6. 7. 2021

Storytelling for Power

Graeme Lamb

Narratives about narrative are ubiquitous in organizing spaces, and a lot of them are bullshit. So when, recently, I was speaking to some comrades who are tenant organizers in Montréal and the conversation turned to the political uses of storytelling, I hesitated. I wanted to push against a certain dismissal of storytelling we see on the left, which casts storytelling as an idealist distraction from the “real” work of organizing. But I didn’t want to parrot clichés about “the power of stories” that imply narratives have some magical ability to move people. The fact is, storytelling often is a waste of time and energy when it doesn’t take stock of how our society is structured by fundamental antagonisms: workers and the business owners who exploit them, for example, don’t have just divergent goals, but mutually incompatible material interests. If cringeworthy marketing campaigns like Bell Canada’s mental health awareness “conversation” Bell Let’s Talk have any merit, it’s in revealing with painful clarity that sharing compelling stories isn’t, in and of itself, a strategy for winning the systemic changes we urgently need.

But there are other ways to use stories and think about them. Narratives that connect our personal experience with our cause are foundational to organizing practices like volunteer recruitment or “deep canvassing,” where we go beyond identifying likely supporters and try instead to persuade the undecided. In the context of a meaningful political project that recognizes the oppressive relationships we have to reshape or overturn, storytelling is an effective tool we can use to help build the power we need.


Story, structure, strategy

When we ask someone to join us in tackling a shared challenge, we need to address both how and why they should take action. The how entails having and articulating a credible strategy for addressing that challenge. The why involves engaging with each other on the level of our values and motivations. That’s where storytelling comes into play. There are different approaches to the “craft” of storytelling; personally I’ve been trained in the public narrative model formulated by grassroots organizing theorist Marshall Ganz, which involves sharing stories that hone in on “pivotal moments” where, individually and collectively, we face challenges and need to act. For Ganz, realizing the political potential of storytelling depends on how it is practiced within a structured, strategic campaign. His approach to narrative was informed by decades of involvement in labour and social movement struggles. In his book Why David Sometime Wins: Leadership, Organization, and Strategy in the California Farm Worker Movement, Ganz investigates what allowed the organization that developed around legendary labour leader Cesar Chavez – initially the Farm Workers’ Association (FWA) – to succeed while competing organizing campaigns, developed by more traditional unions, failed.

Ganz identifies a few key factors in the FWA’s success – in particular, a diverse leadership team elected by its members. This structural accountability, along with regular open meetings where members participated in strategic decisions, gave them an intimate understanding of what symbols and institutions mattered to the constituency they sought to organize. “By blending narrative elements drawn from Mexican cultural traditions, Catholic social teaching, and the civil rights movement,” Ganz writes, “FWA leaders began to tell a story about their association that went well beyond an account of a community organization or union.” 

Such experiences informed how those workers took part in the Delano Grape Strike, initiated by the competing Agricultural Workers’ Organizing Committee (AWOC) in 1965. By holding weekly celebratory strike meetings, where farm workers shared their own stories from the picket line with their peers, the FWA developed a collective narrative frame that was specific enough to give these predominantly Mexican and Filipino workers a sense that they were taking up their peoples’ struggle. This generated creative tactics like the famous March to Sacramento in 1966, a journey across hundreds of miles that attracted widespread attention and drew on Catholic traditions of pilgrimage that resonated in those workers’ communities.

By contrast, AWOC, led by Norman Smith, didn’t develop similarly effective narratives. Why not? Ganz submits that while AWOC hired skillful Filipino and Mexican organizers rooted in the farm workers’ communities, like Larry Itliong and Dolores Huerta, “Smith did not include them in AWOC’s strategic decision making. The combination of motivation, relationships, and experience that could have greatly enhanced AWOC’s strategic capacity was thus available, but AWOC strategists failed to take advantage of it.” Unlike the FWA, AWOC’s campaign answered primarily to the national American Federation of Labour and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), and had “no advisory board of supporters, no mechanism of accountability to farm workers, nor was there any role for farm worker leadership at all. The top-down structure muted the urgency of thinking strategically about how to organize farm workers, because farm workers were neither the source of funds nor of legitimacy.” Ganz concludes that the FWA didn’t just happen to develop more powerful stories than AWOC. Its structure and strategy gave the team around Chavez deeper insight into the communities they sought to organize, which in turn enabled them to develop such effective narrative practices.

My hunch is that a lot of the left’s skepticism towards storytelling comes from how often we see it deployed in the context of fundamentally liberal political projects that, unlike farm worker organizing in 1960s California, fail to build up the power of a strategically defined group. Though Ganz developed his method by drawing on the practices of labour organizations like the FWA, it became especially prominent among both electoral and social movement campaigners when Ganz got involved in training volunteer organizers for Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. In some circles this association lends massive credibility to Ganz’s approach to organizing, and specifically to public narrative; in others, it’s a massive elephant (donkey?) in the room. How did organizing practices rooted in the traditions of labour and civil rights struggle fit into a liberal senator’s campaign for the presidency of the world’s dominant imperial power?


Change we can believe in?

In a report written in 2009, Ganz highlights the contradictory character of the Obama campaign, which incorporated both a professionally managed electoral vehicle that engaged potential voters through marketing and a grassroots volunteer development strategy informed by social movement organizing. While Obama’s own carefully calibrated stories about his life drew potential supporters to see their values and aspirations reflected in his candidacy, campaign volunteers weren’t trained to share his stories. Instead, they learned to deliver stories about why they, personally, were connected to the cause. Unlike in most American campaigns, Obama’s volunteers were also provided with access to the campaign’s voter contact data, equipping these organizers to identify where they needed more local support and strategize together to make it happen. The result was a structured network of leaders able to coach each other in effective storytelling practices, which they used to invite others to join a campaign in which these new recruits could take on meaningful leadership roles.

This network was allowed to collapse as soon as it came into conflict with powerful interests within the Democratic Party. A few months after Obama’s inauguration, Ganz perceived that “pressing the President‘s agenda [was] difficult when some of the key targets for pressure are off limits because they are Democrats.” He noted that the transformative potential of this organizing structure seemed “to have been eclipsed by well funded philanthropic social service and social entrepreneurship lobbies, well situated within the administration‘s inner circle.” The Obama volunteer network largely dissipated and had to be reassembled – partially, and with less local autonomy – for the 2012 campaign.

There are instructive similarities between the Obama campaign and other attempts to take organizing practices honed in histories of struggle and graft them onto liberal political projects. In her 2016 book No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age, labour strategist Jane McAlevey critiques the enduring influence of American activist and theorist Saul Alinsky. Alinsky’s stated objective was to take organizing practices that had originated in the labour movement’s militant wings and apply them to neighbourhoods. In Chicago, for example, Alinsky’s flagship Back-of-the-Yards Neighbourhood Council was able to lean on the support of the Packinghouse Workers Organizing Committee, which embodied a tradition of effective labour organizing, under a left-wing leadership that had been trained in organizing through the Communist Party. But Alinsky struggled to apply his model to other cities and neighbourhoods where he couldn’t draw on similarly powerful allies. When unable to rely on organized labour’s support, he turned to religious organizations such as the Catholic Church – more interested in conciliation than struggle – to provide comparable institutional support. In doing so, McAlevey suggests, Alinsky decoupled organizing practices from the radically liberatory vision that fostered them. Instead they were applied towards “pragmatic” short-term goals. And his approach introduced an unhelpful distinction between “organizers” and “leaders.” In principle, in Alinsky’s model, volunteer local leaders make the key decisions; paid organizers execute those decisions on the ground. In practice, according to McAlevey, volunteer leaders might be coached to use personal stories to recruit peers, and act as spokespeople in public-facing communications, but strategic judgments are typically made by paid organizers. The latter stay in the background, can be ambiguously accountable, and often don’t share material interests or community with the “leaders” they are organizing.

Alinsky’s approach became massively influential during the Cold War, including in the labour movement, as communists who organized on the basis of class were purged from unions. The hope might have been to win practical gains without the “divisiveness” of overt class struggle. But the frequent outcome, McAlevey says, was “well-meant efforts that often undermined the very people who need good organizing the most – the poor, the working class, and people of color, whose issues could hardly be characterized as nondivisive.” For example, the Alinsky-inspired United Neighbourhoods Organization has advocated more intensive policing of their communities and now operates charter schools that promote “optimistic, patriotic gratitude” for America among oppressed youths – putting the organization at odds with the Chicago Teachers Union’s struggle to defend public education in their city.

The Obama campaign suffered from many of the same flaws McAlevey identifies in Alinksy’s method. Grassroots volunteers developed and used personal narratives to invite their neighbours and coworkers into a campaign where they were genuinely able to participate in meaningful strategic reflection – to a point. Once the “pragmatic” objective of electing Obama to the presidency was attained, the network of supporters his campaign had built was subordinated to the tactical judgments of political advisors who, structurally, were not accountable to the mass base that had brought them to the White House. There are ongoing debates about what could have happened if that network had persisted and been entrusted with greater autonomy, but that was never going to happen. The Democratic Party isn’t a particularly democratic party. Its orientation is towards negotiating competing interests between elites in the ultimate interests of capital, not fostering a mass participatory politics.

As McAlevey lays out, the organizing approach informing Ganz’s and Alinsky’s work is rooted in a history of communist and socialist base-building and fundamentally oriented towards mass politics. Its core practices were forged by steelworkers organizing together in the face of employers armed with machine guns and mustard gas, and by Black sharecroppers struggling against brutal plantation owners in the Deep South. When particular organizing techniques – such as Ganz’s public narrative method – are decoupled from this history and the liberatory horizons it looked to, they don’t just move us in the wrong direction. They are also less effective. No wonder many of us on the left are skeptical of narrative, since this is the way we often see it used.


Whose stories? 

Occupy Wall Street, along with the many occupations it inspired around the world, often gets credited with “changing the narrative” around income inequality. But it didn’t mount a sustained challenge to the structures of oppression that create that inequality. Social movement strategist Jonathan Smucker, who was active in the Zuccotti Park occupation in downtown Manhattan, explores its successes and failures in his 2017 book Hegemony How-To: a Roadmap for Radicals. He suggests that the left should develop stories and narrative frames that lay claim to existing symbols with “universal” appeal. He notes how, for example, “the Preamble to the United States Constitution disguised the particular interests of white male property owners by projecting them as the universal will of ‘We the people.’ Abolitionists and suffragettes understood this intuitively and resolved themselves to fight to expand who is included in ‘We the people.’ But in order to do so effectively, they appealed to the very concept of ‘We the people’ and claimed their rightful share in it.” Smucker argues that politics involves mandatory contests over who’s named by the word we. “If the definition of we is an important stake in political struggle,” he suggests, “then political contenders are competing to have their particular framing of we win out above alternative frames. In other words, each political contender wants as many people as possible to adopt the contender’s definition of the we—because this provides the basis for collective mobilization (or acquiescence) along lines favorable to the contender. And this is why a political challenger must, whenever possible, refer to itself using the inclusive we.”

To further illustrate this argument, Smucker points to those California farm workers discussed earlier: “…key to the functioning of [Cesar] Chavez’s ‘charisma’ was his savvy in tapping into workers’ existing racial-ethnic-religious cultural identities (and corresponding social networks) in order to make shared class interests feel salient. In other words, he didn’t try to recruit workers to identify with a brand new (and unfamiliar) ‘we’; instead, he re-articulated key meanings within a “we” that workers already felt themselves belonging to.” This more or less matches up with Ganz’s account of that organizing  – though Ganz, who worked closely with Chavez, indicates that those farm workers’ successful use of narrative wasn’t due to one leader’s savvy, but rather the outcome of a diverse leadership team elected by its members. Yet these campaigns explicitly didn’t try to evoke a universally inclusive “we” as Smucker proposes. Their accountability to and continual contact with farm workers gave them deep insight into these communities’ material and cultural contexts. This in turn equipped them to invoke stories that might not have appealed to all Californians, but resonated deeply with the particular base they sought to unify and empower. In the context of ‘60s America, Viva Juárez, Viva Zapata, Viva Chavez! – a slogan of the California campaigns, drawing on Mexican revolutionary histories – hailed members of a group a hell of a lot more specific than “We The People.” And considerably more specific than Occupy’s “We Are The 99%.”

Smucker says that while Occupy had remarkable success in popularizing a slogan broad enough that nearly all Americans could see themselves reflected in it, the movement’s activists “lacked the stomach” to build an inclusive organization that could sustain and extend its symbolic wins. Yet I’d suggest that this apparent symbolic success and institutional failure are in fact tightly linked. I’m inclined to agree with the socialist writer Mike Davis, who thought “the 1% was ridiculous. Anybody who knows American history, or who’s ever hitchhiked around the country, or been a long-distance truck driver, will tell you that at least 30% of America has been proto-fascist forever, and that it’s a huge mistake not to understand how deeply reactionary so much of the petty bourgeoisie and middle strata is in so many parts of the country.” Rather than developing narratives aimed at bolstering the power and unity of specific groups that could confront these middle-class reactionaries as well as billionaires, Occupy’s slogans appealed to a generalized rage against an unbelievably minuscule elite. In some cities Occupy built on this rage effectively, generating strategic tactics like Occupy Oakland’s port shutdown; in others, Occupy occupied the local farmers’ market, not exactly striking a blow to capital. Occupy might have been most successful where it was least tied to its 99%-versus-the-1% framework, which just isn’t a meaningful analysis of the classes in American society – or any existing capitalist society.

Smucker, however, identifies Occupy’s lack of an explicit class analysis as part of what made its narratives so effective. “Economic class describes the objective relationships to material production and of uneven distributions of capital in society. But it does not describe in a straightforward and intuitive manner routine activities like attending church, going out to the bar with friends, playing a pickup game of basketball, sitting around the dinner table, or holding one’s hand over one’s heart during The Star Spangled Banner. These are the everyday spaces, places, and activities through which identity is formed and invested in.” But this is a false distinction. The left has a history of using cultural and social “spaces, places, and activities” precisely to bridge that gap between our everyday experiences and class consciousness. At the height of its reach, the Communist Party of Canada engaged workers as whole people through labour temples, sports leagues, Finnish newspapers, and Yiddish theatres. Like the FWA’s strike meetings in the 60s, such institutions put workers in contact with fellow workers in ways relevant to their “racial-ethnic-religious cultural identities.” They foster conditions in which effective stories, like the ones developed by those California farm workers in the ‘60s, are most likely to emerge and be fruitfully used. An approach like this one builds class power more effectively than latching onto purportedly universal narratives and symbols. Just as McAlevey suggests that particular organizing practices are less effective when decoupled from socialist commitment, Occupy might illustrate that narrative strategies are less effective when decoupled from class analysis.


Who are our enemies? Who are our friends?

Ideology is an expression of class struggle. We don’t change the balance of power by telling stories so compelling that they win the sympathy of the powerful. We challenge dominant narratives by building our own power. Storytelling can help us do this when it’s placed in service of a strategy that aims to deepen class consciousness, and that recognizes who we need to overcome. 

In practice, such an approach can mean crafting our public-facing communications with a clear understanding of who our audience is: members of the “we” we’re seeking to evoke. A great example of this is what McAlevey calls “big bargaining,” where unions’ collective agreement negotiations take place in a room stacked with rank-and-file members. When nurses at that bargaining table share stories about the consequences of understaffing, they aren’t primarily trying to get the boss across the table to sympathize with their plight and ease up in negotiations. They might formally be addressing their managers, but they’re telling these stories to grow collective power by honing in on moments that resonate with their fellow nurses: reminding them of similar experiences, deepening their solidarity and resolve. The “we” is the workers.

This principle is pretty intuitive in the context of labour struggle, where there are two obviously antagonistic sides. It can be less clear when we’re engaging with elected officials, but the same principle holds. It’s not uncommon for organizers to spend a lot of time preparing to share really compelling stories in deputations or town halls only to get frustrated or even resentful when they fail to move their representatives to commit. I’ve certainly felt that way! But in and of itself, telling compelling stories to elected officials isn’t going to move them when we’re asking them to stand against powerful opponents. We can move them through demonstrations of our power. Engaging publicly with such figures is, above all, an opportunity to share stories that resonate with the base whose power we need to build if we’re to win. The “we” is our coworkers or neighbours, whether they’re in the audience or reading about it later on social media and in the news.

This understanding can also inform the ways we plan out tactics aimed at broadening our base of support, such as canvassing. While traditional canvassing focuses mostly on contacting as many people as possible to identify likely supporters of our candidate or our campaign, over the past few years there’s been growing interest in “deep canvassing,” which aims at moving people who don’t support us yet. Plenty of organisations train volunteers to do this by sharing stories from their personal experience, listening to peoples’ own stories, and framing their asks in a way that foregrounds the shared values and motivations that surface. While it can be an effective tool, we shouldn’t fetishize this kind of canvassing as if it’s inherently a strategic use of time and resources. Planning a canvass involves making choices about who is knocking on which doors or calling which numbers: who’s telling their stories to whom. Whenever possible we should make these decisions by asking, again: whose power are we trying to build? If the answer is Amazon “associates” (hyper-exploited warehouse workers), then those workers should be phoning each other; if the answer is residents of a particular high-rise, then those tenants should be knocking on their neighbours’ doors. Every canvassing conversation is a chance for the people we’re organizing to exchange stories in a way that creates relationships and deepens solidarity. When those conversations are initiated primarily by outsiders – trained experts, teams of sympathizers bussed in from another city – then we don’t take full advantage of these opportunities.

Organizers who already centre narrative strategies have our own role to play. Echoing McAlevey’s critique of Alinsky, we need to recognize that these skills aren’t a neutral toolbox that can be plugged into any campaign with equally effective results: storytelling is less useful when decoupled from a deep commitment to mass power. And we need to reflect more clearly on what politics find expression in our own narratives about narrative. What futures are we trying to move towards? Are we spending our time strengthening and unifying the people who can lead us there? Are we talking about storytelling in a way that appeals specifically to that “we,” or are we falling back on “inclusive” but generic and readily recuperated ideals like “change,” “progress,” and “hope”? When working in universities or nonprofits with registered charity status, are we more accountable to funders or to the base we’re trying to empower? Are we conscious of how these institutions shape and limit our work, and are we equipped to address those pressures?

Telling stories isn’t a strategy. Teaching storytelling skills isn’t a strategy. They’re tactics that the left can and should use more, and more effectively. That means understanding who we need on our side and who we need to oppose; developing organizations that draw together the people whose power we need to build; and equipping them to exchange stories in a way that overcomes atomization and deepens solidarity.

Concluding his history of the California farm workers’ movement, Ganz says: “David’s commitment to challenge Goliath did not depend on figuring out a good strategy. On the contrary, good strategy grew out of his commitment to fight.” The more effectively we use stories to deepen our commitment to each other, the more resourcefully we can take on Goliaths of our own.

Graeme Lamb is an instructor with the Institute for Change Leaders at X University. He splits his time between organizing, homosexuality, and gardening. You can find him on Twitter at @_gmlamb.