Local Views

The Haas Institute's new Civic Engagement Narrative Change project aims to build a more inclusive “we” in civic and political life, for a democracy in which everyone can participate, be counted, and belong. The project operates through collaborations with state- and community-based civic engagement groups by mobilizing capacities in research, voter education, cross-movement bridging, strategic communications, and testing to bolster outreach programs on the ground.

The project is a national partnership that includes the Center for Community Change, Service Employees International Union, Faith in Action (formerly PICO National Network), More in Common, Perception Institute, and several other community, research and communications organizations. Civic Engagement Narrative in particular on two leading impediments to a fair and inclusive democracy: disaffection from civic participation and institutions, and anxiety over demographic and cultural change. The project is rooted in the belief that debates over whether to focus either on addressing disparities in voter participation or on curtailing toxic expressions of anxiety present a false choice. The two must be tackled simultaneously. Ultimately, overcoming these challenges in the long term will require the development of bridging strategies across differences including building resonant inclusive “we” narratives and strong civic infrastructure to reach those have been alienated or counted out. The project undertook a range of important activities in 2018.

Developing effective alternative narratives requires first knowing how our communities think of themselves and Change focuses one another in the present. A key initiative of the project involved carrying out major statewide surveys in collaboration with partners in Nevada and Florida. These baseline surveys built on the Institute’s 2017 California Survey on Othering and Belonging, with revisions to meet the knowledge gaps and needs of state partners. The surveys explore attitudes and beliefs about identity, inter-group relations, the role of government, the efficacy of voting, and the 2020 US Census, among others. Results will be published in papers commissioned by the Institute, and will inform the project’s ongoing narrative and organizing strategy.

The project also produced a number of digital tools to support 2018 Get Out the Vote campaigns. These videos were tailored for impact in cities and states where project partners saw opportunities to engage under-represented groups that had low turnout rates in 2016, or a pattern of voter drop-off in midterm election cycles. The content was designed to inspire and motivate young people, especially people of color, to act civically and vote regularly. The core positive message of the videos is that young people are a powerful force in the 2018 elections and beyond. The Civic Engagement Narrative Change project worked with local hip hop artists and influencers to disseminate the videos in Chicago, Houston, Detroit, Las Vegas, and across Florida and California.

The Institute also contributed to civic engagement outreach and messaging in a number of other ways in the 2018 midterm cycle. Some of the ways included convening national partners on three occasions to collectively examine research on the US electorate and align analysis and strategy for facing the current socio-political moment. Researchers also synthesized and translated existing research into concise, practical recommendations for partners in the field, and organized a webinar workshop hosted by Beyond the Choir in Pennsylvania, in which civic engagement groups from several states discussed best practices and strategies for outreach and bridging with disaffected voters. Furthermore, we designed protocols for “listening sessions” to deepen partners’ understanding of inconsistent voters in their communities.

In the wake of the 2018 midterm elections, the Institute reached out to three of the project’s local partners, each of whom are working on the ground to engage different communities and increase civic engagement, to learn about how they use strategic narrative in their organizing.

The following are excerpts from conversations we had with partners from Texas, Illinois, and Pennsylvania.


Crystal Zermeño, Director of Electoral Strategy, Texas Organizing Project

Texas Organizing Project’s overarching goal is to engage communities who don’t often vote. Do you have a larger meta-narrative that you come back to when making the case for why voting matters? How do you modify messaging to appeal to different communities?

TOP is a multi-ethnic, multi-issue organization in the three largest counties in our state. We work in largely Black and brown low-income communities and increasingly demographically changing suburbs. The first thing we do when we talk to these voters is ask them what they care about. We then connect that issue directly to voting on races up and down the ballot. Our broad narrative is that we are under attack, but we—progressives of color, immigrant communities, women and millennials—are also the voting majority in Texas and we havethe power to create change. I would say that we typically use a very tailored message within our communities and at the doors because personalizing what people care about and what is at stake is critically important to folks feeling like their vote will matter. It is also an opportunity to provide voters with information about what our local government has the potential to do for us, what changes they have the power to make in their daily lives. We train organizers and temporary canvas and phone staff to have a conversation with voters about what matters most to them, how to explain what is on the ballot and why those offices or ballot measure matter, how they relate back to the voter’s priorities and therefore why their vote is important. We also have been working with our team, almost all of whom come from the communities in which we organize, to talk strategically about how their lives have been touched by the issues, particularly in our criminal justice work.

Can you talk about your work in the 2018 midterm elections? What kinds of messaging campaigns did you run and how did you tie diverse ballot issues back to your larger narrative?

In 2018 we did work in District Attorney primary elections in Dallas and Bexar (San Antonio) and ran programs in the November general election in all three of our counties, Dallas, Bexar, and Harris/Houston. We targeted over 876,000 unique largely unlikely voters of color with over 3.2 million contact attempts via door knocks, phone calls, and peer-to-peer texting. We used a variety of communications tactics—earned media, texting, and digital. We produced videos, memes, and short messages to ignite voters sending them out via Facebook, Facebook ads and sometimes connecting them to our texting program. Luckily and unluckily for us, conservatives provide ample opportunity to tie diverse issues back to our meta-narrative - providing constant attacks on communities of color that link direct ly to day-to-day struggles during the election. We were constantly lifting up real-time attacks on our communities, calling it for what it was - racist and unjust and bigoted attacks by current electeds or those seeking office, and reminding voters that they have an opportunity to elect change agents and champions for change.

Our members often took public action—like when the DA in Dallas County failed to act swiftly in holding the police officer who shot and killed Botham Shem Jean in his apartment accountable—members held public actions to demand that the DA take swift action using those images in our digital work and carrying that message on doors with voters. In Harris County we used images of the current Harris County Commissioners Court—all white men with the exception of one progressive Black Commissioner and juxtaposed it with the progressive slate of candidates - two women of color and two men of color.

Was there anything different you did in your messaging or organizing strategies in 2018 that you hadn’t tried previously? Was it successful?

There were two new strategies that we attempted. The first was in Dallas where we began to integrate into our message training the incorporation of our field team’s own personal stories into their communication with voters. Key to this strategy is that almost all the people on our team come from the communities in which we organize, therefore they know often firsthand the struggles of the voters that they are going to be talking with, particularly on the issue of criminal justice. Our team in Dallas decided to train people on how to use their own story at the doors to personalize what was at stake, but to also build rapport and have an honest conversation with voters. This often led to voters opening up about their own experiences, those of their family members and helping draw out direct connections between the issues and what was at stake in the election. We are now looking at using this across all of our counties and campaigns. We also, for the first time, used peer-to-peer texting and found it extremely successful. We are still gathering final data to measure the success of the program, but the initial stats and anecdotal information from those running the program shows that we had valuable conversations with voters, but it was largely about the logistics of voting—where, when and how—versus issues and candidates. We will continue the program and plan to incorporate more integration with digital campaign materials like videos, memes, links to web postings to engage voters more around the issues and candidates.

How is TOP prepping for the 2020 election? Where does strategic narrative and messaging enter into the discussion as you prepare?

2018 was clearly a transformative year for Texas. We made significant gains statewide and more importantly in our local major cities and counties. We are already running the numbers to assess how these gains build towards the 2020 elections—how we changed who votes and identifying who still needs to be engaged. Clearly there will be much at stake in 2020, for our state and our country. What we feel is vital is ensuring that there is real accountability among our newly elected progressive leaders and that they are delivering real victories and change for our communities at the local level in the next two years. This allows us to show a direct through-line to voters between voting and creating change. As we build out our organizing priorities, we will be working to move a robust change agenda, communicating directly with new 2018 voters and the voters who are still sitting on the sidelines to show that when we vote, we can win.


DeAngelo Bester, Executive Director of the Workers Center for Racial Justice and Center for Racial and Gender Equity

One of your center’s main goals is to build an active and engaged base of unemployed, low-wage, and formerly incarcerated Black workers with a deep analysis of structural racialization. How do you go about this and what narratives do you use? 

We engage in trainings and political education for members, leaders, and the broader public. We have brought in [Haas Institute Director] john powell on several occasions to do workshops on structural radicalization and implicit bias. I have led similar workshops myself with members. I have also led and brought in outside facilitators to do political education around Black Liberation theory and Black Left politics. We host regular events where we show a movie about a particular topic with community residents, and then engage in facilitated discussions after the movie.  The closest thing to particular narrative we use is: “Black workers and their families face a multidimensional jobs crisis; high rates of unemployment, low wage work and over-criminalization. We believe the best way to strengthen economic security for Black families is by addressing these three areas of the jobs crisis.”

You work to develop and advance policies that can eliminate persistent racial inequality in the areas of employment and criminal justice. How does narrative play into the development of these policies?

The policies we develop and advance are informed by numerous conversations with grassroots members and leaders. Since our analysis and the narrative we use is centered around labor and criminalization, it provides us with a laser-like focus on moving policies in those areas. Though we may be supportive of policies in other issue areas, they will never be the focal point of our work because it doesn’t align with our analysis. 

What issues were you engaged with in the 2018 midterm elections? Was your narrative work successful in engaging with voters?

In 2018 we engaged Black voters on police accountability and criminal justice reform, jobs for formerly incarcerated and other marginalized Black workers, and universal childcare. We contacted voters multiple times, first discussing the issues, then making the case why one candidate was better on those issues than others. We added a component to our narrative about building independent Black political power as a prerequisite to strengthening economic security for Black families. We also used Trump’s attacks on Black people, attacks on voting rights, and the increase in overt acts of racism as a way to motivate voters.


Jonathan Smucker, Co-founder and Executive Director, Lancaster Stands Up & Beyond the Choir

Can you talk a little bit about how you and your colleagues crafted a powerful strategic narrative for progressive issues in Pennsylvania in 2018? 

We first have to talk about what purpose a good narrative serves. In the case of Lancaster Stands Up, strategic narrative has been first and foremost in service of our organizing efforts in our region of Pennsylvania. To understand our narrative then, we have to talk about what we even mean by “organizing.” It’s a term that is often thrown around without much definition. Our understanding of grassroots organizing is that it’s not about organizing the logistics of an event or a protest or even the mechanics of a longer-arc campaign. Political organizing may very well involve all of these activities, but its essence is not itself these activities—all of which can be carried out without necessarily building or being accountable to a substantial social base. To organize, in the political sense, is to bring together hitherto disparate elements into a united force. It is to name, frame, and narrate the trajectory of a group; to articulate its goals, grievances, and targets; to move it into strategic collective action; to inspire other social forces to align in a common direction; and to leverage this force for political ends. 

With this understanding of political organizing, the central importance of narrative becomes clear. And narrative becomes much more multi-dimensional. Of course it includes which words we choose to use (or not use) and which popular symbols we decide to claim, and whose meanings we decide to contest. But that’s only part of what we mean by narrative and what we mean by articulation. We also include the choices we make about which issues to throw down on; which doors we knock in which neighborhoods; whose leadership we prioritize developing; and how we respond to existing political authority and unfolding events over time. All of this shapes how people in our community interpret the world and is therefore part of our “narrative strategy.”

So the most important question informing our narrative strategy becomes: “Will the people who we want to organize see themselves in this?” In other words, how can we make our intended social base feel like part of the WE that we are articulating? In the wake of the 2016 election, we found thousands of people in our community struggling to make sense of what had happened; how history had unfolded in this particular way. We had to tell a story that helped people to make sense of what they were experiencing. 

The core structure of our narrative is quite simple: economic and political elites have rigged our democracy and our economy to serve themselves, leading to millions of everyday working people to feel abandoned by the political class, struggling to make ends meet, and uninspired to turn out to vote. Our beautiful differences have been used to divide us and make us afraid of each other, based on race, religion, sexual orientation, or country of origin. And no one is going to fix this for us. It’s up to us, everyday people, to come together, to get involved, to breathe new life into our democracy, and to turn this around.

Was there anything different that Lancaster Stands Up did in its messaging or organizing strategies in 2018 that hadn’t been tried previously? Was it successful?

In terms of organizing a formidable progressive force in a place where it had not existed previously, what we did in Lancaster County in 2017 and 2018 has been dramatically different than anything that had happened here in the past. It’s always very difficult to measure success and which factors contributed to success, since there are so many factors at play in the context of a political contest. But we can look at the hard metrics of the organizing capacity we built here, between Lancaster Stands Up (LSU) and the Jess King for Congress campaign. Going into 2019, LSU now has over a thousand members, most of them dues-paying, and has eleven Stands Up Locals across our county (e.g., Ephrata Stands Up), each of which meets regularly to carry out work that is coordinated at the countywide level. Between LSU and the King campaign we knocked close to 250,000 doors in 2018, made over a million phone calls, and held at least 70 town halls. And over the course of two years we organized the four largest public demonstrations in at least half a century. All of this in an area that has long been considered an overwhelmingly conservative stronghold.

Of course, a big part of our success was the catalyst of Donald Trump becoming president. That provided a huge opportunity, in terms of the number of people who suddenly felt compelled to do something, to get involved. But that only gets you so far. I think that our popularly resonant messaging and the on-ramps that we provided to our base—first to get in the door, then to develop as leaders—were key to our unusual success in Lancaster.

Specifically with messaging, the key thing we did, in a consistent and disciplined way, was to avoid invoking a left vs. right polarization, and to instead frame a bottom vs. top polarization. This meant avoiding labels like left, liberal, and Democrat. It meant avoiding using the dominant frames and phrases to talk about issues like “gun control.” It didn’t mean not talking about these and other issues and it didn’t mean avoiding picking fights. It meant picking fights consistently with the powerful few at the top.

Switching to your work with Beyond the Choir, can you walk us through how you craft narratives with partners? What does that narrative development process look like?

When we’ve supported groups and movements like Sunrise, If Not Now, and All of Us, we work with them to identify the elements of different narratives concerning the set of issues they’re confronting. We look at dominant narratives, at the messages of their opponents, and at the group’s own public-facing messaging. We look at specific “narrative artifacts”: press releases, webpages, Tweets, protest signs, interviews with leaders, etc. We identify and break down key narrative elements: protagonists, antagonists, opportunities, threats, and so on. The cornerstone of all these elements is the WE. Who is the WE in the story? Will the intended audience feel part of it? How do protagonists symbolize the values and aspirations of the WE? How do villains or culprits symbolize threats to the WE? We often find that groups are accidentally telling a story to a small we of self-identified activists who already share certain assumptions and often a specialized vocabulary that effectively prevents more people from resonating with their message. That’s a key intervention: getting groups to project a big and popular WE, and to overcome a self-defeating mentality that we call “the story of the righteous few.”