if you agree on ultimate outcomes, then you don't need to agree on methods. In other words, if you agree on where you're trying to get to, you can have a lot of tolerance for differences in terms of strategies.
In fact, you should. You should test those strategies. Obviously, test them at a conscious and unconscious level. Because we don't know. There's so much about the world that we don't know. There's so much about ourselves that we don't know, let alone about a group. So, we need to have some tenacity, but we also need to have some humbleness that “I'm not really sure if this is gonna work. And even it works yesterday, I'm not sure it's gonna work tomorrow.”
We need to have some tenacity, but we also need to have some humbleness that “I'm not really sure if this is gonna work. And even it works yesterday, I'm not sure it's gonna work tomorrow.”
So, I want to invite people of goodwill who, as we said, we share some ultimate goal and maybe even the interim goal, and we're not entirely sure and we don't necessarily need to because, first of all, we're talking about, in the United States, 325 million people. So, what's gonna work in one community is not necessarily gonna work in another community, and we have—we’re playing, the Democrats are playing checkers, the Republicans are playing chess and the Chinese are playing Go. We can't afford to play checkers and the thing about chess, and even more so about Go, is they're strategic games. So, everything you're doing, you're looking at this complex set of relationships, and every move you make over here has some implication over there. Some of it's anticipated and some of it's not, which means again that we need to have some flexibility.
I think, as you said, helping people exercise that, that you don't have to have someone agree on everything and if you do, it's probably not a healthy thing. If you think about the Sub-prime crisis and the big fall, there's a story where the queen of England goes in and talks to all these bankers and economists like, "Why didn't anyone see that coming? You're supposed to be the smartest economists in the world." Of course, in the United States, we think we have the smartest economists in the world. But they said, "Well, none of use saw it, your majesty." She said, "Well, I guess you're not all that smart, are you?" What she could have said is, "You're all too much alike. No one is coming in wih an alternative view that you have to consider." That's always the danger, I think, in terms of if we all agree on things. We can all agree that people should live with dignity. That when people count, people are equal.
How do you manifest that and how do you build structures to reflect that matters a lot. I'll give you one concrete example. I have a relationship, you may know, with a well known conservative and he actually wants to end poverty—and I also want to end poverty. He's conservative. He thinks the best way to end poverty is to unleash the market. He cites as proof, that poverty reduction in the world, in terms of abject poverty, has been reduced more in the last 25 years, proportionately, than any time in human history. He is saying this is a time of neoliberalism. It's time that we actually remove constraints from the market. It does wonderful things, he says. It does more than all these welfare programs and blah, blah, blah.
He's given this speech several times. When I come back and I say, you know, if the market was doing what you said it's doing, then I might have a different attitude, but I have two responses. First of all, there's several markets. They're not one market, and yes, poverty reduction actually has been reduced, but the majority of that reduction, three quarters of it, is in China, and no conservative would want the Chinese market. It's a heavily regulated state market. State capitalism is not what we have in the United States. It's not free enterprise as we named it. So, if that's the goal, are you willing to embrace China? "Well, no." What I'm saying is that we can have a civil conversation. We can actually explore possibilities, because we have a shared goal and I'm what trying to suggest to him is that the strategy you announced actually doesn't always lead to that goal. When it doesn't lead to that goal, his free market, when it's more harm than good, are you willing to then change?
So, I think that your invitation for us to figure out how to do that. How to actually bridge with people, connect with people even if they are different in some substantial way. We never question each other's humanity and maybe not each other's overall intentions. So, that if you disagree with me on where the chair should be, you have to leave the room.
Christina Livingston: Well, I'm right about where the chair should be. (laughs) This is something I'm actually really wondering about. I don't know if you know this or not, but when I think about people transforming, this sort of arc of transformation where you have to first decide you wanna make a change or something would be a catalyst to your making a change, but then there's actually work to do to keep moving in that direction, and in lots of cases when we're under extreme conditions and pressure, it is much easier to sort of revert back to the old way of being or thinking or acting than to keep wearing the new version.
So, let's say that we are actually doing a great job of collectively using a new narrative and it comes into conflict with what people are currently thinking or how they're interpreting the world. What needs to be in place or what do people need to hold onto the new thing in those tougher times rather than revert back to the old? How do we go beyond just having a competing narrative to really becoming dominant?
john powell: That's a great question. It's interesting. One way of thinking about it is that if we are successful, the narrative has to be institutionalized, that you can't ask people to live a [inaudible] life every day. Most of the things we do, we don't think about. We get in our car. We drive. We take the bus. We get up in the morning, have our coffee. The way the mind works, the mind is actually trying to optimize things by using as little energy as possible, so we have this whole process of trying to create shortcuts. That's what habits are. Habits are really shortcuts. I don't have to think about them. Habits actually take less energy than thinking about something. To get up early. We think about something, we literally burn more mental energy.
So, the brain is trying to figure, the organism is trying to figure out, how do I optimize? What's different than the very best is that optimum level. This happens time and time again. So, many times, when we do, we don't pay attention to structures. We can see huge structural, titanic changes that became quasi-permanent. I'll give you just a couple. In 1860's, probably the average size of the family in the United States was 12 kids.
Christina Livingston: That's a lot of kids.
john powell: No one has 12—Well, one or two people. People don't have 12 kids anymore. No one thinks about reverting back to having 12 kids. Most people don't even know that existed. So, how could it happen that we all, that all of a sudden, the average family size went to 2.4/2.6? It wasn't that each person thought it through. There were economic changes, there were social changes. If you think about women in the workforce in the United States, now 70 percent women are in the workforce. Formal workforce outside the home and workforce in the home as well. 1940's that number was probably half of that except during World War II.
Women pushed it. So, there was this woman's movement, but also economic need. Because the amount of workers is actually in decline, which is one reason we're never gonna actually have zero immigration. When we talk about those people coming here. We want those people here. We need those people. So, part of it is creating structures and conditions so that you reinforce the narrative.
Narrative by itself, we're just talking. As important as stories are, we won't produce and I talked to some of the people at Occupy. Occupy, in terms of numbers, was the greatest movement in modern history. They had literally a billion people involved. Much larger than the Tea Party. But in terms of lasting effect, we don't see much. The Tea Party actually changed the Republican Party. Occupy did not change the Democratic Party. So, they didn't have institutional strategy. They had a message that worked. The 1% and the 99%. People were saying that. That resonated with people, but then you have to actually think about institutionalizing and ultimately governing. How do you actually create conditions so that it becomes habitual, so you no longer have to think about it? They didn't do that.
So, that's part of what I think you'll find in terms of, if we don't do that, we will slip back or slip into something else than what we want. So, it's interesting to me that organizers are taking this on. I think it's really important. How do you manage with—this may be unfair, but my experience with organizers is that they're really dedicated, really bright people, there's a little bit of anti-intellectualism, though. It's like even the comment you made about people on the ground. Where are people getting out on the ground? Out of the air or a tree?
It's a like that's a classic organizer think, which basically says, these people's lives are real. So, if you could maybe respond to that and the other thing is that, it seems to me that this early school of organizing traded on anger. Like you wanted conflict. The better the conflict, the sharper the conflict. I think that can turn around and bite you, you know? If you're sort of angry at these people over here, it's easy for that to turn inward. SO, we talk about people turning on each other.
So, how does today's organizing—Has it moved? Does it have a different story about organizing rather than just . . .?
Christina Livingston: Yeah, I think both of those conversations are in flux currently. We actually had a number of folks from ACCE go down to hang out with the MST in Brazil and our LA director at the time came back and sort of raised that they said to him, "Why are you all so anti-intellectual in your organizing." Obviously, the two should be way more deeply connected. There always have been several small study groups where people are constantly trying to grapple with both the theories and the on the ground organizing. I think that the notion that there should be and could be a broader connection, is starting to catch some fire with people, but it is, again, just very different from the traditional organizing.
So, in crunch times, I think we have tendency to go back to being separate. The story behind it is some organizers think that intellectuals don't actually have the on-the-ground knowledge that we have and the theories or proposals that they put forward are not as deeply rooted. And some of that is backed up evidence of some folks and some of it is not. Some of it is a story. I think there are probably not enough spaces where we are talking together with equal power. That's the other thing is that, obviously, organizers aren't usually afforded the same level of dignity and respect about their ideas as intellectuals are, and so there's that power dynamic in those conversations that just becomes live.
I think that there is some opening space that people are starting to feel and experience, and if there were more spaciousness around how much time we can use in those conversations and we could prioritize them, I think it would take us a great deal further. In the meantime, while we're being driven by funders and deliverables, it's hard to find that.
The question about using anger as the primary motivator in organizing. Again, I think is sort of similar. Anger is obviously a very powerful motivator. But we have seen time and time again, anger turned inward. In reality, what I've seen is that people who are angry are very willing to do the burn it down work, but in your anger it's actually very difficult to dream up what comes after the fire and there are people who are saying, "Yes, let's burn it down." But there are not a lot of people who say, "I wanna live in the dystopia afterwards." So it only gets you a certain segment of people and only gets you so far.
People who are angry are very willing to do the burn it down work, but in your anger it's actually very difficult to dream up what comes after the fire.
I think it was adrienne maree brown I was listening to not long ago, who said in her thinking, if you want people to fight for a future, they have to believe that that future is gonna be fun and that future is gonna be something they want to be a part of, and so we have to give people space to dream that stuff up and that doesn't come from anger. There is some testing out of the narratives and I think different populations will have a starting point that's different than others, so we still need to reserve some room to use the anger. It's not either/or. I think false choices come up a lot for people.
So, there are some experiments happening and some tests. We're trying to figure it out. I don't think that we have seen a lot of broad scale evidence that using hope is gonna move more people quickly than using anger, particularly, there isn't a movement on the streets right now that's like, "We are the hopeful movement!" You know? Black Lives Matter is not grounded in hopeful. It's grounded in we need to stop the killing. But I think that people are talking about it and we have to be willing to . . . The way that our organizations are set up means that we are not just going to have the spaciousness. We have to prioritize the spaciousness to think about these conversations more. To have the conversations more. To try the experiments more.
That is the, within organizing, organizing that we need to do with one another. We have to agree that we are going to, no matter what, carve out this segment of time, knowing that means we can't take on all of the fights we otherwise would. Knowing that there will be fights that are coming for us in the meantime and we have to sort of test how willing are we to lose some of the short term fights, critical fights, fights that people need, but how willing are we to lose those short term fights for way bigger gains on the other side. That's just a hard decision to make.
john powell: So, just one more follow up on that. It seems to me that part of what's going on is that grounding people in terms of their deepest, best self, to organize from that space. If you do that, I would think you would organize more . . . in context, love would play a larger role. Certainly King and Gandhi, although people don't really know Gandhi anymore, at least associated themselves much more with love than with hate and were relatively successful. I have seen in the last ten years, more organizing where love, spirituality sort of come into the conversation. But there was some skepticism by some people that it will dissipate power.
If the ultimate goal is power, not even winning, which I worry about that and I wanted you to comment on that. Because if power's not grounded—I mean, Trump has power. You know, power can be used to affect things. It can impact things in a terrible ways and positive ways. By itself is untethered. It's not necessarily good.
Christina Livingston: Yeah. I feel like we have an interesting relationship with power in organizing. You know, a lot of the people that we organize or even the organizers themselves, have a deep aversion to people with power. Like a view of power. I am against you. Mostly because people experience it as oppression and yet, we saw we want to fight for power and we do want to fight for power, because we've seen it used as a means of moving forward an agenda that is better for the folks that we're organizing. If we can harness it, it can bring forward the kind of things that we are fighting other folks to keep at bay or move our own agenda.
And when we've gotten anywhere near the small scale experiences where we have governing power in some ways, we're so not used to governing it almost feels boring. To sort of have the ability to just do what we want or close to that ability, it's sort of like this isn't exciting. This doesn't motivate people. This doesn't move people. It feels too easy or something.
So, a lot of stuff swirling around. Swirling about power and I do think that there is even some parts of me that think—and I do believe in the sort of all you need is love. The more that people cared about one another, thought it was important to care about one another, that we would go much farther, and that sort of organizing to get people to do that, to love each other more matters. I certainly believe that in my personal life. The more I love people and am open to understanding them and not sort of making decisions about who people are, the more likely that I am able to influence folks and that I'm able to have people influence me and broaden my way of thinking that helps me be better at the work that I do, et cetera.
There's a question in my head that's like, if we all just love each other too much, am I too willing to forgive people for doing things that are bad? That hurt me, that harm me? Am I too willing to accept that? I don't think everybody's gonna be loving and I can't change other people's willingness to be loving, so does that mean that we are all willing to love and therefore, the people who are truly evil and not willing to love are just gonna run amuck?
I guess it's because of a lack of experience for me personally that it feels very question-marky on the other side of it and causes some hesitancy even though I believe in it conceptually.
john powell: Yeah, I think of love—This is my bias I don’t know if it's true, but if you think about power and self-interest, which is sort of two things that organizers trade on a lot, you study it, right? Although, I think the way people talk about it is actually somewhat problematic. Self-interest, for example, is constantly shifting. I'm giving a lecture in a couple of weeks talking about Derrick Bell’s interest conversion, and I wrote it basically saying one of the flaws of Bell’s assertion is that he talks about interest as just a static thing. People's interests actually change and part fop organizing is not just to reflect people's interests, it's actually to affect what people are interested in and why.
But I also think love is actually incredibly profound and complicated. So, if you don't spend time sort of hanging out with it, question it, asking the questions that you asked, then we have sort of undeveloped concept of love. And there are some people that argue just the opposite of that. That if you love someone, to love someone is actually to make sure they have consequences for what they do. That's not a sign of not loving them. It's a sign of loving them. You're holding them responsible not because you hate them, but because you love them.
I know you have a young daughter.
Christina Livingston: Two
john powell: Two, so when you make them do stuff, it's not because you hate them. There's consequences in life, in the world. I don't believe—I have kids as well and one kid bites the other kid, for example. Separate them and maybe give them a punishment, but put it in context of caring about both of them and still loving all of them. King talked about what he called "self-righteous indignation." I always liked that, because in his work he was saying there's a place for anger, but anger because of love. He was saying when you violate God's creation, that God is angry, but that doesn't mean he stopped loving you. One part of the creation, one group, goes after another group, you should be angry, you should be upset, because you love. Because you care. But you care for both sides.
Anyway, but I do think it's a complicated thing. I do think you're right, that a lot of time we think of love as sort of sappy or ineffective. It doesn't have to be.
Christina Livingston: Yeah, and if we're honest with ourselves, love is part of the motivation, for me, of doing my work anyway. I love the communities I work with and I love my family. That is actually why I fight. I don't fight because I want to take down people who are doing bad things. I fight because I want better things for the people that I'm connected to and yet, when you're sort of in the business of a craft that has roots in anger, it's hard to hold all of the contradictions together.
We are in an organizing culture and culture is slow to move and culture feels, in some ways, like a natural structure that we totally have influence over but could easily sort of not think about that and go with the flow of what is there because it's proven itself to be effective in whatever ways that it's been effective and it's easy to keep doing that. And because that's the stuff that's been cultivated and rewarded. It's hard to push back against that.
john powell: I think we have to be a little bit careful to recognize that efficiency can't be the endgame by itself. That's what people argue about the markets and the most efficient way and if there's some casualties along the way, so what? Also, a reminder that Cornel West said that justice is the public place of love. So, people who really care about justice are already engaged in love or should be engaged in love. I think these things are hard, but I think that even grappling with them is really important and...tying messages to narrative, into values.
People are always telling stories. You go to the movies and you see a good movie is a story. It can humanize people or it can dehumanize people. I just went to see the Greatest Showman with my granddaughter and one of her friends. Basically, from my perspective, it's about coming out. It’s about people who are not "normal" in some sense. Women with beards or people who are only three feet tall or some Siamese twins. In the beginning of the movie, they’re all in a closet. In the movie, they come out and the whole idea, in some ways, is to both humanize them and learn to love them.
My eight year-old granddaughter is crying. She's so moved by it. It's great. She's seeing the humanity of people she doesn't even know. So, I think we think about narrative in a didactic way, in a heavy handed way, but a good story oftentimes, as you said, is fun. Zootopia is another one we went to see. Kids oriented.
Christina Livingston: I have seen this movie.
john powell: It's a good story, right? A good story should be happy, fun, see yourself in it. See your grappling with problems and aspirations. I can't write movies, so we do have different needs, different capacities, and I was told that part of the way Zootopia happened was that Shakti Butler went down and talked to people in Hollywood. Or The Help, organizers say, you tell this story about Black people? Well, come on now. I think it won an Academy Award. I know it was nominated. So, it doesn't have to be boring, didactic. Like I said, I'm not saying I can tell the stories. I know that stories need to be told.
Christina Livingston: Right. I mean, your point about the fact that we're telling stories all the time anyway, and we are, consciously and unconsciously. Those of us who are serious about doing the best work possible, when we take the time to think about it, fully understand that getting this strategic narrative piece right would have profound impacts on what's possible in our work. It's a muscle that we just don't—A sort of collective constructing of it. Testing our messages against the strategic narrative. Are we enforcing those major themes that we want to enforce? Are we actually being short-sighted here, doing more of that work and not using it only as a tool to advance the campaign? Using it as one of the filters through which we decide which campaigns to run that would help move us forward best? I think that they're just muscles that we have to start working on.
john powell: I agree. Two examples, one is that when the early fight about expanding healthcare in California to everyone, there was a debate among organizers, so I was told. I wasn't at the debate, but I was told that the debate was do you show Black people on the posters? Part of the argument was no, because then white people won't support it if they think it's for Black people thing. So, the idea was to closet Black people. Don't let the people see them, but if we get it through, then Black people will be the beneficiaries of it. So, that's like a short term goal.
Okay, so we have to keep Black people in the background just a little longer. For me, I don't know. I don't feel like staying in the background. So, winning right now, to me, has to support the full humanity of all people. It can't be predicated on the basis like we're gonna win, but we have to not say anything about these people who are being totally marginalized, whether they're Blacks or people with disabilities or trans.
I think the campaign around de-criminalizing or reducing crimes from some of the felonies was really wonderful example because—and the narrative supports it. The conservatives said, "This is letting more criminals back on the street." Well, yeah, they were criminals because they violated the laws. Technically, yes, they were criminals. But were they dangerous? Was it really making this community safer to start arresting people cause they're smoking marijuana?
That was our message, the message of the organizers. The other thing was getting some of the progressive police chiefs and other to carry the message to some communities where organizers wouldn't be effective. It also means being willing to work with police chiefs. So, think being really strategic both about the message and how it's delivered and then I think, you know, maybe some listeners know that in terms of persuading people and affecting people, a vast majority of it happens at an unconscious level, so I think as we test it, we have to do that.
It's repeated. The unconscious mind is deeply habituated. So, it's not just one camera angle. We need to keep going back to certain core values, core themes and then build the institutions and practices as they become habituated
Christina Livingston: We have some work to do.
Gerald Lenoir: Thank you for listening to “Battle of the Narratives: Organizing for Transformative Change.” Please share the link with those in your circle. You can check out the companion papers and blogs and find out more about the Blueprint for Belonging project from the Haas Institute website at HaasInstitute.Berkeley.edu/B4b or visit our social media account @HaasInstitutes. Learn more about ACCE at acceaction.org.