Narratives and stories are powerful. They shape how we see the world, how we make decisions, how we treat people.
They tell us what’s possible.
“Narratives are about invisible power: how perceptions, belief systems, and ideology shape the way people define what is ‘right’ and what is ‘wrong.’ The power to determine what is ‘right’ and what is ‘wrong’ is essentially the power to decide who lives and who dies. It’s the power to determine who can access things, who cannot, and whose voice counts.”
– South African, Black, queer, feminist, internationalist Phumi Mtetwa
BROKE is an opportunity for each of us to examine the stories we tell about poverty and wealth, and to work together to build new narratives rooted in the wisdom of lived experience, narrative power, organizing for economic justice, and social science. The insights from BROKE help us understand where and how we can grow and transform as a community of activists, communicators, storytellers, and strategists dedicated to building a free and just world in which all people can live authentic lives with dignity.
BROKE equips social change makers to communicate accurately, authentically, and justly about how the rich got rich and the poor stay poor. We believe this is a powerful intervention toward economic justice for all people.
The nonprofit and philanthropic sectors have embraced storytelling and narrative shift as part of our efforts to address systemic problems, including poverty. A narrative shift means that we’re telling different stories about why people are poor—moving from stories in which people are rich or poor because of their hard work and character to stories that show that both are the result of systems.
Although there are many organizations advancing liberatory narratives, other well-intentioned organizations invoke harmful tropes as a way of demonstrating their organizational effectiveness. Stories of individual triumph or success crowd out stories that help people see the ways systems are designed to privilege the few over the many. As a result, we come up with the wrong solutions.
What We Found
We examined the narratives produced across media, politics, and the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors. We found that in politics and media, there are three pervasive, harmful, inaccurate narratives about poverty and wealth:
- Narratives about poverty and wealth frame individual actions as the cause of poverty and wealth. These stories suggest that people are poor because they are mentally ill, they have some sort of deficit, they don’t want to work, or they are trying to defraud services provided by the government. These stories focus on individual decisions and experiences, rather than systemic forces.
- Narratives define poor people by a single aspect of their lives connected to their economic positions, and what is lost is the complete and nuanced view of poor people as whole people. Their humanity is erased, and they are defined solely by struggle.
- Poverty is assumed as an inevitable fact and a byproduct of society, while wealth is a result of individual hard work and ingenuity.
To counter these harmful narratives, some nonprofits and foundations tell stories in which poor people are shown as in need of saving—while those who make their way out of poverty are constructed as exceptional individuals who “make it” through sheer perseverance and grit. These stories reinforce the meritocratic narrative that if someone wants to “move up” badly enough, they can. They also overlook long-established systems created to disadvantage some over others; absolve the state and the wealthy of acknowledging and repairing the damage they’ve done; and position nonprofit and philanthropic organizations as the answer to poverty through training services, charity, and self-improvement programs.
We also found that organizations are telling stories about themselves, and how they successfully lift people out of poverty through services or advocacy. These stories are used to build credibility for the organization and demonstrate their relevance as a resource for ending poverty. Organizations are competing against one another for dollars, voice, and prominence. These stories are intended to paint poor people as entrepreneurial and exceptional, but they reinforce existing neoliberal and meritocratic narratives about poor people that:
- Emphasize individual actions as both the source of the problem and the solution to poverty.
- Narrowly define and celebrate poor people when they move out of poverty and into the middle class, and limit our ability to imagine an alternative system to capitalism.
- Do not critically interrogate the systems that have created these conditions.
9 Principles to Build Narratives for Economic Justice & Liberation
We identified nine principles for generating and telling stories that can shift how we communicate about poverty and wealth:
- Tell compelling stories by applying the Science Of Story Building. Stories should include:
- A narrative arc, with characters, setting, conflict, and resolution.
- Intentionally evoked emotions to capture attention and move us to action.
- An element of surprise, with twists and turns that keep us on the edge of our seat.
- Characters we like and identify with, as well as vivid imagery; these elements aid in narrative transportation.
- Empty spaces in the story for the audience to insert their experience, as well as full spaces with rich details to overcome existing assumptions and stereotypes.
- Awareness of the harmful, pervasive narratives about poverty and wealth.
- Intentionality around the plots, emotions, and characters being featured, to avoid reinforcing harmful, pervasive narratives.
- Willingness to work with communities to tell their stories so they are more authentic and effective to their audiences.
- Do a narrative power analysis.
According to the Center for Story-Based Strategy, a narrative analysis of power is “a systematic line of inquiry for examining the stories that abet the powers that be in order to better challenge them.” Narrative power analysis gives us the tools not to reverse-engineer narratives—given that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” (Audre Lorde)—but to expose the genealogy and mechanics of entrenched oppressive stories in order to de-platform them.
A narrative analysis of power encourages us to ask: Which stories define cultural norms? Where did these stories come from? Whose stories were ignored or erased to create these norms? And most urgently, what new stories can we tell to help create the world we desire?
- Tell stories about individuals navigating systems and engaging in collective action to disrupt power.
Transforming the narrative environment means sharing stories that reveal systems as the root cause of poverty over and over again. Characters in these stories face conflicts that are the result of racialized capitalism, neoliberal mythology, and systematic oppression, all of which make upward mobility nearly impossible. These stories should show individuals navigating these systems, because complex systems are best illustrated through the stories of those experiencing them. Solutions and ideal change scenarios should feature the collective action of poor, working-class people and their allies to transform systems and corporations that are designed to keep people in poverty.
Action Center on Race and the Economy (ACRE) tells stories that focus on disrupting power by specifically naming the way that corporations perpetuate poverty by hoarding profits. For ACRE, the root cause is always present in the narrative, and the organization explicitly focuses on the way corporations hoard profits and extract resources from the poor. This flips the narratives we usually hear on their head; instead of examining the way the poor behave, we are made aware of the way the wealthy take.
- Problematize current narratives.
Building powerful counter-narratives is not just telling different stories, but concurrently problematizing the dominant narratives that many of us might simply believe as “conventional wisdom” because they are so prevalent in our cultural waters. In other words, problematizing a narrative involves taking something that might seem to be true to show that it, too, is a story that has been constructed; it isn’t necessarily true, or the only truth.
Organizations employed the narrative of essential workers that became commonplace during the pandemic to get stimulus payments from the state of Vermont for immigrant families who were not eligible for federal stimulus payments. By using the phrase Essential, but excluded or Essential, but disposable, they problematized the idea that people could be called essential but not cared for by social safety-net programs.
- Use justice frames in storytelling.
Stories that use a justice framework go directly to the root: They define the problem of poverty as the result of actions by powerful corporations or decision-makers; this framing is a markedly different solution from charity. In this frame, the solution is collective action by communities and their allies to transform the systems that allow corporations to pay low wages and require inhumane working conditions, all while hoarding profits. This lens takes the focus off of individuals, which brings the problem and solution to the structural level.
The Coalition of Immokalee Workers starts from an orientation that working conditions and low wages across the industry are fundamentally unjust. This framing forms the root of their storytelling strategy. For example, in the context of COVID-19, workers who did not receive paid time off were not able to stay at home when they were sick; they simply could not afford to lose any income. When workers came to work despite being sick, it affected their whole community. COVID underscores that corporations focusing on profit above all else leads not only to working conditions that are fundamentally unjust, but in this case, illness that impacts the whole community.
- Build the capacity of communities to share stories.
Organizations can support people with lived experiences to share their stories in ways that are ethical, human-centered, and considerate of the impact that telling one’s story can have. This can look like:
- Inviting people to share their story in the way they want. For example, Invisible People curates and collects stories from individuals experiencing houselessness and shares them on YouTube unedited. Rather than directing people to talk about a specific experience, Invisible People invites the storyteller to share aspects of their experience that are important to them. They ask open-ended questions and let the storyteller go where they would like.
- Making sure people own the rights to their stories. When collecting stories, Invisible People makes sure the storyteller has control over their story. The storyteller is informed about how the story will be shared and has the right to request that it not be shared at any time.
- Building repositories of stories, which can be used for campaigns, in media, to educate target audiences, etc. One of the key purposes of this practice is to prevent the storyteller from being overburdened with requests for their stories.
- Support people in telling their stories, such as by building a cohort of storytellers. This can create a supportive space to build community with people who have had similar experiences.
- Support people in telling their stories by providing media/press trainings.
- Supporting people to analyze their circumstances through a structural lens, which informs the way they ultimately share their stories as activists. Migrant Justice does this through the tool of popular education.
- Use visual images and language to engage communities.
When we use terms like poverty, social determinants, systems, capitalism, and racism with people who may not be familiar with what these terms mean or look like outside of a textbook, we leave a lot of space for people to insert what they think we mean. Using visual language instead is particularly important when we are trying to build relationships and knowledge with audiences who are not familiar with how systems shape our lives.
So show rather than tell. Many of the organizations we interviewed were intentional about being inclusive and accessible with the language they used, employing visual language that paints a picture of what inhumane conditions and systems of inequality look and feel like. For example, to build support for farmworkers and their campaigns, Migrant Justice shares stories that illustrate the conditions workers are working and living in, avoiding potentially inaccessible language like oppression, injustice, and inequity, in favor of showing what it means to live without water, heat, internet, or phone.
- Be intentional with the language you use.
We found that the organizations we interviewed typically do not use the terms poverty and wealth. Instead, they talk about the poor, working class, corporate hoarding, and material conditions.
For example, organizations that grounded their work in the view that poverty is a result of a set of policies and decisions that keep the poor poor and the rich even richer use language that emphasizes the role of exploitative and inhumane systems. For example, Action Center on Race and the Economy (ACRE) uses action words that convey how the poor are made poor: Their labor is exploited, their resources are extracted, and they are trapped in debt through extractive practices. They have similar active words for how the wealthy get wealthier: They hoard their wealth, they accumulate resources, etc.
- Amplify stories–ethically.
To effectively change the conditions that help the rich get richer and the poor stay poor, we have to amplify stories from communities whose stories do not often get heard—stories that illustrate systems at work and call all of us into collective action. To do this, communities must lead the way in storytelling. However, these communities need to be treated with respect and dignity during that process. As communications practitioners, we need to make sure that we:
- Don’t exploit or retraumatize storytellers
- Don’t define storytellers solely by a particular experience
- Don’t expose storytellers to targeted violence from the opposition
- Provide storytellers with full information about the emotional and financial toll sharing their story may have, so they can make an informed decision about whether and how to share their story
Define American, a culture-change organization, provides recommendations for doing this work that we think should be standardized across the philanthropic sector. They suggested asking the following questions:
- Is now a good time to share your story?
- How have you been since we last connected?
- What do you feel comfortable sharing now?
- Have you shared your/this story before?
Define American also shared standards that we think all advocacy organizations should adopt:
- We will offer a scope of work, compensation, and a timeline for involvement, and ask if it feels in line with your expectations.
- We will design ways of seeking feedback and suggestions for nurturing storytellers’ mental health and well-being within our work.
- We will hold others we work with, particularly in the media, accountable for honoring your contributions.
- For pronouncing and spelling your names correctly
- For honoring your gender identity and pronouns
- For being forthcoming and transparent about when conversations are “on the record” or “off the record”
- For including you in the decision-making process around your stories
- When possible, sending you a draft of the story write-up before it publishes or being open to edits after a story has published if you, as the storyteller, feel uneasy about story details
- For following up with a link to a written/recorded story once it is published
- For simply thanking a storyteller for their time and vulnerability when sharing their story
Beyond BROKE: What to Do Next
We are calling on our community of activists and communicators at nonprofits, charities, and foundations to tell more accurate and liberatory stories about poverty and wealth. To reject propaganda that promotes assimilation into the middle class by way of meritocracy. To reject saviorship and embrace collectivism and collaboration. And to place blame and accountability where they belong—on the state, bad-faith policymakers, and corporations.
Use these worksheets as you tell stories or work with communities to share their stories. Our approach to storytelling takes practice. You will be working against the habits of an entire sector.
Share this work with your colleagues and friends. If we can all tell stories from this shared understanding, together we can transform culture and systems to create a world in which everyone’s needs are met—and where new stories are grounded in truth, liberation, and transformation.