February 13, 2019 / Leave a comment
Shana McDavis-Conway on storytelling, imagination and activism
Storytelling is a powerful political tool. Becoming better storytellers has been shown to make a huge difference to the impact and efficacy of activist groups and campaigns. The Centre for Story-Based Strategy (“where imagination builds power”) are pioneers in this field. They work with groups giving them the tools to make the most of the power of imagination, building their capacity to intervene in narratives and in social change work. They particularly work with groups in frontline communities that are at the intersection of poverty, pollution and racism, with a focus on climate, economic and social justice. Their work is incredible, so it was a huge honour to be able to talk to Shana McDavis-Conway, Co-Director of the Centre. I started by asking her why she thinks that story and the cultivation of strong narratives are so vital to bringing about change?
“So many reasons! Part of it is that that our communities already have a lot of skills in terms of lobbying skills. We have such a long history of organising, community organising in the US, so it’s not that other things aren’t important, but we really found that the missing piece was around storytelling. When you try to examine why there were suddenly dramatic cultural shifts, because national work was really effective, story was often that missing piece that we weren’t really talking about. We were talking about tactical work that communities were doing.
When you examine our current political system and how certain ideas, continuing ideas about poverty, and ideas about who has power, who’s marginalised, particularly around race and class in the US, I think those ideas, they’re really held up not just by the people in power, but by these underlying stories and narratives that say this is the only way that is possible. These people are smarter or more talented. That’s really why they should be running things.
When you’re trying to do organising work, if you don’t address those underlying narratives and work to both shift them – shift away towards more liberation – but also to create alternative narratives that are really about liberation, then it’s going to be really difficult to do that work. That’s really why we got started. We saw it as a need, and there were already people started to do really playful things around direct action and campaign work.
When we started it was really in the second Bush administration, not the first. I’ve been reading a lot about him lately, but the second one. It wasn’t the same level of despair as we see around Trump. It was a different kind of frustration, but people were frustrated so it created a space for people to want to do storytelling and creative interventions in a different way.
We really wanted those interventions to be strategic, not just street theatre or funny things that would hit the news once but not have a meaningful impact. We really wanted people to think about what are these bigger picture narratives in society about who has value and who has humanity, and how can we shift them.
What are your thoughts at the moment about the state of storytelling and of imagination in the world in 2019? Would you say that both are in robust health? What would your diagnosis be?
It’s interesting when you were talking about your research. I don’t know. I actually feel like things are not too terrible. Obviously I’m only 41, so I cannot compare what life was like in the 1960s, and maybe it was really amazing then, and it probably was. But I do feel like, especially because of digital organising, there’s really been opportunities to do storytelling work in different ways.
There’s access to technology for communities that previously would not have had the ability to create their own video, their own animation, their own visuals, but there’s also these ways that communities are linked, particularly marginalised communities in a country as big as the US, who would just feel isolated or not know that there were people who were like-minded.
There are opportunities in our current culture. We struggle with a sense of political imagination, particularly, because we’ve been told narratives about people for so long they’ve become true. People believe that they are true. Trying to shift that is challenging, and it’s challenging for social change groups as well, particularly in the current climate where people often are so personally affronted by alternative facts and the lies that they hear the politicians say. It’s easy to get really focused on that, but I think that politicians have not been telling the truth for a really long time. It’s not necessarily a dramatic new thing.
There’s really a need to capture people’s political imagination and just show that there are alternatives, and that we’re really stuck in this dichotomy, say, around unions. For long the story about unions has been that it’s unions versus the environment. That you can either have jobs, you can have economic growth, you can have union jobs, or you can have a healthy environment. This is just a story that has been very effective at impacting the labour movement, but it’s not necessarily the only story, or a true story, about unions.
Unions been cast as this villainous character in this negative foreshadowing about the future where we’re not going to have jobs if we choose to have good jobs, we choose to have protections. There are opportunities to really challenge that, but I do see, particularly around labour, as things have gotten bad enough, that unlikely allies have emerged. Of folks that previously that were really invested in not having much political imagination, to really see that there are more possibilities.
I remember teachers’ unions, in Kentucky. The past couple of years just saw this up swell of teachers union organising fighting for things in communities that… To be honest, as someone who mostly lives on the coast in the US, I live in California, used to live in DC, maybe it’s easy to write off some parts of the country. That’s really where a lot of this came from. People who maybe we thought did not have a lot of political imagination. It just sparked these exciting ideas that then spread to other places like Oklahoma – I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Oklahoma? It’s a tough place to be, particularly for African Americans. It’s not a place that I would really want to live, to be honest. It’s really challenging.
And yet, people were really tired of years of disinvestment in education, and willing to create this alternative story. I guess I feel hopeful, because I feel like there’s a lot of opportunities right now. But certainly the media landscape can make it really challenging – particularly how fast paced it is – to really have that intervention and get people to stop and step away and to really engage in creative work.
Can you give us a sense of what you do at the Centre for Story-based Strategy?
Sure. We spend a lot of our time providing trainings for social change organisations. We try to help groups. We have a variety of tools. We do training, and provide strategic support, to our social change partners. Again, we focus mostly on frontline communities. Communities that are really dealing with the immediate impacts of climate change, and environmental racism.
We have a couple of trainings coming up. We have one this month in San Francisco with groups that are working on gentrification and housing justice here in San Francisco. Then we have one coming up in Chicago next year. That one is largely focused on ending money bail in that area, and criminal justice work. Then we have our annual advanced training that is coming up in April. That’s a week-long training.
Most of our trainings are only a day or two, or fly in to work with a coalition, or group, and help them shape their vision, their overarching story for their work. Sometimes it’s about a specific campaign. Sometimes it’s really about, “What’s our bigger vision for what our community could look like? What’s the story that will get there? And then how do we translate that story into specific campaign messaging and specific characters that we want to cast?” How do we get out ahead of what’s sometimes a lot of money that these groups are challenged with from their opponents. That’s a lot of work that we do.
One of the things that always really interests me is how people keep ‘what if’ questions alive over time. In times when it just looks like it’s never going to happen, but they keep it going. The one I’m always really fascinated about is in the US, the prison abolition movement, which is the most phenomenal “What if we had no prisons, what if we had no police, what if justice worked in a completely different way?” I wondered from the work you’ve done with lots of different groups, and maybe with some of those groups, what’s your sense of what makes a really good ‘what if’ question, and how do we keep them dynamic over time?
What makes a good ‘what if’ question? I guess a bad ‘what if’ question is one that’s narrowly constrained by the status quo, that assumes certain elements are immovable, when I feel strongly that there’s nothing that is immovable.
You mean like, “What if there was a 2.3% tax cut next year instead of a 3.2% tax cut?”
Well that would certainly be a terrible ‘what if’ question!
Doesn’t leave much room for manoeuvre …
Or even just, “What if we had majority women in Congress?” I would love that. That would be great. But it’s still a pretty narrow question. You know, “What if women had full equal political power?” is a bigger question. And then you could step out again to, “What if we all had equal access to safety and the ability to live the life that we want, no matter what our gender was?”
The further out we can get into pinging people into, “Oh, I’ve never really thought about that” – which is probably why the question about the abolition of prisons is effective because it feels almost scary, and it can really get people into, “Well, all these horrible things would happen” and then you’re able to challenge those underlying assumptions, which the best stories do. We all have underlying assumptions in our stories, no matter how beautifully liberatory they are, they are there.
If you can really dig into what those are, that’s really when you can align with people’s values, and communicate those values more clearly to people who might not have been interested in those issues otherwise. You also had asked about how we make those ‘what if’ questions last?
Yeah, that prison abolition question has been around since the 1960s, I think, or probably before then. That’s a long time to keep a ‘what if’ question alive, when the thing that you’re trying to respond to is just getting worse, and worse, and worse, and bigger and bigger and more and more horrible. Kali Akuno’s answer to this was he said that he thought it was because those questions always had one foot in history. So he said there was always that sense of, “Yeah, it’s really shit but it was a lot more shit a hundred years ago, and it was even more shit two hundred years ago.” The question was looked at in the sense of a broader scale sense that things were improving a bit, do you know?
Interesting. I guess I would say when people have a vision or a sense of possibility, which is kind of what you’re talking about with a ‘what if’ question, our connection to holding on to that hope is often rooted both in ancestral stories, but also in our personal stories. Like with the prison question, about the abolition of prisons, now you could say maybe a bigger picture question would be, “What if everyone could be safe and what would that look like?”
Safety would include people returning from prison and being integrated into community and not needing that. That question might help us get to a different place, and that challenging people’s existing frames around prisons, maybe that would be a question that – I don’t know if that would be as long lasting. But why questions like that, or ‘what if’ questions about gender, the environment, linger –it really is because they’re hooked into something that feels really deep in our bodies, and that is often about story.
Because stories are how we understand the world. A big part of our work is really mapping out the existing stories and helping make them visible for folks. We all have this natural need as human beings to create stories and to pass down stories, to understand the chaotic world around us.
When a ‘what if’ question or really big hopeful vision may feel impossible in the current political moment, but feels really connected to something about how we understand ourselves, or we understand our families, our history… I have a particular story about history, for me as a black person I have a lot of history around the lack of freedom, which makes that question particularly impactful. That’s partly why those ‘what if’ questions last so long. It’s why people can hold onto a hopeful vision for decades, or sometimes for centuries.
In the foreword of the book ‘Re:Imagining Change’, there’s a quote, “Today the whole dominant narrative itself seems to be up for popular reconsideration.” When I read that I wondered, in the age of Trump, if you would argue that that is still the case? Or if it’s less so than it was?
Definitely. Even more so. Even more so.
Because I feel like the power of stories is just even more ever-present. This is something that I see in my work that people are talking about the power of narrative and the ability to create entire complicated reality, regardless of whether it’s true. I just know in my past work and training groups, sometimes you would spend a lot of time just trying to get people into a creative space to really think about this is an opportunity to create a whole new political reality, and now people get it really fast because they’ve seen it happen dramatically in their own lifetime, and their own past couple of years.
I’m not a Trump supporter, obviously, but it’s been really fascinating to see that as an opportunity for people to see that power of stories. Thinking about coal communities, so there’s been so much work, Transition work, for years in coal mining communities and coal power plants in the US. It’s not that I think – from what I hear from the folks who are doing that direct work – that miners and mining communities don’t know that the end is coming. This is clearly factually true. But I think that the story that Trump has told about the power of coal and the future of coal is totally divorced from any reality, let alone[?] how much coal is there.
And how if you call it ‘clean coal’ it’s just magically clean.
Oh goodness, I thought we’d gotten over that, but that’s the meme that won’t die! Clean coal… Yeah, so it’s all going to be okay, and this way of life. It’s really tapping into those values that folks have about coal is a way of life in these communities. It’s upsetting obviously but it’s also such effective storytelling. That has really helped groups see the power of that work even when it is difficult.
It’s created an opportunity for people to want to tell dramatically alternative stories. I just feel like it’s an exciting moment of doing a really significant shift and I don’t know if we’ll take advantage of it. Because we’ve had those opportunities before and we haven’t always taken advantage of them.
I’m fascinated by how we need to help people be able to imagine the world where things turned out okay. It feels like there’s so many dystopian stories, particularly in terms of climate change, there’s so much dystopian stuff around, there’s so many people who’ve given up. My sense is that one of the things that’s really useful is to help people to imagine what it could be maybe 20 years in the future, 30 years in the future, if we turned this around now, to give people a taster. To help people to feel into that space, whether it’s through visualisation stuff, or music, or poetry, or films, or whatever. You know, what would it be like if we woke up in 20 years, 30 years and we had done this, and it had worked and you’re walking around in that world. How can storytelling help us do this, and how can we become the best storytellers we can be?
Well, storytelling can help move the goal posts for what feels politically realistic for folks, because it can stretch us into that. Particularly that’s something I see in our trainings but also just in the groups that we work with. People are just naturally great storytellers. There are skills that we can teach people about how to cast sympathetic characters, or really clear conflict, but people are just really good at stories.
They’re just constructs and stories that we’ve absorbed. Part of it is about being a better storyteller just by stretching our muscles. Creating spaces where that’s okay, particularly for activists. We sometimes think of our creative work as something separate and I really feel like it’s so integrated. That’s partly why I think people get attached and find a lot of healing in doing storytelling and doing story-based strategy because it is linking a political analysis and a political point of view with that creative work.
It’s always interesting to me how many people have that creative side, they just don’t necessarily link it. There are so many musicians in the movement and playwrights, or writers, or gardeners, or amazing pastry chefs. There is something about that creativity that brings you to that work.
Mohsin Hamid wrote a book called ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’, and more recently he wrote a book called Exit West that was all about migration. It was set in Syria, this couple who met in Syria, then he had this thing where all of a sudden these mysterious black doors started appearing in different places in Syria. If you went through them, it just randomly took you somewhere else in the world. It was a metaphor for free movement and free migration. The end of the book was set about 20 years in the future, where basically everybody who wanted to move had moved, and they’d arrived somewhere, and they’d settled, and they’d got somewhere to live and they’d got some work. And it wasn’t perfect, but it was kind of okay. I’m interested in that. If we had lots of people out and about just telling those stories about what it would be like if it turned out okay, then it lifts us up over the seeming obstacles right in front of us, to what’s behind it.
I got my start during in activism doing community garden work. That perspective was easier for a lot of folks who are doing land-based work, who are doing farming work, and community agriculture, because you have something physical to relate your hopes to. You’re giving people a mini version of what the world could look like through your experimental farm or your educational garden space. That’s something that other movements have been trying to do, but it is easier.
Part of that is that it gives people a visual connection to the hope that they might have for the future. That doesn’t mean they still can’t be sceptical. I have definitely heard plenty of sceptics about, “Well, you can’t feed everybody with community gardens or urban agriculture…” which I won’t even get into. But if you’re just trying to use that to give people a sense of what the future could look like, it can be very effective.
Some of the most effective tactics around direct actions I think are when you give people opportunities to do some positive foreshadowing. Now negative foreshadowing, or fear-based messaging, it can also be very effective, but for movement groups, particularly working on climate issues, the negative foreshadow is so intense already. People have been hearing it for a long time, and it has not reflected in dramatic action.
It really makes sense strategically to focus more on positive foreshadowing and creating an alternative future that people can get behind and be excited about. Because people who are scared, it’s just so easy to get fatalistic.
Can you just explain what you mean by the word ‘foreshadowing’, which might be a bit of a new one to people who are listening?
Sure, so the idea of foreshadowing in storytelling is you want to give people a sense of where the story is going. Perhaps early on in the story you give the reader, the watcher of the film, a hint of what’s going to happen later on. A classic example would be in a film there might be a moment where there’s a gun over the mantel of a house and you have a long pan, you see the gun, and no-one’s talking about it right now, but you have this hint that somehow it’s going to feature later on in the story. Then you’re not surprised when you see it later on. It gave you a hook to connect to.
That’s foreshadowing in storytelling, and we use it a lot in our creative work and our movement work, a lot in our visioning work to help people to try to imagine through storytelling what the future could look like for themselves and to foreshadow that specifically through their messaging and the stories that they tell about society.
In the context of climate justice, just this week there are more reports came out. Pretty much on a weekly basis we’re getting a lot of negative foreshadowing that describes the future that’s going to happen either if we don’t make a change or, more recently, the future that will happen regardless of what we do, that it will be even worse if we don’t make a change.
Doing positive foreshadowing is really trying to help folks see that there could be a Transition, a just Transition in society that actually results in more liberation and a world that could be different.
So instead of scanning across and seeing a gun on a mantelpiece, you mean that it’s dropping in things into whatever we’re doing that just give people a taste of what the world could be like if we got this right.
The example that we use a lot – I actually now can’t remember what city this was in – was a group of organisers frustrated that the Mayor was not putting funding towards childcare, taking over the Mayor’s office and turning it into an impromptu day care centre for the day. So is that a long-term strategy that’s going to work, turning the Mayor’s office into a day care centre? No, but it’s really effective at giving you a sense of, “Oh, this is what the world could look like.”
Also it’s very fun, and creativity is fun, which is another reason we like to focus on it. It’s about putting in little moments and hints really strategically in our tactics and thinking about how we can foreshadow that future. It’s not just about the horrible things that will happen, but it’s about our positive vision.
I wonder when you create the space for people to come together with other people who they might not know beforehand, and they’re coming together to be imaginative, to become storytellers, have you noticed over the years you’ve done this work that there are certain ingredients that are vital to creating that space? If everyone just comes in off the street and they’re all busy and stressed, it’s not going to click so much, so as a facilitator for that, how do you create that basket or whatever that can hold them in being imaginative?
Part of it is about creating time and space, because creativity really takes that sense of spaciousness. If you’re asking folks to do really deep creative work that sometime is getting at something really hurtful that may have happened to them personally or their communities, that is hard to do in an hour. That is maybe impossible to do in an hour.
We really try to encourage folks to do a half day or do a day with us. We’re launching this online training programme actually this month, so it will be a series of shorter trainings for folks to do, and the idea is just to create that space. It’s about the literal space, and it’s about connecting to people holistically to who they really are. Not who we come in at, our role in our organisation, but who we are deeply, and doing a lot of personal sharing as part of that. And personal storytelling about why we do this work, what we’ve seen through this work, what inspires us and what has hurt us.
Then really cultivating democratic skills and vision as part of that work. It does also help if people have a clear campaign or project that they’re working. A general sense of grievance is understandable but really difficult to organise people around, particularly around storytelling. That’s been a shift for us from our early days where we really found it effective when people are rooted in a particular project or community.
One of the questions I’ve asked every single person that I’ve interviewed for this book is if you had been elected in November 2016 and you were President McDavis-Conway and you had run on a platform, not of ‘Make America Great Again’ but of ‘Make America Imaginative Again’, so you had felt that what was really needed in order to tackle the big issues that the nation faced was a reprioritising and valuing of imagination, running through education, through workplace, through public life, through policy making – or we could also say ‘Make America Brilliant at Storytelling again’ as well – what might you do in your first 100 days in the Oval Office?
If that was my platform?
If that was your platform, yeah.
I need to think about that. I used to do a lot of policy work so this is good practice for me. Here are the ten policies I’m going to pass but they have nothing to do with that platform. I’m going to focus on your question. Yeah, I think what that would look like for me… I would like to do town hall meetings and open dialogues, both online and in person, send folks out to do tours, what would a bold vision would look like.
I would really support artistic movements. Bringing artists in and supporting that work, specifically around creating stories of transformation, stories of change. I would have, I’m sure, a clear vision, including my secret policy vision if I ever made President, which would require I think actually running. I would create a lot of stories around what that would look like.
We talk a lot at CSS about the advertising idea that people can only go somewhere they’ve first been in their mind. That’s used in advertising in not the most positive way, to convince people that they need something that they don’t really need by imagining the wonderful life they’re going to have as soon as they purchase this car, or lose a hundred pounds, it’s going to totally change things. I would really like to use that towards a clear positive foreshadowing for what the world could look like if the US is engaged as a global leader on climate change. That’s fun to think about. I’ve been watching ‘Madame Secretary’ a lot. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen that TV show?
It’s about a woman who is Secretary of State who’s super progressive and it’s unclear what party she’s working with. She’s always intervening around the world to solve things and what’s interesting about that TV show – it’s been on for several years – is that it pretty much aligned with what was happening in the Obama administration. It was always a little more progressive, but it told stories about current international events.
Since Trump’s election there’s been this divergence. It’s creating this completely alternate world that now bears very little reality to what is actually happening. I find it so relaxing to watch for that reason. But it’s also such a good example of imagining that another world is possible. What if you had multiple women in power, and what if US had a different relationship to power and to the international community. What if there was a different linkage between our domestic and our international policy, and what if people were just nicer and less annoying? What if you had politicians people were really excited about?
It’s just fascinating to me. It’s interesting because there’s been times when things appeared on that show that then diplomats get angry about, so it clearly has some sort of impact, even though it’s not a political propaganda moment.
I guess it must also have that element of what could have been.
Yeah. It’s been interesting as the show’s continued. Being completely unhooked from reality has given it this opportunity to explore more possibility and be more flexible. That’s what I would probably want to do if I had run on this imagination platform, is blow everything up, and what if anything was possible and there was nothing we would necessarily say no to, what great ideas we would have for changing? And how could those really come from the grassroots?
Fantastic. For you, what are the ingredients of a really good compelling story? If you can identify different elements?
I talked about foreshadowing before, great stories have a little bit of foreshadowing. Great stories have a really clear conflict. A sense of casting, who’s in that drama triangle – who’s the victim and who’s the villain and who’s the hero – so that people understand what’s at stake. Then great images.
People love stories – even if it’s just a verbally told story – that have really lovely imagery in it. So painting a picture for folks of what that looks like. Particularly when you’re trying to imagine what a future could look like so they can really tactically see themselves there. Then sympathetic characters. Characters that people align with, that they feel connected to, they can see themselves in in some way. They could maybe see their humanity in.
And the right characters that are telling a story that perhaps hasn’t been told before. A new story that has people that might not have been part of stories that are part of the status quo. For me, I think a really good social change story is really about targeting underlying assumptions around the status quo. Thinking, what do you need to believe in order to believe a story is true? If I’m telling a story that’s about the hope I have for there to be no wildfires in California, then that requires challenging some underlying assumptions that wildfires are inevitable, that housing costs are static in California and will only go up. That insurance is the way to solve the wildfire crisis.
Or of course there’s the most recent, Trump’s suggestion that we need to rake our forests in order to get rid of wildfires, which there have been many hilarious memes around that that’s going to solve it. I would want to tell a story that really directly challenged those underlying assumptions.
My last question is what’s an example you might like to share that’s one of your favourite examples of how a story-based approach led to real change in the world?
Oh goodness. Just picking one? That’s hard. I’m not going to pick any of our current partners. That just feels unfair. I’ll go a way back and do some throwback examples. I do think that I use Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech a lot. It’s helpful because everybody knows it, but also because it illustrates that you don’t necessarily have to be a trained story-based strategist to do this kind of work inherently, to say that I have a spreadsheet or I have a policy idea.
It’s really that, “I have a dream, and let me take you along into this transformative vision.” There’s a lot of reasons that speech is effective but really a part of it is it’s really about presenting such a clear vision of liberation. One that still speaks to people now. It is a great example of story-based strategy in the civil rights movement.
Over the last 20 years we don’t really see people stand up in Congress or stand up and say, “I have a dream. Let me tell you how it’s going to be.” Or do they just not get on the news?
I would say probably the latter.
So they’re out there, we just never hear them?
No, because I can think of a lot of local candidates who are good at that. It’s hard because we have access to so much data now. People make storytelling decisions driven by what feels like effective messaging and I think it makes it hard for politicians to take a risk. And it is a risk. Because if you talk about your dreams and your personal story, and it’s a personal story people haven’t heard before, it can be much more effective than anything else that you say, but you can also fall on your face and do a terrible job.
A good example of that would be that Elizabeth Warren video on her Native American history. That was not an effective job at telling a personal story. Did not challenge underlying assumptions around Native Americans and indigenous culture in the US, and in fact really doubled down on the assumptions the dominant culture had about native people. Those open failures probably help to continue a pretty risk averse political elite. But I do feel like I see people do that at the local level. Part of it is that people feel almost as though significant change isn’t possible. That’s part of the limited political imagination that we were talking about. To put out a grand vision, to have this dramatic dream for what society could look like, it makes you appear naïve and open to ridicule. That’s really unfortunate because it can be really effective.