Narrative practice: transitioning from recipes to herbs

Narrative practice: transitioning from recipes to herbs

“It didn’t just change me as a person, it also changed [our organization]† – Gerardo

“If we believe that the world can be different, then we must also believe that our strategies can be different.” – Sofia

These words from two participants in the Narrative Hub, an experimental initiative of JustLabs and the Fund for Global Human Rights, form the invitation at the heart of our recent publication Narrative Spices: An invitational guide for flavorful human rights. Achieving ‘narrative change’ in the world, we argue, is not just a matter of defining better narrative recipes, but of nurturing the creativity and reflection of the chefs themselves.

What are narratives and what do they have to do with human rights?

One way of thinking about stories is in terms of how a story is told. In the world of human rights, this means thinking about how the story of human rights and social change is told – or rather, how such work is received and understood by people.

We live in a world where leaders consistently manipulate values ​​and emotions to turn communities against movements, policies and people striving for greater compassion, care and justice. In this context, the vocabularies of “stories” and “narrative change” have become a touchpoint for many practitioners who want to rethink how they work in an effort to transform the relationship communities around the world have with human rights, justice, and social change.

How do we change stories?

This is exactly the question our “guide” wants to ask!

Conversations about ‘changing the story’ as a tactic or practice often focus on defining new stories around which communication and outreach can be shaped (changing the literal stories we tell and how we tell them).

The Narrative Hub, on the other hand, started with the idea that “what you do (not just what you say) is the story”. The initiative brought together financiers and human rights organizations from around the world to conduct creative experiments that would bring new stories to life.

Hear from the Narrative Hub teams!

One of the most important things we have learned, however, is how easy it is for the purpose of “changing stories” to obscure (particularly for funders and counselors) the important personal and team growth that allows practitioners to be more creative, dynamic and authentic in inviting change. Changing stories is work as complex and formulaic as changing people. In the rush to adapt to the way stories are weaponized against rights, we often hunt for better recipes – forgetting that the best food comes from creative, passionate and inspired chefs.

The Spice Box

This is where the idea of ​​”spices” comes in. By talking about spices (a brilliant metaphor from our colleague, Arpitha Kodiveri) we hope to resist the idea that there is one right way to change stories. Instead, our ‘invitation guide’ asks you to think about, play with, and mix with the flavors you usually use in human rights work – and explore habits that enable curiosity, exploration and growth. It invites us all to ask: What’s in my social change spice box?

We offer six herbal blends as a starting point (mixed from lessons and examples from the teams we’ve supported, along with ideas, wisdom and research that inspired us on our journey):

  1. Problem spaces – Changing way of thinking about change

  2. Creativity – A mindset and a habit

  3. Vision and Imagination – Exploring the dreams of your movements

  4. Hope, Values, Emotions – Moving People and Modeling Change

  5. Experiences & Relationships – Creating New, Unexpected Soil

  6. People – Who is it with, who is it for?

For activists and practitioners, this is a call to play, experiment and reflection. You are the cooks! What herbs do you currently use in your practice? What new blends could you discover?

For narrative practitioners, capacity builders and financiers, this is a challenge to think about your own theory of change. How often do you find yourself outside the kitchen asking for ‘new recipes’? How often do you invest in supporting the chefs to embrace their own culinary creativity and imagination?

Lessons for financing and guidance

Supporting Narrative Change may not always resemble narrative work. Some of the Narrative Hub’s most inspiring lessons came from small shifts in the teams’ practices. Supporting a lengthy search for an artistic partner or experimenting with hosting upcycling workshops in the community may not have “moved the needle” in the public mind for our teams, but they were hugely important learning experiences that helped teams rely on by exploring their own creativity and thinking more extensively about how they work.

We need humility, flexibility and relationality in funding and guidance. Our mentoring process changed when we let go of the pressure to “change the story” and instead started focusing on the journeys the people we worked with took – how they grew and challenged themselves, and what they needed to keep going. by means of.

Reflecting on the process, the practitioners we supported consistently identified how unusual it was for them to have so much space to explore. We need more funding structures that are flexible and responsive, not just where the money goes, but what is expected. We need structures that embrace risk-taking, view personal growth and learning as meaningful outcomes, and provide the space and support for practitioners to bring their whole, healthy selves into their work.

The same can be said of narrative trainers and capacity builders. We need to find ways to disrupt the dynamics of one-way consulting and bring more relationality between the people who share their technical knowledge and the people who do the messy work of understanding those ideas in context.

We need more funding structures that are flexible and responsive – not just where the funds are going, but what they’re expected to achieve.

Scaling learning processes† We could also start thinking about ‘scalability’, not in terms of solutions (for example: narrative recipes) or even specific skills (for example: audience research), but in terms of learning processes. Learning processes in which funders and capacity builders take the time to get to know and work with the specific people they are trying to support really co-create a meaningful process of growth and exploration.

Stories have to change. But where does that change begin? The invitation at the heart of Narrative Spices is not about specific strategies or approaches, but about cultivating habits that enable curiosity, exploration and growth. As Gerardo, one of the Narrative Hub participants put it, “To survive, to grow and to evolve, you need to know how to adapt, and knowing how to adapt means keeping your mind open to change.”

So take a look at our spice box. Then take a look at yours. Invite yourself to play. Invite yourself to look within and change. That’s where the stories will come from. In this way we get tastier human rights.

Read the full guide here

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