Good communication helps the public better understand how our systems create vulnerabilities and what we can do, collectively, to address them

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously observed that the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice. Today, 50 years after his death, advocates are recognizing that to accelerate its curve, their stories must angle toward the institutions, systems, and structures they seek to change.

Recent resources and research offer fresh takes on this guidance and new evidence that justifies efforts to rethink advocacy’s narrative repertoire.

The Communications Network invited FrameWorks founder Susan Nall Bales to lay out The Case for Explanatory Stories in a special issue of Change Agent on the art of storytelling. Bales notes that our culture’s default narrative arc bends toward little-picture understandings of problems and solutions, hindering rather than advancing big-picture changes.

That’s why it’s a framing mistake to focus a story’s conflict on individuals, whether bad actors or those in harm’s way. Instead, in a social justice narrative, “complications in the plot come not from deficiencies of character in either the hero or the villain but from structures and systems that are not being maintained or continue to embed and reproduce historic injustice.”

The moral of the story, in this alternative narrative structure, is this: When we fulfill our shared duty to act, we have a meaningful impact.

In the years since these ideas originated in the social sciences, FrameWorks has extended them to be more useful and applicable to mission-driven communications. In recent research, FrameWorks compared the effects of “portrait” stories of individuals’ harmful experiences with “panorama” stories that show the social contexts that cause harmful experiences. Across two disparate issues (elder abuse and lack of access to oral health care) the implications were the same: To build demand for collective responses to social problems, stories need social context.

What do these systems-oriented narratives look like in practice? One of our favorite examples is this new explainer video about elder abuse. It moves away from the field’s traditional storyline about abusers and victims and, instead, places an older person in a social context. Zooming out helps the public better understand how our systems create vulnerabilities and what we can do, collectively, to address them.

Have you seen, or created, a social change story that embodies these ideas? Share it with us on Twitter or LinkedIn. If the story draws on our framing research, we’d like to hear about it–and perhaps hang it in our Hall of Frames! To learn more about telling systems stories, enroll in Wide Angle Lens, our free online course.

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