In January 2016, after nearly two years of community members raising health concerns about their tap water, the situation in Flint finally got some national public attention. There was the typical blast of media coverage: TV lights, headlines, journalists asking politicians a few tough questions… but inevitably the media cycle moves on while the day-to-day crisis still exists.
At the Center for Story-based Strategy our work is to help frontline communities use powerful storytelling to support their David versus Goliath style fights against Big Polluters and unaccountable government decision-makers. So we are all too familiar with this pattern of coverage that happens to communities on the frontlines of fights for racial, economic and environmental justice.
CSS’s work is rooted in the recognition that humans are narrative animals and thus we inevitably apply narrative elements to the information we get.
This means that savvy organizers need to use the elements of story to get our message out in a way that shifts the debate and builds power.
So following the story of Flint from afar we had a few observations that might be relevant to folks in other places. We have captured them below using the five elements of a story-based strategy. For more check out our Battle of the Story tool. Please Note: this is just a quick brainstorm intended as a conversation starter for story-based strategists who may be confronting similar issues, and is in no way meant to speak for people on the ground in Flint.
Framing the conflict: Making the invisible visible is an ongoing process
So much of the work to change the story is the struggle to make what has been invisibilized by policy and prejudice visible to a wider audience. unacknowledged issues that plague many communities in the US became news in Flint because the local community made the crisis so visible. However, just because an issue is unavoidable doesn’t mean the framing battle is over. In fact there will always be ongoing efforts to frame it a way that allows decision-makers to avoid it. As in the coverage of Flint there are often loud voices in the media ready to seize an issue for their ideological agenda: to blame government regulation or find others ways to re-enforce the narrative that government can’t ever serve the public interest.
So much of the work to change the story is the struggle to make what has been invisibilized by policy and prejudice visible to a wider audience.
Characters: Communities aren’t just victims they are also heroes and experts!
The media is quick to cover the brave people of Flint as victims but has a harder time seeing their heroism: the collective action that they are taking not just to survive, but also to organize for change. An effective story-based strategy finds and supports the individual community members who are ready to share their stories of how they are coping with the crisis and how they are working for the solution. Likewise every community on the frontlines has to battle in the media to assert their own expertise: both in the problems they are living every day, and in the steps that need to be taken to address them. The frontlines of the problem are the frontlines of the solution! We are excited to see groups like Green For All create the #PollutersPay campaign to hold elected officials accountable & tell Governor Snyder to #FixFlint!
The media is quick to cover the brave people of Flint as victims but has a harder time seeing their heroism: the collective action that they are taking not just to survive, but also to organize for change.
show don't tell: Showing the passage of time
Images are the centerpiece of any powerful story. residents organized to show the discolored, scary water that was coming out of their taps, and the media broadcast the images of the horrifyingly corroded pipes. These images are what linger in the audience’s mind. But one of the challenges for Flint is now that the national media attention has diminished, how can people continue to show how time is passing without resolution in Flint? Fortunately the Flint community and their allies created a website with a time tracker to show the number of days that the crisis has dragged on and you can even embed it on your own website to help amplify their demands. This imagery continues to provide some context for the powerful personal stories that are being shared by community members and shows the inertia that frontline communities frequently face in getting problems addressed.
Images are the centerpiece of any powerful story.
foreshadowing: Communicating our vision
As we frame the conflict how are we foreshadowing the resolution?
What is the vision we are offering? Flint's progress towards justice may be far from complete but its still represents a milestone that other communities can celebrate and work to replicate. Flint and so many other communities are the laboratories for community resilience. We know that adapting to climate destabilization will demand massive shifts in almost every aspect of our lives. Climate Justice organizers are putting out bold visions of transforming our food, energy, water and waste systems (Check out the Climate Justice Alliance’s Our Power Campaign for instance) to create local, living economies. What does the struggle in Flint show us about the future? Where can community members insert a hopeful message without diluting the attention to meeting their immediate demands?
As we frame the conflict how are we foreshadowing the resolution?
underlying assumptions: Surfacing Competing Values in the StorY
Challenging assumptions is one of the most important aspects of social change storytelling because the assumptions are what you have to believe to believe the story is true. When we analyze a dominant story (what CSS calls narrative power analysis) we find that unstated assumptions are often the vulnerability in an oppressive story. Exposing those assumptions and the distorted values they reflect can be a powerful intervene to change public understanding of the story. In Flint underlying the official story of inaction are a number of assumptions that many frontline communities are working to challenge: the austerity assumptions that our governments are too poor to meet basic human needs; the assumption that “some” communities (i.e. low-income communities of color) are just going to be worse off than others and are inevitable sacrifice zones; the assumption that the people of Flint can’t govern themselves and need an unelected emergency manager.
All of these connect back to the invisibilized role of structural racism that defines where people’s basic human rights are respected and where they are ignored. Once we are clear on the assumptions we are challenging we are able to amplify Flint residents demands in a way that clearly states our shared values about the world: government should meet human needs; everyone has a right to clean water, healthcare, a safe environment and the right to be involved in the decisions that affect your life so nobody can decide its ok to poison your family if it saves $100 a day. When frontline communities tell their stories in a way the communicates the full transformative power of their organizing, it helps connect all our struggles and resonates with all the Flints across the country. Together we can change the story and keep building momentum to make a Just Transition towards a more democratic, equitable and ecological sane future for everyone.
Challenging assumptions is one of the most important aspects of social change storytelling because the assumptions are
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The organizing in Flint continues!
To find out more about how you can support the people of Flint check out: https://www.facebook.com/FlintRising/ @FlintRising & tinyurl.com/flintfirst