Social change leaders must challenge negative narratives that interfere with their goals. But driving narrative change can be a challenge for many organizations. UnidosUS found a unique way to fight divisive narratives by bringing people together to break bread.
Clarissa Martinez doesn’t consider herself a narrative change expert, but she’s learned a lot about the power of cultural narratives on the frontlines of civil rights and immigration battles.
She’s worked as a labor organizer, public policy analyst, and now as Deputy Vice President at UnidosUS (formerly National Council of La Raza), the largest Latino civil rights and advocacy organization in the US. She’s seen how negative narratives about Latinos and immigrants distort perceptions about those communities.
“Toxic narratives about immigration are used to dehumanize immigrants and to paint Latinos as not belonging, even though eight out of ten Hispanics in America are United States citizens,” said Martinez. “These narratives breed dangerous misconceptions with very real consequences. They lead to abuse, like separating families.”
“They also lead to bad policies. For example, if people believe that Latinos are not citizens, when they see me at the polls they may also buy into false claims of voter fraud and policies making it harder for all eligible Americans to vote,” she said. “Ultimately, the impetus behind negative narratives is to incite distrust and prevent people from coming together to solve problems and hold our leaders accountable.”
While negative narratives about Latinos and immigrants didn’t appear out of thin air after the 2016 election, they have intensified in the current political climate.
“Unless you start dealing with the toxic soil upon which programs and policy proposals are made, it doesn’t matter how much good seed you lay down,” Martinez said. “It’s always going to struggle to grow.”
Martinez points to immigration reform as a perfect example. Over the last 20 years, there have been a number of moments where meaningful reform was within reach. Each time a broad coalition in favor of reform came together, and each time polling showed that Americans were generally if not overwhelmingly supportive. And yet, Martinez said, “each time we were unable to see legislation passed.”
A significant factor in that has been the toxic soil of negative narratives. Most pro-reform voices were focused on the merits of policy. But opponents focused on using negative narratives to stir anger and fear, spook legislators, and gain outsized influence to derail progress.
Despite the power of harmful narratives, for advocacy organizations already stretched to respond to immediate needs, adding it to the mix can seem like a daunting task. And giving narrative change actionable form can also seem elusive.
“The challenge is that we cannot stop doing our work, but we must also get better at understanding and changing those toxic narratives,” said Martinez.
Recipe for Unity
To that end, UnidosUS launched Rise Above, an initiative aimed at uplifting the ties that bind us, and inspire people to “rise above” racial, political and ideological divisions to foster collaboration.
UnidosUS worked with community organizations in its network who were concerned about the rise in divisive rhetoric and how it was fueling bullying and harassment. It then joined forces with The Opportunity Agenda and Lake Research Partners to get a sense of how that environment was affecting Americans’ views on diversity, design trainings to educate community leaders and, most importantly, answer a key question: How do you put that into action?
The research showed that 80 percent of those surveyed believe that diversity makes us stronger as a country, 84 percent were concerned about the negative tone of politics, and 81 percent believed that government has an important role to play in ensuring every American has equal opportunity.
“Honestly, given the environment we find ourselves in today, we were surprised by the findings,” she said. ”The fact that we were surprised was also telling—as the rest of America, we are being exposed to a barrage of negative stories about each other, and that starts shaping your perception of reality. We need to give a stronger voice to the more accurate and positive narrative of who we aspire to be as a country—an antidote to the fear-based toxicity.”
The Rise Above team partnered with a dozen local organizations to pilot ways to do that. That’s how Recipe for Unity emerged.
Conexion Americas in Tennessee organized the first iteration, a “Super United” community potluck bringing together Nashvillians from all walks of life to share a dish significant to them and the stories behind it. Participants loved it. “Not surprisingly, food is a perfect metaphor for diversity,” said Martinez.
Building on that success, UnidosUS partnered with organizations in five communities – Alexandria, VA, Durham, NC, Memphis, TN, Phoenix, AZ, Tampa, FL – to host similar events under the banner “Recipe for Unity.” In every meal, participants would end up talking about how very different dishes used familiar ingredients, how similar dishes had different names, and most of all, about family and shared values.
“We have gotten to know many of the dishes from other places because we live in such a diverse country. That’s what the U.S. is all about,” said Alexandria, VA dinner guest Liz Uria.
American Aspirations research also found that a majority of Americans agree. In a national survey, 80 percent of respondents said that diversity strengthens our country. Recipe for Unity participants are messengers for that narrative.
“Through our meal, we talked about how we deal with our differences and how those differences are beautiful, and how they make up the fabric of our communities,” said another Alexandria, VA guest.
Guests even took their message to the local media. Phoenix resident Mitch Moore told KJZZ that these types of interactions are the “crucial part of how our society is going to evolve.”
UnidosUS is working to take this initiative to more communities across the country. Organizations looking for opportunities to embed narrative change into their day to day work can take inspiration from Recipe for Unity. Even just a single event can have a big impact.
Authentic interactions among people of different backgrounds and perspectives — moments that enable people to recognize their shared humanity and come together with a sense of common purpose — lay the groundwork for cooperation and action to strengthen our communities and repair the fabric of our country.
Are you a leader of an organization who has taken on narrative change work? We want to hear from you! Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org to tell us your story.