Fired Up: Narrative Strategy in Rural Battleground Counties

Stina Janssen

Stina Janssen

Describe yourself in three words.

committed. celebratory. curious.

Tell us about yourself.

I grew up in timber country, in the shadow of what they call the timber wars. For 5 generations, my family farmed, worked in the woods, cared for people’s health and taught children on Washington’s northwest Olympic and Kitsap peninsulas. As Swedish and Irish immigrants, we have also been the footsoldiers of settler-colonialism in Suquamish and S’Klallam lands. I work in a place where it feels a million times easier to get high than to get housed. Jobs are scarce and the ones that pay enough to live, scarcer. Throughout my lifetime, I have seen the Right’s strategy gain steam: scapegoat brown immigrants, sow fear of change, and throw punches at Black and Indigenous communities so we won’t look up at the wealthy and corporations profiting off all of us. For the past 9 years, I’ve organized in WA, AZ, and NV around housing, migrant and climate justice, Indigenous sovereignty, and elections. In precious slow moments, I sing country walzes with my partner Hannah and gaze adoringly into the eyes of our dog, Peanut. 

Tell us about the work that you are doing with CSS.

As this Fellowship kicked off, I was part of a small group co-founding a new organization with the goal of uniting working-class communities across race in Washington’s rural “battleground counties.” We started the organization to base-build in working class rural Latinx and white communities, to build political power, and to develop rural young leaders to design and run campaigns. We wanted to work in step with urban and national justice groups, and ultimately, set up to win transformational climate justice policies, such as a just Green New Deal. This Fellowship enabled us to develop narrative strategy to launch our Summer Listening Canvass - a vehicle for base-building, listening on issue priorities, and to meet young rural workers who might want to join our Movement School. Through this Fellowship, our organization used SBS tools to develop the following five things: a logo and placeholder name, a one-pager, a survey, a canvass script, and trainings. 

1. We chose a placeholder name and logo and listened for resonance as we introduced our group through the Listening Canvass. We tested our initial name in 202 conversations and numerous workshops and trainings. Our initial name was crafted to do the work of uniting regions, issues, and communities. Our placeholder logo, essentially the fire emoji, which we stuck on black hats for our canvassers, resonated strongly with some of our core audience, and is now a coveted item.

2. We wrote a one-pager that featured our Fairytale and that articulated our narrative and characters, sourced from our Cornerstones.

3. We wrote a “Cost of Living” listening survey in English and Spanish for listening and sharing our narrative. The survey drew on our Drama Triangle and Cornerstones, and it invited people to share their core priorities for a Green New Deal in their communities.

We surveyed over 200 rural and small town workers in English and Spanish in 7 counties between late May and August, 2019. Conversations averaged 25 minutes, with some as short as 15 minutes and some as long as 1 hr 15 minutes. One third of our conversations were in Spanish and two thirds were in English. Based on what we were hearing, we tweaked our survey four times. Each change was to get clearer on the issues and attitudes we wanted to identify, and to better articulate our narrative and Drama Triangle in the conversations we were having. One lesson we learned was that the “villain” and “heroes,” in our story and in people’s lives can seem opaque and hidden, and we have to name them explicitly. This is no wonder, given how sly corporations and the wealthy can be in shielding themselves from blame. But once we clearly posed the choice to folks through questions, respondents were quick to identify as part of the “hero” group (struggling working families) and to identify most solutions in the Green New Deal as priorities. People were clear in their call for interventions such as “tax the rich,” and to make those interventions possible with a strategy of “Working people come together; no more divide-and-conquer racism and scapegoating.” You can see the results of the survey at firelandswa.org/cost-of-living-survey-results. Contact me (info below) to see our pre-report and to get on our list to receive the full analysis of our survey this winter!

Photos from listening canvass

Canvass Script

Canvass Script

4. We developed a canvass “script” for our volunteers to introduce the organization and the purpose of the survey. The initial intro includes a framing of us, working people in the community, as both victims and heroes.

5. We developed trainings, including a workshop on exclusionary and inclusionary populism, that utilized tools like the Drama Triangle, and parts of the Cornerstones.

Explain to us why you are doing this work.

Globally, we are facing a ticking clock -- just 11 years -- to avert catastrophic climate breakdown. Already, the crisis has struck people and ecosystems worldwide. In rural communities, we feel trapped between putting out the fires of daily crisis and the fires creeping over the hills each summer, coating our lungs with smoke. 

Yet nationally, a surge of energy, vision and debate is swelling around the Green New Deal. 

A just Green New Deal could usher in what our people desperately need while defying a stale story that pits jobs against a healthy environment: we need living-wage green jobs, to rehabilitate our ecosystems, and the resources to build a dignified future for our communities.

Too often the political process has left out rural communities, especially young people with nothing to gain from the old extractive economies. But we—young workers, parents, students, and tenants in Washington’s rural counties—are ready to unite with people and organizations across the state and country to lead with vision.

Share how folks can get involved with your work or see your work’s final product.

Our survey, photos, and results from the Listening Canvass can be viewed at FirelandsWA.org and at Facebook.com/FirelandsWA.

We’re growing our organization! We need support in these areas:

  • Funds: contribute at firelandswa.org/contribute

  • Sign up for our mailing list at firelandswa.org/signup

  • Graphic design and art

  • In-kind donation of skills: 

    • Website design

    • Spanish-English translation (remote work is fine!)

  • Database support

  • Connecting with funders. Contact Stina Jansen, Co-Director, at firelandswa-at-gmail-dot-com

How would you describe Story-based Strategy (SBS) to someone who has never heard about it?

Many of us live and breathe the stories corporations and their cronies have told us are common sense. And we come to believe there’s no alternative. But because unjust systems that exploit people and the land are human-made, they can be unmade. To organize a critical mass of people to act together towards a just, fair and prosperous future, we must unravel the assumptions that hold up the old, tired and dangerous stories - stories of scarcity, fear, and domination. And we must write new stories that compel us to join together to organize. Tools from SBS guide us through a process to unpack the dominant stories we’re swimming in, and to unlock the stories that will enable us to make organizing for liberation irresistible for masses of people.

How did SBS affect your work on the project?

I think many organizers and folks involved in social movements have gotten lots of practice analyzing the dominant stories that doom us. We have a lot of slogans saying “no!” to things. But we are less skilled when it comes to crafting irresistible stories that aid us to build mass grassroots multiracial movements to advance what we want and need. The tools of SBS helped me to focus and facilitate narrative strategy in a crucial launch moment for our organization. I appreciated the compassionate accountability and guidance from Lawrence, Felicia, and the community of other Fellows.

How was working on this project, using SBS, different from your work without SBS?

In the moment when the populist mobilization called #TimberUnity exploded in Oregon, we did a rapid-response Drama Triangle and a Battle of the Story to understand what was happening with mass consciousness. We were able to craft a workshop for our volunteers to grapple with the threats and opportunities of a mass mobilization of mostly white working class rural families opposing cap and trade climate legislation in Oregon, and to think through options for our responses to #TimberUnity’s assumptions and stories. These tools helped us pivot our focus to more intentionally recognize the role we are playing in healing the wounds of the timber wars and moving our people forward in a new direction.

If you could have another iteration of your work, how would it have changed?

I would try to get even clearer on our counter-narrative: a dream and vision for our place, based in its history. I would do a fairytale rooted more in the radical labor histories of our region. 

Do you think SBS will change how you relate to future work in collaboration with others? How? And why?

It helps cut right to the chase. Rather than having a long and meandering conversation bemoaning the falsehoods of the dominant narrative, we get clear about what ends “their” narrative serves and how it distracts from, or impedes our work. SBS tools let us show, not tell: by going through the tools with a group of people, folks can go through a collective process of discovery and analysis that creates a shared foundation. Then, we can start building a counter-narrative based on that foundation. Having clear cornerstones means we can’t shortcut strategy-development either. If we’re not all on the same page, we have to slow down and agree to goals, targets, audiences, etc. I have learned it can save a lot of time to just stop and do the tools together with folks, instead of explaining the narrative strategy I’ve worked out. Having these tools at my fingertips and feeling confident in explaining and facilitating them... is game-changing.