Patrick Reinsborough Q&A
I learned of Patrick Reinsborough when I learned of his organization smartMeme earlier this year and wrote about it. I’m intrigued by the organization’s work and Patrick’s book co-authored with his partner, Re:Imagining Change — How to Use Story-based Strategy to Win Campaigns, Build Movements, and Change the World.
Bio: [from the smartMeme Web site]: Patrick Reinsborough has been involved in campaigns for peace, the environment, and social justice for nearly 20 years. He co-founded the smartMeme strategy & training project in 2002 and provides grassroots partners with support on strategy, messaging and capacity building. Patrick was previously the Organizing Director of the Rainforest Action Network where he mobilized thousands of people to confront corporations who destroy the environment and violate human rights. He has been deeply involved in the movements against war and corporate globalization and has helped organize countless protests and creative mass actions. He is a frequent commentator on issues of movement building and social change strategy and has guest lectured at numerous universities. Several of his strategy essays were published in the anthology Globalize Liberation: How to Uproot the System and Build a Better World. Patrick spends his time parenting, wandering through urban space, and playing music for his friends. He lives in San Francisco and staffs smartMeme’s west coast office.
Q&A with Patrick Reinsborough, Question 1:
Q: Can you tell readers more about your organization smartMeme?
A: SmartMeme is a national, non-profit strategy center that offers social-justice networks and organizations the analysis, training, and direct support to apply a story-based strategy model to their campaigns. SmartMeme re-imagines methods to achieve fundamental social change with effective story-based approaches to framing that amplify the impact of grassroots organizing and challenge the underlying assumptions that shape the status quo. We are a team of strategists, communications professionals and trainers, as well as a community of practitioners who are exploring emergent models for social action. In addition to directly supporting allied campaigns, we develop curriculum, convene cross sector strategy conversations and engage in R&D into new social-change methods and experiments.
Much of our work happens through partnerships with specific constituencies who are on the frontlines of critical struggles. Since we think most injustices today are symptoms of systemic problems we prioritize strategies, organizations, and political moments that help advance an agenda of structural change. Some of the ways we do this include looking for opportunities at the intersections between different issue areas where our narrative work can support broader alliance building, challenge underlying assumptions or reframe an important issue in the public consciousness. For instance one of our past projects was to bring together anti-war organizers with U.S. military veterans who had served in Iraq to create some shared stories for movement building against the occupation of Iraq. Currently one of our projects is to support the emerging climate justice movement that brings together community-led responses to the climate crisis with a vision of racial and economic justice. Through our organizational consulting, strategic communications, and training work, we combine grassroots movement building with strategies to inject new ideas into the culture.
Q: You cofounded smartMeme in 2002. Can you share the organization’s founding story?
A: SmartMeme began as a three-day training exploring strategies for building a transformative, earth-centered social movement in a North American context. The founding collective brought together a number of people who were veterans of different social movements — fighting to protect the environment, stop wars, organizing for racial and economic justice. We all shared a common analysis of the need for fundamental change in the direction of our society but brought very different skills to the table. My background was as a grassroots organizer, campaigner and direct action strategist. The other founders included an advertiser, a filmmaker and a forest ecologist turned international finance campaigner. As the project evolved we were fortune to add a fifth person to our collective — a teacher who had decided to work as an educator in social movements rather than in a traditional class room setting.
Several of us had been active in the dramatic period of street organizing confronting the World Trade Organization in Seattle in November 1999 and challenging the neoliberal agenda of corporate-driven free-trade agreements. Personally, I had played prominent roles in both designing mass action spectacles and being a media spokesperson for the movement. After the tragedy of 9-11 we experienced first hand — as did so many US citizens — the power of narrative to set the terms of the political debate. Suddenly the Bush administration was using their mastery of propaganda to sell a “Global War on Terror” and political space for opposing view points and dissent began to close.
SmartMeme was founded amidst this tumultuous moment. The idea was to combine movement building with strategies to change the stories that shape the dominant culture. Inevitably we began looking at narrative as a key arena of struggle and particularly at the role storytelling played in organized social movements. Storytelling has always been a powerful tool for organizers and movement builders to name problems, unite constituencies, and mobilize people towards solutions. But how does a story become well known? How does a new idea spread? How can we challenge the assumptions that prop up the status quo and create momentum for fundamental social change? SmartMeme was founded to explore these kind of questions in order to help progressive movements communicate compelling stories about the more democratic, just, ecologically sane future so many people are working to build.
We recognized that although many aspects of traditional organizing skills are timeless, there was a need to update social-change strategies for the information age — the current 21st-century context of 24-hour news cycles, information warfare, and saturation marketing. So we developed a set of tools for applying “a narrative power analysis” to campaign development. We created some strategic frameworks and interactive exercises to help groups assess the web of existing stories and cultural assumptions that frame public understanding around the issue they have chosen to organize around. This approach provided a process to understand the current story around an issue and identify opportunities to change that story with the right framing, messages, messengers, and creative interventions. Through our efforts to assist grassroots groups and advocacy campaigns in telling their stories more effectively, smartMeme developed what’s now called the story-based strategy approach.
In the last eight years, smartMeme has trained thousands of activists in story-based strategy, and collaborated with more than 100 organizations to apply this framework to grassroots organizing and advocacy efforts. SmartMeme has developed story-based strategies to support family farming, indigenous rights, chemical policy reform, antiwar organizing, tax policy reform and climate justice.
Q: What kind of response have you had to your book Re:Imagining Change?
A: The response has been really fantastic. The book has been out for a little over a year, and it’s now on its second printing. It has been republished internationally and has widely circulate in a lot of the networks and social movements that smartMeme supports. Some of the supplemental tools from the book have been downloaded off our website by more than 10,000 activists all over the world. It’s not a book written for a general audience. It’s really a tool kit for activists who want to be more strategic and effective. The book has helped draw attention to smartMeme’s work but more importantly has given some momentum to the larger movement strategy conversation about how progressive’s can better harness the power of narrative. It’s helped advanced the discussions around narrative and framing to include a more refined sense of power and how to apply a narrative power analysis to social-justice campaigns.
Hopefully the book has helped connect the often rather abstract conversations around framing into more specific action oriented experiments. As a mission-driven non-profit, we’ve given away a lot of copies of the book to support frontline communities who are organizing against fossil fuel extraction, fighting for immigrant rights or working to address the threat of climate destabilization. We’ve gotten orders for boxes of books from the Gulf Coast after the BP oil disaster and from communities fighting hydraulic fracking in the Northeast.
Q: The storytelling movement seems to be growing explosively. Why now? What is it about this moment in human history and culture that makes storytelling so resonant with so many people right now?
A: I think storytelling and narrative are core to the human experience and have always been at the center of culture. However now I think we’re experiencing a growing interesting in story because there is increasingly recognition that many of the dominant meta-narratives that have been guiding our society need to shift. The stories that have driven the rise of global consumer capitalism and the U.S. as a global super power — economic growth as the sole measure of human progress, more stuff will make your happier, U.S. foreign policy is a benign democracy spreading force — are losing their grasp on the collective imagination.
In the mind-bogglingly long sweep of planetary history, let alone the relative eye-blink of human history, the present is a unique era. Two hundred years of unfettered, globalized industrial capitalism has dragged our planet into an ecological endgame. As the planet’s basic life-support systems buckle under the weight of unlimited resource extraction and economic expansion, cracks are spreading not only in the system’s physical operating structures, but also in the controlling mythologies that have helped bolster the status quo. People experience the dissonance in many different ways: economic pressures, spiritual longing, psychological crisis, political awakening. There are a lot of people wondering what happened to the economy that used to propel the so-called American dream, wondering why a loved one in the military has to serve yet another tour in a distant occupied land, wondering why the weather is getting so unpredictable and the seasons starting to shift …
At smartMeme we often refer to our current political moment as a slow-motion apocalypse — the gradual unraveling of the routines, expectations and institutions that have traditionally comforted the privileged and defined the status quo. But by apocalypse we are not referring to a certain flavor of Christian ideology’s much foreshadowed Jesus-the-Sequel-world-ending-cosmic-smack-down. Far more relevant is the original sense of the concept coming from the Greek word apokalypsis meaning literally to “take the cover away,” or to reveal something that has not been seen. The intersecting crises of the 21st century — economic, ecological, political — are laying bare the contradictions and inadequacies of the dominant culture.
This leaves people hungry both for new stories and to understand what went wrong with the old stories. Within many of the major spheres of our society — business, education, politics, entertainment, science, spirituality — there are massive struggles emerging to change the story of what is necessary and indeed what is possible. The Obama campaign in 2008 is a powerful example of the appeal of a sweeping new narrative. The historical nature of Obama’s candidacy notwithstanding, the campaign narrative was a skillful cooptation of traditional movement branding for the narrow goal of electing an individual political candidate. However, the popularity of the effort is an indicator of the power of new stories as was evidenced by the fact that believers projected far more transformative ideals onto the candidate that he ever actually espoused himself. The Tea Party represents an equally carefully constructed right-wing version of the same phenomenon.
New stories are bubbling up all over — promoting alternatives, contesting out-dated mythologies and expanding the story of what is imaginable. Local communities, emerging networks and social movements around the world are telling the story that “another world is possible” in an incredible array of different ways.
The work of midwifing the future will require the creative labor of literally billions of people. Different communities, cultures, and localities must find their own ways of navigating these challenges, but a common denominator will, by necessity, be the ability to collectively re-design our economies, political systems, and social realities from the ground up. At the roots of so much of this transformative force is the power to renarrate our lives: to challenge out-dated stories, shift the stories that shape our collective vision and ultimately create new stories together which chart a path towards resilience, change and a better future for all of us.
Q: Are there any current uses of storytelling that repel you or that you feel are inappropriate?
A: Tragically far too many of the contemporary uses of storytelling are not only inappropriate, but downright coercive, destructive, and pathological. Currently, many of the best storytellers and image-crafters in our culture are hired guns that sell us an imagined vision of ourselves, complete with the appropriate brand of carbonated beverage, designer jeans, or suitably inspirational political candidate. The advertising and culture industry is full of story exploiters — whether its Disney privatizing our cultural commons of folk tales and shared memories or the latest slick brand crafting stories to make their toxic, disposable products seem more “authentic” or necessary. The material effect on our planet is clear: mass over-consumption is literally eroding the life support systems of the planet. But there are massive psychological consequences as well. By turning our culture into a free for all of highly sophisticated, manipulative commercial storytelling we have allowed advertisers to create a psychological arms race to further penetrate people’s consciousness with commercial messages. Many of these messages are highly pathological — starve yourself to look beautiful! Eat unhealthy food! Wealth is the only way to happiness! Your life will be so much better with our mood altering pharmaceutical, etc. The long-term effects may be unknown because we are all lab rats in this uncontrolled experiment, but the initial trends are clear: further isolating and privatizing our bodies, commodifying our lives and entraping our collective imagination.
Another area of storytelling abuse is the contemporary world of politics. We live in an age of persistent propaganda where politics is often reduced to sound bytes, images, and sensationalized narrative — anchor babies, death panels, surgical strikes, too big to fail, etc. The influence of unchecked money has allowed for a corporate takeover of our political system, economy, and culture, and much of the mechanics of this takeover happens in the realm of story. High priced public-relations operatives and other “spin doctors” use well-crafted narratives to distort the facts and manufacture public consent.
Often times as ordinary people struggles to make positive change and promote visions of justice, democracy, and ecological sanity, they run into the same obstacles: dominant culture frames that filter and distort social-change messages. The power of storytelling — particularly as a tool to frame critical issues — is often abused to prevent change. Narrative power is used to justify structural violence, marginalize critics, and normalize suffering. This power express itself as they ability to blame those victimized by injustice for their own oppression and rationalize an unjust status quo as “just the way things are.” These uses of narrative are as central to maintaining social control as fighter jets, police batons, and pay cuts.
Part of smartMeme’s mission is to help those working for a better world to understand how storytelling is being abused by unscrupulous power-holders from Wall Street to the White House to the Pentagon to justify incredibly destructive, unjust decisions and policies.
Q: If you could share just one piece of advice or wisdom about story/storytelling/ narrative with readers, what would it be?
A: It’s not just about telling better stories its about changing the stories that are already out there in the culture. As psychology and cognitive science are teaching us the art of persuasion is an art not a science and it has far less to do with objective facts then many of us have believed. Of course the facts matter but unfortunately the facts alone are not enough. That’s why it is so important to understand the role of narrative in defining social reality. The power of story is being abused everyday to justify erosions of democracy, structural violence, racism, and ecological devastation. However simultaneously stories of hope, possibility and justice are being spread every day. The more that people working for positive change understand the power of narrative and use it effectively the more successful our efforts will be. The first step in changing the world is changing the stories that shape the world.