Social Innovation Blog: Colloquy on Power and Narrative at the SoCal Symposium

Social Innovation Blog

The recent weekend of May 18-19 was the final working session of the SoCal Symposium (SCS), and it proved to be something of an epiphany. Gary Painter, director of the Price Center, advised us at the initial gathering of the Symposium, way back in February, that sustainable social innovation occurs, or rather can occur, at the intersection of social enterprise, collective action, and social movements. So last Friday was a bit like the three ghosts in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol working all their transformational magic in one night, as the symposium featured Adlai Wertman focusing on the role of social enterprise, Gary on collective impact, and Ai-jen Poo and Rashad Robinson on social movements, which too often get short shrift when defining or considering social innovation.

I had the great pleasure and privilege of facilitating a post-dinner colloquy between Ai-jen and Rashad, extraordinary leaders of two of the most strategic advocacy organizations for social justice—the National Domestic Workers Alliance and Color of Change respectively—and the SCS participants. I call them the Dynamic Duo of social movements. (Full disclosure: my former employer, The Atlantic Philanthropies, funded both organizations.)

Ai-jen and Rashad both focused on the role of social movements in building power; indeed, power was probably the most repeated term in their 75-minute colloquy. Rashad defined gaining and exercising power as having “the ability to change rules—the written rules of policy and the unwritten rules of culture,” to which I would add the written and unwritten rules of organizational practice. “Don’t mistake presence for power,” Rashad said. Too often, leaders of social movements and their associated campaigns think that presence—showing up at a rally, commenting on social media, getting mainstream media attention—is tantamount to having power. It’s not: presence, visibility and awareness are necessary but far from sufficient conditions for building and exercising power. Resist “magical thinking” about what matters and what you’ve achieved (more on this later from Ai-jen).

In making their funding decisions, many funders (I was one for three very large foundations for 20 years) are transfixed, almost obsessed by organizations’ theories of change, the more complex, wonky and jargon-laden the better. Color of Change’s theory of change, really a theory of getting and exercising power, is unusually simple and intuitive:

  • Respond effectively to injustice
  • Build pressure to influence outcomes and win justice
  • Pivot energy to target norms, systems and structures
  • Scale power to impact an entire system

OK, it’s a little more complex than that, but you get the picture. To build and reinforce your movement, and win the power to change the terrain on which your battle is fought over rules and incentive structures, take advantage of key moments (like, for Color of Change, the murders of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Sandra Bland), but don’t play Whack-a-Mole: All moments are not strategically or opportunistically equal.

NDWA and Color of Change are distinctive, if not unique, among social justice organizations in having staff in place in Hollywood who are dedicated to building narrative power for their constituents and allies. Ai-jen and Rashad defined narrative power as the ability to influence and disrupt the big underlying stories and themes that perpetuate and reinforce prejudice, inequality, racism, injustice, and that reflect and are reflected by the perspectives of the decisionmakers and arbiters of popular culture and media. In Hollywood, that means writers, producers, directors, showrunners and distributors, who typically speak a different language, and have far different objectives, than do social justice organizations. It’s also a place of acutely asymmetrical power, meaning that the power of the Hollywood establishment—the control of the means of production and distribution—has been largely impervious to “outside” influence. So NDWA’s and CoC’s Hollywood staff serves as Sherpa, expert simultaneous translator and advocate with that community. I can attest to the wisdom of meeting that strategic need, as my own initial foray into Hollywood for Atlantic several years ago left me feeling like a toothless minnow in a shark tank.

NDWA’s first Hollywood initiative—a partnership with Participant Media, a producer of the Oscar-winning film The Help—to use the themes and “talent” from the film to push for a Domestic Worker’s Bill of Rights in California was far more successful than mine, and was a linchpin for campaigns in other states to not only win new public policy for better wages and working conditions, but to foster an enduring new narrative about domestic work and workers on which that policy is based. That entails shifting the dominant cultural narrative about the value of domestic workers, from invisible and powerless to valuable, essential and powerful in the lives of the people they serve and in the story of who we are as a nation. It’s all captured beautifully in Ai-jen’s book, The Age of Dignity.

But social movements, campaigns, and their leaders and constituents need to be careful to not get caught up in or seduced by magical thinking, they caution. Rashad advises that, to effectively disrupt negative narratives and expose prejudice, racism, inequality, to portray the people and communities that are most impacted by those systems and structures simply as empathetic merely reinforces the underlying narrative, because it doesn’t change the underlying power dynamic. “You get short-sighted, short-term solutions, not a fundamental shift in power,” says Rashad. “You get reentry programs rather than an end to mass incarceration.” Rashad has written a brilliant paper on narrative power for the Haas Institute at Cal-Berkeley.

Ai-jen gets the last word. In navigating the tricky terrain of narrative change, you have to deal two fundamental realities, she says, of what’s factually true and what’s emotionally true or resonant. (Daniel Kahneman is my own guru about the role and power of perception and emotion in irrational decisionmaking). You can win a big policy change or a campaign, but not have fundamentally shifted a big narrative, e.g., about the right to health. As someone with decades of scars from fighting for the fundamental right to health care, I can attest that, as Joe Biden said, the passage of the Affordable Care Act was a “big f—ing deal,” but it didn’t result from or in a changed narrative about that basic human right.

So, says Ai-jen, you need to know your audience and what moves them emotionally as well as rationally. And don’t expect emotional consistency or rationality even within your core constituency. As we know from the constitutional referenda in Ireland on marriage equality and a woman’s right to choose only two years apart, you can be “woke” on redressing one injustice but not another. I loved her closing question, from the writer Anand Giridharadas: “Is there room among the ‘woke’ for the ‘still waking’?”


David Morse is Senior Visiting Fellow at the Price Center and Director of Studies for the
Southern California Symposium