2. Building Narrative Justice Through Engagement

To support organizations as they are building Narrative Justice practices, we outlined in our white paper five specific commitments that illustrate the stages of this work. These commitments can be incorporated into all aspects of your organization’s communications: Awareness, Engagement, Confrontation, Incorporation and Sharing. Previously, in our article on Awareness, we discussed toxic narratives and shared some examples of counternarratives that can be used to reframe how we, and our audiences, think about situations of injustice.

In this second of our five-part series, we explore the commitment to Engagement and how it is connected to concrete scenarios related to communications work.

Commitment #2 | Engage with the people most intimately aware of and experiencing inequity, and commit to centering their insights and priorities in organizational interventions. Incorporate practices into your organization’s work that allow learning about people’s experiences, the language they use to speak about them, the way they make sense of their environments, hierarchies of power, and finally, the opportunities that proximate actors see for solutions.

Historically, philanthropy has used a top-down model that assumes clear distinctions between:

  • Those who have knowledge about problems and solutions, understood as those with resources and power.
  • Those who are often depicted as suffering because of those problems and need sympathy and help to access solutions.

Narrative Justice recognizes that this process is inherently oppressive and delegitimizes the essential autonomy, expertise and agency of the people who experience most acutely the unjust dynamics we hope to address. The top-down model is belittling and paints funders and philanthropy as the heroes. People should define the stories told about them.

The commitment to Engagement means considering how your organization structures interactions with people directly harmed by inequitable systems, exclusion and marginalization. For example, if your organization is working on building community resources for low-cost childcare programs, you could start by asking the following questions:

  • What is the nature of our relationship with parents and other caregivers from low-income families?
  • Have our interactions been structured in ways that facilitate their participation? For example:
    • Are parents/caretakers compensated for their time?
    • Are we meeting them where and when it is easiest for them?
    • Are we asking open-ended questions and listening to what they share?
  • Have we exhausted our review of already available resources and information on the local context, to avoid burdening participants with the need to educate us on that context?
  • Do we recognize their expertise on the topics at hand, listening carefully, identifying when our own understanding of the topic may get in the way of hearing what they are sharing from their lived experience?
  • Are we actively centering their insights and priorities in our organizational interventions? In other words – do we have explicit procedures that ensure we will incorporate findings from those ongoing relationships into our approach and interventions meant to foster resources for low-income childcare options?
  • Do our organization’s communications (both internal and external) take seriously and elevate the ways of understanding the problem at hand that have been articulated by the impacted communities we work with?
  • Or, if we are engaged in this work through partnership with other organizations, are we aware of how they structure these interactions, and if they truly are capturing the feedback expressed by families and caregivers? And is that feedback understood as separate from what they might see as their organizational goals or those identified by their funders?

Consider how your answers to these questions compare to the ways that donors, board members or colleagues can and do shape your program focus, define your target problems and identify solutions. The perspective gained through this reflective process is useful for identifying where power and opportunities lie within your organizational practices. It can illuminate who has access to these resources and whether your organizational practices reproduce or disrupt systems of injustice, inequity and oppression.

Some organizations may see these questions and think they are irrelevant to their work because they do not offer direct services to impacted communities. Perhaps these organizations are structured to coordinate resources and support in other manners. Let’s be clear: In both scenarios, Narrative Justice implies that systems change work must be directly connected to front-line communities, and informed by the lived experiences of people most acutely impacted by ongoing inequity. It is rooted in the belief that to do this work in the absence of that engagement contributes to ongoing unjust power distribution.

If you do find that your organization is not connected to the impacted communities it intends to serve, consider the following questions to start an organizational conversation:

  • What current barriers are there in our organization that make Engagement work of this kind less likely, more challenging, or more uncomfortable?
  • Who within the organization would be supportive of making this a priority in the coming quarter or year?
  • What organizations, people and leaders within the community can we build relationships with for this work to be done better?
  • What examples can we find of other organizations that have made a transition of this kind?

Carefully questioning how you are structuring the work that brings you into relationships with people directly experiencing harm is essential for systems change. This is part of proactively building or reconfiguring partnerships that lead to systems change work rooted in a just, equitable and inclusive society.

Keep an eye out for the ensuing article in our five-part series discussing Commitment #3: Confrontation, and its role in building on the foundation of Narrative Justice established in your organizational communications through Awareness and Engagement efforts.

Schedule a confidential consultation to learn how our strategic communications offerings can elevate your organization’s impact.