Ian Haney López, Sabrina Smith, Troy Jackson, Ifeoma Ike, Gerald Lenoir, Olivia Araiza

Strategic Narrative and Practices for Belonging

By: John Paraskevopoulos

The speakers on the Strategic Narratives panel focused their discussion on strategies and frames for advancing a strategic narrative capable of mobilizing actors around issues of racial justice and inclusivity in the United States. Berkeley Professor Ian Haney López started off by noting the difference between narrative and branding, and describing the current fissure in the Left between the “class” left and the “equality” left, whose narratives have become mutually exclusive. Professor López suggested that the new progressive narrative must bridge its “class” and “equality” rift and avoid negative frames, opting instead for a more positive vision: demanding that government help everyone, that we should view undue concentrations of wealth and power as opportunities for emancipation, and that trust in each other should be prioritized.

 Ifeoma Ike, an organizer from Brooklyn, spoke about the need not to rush aligning movements, at the risk of fracturing extant efforts and groups, and not trying to help marginalized communities, but work with them. Similarly, Ifeoma described the need to work with white Americans and groups, and not to think that white America is intellectually unable to contribute to a progressive movement.

 On a similar note, Troy Jackson, an organizer and pastor from Ohio, spoke about building empathetic bridges in faith communities where politics and race are often avoided as subjects of discussion. He noted that the very large constituency of evangelical groups in middle America are often written off as politically and socially conservative, and thus excluded from progressive organizing efforts and left outside of strategic visions and narratives as stakeholders.

 Sabrina Smith, a California-based organizer, described the results of her group’s use of social-values polling in organizing and framing policy agendas and ballot proposals, which have shown for her that the vast majority of Californians want to be left out of other people’s problems and feel that government should simply be efficient, not expansive or inclusive. Smith highlighted the need to locate openings in this middle constituency, and in framing progressive agendas and strategic narratives such that they lead with values and remain aspirational.

 Together, the speakers all touched on the importance of using aspirational values and frames to unite constituencies, on the importance of connecting government to people’s lives, and on the need to work with differing constituencies, including segments of white Americans experiencing the racial and economic anxieties that fueled Trump’s election, in order to construct a meaningful strategic narrative for today’s progressive movement.

 Two memorable questions included one about how social justice is often funded on a charitable basis, and a provocative question about whether or not we can incorporate lessons from the last 10,000 years of human civilization into a strategic narrative about the next 10,000. Troy Jackson responded to the question about charity by referencing the parable of the Good Samaritan. He ceded that the good Samaritan is great, but why is the road to Jericho so dangerous? In other words, charity is wonderful, but our society needs structural reforms—good Samaritans and charity are only temporary redress for deeper-seated problems.


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