For over 25 years, we’ve been working with organizers and leaders to develop and test tools and concepts that elevate the role of narrative in social change movements. The broad range of voices represented in the Shaping Narrative, Shifting Power interviews testify to the breadth of the changes we’ve seen. Instead of avoiding the realm of ideas, as organizers used to do, these leaders and their organizations are using narrative strategies to shake the foundations of neoliberal racialized capitalism. In this moment of rapid change, they give us a glimpse of what is possible.


Community Organizing a Generation Ago

These interviews reflect some of the sea changes we’ve seen in organizing over the last two decades. When the two of us started working together in 1994, we observed the same dynamics that Anthony Thigpenn, Dorian Warren, and Zach Norris identify in their interviews: many community organizers engaged in short-term, non-ideological organizing and advocacy work focused on immediate “wins.” Coalitions tended to be issue based and ad hoc. In an effort to avoid being divisive, organizers often avoided talking about race and gender. National advocacy groups, policy shops, and organizational development intermediaries proliferated but had tenuous relationships with a fragmented grassroots.

There were important exceptions to this picture. The period from the 1970s through the 1990s saw the growth of feminist and gay activism, immigrant organizing, and environmental justice groups that confronted environmental racism. These efforts achieved important cultural and political changes, but they grew outside of and in tension with community organizing.

What can be called modern community organizing has its roots in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when many national organizing networks and intermediaries were formed. The leadership of these organizations wanted to be practical, winning concrete changes for constituencies that were mostly engaged around immediate self-interests. In an intentional course correction from the movements of the 1960s, the new organizers rejected big theories like socialism and abstractions like racism or capitalism, which they thought most people couldn’t relate to and which got in the way of winning concrete reforms. There was an implicit theory of change: if we win this reform, with this group of people, they will gain confidence as well as organizational and political savvy, which we can build on to win more and bigger things. It was a plausible theory, but in retrospect, we would argue it didn’t work out.

Organizing centers and networks in this period were informed by the thinking of Saul Alinsky, who had honed the craft of organizing through his work organizing poor communities in Chicago beginning in the 1930s. Alinsky popularized his views on organizing in Rules for Radicals, published in 1971 as a rejoinder to the idealism of the New Left. 

Alinsky and his followers had many precepts for organizing, but we think three of them were particularly problematic:

  1. Power is organized people and organized money.

  2. Organizations have no permanent friends or permanent enemies. They only have permanent interests.

  3. Organizers leave their ideology at the door.

Alinsky’s thinking was influential for post-1960s community organizing networks such as Citizen Action, ACORN, National People’s Action, the Center for Community Change, the Industrial Areas Foundation, PICO, and Gamaliel. These organizations and their affiliates — as well as other unaffiliated groups — led important struggles at the state and local level and won huge gains for millions of people. They developed thousands of skilled organizers and grassroots leaders. But the emphasis on only taking on winnable fights was self-limiting. By shunning abstractions and skirting what they considered divisive issues, many community organizations failed to address broader structures of power, such as race, gender, and capitalism.

Meanwhile, as organizers on the left were rejecting long-term, transformative projects of social change, the right was doing the exact opposite. As early as 1971, corporate and conservative forces began aligning around an aggressive strategy to roll back working-class and civil rights gains and to expand corporate power. Lewis Powell’s notorious memorandum to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which Zach Norris refers to in his interview, offered a blueprint for building the ideas and infrastructure for right-wing dominance of political and cultural life. 

As neoliberalism gathered steam in the 1970s and consolidated power in the 1980s and 1990s, mainstream community organizations focused on winning battles. They were important battles, but community organizers lost sight of the larger picture: the war, if you will, for what kind of society we want.



The Reagan era propelled neoliberal ideas into power. By 1981, neoliberalism had become the hegemonic governing force and ideology in much of the West. In the United States, it drove the agenda of the Republican Party and, increasingly, the Democratic Party.

Within this context, internal dynamics began transforming community organizing:

  • Immigrant leaders challenged the limits of conventional organizing models. Many came out of revolutionary movements, where ideology was not a dirty word, and they didn’t accept the conventional boundaries of organizing in the U.S.

  • Racial justice organizers and leaders of color demanded that community organizing groups reckon with structural racism. Our movements grappled with the need for more Black leadership, which had been decimated by concerted attacks on the Black-led movements of the ’60s and ’70s, along with the combined effects of disinvestment, dislocation, and criminalization of Black communities.

  • Activists who focused on communications strategy challenged conventional message development. These pioneers included Charlotte Ryan, co-founder of the Media Research and Action Project, and Makani Themba, founder of the Praxis Project.

  • New leadership in organizing networks and labor unions shook things up, as a younger generation recognized gaps between narrow “wins” and newly formulated transformational goals.

  • Spaces emerged where organizers could engage with each other across networks, sectors, and organizations, such as the National Organizers Alliance. Organizers flocked to NOA meetings, where they could be self-critical in a supportive environment that opened the door to new ideas and aspirations.

  • Mobilizations against the WTO and the IMF at the end of the 1990s (most famously, the Battle in Seattle) radicalized many younger organizers who then moved into leadership positions within community organizations and labor unions.


Reintroducing Theory

Community and labor leaders faced mounting setbacks in the 1990s. President Clinton adopted neoliberal policy and talking points about welfare, crime, trade, and the need for leaner government. His administration succeeded in promoting what would have been a Republican agenda a decade earlier: passing NAFTA, expanding the War on Drugs and mass incarceration, dismantling welfare programs, and rolling back federal regulation of financial institutions. In the 1994 midterms, Newt Gingrich led Republicans to victory with his reactionary Contract with America, a brilliant public narrative that further popularized neoliberal ideology and policy. 

The time was ripe for reintroducing left theory. In 1993, Richard founded the Grassroots Policy Project as an experiment in bringing left theory into organizing practice. We wanted to help organizers connect their work with larger struggles around race, gender, and neoliberalism. We were drawn to the strategic thinking of Antonio Gramsci and Stuart Hall. Gramsci wrote his Prison Notebooks while jailed in Mussolini’s Italy. Much of Stuart Hall’s theorizing took place under the shadow of Margaret Thatcher’s Britain. Both developed conceptual frameworks to explain how a dominant class or party can use cultural and ideological power instead of (or alongside) naked forms of oppression — something that was vital for making sense of corporate capitalism in the 1990s.

One challenge was to find a language to talk with organizers about these ideas. In the academic world, one could talk about a “new counter-hegemonic ideology,” but that language did not play well with organizers. We hit upon “worldview,” which we defined as the arena of values, beliefs, norms, popular wisdom, and traditions in a particular society — an arena because it contains contradictory and contending ideas and values. Worldview was relevant to organizers because it was about power. Our first workshops explored the ways ideas about individualism, race, government, and the market created barriers to progressive reforms. We pointed out the limits of relying too heavily on facts. One of our favorite workshops was titled, “Frame or Get Framed,” which we borrowed from our friend and lead thinker in framing, Charlotte Ryan. We helped leaders identify the ways their messages might inadvertently reinforce the dominant worldview, especially when they talked about cutting costs or making programs more efficient. As we discussed in the workshops, we swim in an ocean of neoliberal ideas and values, and, like fish, we don’t necessarily realize that we are swimming in anything.

But we also began to see alternative values emerge. At the workshops on framing and messaging that we led in the late 1990s and early 2000s, grassroots activists from very different constituencies and parts of the country named similar progressive values and beliefs. Gramsci calls this “good sense,” as opposed to the “common sense” that most of us internalize from the dominant neoliberal worldview. By the mid-2000s, we were experimenting with ways to identify and promote progressive themes and values in the public conversation. A lot of this work took place in Minnesota, where our colleague Dave Mann developed interactive processes with organizers and grassroots leaders to create transformative public narratives grounded in their values, beliefs, and experiences.

Organizers wanted to win more system-level changes, so we started talking with them about power. Community organizations were doing important work with issue campaigns, but we wanted to incorporate Gramsci’s emphasis on ideology and “building power in civil society.” We adapted British social theorist Steven Lukes’s framework of the “three faces of power.” Lukes analyzed the power of the ruling elite, but we modified his framework to describe tools and strategies social movement groups could use. In brief, our version of the three faces is:

  1. Organizing people and resources for direct political involvement in visible decision-making arenas; this includes organizing people and organizing money

  2. Building durable, long-term political infrastructure: networks of organizations that are aligned around shared goals (this is as close as we get to “building power in civil society”)

  3. Making meaning on the terrain of worldview; this is our starting point for talking about ideology

While the first face of power was familiar territory for community organizers, the second and third faces barely registered at the time. Alinsky’s emphasis on “no permanent friends” made it hard for community organizers to use the second face. We suggested that progressive organizations needed permanent friends to build enough power to shape long-term political agendas. As for the third face of power, the demand for non-ideological organizing and the baked-in aversion to abstract ideas made worldview and ideology sound alien, or worse, intellectual. But many staff, leaders, and board members were intrigued. The power of neoliberalism was growing, and social movement organizations increasingly recognized that they needed new practices to beat it.


The Growing Importance of Narrative

In the early 2000s, as organizers began to focus on deeper problems in society, they started looking for ways to go deeper in their communications work. They began talking about the importance of values, not just fact sheets, about framing their messages, and, finally, about storytelling as a primary means of engaging people about ideas. Soon, stories were renamed with the more impressive sounding narrative. Over time, the meaning of narrative itself expanded to include far more than storytelling.

As Dorian Warren puts it in this issue: “Narrative strategy has become more central in the organizing world in the last decade.” As these interviews reveal, the word narrative encompasses a wide array of meaning: sharing personal stories, framing stories with heroes and villains, shaping public narratives, and defining shared metanarratives that undergird multi-organizational efforts and long-term agendas.

There is no one correct definition of narrative. Much like the term power, narrative has become what political scientists call an "essentially contested term." That seems appropriate, as it allows groups to experiment with what makes sense and works for them. The expanded meanings of narrative, as represented in these interviews, are related to the most fundamental shifts in organizing today.

  • Narrative is a form of power. Almost everyone described narrative as part of a multidimensional approach to power.

  • Issue campaigns can shift narrative; and narrative shifts can make it possible to win issue campaigns.

  • Narrative can be an organizing practice. This comes through in the interviews with Doran Schrantz and Andrea Dehlendorf: telling personal stories while lifting up core values and themes plays a central role in developing political consciousness and moving people into collective action.

  • Narrative provides a way to talk about race. Since the late 2000s, community organizers have increasingly recognized the centrality of race to neoliberal capitalism. Organizers today use narrative strategy both to engage individuals about the ways structures of power have shaped their own lives and to talk about race in the public sphere.

  • Narrative provides a way to talk about government. Most of the organizers interviewed in this issue discuss the need to reimagine the role of government. This has become a durable part of the overarching narrative among progressives and a critical one in the current moment, fueled by the wider recognition that we need government to address a massive public health crisis. Narratives can connect the abstraction of government to the concrete realities of people’s lives.

  • Narrative is a central part of long-term strategy. Anthony Thigpenn notes that the Million Voters Project’s current campaign to make a major shift in California’s property tax laws is part of a longer-term agenda. As they wage this campaign, MVP is thinking about the next set of reforms and planning for the sequence of reforms that could transform California over the next five-to-ten years. This grounded view of a long-term agenda informs the campaign’s communications strategy and is reflected in the name they chose for the campaign: “Schools and Communities First.

  • Narrative can build alignment. Collective work on narrative change is an integral part of building alignment across the movement. Working with allied organizations on shaping narratives guided by underlying values and beliefs helps build the trust and relationships necessary to move structural reforms together.

  • Narrative work is a way to confront neoliberal hegemony. Neoliberal policies and ideas have been enormously successful in shaping our worldview, daily life experiences, and identities as neoliberal subjects. Narrative work is critical to escape the confinement of these ideas and experiences.


The Current Moment: Narrative and Analysis

Several of the organizers interviewed here pointed out, in the words of Annie Leonard, that “narrative is not enough. We also need to have a shared underlying analysis.” Over the past few years, especially since the Great Recession that started in 2008, organizers have incorporated ideas about transformational change, structural reforms, and long-term agendas into their thinking (if not always their daily work). At times hesitantly and unevenly, the world of community organizing has begun taking on questions of neoliberalism, racial capitalism, and patriarchy.

All of this structural analysis puts a spotlight on the power of neoliberal ideology. 

Ideology has been a dirty word for more than half a century. In the United States, decades of anti-communism and McCarthyism stigmatized not just that word but anything that sounded like a challenge to U.S. capitalism. (The first time someone said the word “socialism” aloud in one of our workshops, there was a collective gasp.) 

Ideology used to be the domain of the left, and more precisely, of Marxism. In practice, ideology often meant a doctrinaire set of “correct” ideas, handed down from on high, that people were expected to adhere to. Indeed, narrative may be popular because it conveys a similar concept but remains safely distanced from ideology.

Given organizers’ acceptance of narrative work combined with their critical analysis of political and economic systems, we think it might be time to bring back and rethink ideology.


Let’s Talk About Ideology

Stuart Hall understood ideology as describing the ways in which people make sense of the world. Hall built on Gramsci’s thinking about “common sense” and “good sense.” Common sense denotes distorted ideas and values inculcated by capitalism and racism while good sense indicates alternative ideas and values derived from the experiences of solidarity and resistance to oppression. For Hall, ideology is generated from the bottom up — in the synthesis of people’s good sense with an analysis of capitalism, racism, and patriarchy.

Building on Hall’s approach, we define ideology as a coherent intervention in the arena of worldview, based on a synthesis of social analysis, values, and beliefs — the good sense of oppressed peoples. Ideology differs from narrative in at least three ways. First, ideology is intentionally developed with the goal of shifting understanding about society as a whole and propelling deep transformation while many narratives emerge organically or are created to sustain the status quo. Second, while narrative may or may not include analysis, ideology is grounded in analysis, an explicit theory about how the world works. Third, while there are many partial and contradictory individual narratives, ideology is comprehensive; when fully developed, it addresses all the structures and contradictions of a society and their interconnections.

Many organizations are already working on the terrain of ideology, but mostly in an ad hoc way. It is astonishing to see how much of the social movement world has some implicit or explicit analysis of capitalism, neoliberalism, racism, and patriarchy — all those concepts that were once thought to be too abstract, too far left, and too divisive. The kinds of narratives that organizations are putting out today about white supremacy, housing, climate justice, criminal justice and public safety, education, and taxation could be part of a larger ideology that analyzes the relationship of race and capitalism. To paraphrase an old play, people might be surprised and delighted to learn they have been doing ideology without even knowing it.

If people are doing ideology, in some sense, what more is needed? We believe the movement would benefit from more deliberate work to figure out what “ideological struggle” looks like. That doesn’t mean we have to use the word ideology. But here are three reasons to “do” ideology, whatever it is called.

  1. We can be explicit about the need for analysis. The movement needs leadership institutes for analysis and political education. Our successors at the Grassroots Policy Project run a strategy college. We would like to see this kind of work become an established part of most organizations. Narrative may or may not be about system change; ideology is.

  2. We can get better at using analysis in our work. How do organizations recruit and develop people, how do they knock doors (or, today, make phone calls), using an analysis of racial capitalism? That is hard work, work that cuts against the time constraints and urgency of most organizing. It is much easier not to worry about the underlying analysis and stick with a story. Being explicit about the need for ideology gives organizations a reason to do that hard work.

  3. Most people don’t think in terms of “the system.” People usually get involved in campaigns around specific issues, such as criminal justice or housing. Imagine if more of our campaigns were using narratives that shared a common underlying analysis. That is, the whole movement needs a common analysis and a repertoire of narratives that explain that analysis for specific issues. When people see how “the system” sits behind the issues they are facing around housing, then employment, then health care, then education… the system stops being an abstraction, a meaningless word. They can see themselves and the world around them in a new way. That is the work ideology can do for organizers.


Neoliberalism has produced one crisis after another. It can’t deliver on its promises; its political legitimacy is in tatters. Yet it staggers on, zombielike, around the world. Much of community organizing is now rising to the challenge of calling out this wretched, barbaric power structure and ideology. Organizers are proposing new ideas — big ideas, powerful ideas — about alternatives to this system. The new uses of narrative are one sign of community organizing’s intent to build a bigger “we,” a mass powerful enough to force deep and ongoing changes in our society.

The two of us are optimistic about the chances for structural transformation in our country, particularly after the mass movement that emerged three months ago. Powerful organizations and powerful movements, led by Black people and other people of color, are putting forward a comprehensive political agenda for Black lives, for a more radically inclusive democracy, and for a more solidaristic, sustainable, and caring economy. We are sure Gramsci too would be emphasizing “optimism of the will.”


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mjbrown246_1179July 28, 2020 - 10:53I was lucky enough to learn this in the late 1970's when I was an organizer with the Vermont Alliance, part of Citizen Action. I was door knocking and asking people about traffic on their street and we were into putting up "Watch Out for Children" signs, etc. We organizers also, had a plan to get these "local leaders" involved in our State-wide plans for bigger things: utility rate reform, tax reform, etc. But we did not go into this at the get to. We only asked about traffic and their "immediate issues." But when it came time to get them involved in the "bigger things," they were not interested. We had only come to them about traffic and traffic signs so they logically thought that was what our organization was all about! Duh! We got a lot of "Watch out for Children" signs but not much else. We did not talk about these "bigger things" at the get go. So we lost them. I tell this story in my book, Building Powerful Community Organizations, page 30 in a story: "People Won't Come Along if you Don't Tell them the Whole Story." It is a simpler version of the result of not including ideology, but I learned this lesson early on and after that always included learning and teaching in my organizing meetings, assuming that working class people without fancy degrees could understand "ideology" and we needed to include it in a way everyone can understand. It is not so complicated and goes along with our experience everyday.
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