Monday, March 29, 2010

Monday Night in Williamsburg: Story-Based Strategies for Action Design with Doyle Canning + Patrick Reinsborough at The Change You Want to See Gallery

This evening, just as the emergency workers at the rubble of 34 Conselyea Street's building collapse were quitting for the night, we walked over a few blocks to Not an Alternative's space at 84 Havemeyer, The Change You Want to See Gallery, for "Decolonizing the Revolutionary Imagaination: Story-Based Strategies for Action Design," an exciting talk by SmartMeme's Doyle Canning and Patrick Reinsborough, authors of Re:Imagining Change.

We got to the space early but it soon filled up. Video cameras were livestreaming the event, starting when Beka Economopoulos came out, and before her introduction, talked about Not an Alternative’s work around the interstices of art, activism, technology and theory and its growth as a group and movement stemming out of the 2004 Republican National Convention demonstrations.

Not An Alternative Product from Not An Alternative on Vimeo.

She talked also about the power structure’s idea of artists as engines of gentrification who are then priced out of the neighborhoods whose transformation they triggered, and how 84 Havemeyer Street was on the verge of becoming unaffordable with Williamsburg’s changes. Then she segued to the relevance of the work of SmartMeme and Patrick and Doyle in the local campaign to “open-source the city.”

Patrick began their program by discussing how movements for social, economic and environmental justice need to become better storytellers and to more effectively strategize what narrative frames and devices they use in their efforts. SmartMeme provides training tools, partnerships, and conceptual help for movements, and out of this work came the basis for Patrick and Doyle’s book, which includes case studies, tools and sample workshops.

Basically the question they are both asking and answering is: How can social movements use the power of narrative? We are in a moment in history when dramatic change seems to be accelerating exponentially, and the development of shared narratives around social movements is essential to achieving their goals.

The speakers gave some examples of successful local movements they've helped, like this environmental group in the Northwest.

Social justice-minded people, Doyle said, must frame the conversation effectively, for this can be more crucial than networking. She and Patrick both spoke about the power of branding, about the irresistible human impulse toward narrative, and about the concept of memes. (They seemed to define memes as units of self-replicating cultural information and frames as the larger story structures and boundaries of particular narratives.)

They had us pair up, with one partner telling a story to another. (We spoke with a friend of theirs who’s associated with the Then, after some feedback, Patrick and Doyle spoke about what we’ve always talked about when we‘ve talked about writing fiction in our creative writing classes; namely, that crucial elements of storytelling include: conflict, characters, imagery (the lethal “show, don’t tell”), foreshadowing, and shared underlying assumptions between the teller and her audience.

Patrick and Doyle spoke about the difference between truth and meaning; leftist groups often think that if they just present the facts clearly enough, people will be on their side, but the salient and satisfactory lies that make good stories prove otherwise. (Our own thought: many Americans did believe in “death panels” in the health care bill because it was a satisfying story that meshed with their political preconceptions).

“Humans are narrative animals,” Patrick said. (No kidding.) “The currency of narrative is not truth but rather meaning.” (Double no kidding, though we guess it’s news to some.) He discussed how our conception of Santa Claus, and thereby Christmas, stems from the successful narrative strategies of the 1920s Coca-Cola ad campaigns. (Calling Ed Bernays!)

Doyle showed us Heidi Cody's corporate alphabet, and yes, audience members could name the corporation behind every last letter, almost in a visceral way. As Doyle said, the real obstacle in trying to change things is not ignorance – what people don’t know – but what they DO know, the dominant stories in our culture. (The narrative of the first Thanksgiving, with its attendant imagery, was just one of the examples they gave; another was the Hurricane Katrina white “finders”/black
“looters” captioned news photos.)

Anyway, this was a thoughtful and exciting presentation (reminding us a lot of a book we just read, Farhad Manjoo’s True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society), and we were as impressed with the questions asked by others in the audience as by the responses of Doyle Canning and Patrick Reinsborough. Re:Imagining Change looks like it can provide a lot of much-needed information for social activist groups.

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