In the summer of 2016, the Insight Center embarked on an ethnographic research project to develop a policy agenda to address economic well-being and inequality. A pioneering organization in racial wealth inequity work, we were eager to understand which bold economic policies would resonate with a cross section of Americans — rural, urban, liberal, conservative and across race.
We wanted to test how policies like baby bonds, universal childcare, federal jobs guarantee and guaranteed income — among others — held water across groups, and how they needed to be messaged to garner support. What we found was no matter what the policy platform is, our policy work could fail immensely without first tackling narrative.
Narratives — our cultural understandings, frames of reference or mental models — play a significant role in how leaders create and implement policies, and how people on the ground react to them.
More than just stories of specific people, narratives contribute to our sense of the world and helps us create order in a fairly chaotic landscape. Specific stories inform the narratives that we hold near and dear in our hearts and minds, and narratives in turn become an endless story that we build upon and continuously shape.
For example, the “Great American Pioneer” was a story that contributed to the individualistic, “pick yourself up by your own bootstraps” and “American Dream” narratives. That story has now morphed into the Silicon Valley entrepreneur, which contributes to the bootstraps and American Dream narrative. We bounce new ideas and concepts up against our deep-seated narratives, and our narratives inform who we build empathy for, and who we don’t.
What’s tremendously important to understand for those of us fighting for racial and economic justice in America, is that the narratives we hold are based on a hyper-focus on the individual versus systems, and are rooted in racism, xenophobia and sexism.
This lethal combination makes it extremely difficult to pass the policies we need to make comprehensive, transformative structural change toward economic, racial and gender justice. As Rashad Robinson says, “Narrative builds power for people.”
The question we must grapple with is, who are our current narratives building power for, and who do they purposefully leave behind?