Why Narratives Matter for Social Progress

BY Judithe Registre, Founder and Podcast Host

Image source:  Pixabay

Image source: Pixabay

By Judithe Registre

In social justice work, the narratives of certain communities are so critical. Ironically, they are both what we work with and what we work to change.
Narratives are so much more than the stories people tell or write—they are the truths that shape our lives (or rather, the ideas that we accept as truths), and they underlie so much of our culture, society and reality.  
Those working to advance social justice cannot afford to ignore narratives. We need to be mindful of them, their impact, and the way that they constitute the roots of so many of the issues we seek to fix.

Narratives create beliefs

Narratives are created by many separate factors and actors, but once they’re created, they spread like wildfire to impact and reinforce our relations. They become ubiquitous and start to rule our lives without us even noticing.

Narratives shape our perceptions, our perceptions form our realities, and our realities influence our choices and our actions. Narratives shape opportunities and how groups see themselves as well as how others see them. Powerful narratives become brands, and these brands affect everything we do.
Political campaigns astutely leverage this phenomenon, as do successful marketing campaigns. Mass media adopts such persuasive approaches in order to communicate with maximal impact. We vote, we shop, we act, based on powerful narratives.  
Just as narratives can form brands around products or politics, so too can they form brands around groups of people. And this is where it gets dangerous, because not only do we make decisions based on narratives, we also treat people based on them.
Poverty and inequality are also framed, created, and recreated through narratives. Nowhere is this more evident than in the ways that African Americans, immigrants, and other historically and politically excluded groups are treated by the media, the general public, and the very institutions that are supposed to serve them. Society—that is, all of us collectively—treats these groups as less, because we have been told a story that portrays them as less. We see them as having less human dignity and value than other groups. When you think about black men or women in America, what comes to mind? When you thinking about immigrants, what comes to mind?  Hopefully, what comes to mind are none of the stereotypes that are so ubiquitous. Still, I leave you with that thought.
The problems of poverty and inequality have become a very specific brand at the heart of the social justice industry—an industry that needs these problems to exist in order to sustain itself on the one hand while fighting against the very thing that fuels its existence on the other. But instead of addressing and reframing the narratives themselves, we tend to address the consequences of them, because tackling the narratives and other core structural causes is much more challenging and requires changes that seem beyond our control. Even more devastating is that the sector itself harbors these negative narratives.

Beliefs determine our reality

If narratives create our beliefs, what happens when we change narratives? What if, instead of focusing on the negatives, we started to focus on the positives of a people, community, or country? If we were to see communities and groups for their power, we would focus and promote affirming and InPowering stories, projects, and ideas that come from those communities.
Let’s look at Haiti as an example. Haiti was the first independent nation in Latin America and the Caribbean, and the first country to abolish slavery. Its revolution has been called “the most … radical assertion of the right to have rights in human history.” Haiti is an exceptional country when it comes to racial justice and human rights.
But is that what comes to mind when you think of Haiti?
Throughout history, Haiti has been plagued by a narrative of failure and humanitarian disasters, so much so that it is becoming known only by its media-appointed tagline: “the poorest country in the Western hemisphere.”
Now imagine an understanding of Haiti by Haitians and partners from within and around Haiti that showcases the diverse realities of Haiti and its potential beyond the lens of poverty. In highlighting the powerful stories of Haiti’s culture, people, and history, we could create new perceptions, new images, new stories, new messages. We could transform the narrative from one borne out of the misery of colonization into one rooted in the exceptional aspirations, power, and potential of the people.
This is the power of narratives. They can completely change our perceptions of people and communities. Once our perceptions change, our realities can change with them.

Change narratives and change the world

We want progress, yet we promote desperation and destitution. We want wealth, yet we promote and market poverty. None of this represents or inspires progress. In order to inspire real progress, we need to start acknowledging it where it already exists, amplifying it, and spreading it.
The social sector has an opportunity to serve as a model for other industries, but first we must overcome our own biases and stop perpetuating the narratives of exclusion and desperation so embedded in the general discourse of society. A reckoning with narratives could help with this.

Many organizations are challenged because they lack perspectives of the negative narrative bias they hold when it comes to serving communities or working through their missions, perhaps because the social sector feels that it is above these pitfalls. In sum, the sector tends to be blind to the narratives of what makes the problems we are working on so pervasive. We can do better, but it will take a reawakening of the sector to see its own detrimental biases and practice of exclusion and to find new ways of being.