How to invest in narrative competency and combat toxic polarisation

 

Julia Roig and Melanie Greenberg

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In part one of this series, we argued for why philanthropy should invest in narrative competency to help combat toxic polarisation. Here, we offer some recommendations for how. Let’s be audacious!

By using a cultural lens for programming, philanthropy can help overcome the oversimplification of narrative and identity arising out of deep polarisation and can help sustain curiosity about the ‘other.’

Distinguish narrative engagement from strategic communications: ‘Narratives’ is a term ubiquitous in the social change industry. Narrative competency is more than improved storytelling or strategic communications; rather, it is a mindset shift and a disciplined practice to embed within the philanthropic ecosystem. Philanthropy should make use of narrative analysis tools to continually interrogate how we and others are making sense of the issues we care about to inform programming, partnership strategies, and efforts to build power and culture change.

Commit to a learning agenda and make use of academic partnerships. Social scientists are conducting important research on how change happens. However, this research can be inaccessible at a time when practitioners would benefit greatly from deep dives into science, and new frameworks for understanding narratives and social change. Foundations can help link activists and practitioners with academics, to support the dissemination of narrative research.

Reflective practice. Foundation staff, partners and grantees must take time to reflect on our narrative environments, and stay curious about how we and others perceive our issues. For example, why are transphobic stories of high school athletes gaining so much traction in the public sphere in the US right now?When we feel overwhelmed, fearful or outraged, individualism and sectarianism emerge more strongly, and we lose the curiosity needed to engage in complex, divisive issues. Building narrative power can help support communities long in the struggle, reinforcing collective identity, and reducing inflammatory division.

By using a cultural lens for programming, philanthropy can help overcome the oversimplification of narrative and identity arising out of deep polarisation and can help sustain curiosity about the ‘other.’

Trauma informed narrative engagement. Trauma-informed narrative is essential in the face of violent rhetoric flooding the public sphere. Marginalised communities face ongoing discrimination and threats of physical harm, contributing to their lived experience of collective trauma over generations. In using narrative tools, we should not only build restorative practices, but also ensure that we ‘do no harm.’

Narrative competency in conflict settings isn’t about bridge building. Because the narrative of polarisation can become a self-fulfilling story unto itself, it is important to understand that we actually agree on much more than we think we do. And yet, because we experience this polarisation in all aspects of our life, we seem to be experiencing a great ‘sorting’ culturally, both in our beliefs and our politics. Foundations can fund programs that build broader constituencies that center re-establishing relationships and trust first. Then we can begin to confront the complex, systemic changes and a new basis for dreaming together about what’s possible.

Organisational strengthening support for individual grantees and networks should include narrative competency as a key aspect of OD and movement-building support for social justice. Local coaching networks and peer learning cohorts are particularly good for reflective practice and to support behavioral change.

Collaborate with the artistic community and culture-effecting partnerships. Once we define a narrative strategy that is shared by our networks of networks, how do we penetrate a crowded marketplace of ideas? Through the arts!

These are but a few of the strategies that philanthropies can use to seed strong narrative competency during an era of deep division. It is time to be bold, and to work across geographical and sectoral borders to bring wisdom to these complex cultural, political and narrative challenges.

This is part 2 in a series on investing in narrative competency. Read part 1.

Julia Roig is the President of Partners Global, an international non-profit dedicated to democracy and peacebuilding, and Melanie Greenberg is the Managing Director for Peacebuilding at Humanity United and has spent her career supporting the peacebuilding field.


Comments (1)

Ina Breuer

I just love this! “ By using a cultural lens for programming, philanthropy can help overcome the oversimplification of narrative and identity arising out of deep polarisation and can help sustain curiosity about the ‘other.’” You are so right on.....got to keep on being curious about everything. And yes look beyond oversimplification.......Ina


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