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Q and A: Metropolitan Group, Center for Story-Based Strategy discuss collaboration to co-create new narrative framework

Environment, Health

Breanna Edwards

Breanna Edwards

Through a dynamic collaboration with The Kresge Foundation, the Metropolitan Group and Center for Story-Based Strategy are working together with Climate Change, Health & Equity initiative grantees and partners to co-create a new narrative framework that centers racial and social justice in climate change and health messaging.

Earlier this fall, Breanna Edwards, communications officer at the Institute for Sustainable Communities, the National Program Office for the initiative, interviewed Rob Sassor, vice president and Washington, D.C. office lead at Met Group and Nadia Khastagir, program manager at CSS, about their work with grantees, the successes and wins so far, and some of the difficulties that occur when working to change minds.

*This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

ISC: You’ve been providing technical assistance support to CCHE grantees for more than a year. Why is strategic communications and narrative strategy so important when it comes to advancing work at the intersection of climate change, health, and equity?

Met Group: When we look at where money flows in climate solutions, it often flows in directions that reinforce the status quo. Where we need to get to on climate change is to a place where communities are deferred to and respected to manage the resources and help drive the solutions that are right for where they live. That requires inspiring decision-makers across the political spectrum to understand how structural racism has predisposed some communities to climate hazards and to invest in the solutions that communities co-create to resolve them.

CSS:  The Right and the dominant culture really try to suppress our political imagination. If we understand how the dominant, status quo stories operate: how they move, how they’re constructed, and the power in those stories—and if we get disciplined on the audiences we’re reaching—then we can start building our own stories and getting creative on where we want to start intervening in those dominant stories and shift hearts and minds. 2020 shone a light on all the intersections of climate devastation, racism and health inequities. What we’re trying to do is support those who are most left out of those narratives so that those who are most impacted are telling the stories and offering the solutions for what’s best for their communities.

ISC: What is the important role story-based strategy plays in advancing climate-resilience policies that improve health outcomes?

CSS: There is a difference in how we think about our targets, usually of lawmakers and decision-makers who are helping to advance our goals, and our audiences with whom we aim to make narrative shifts, and who can exert pressure on our targets. It’s really easy to say “we are going to go to city hall and have a press conference” and go talk to the legislators, which is important, but there are so many other ways that we can start shifting how people think about the issue of climate change. What are those deep, underlying assumptions and beliefs, and where are the places we can reach people outside of city hall? This is where we need to think of new types of actions to move people.

Met Group: One of the areas that has seen the most progress is clean energy, where there was intentional effort that went into shifting the narrative. The clean energy narrative was “the world is getting warmer, we have to do something about it.” It wasn’t until the climate narrative shifted to one that was focused on global competition and how we were losing innovations to countries like China, that all of a sudden it created a different context for a conversation about clean energy. It’s as a result of that narrative shift that we have seen at the local, state and federal levels support not only from the traditional progressive champions but also from conservative ones. Now we’re at this place where we’ve seen that progress, we need to look at ways that we’re shifting the climate narrative writ large, so that not only are we getting more champions on board with climate solutions but that we’re also doing so in a way that helps them advance the kinds of solutions that are in our collective benefit.

ISC: You have been tackling messaging and co-creating new narratives with grantees, which is so important in this political climate. Talk through the process for how good messages and strong narratives are developed.

Met Group: It’s really hard to get somebody to care about something new. If what you’re trying to do is build will, whether it’s political will or public will, the very first step that you need to take is to understand the deep underlying values drivers of your audience. We study those values drivers, study how there are already examples of what we are proposing to advance, and then help create the links between the kind of change that we want to see in the world and the things that they already care about. The narrative is not about, “this is really important, and here’s why you should care.” The narrative is about “this is what you already wake up in the morning trying to achieve. We can help you do that. And here’s how.”

ISC: What challenges or conflicts have you found most often in your work to shift narratives?

Met Group: Once there is a new narrative it can be difficult to get our audiences to experience us in new ways. The first step is advocates showing up in the conversations in new ways, but the second piece is getting your audience to experience and expect you to show up in new ways. And that can take time.

ISC: What role does The Center for Story-Based Strategy play in helping to shift harmful narratives and create new ones?

CSS: The way that we offer our trainings and sessions is by participatory and democratic practices. We offer those tools for the CCHE grantees to be able to take back to their partners and their groups at home, to be able to continue to do these participatory processes and start building narrative muscle and power in their constituencies to shape those narratives. Usually, participants are working on a very particular goal, and we help them with setting those foundations through understanding narrative power and opening up creative and imaginative spaces. We have a dearth of political imagination right now. We really need those kinds of spaces where we can open up new possibilities to continue to support the advocacy that folks are doing and be able to reach new audiences.

ISC: Several CCHE grantees are advocating for climate change policy, funding, and solutions within more conservative contexts. What specific strategies do you think help elevate strong narratives in places where false narratives or misconceptions about climate change are so ingrained.

Met Group: Certainly there are misconceptions, but for a lot of policymakers, I don’t always buy that they believe what they’re saying. It’s not just a narrative thing. The real challenge that we face as a nation is that we have elected officials who are not showing up at work intending to represent the best interests of our communities. How do we as community advocates inspire them to take the kinds of bold actions that we need and deserve? How do we influence elected officials is a different question than what’s the right message. Right now we’re just focused on what’s the right message. But Kresge and grantees will also need to wrestle with the ‘how’ piece of delivering the message.

CSS: We talk about a narrative power analysis, and that’s one of the first steps. Once you know what your goals are and who your target audience is, you can start analyzing how narrative power is moving and how those dominant stories are moving through mainstream culture and through news media. We need to understand what are the assumptions that they hold in terms of those dominant stories. Once we understand what those assumptions are, we can start to challenge those by counteracting with our assumptions, our deep beliefs, and lifting up those assumptions about equity. We’re actually inviting those new audiences to join us and build people power. Those are the strategies that we believe in for counteracting the conservative control method. It’s really about making stories that are meaningful for folks.

ISC: What’s next for this work and the process?

Met Group: We’ll be rolling out the tested narrative in early 2022. And then there will be some technical assistance that is paired with that to help support people making sense of and applying that messaging to their work. These documents are always meant to be living documents. There are grantees who are routinely invited to provide testimony at state legislatures and before Congress and elsewhere. This is meant to be a guide that can help them prepare for their testimony. We have grantees who are routinely meeting with state legislators and mayors, specifically to advance particular policies. This is meant to help them prepare for those meetings. We’ve been doing a grassroots approach to narrative building that honors the narratives that are already taking place and weaves them together in a way so that grassroots advocates are a part of an echo chamber. So that what legislators hear from one group is reinforced by what they’re hearing from a health institution, is reinforced what they’re hearing from their governor.

CSS: We really hope that our work instills more hope and inspiration for folks because that’s what’s needed also. What are the solutions that we’re offering and how do we actually communicate those solutions to inspire others? We’re also hoping that we’ve provided some tips on how to bring back these tools to their groups and that they will be able to do those kinds of processes doing narrative analyses: identifying the elements of story, brainstorming new places to intervene in the stories, and new places to reach new audiences. It’s one of those things where once you see it, you can’t unsee it. So once you start analyzing media pieces or advertisements or anything that is status quo then you start to say, “Look how they cast those characters, look at the imagery they’re using.” You start to understand more about the stories that are out there, and how it becomes meaningful for people.