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Framing For Change: How We Tell Our Story Matters

How we tell the story of a better world matters—and the best way is to live the alternatives we advocate.

Framing, photos by Sarah Jones and the U.S. Coast Guard

The Deepwater Horizon explosion: Did it cause a familiar "spill" or a massive disaster? It's all in the framing.

Photos by Sarah Jones and the U.S. Coast Guard

These days, the big issues of our time are digested and disseminated by cable news, internet blogs, and tweets—and repeated by everyday people in our common conversations. But the choices about how that digestion happens—about how big stories are packaged into little sound-bytes that people spread—are strategic decisions loaded with political power. Consider:

Gulf Oil Spill vs. BP’s Blowout Disaster
Iraq Draw Down vs. Ongoing Occupation
Illegal Immigrants vs. Migrant Workers’ Rights
Ground Zero Mosque vs. Religious Freedom

This is the critical and often invisible work of framing, and of making memes—the viral frames that spread from person to person and shape the narratives that define our political landscape.

Along with our opposable thumbs, human beings are unique in our narrative nature. We are narrative animals who process our experiences through the lens of story, and pass on our stories through memes: symbols, rituals, songs, or images. Memes are self-replicating units of culture that morph over time and spread without attributing authorship—from rituals like putting candles on your birthday cake or tying a yellow ribbon around the oak tree to sound-bytes that shape the political debate, like “Too Big to Fail” or “Green Jobs.”

Effectively framing for change means intentionally setting the terms of the debate, and shifting power and possibility in the story.

The creation of potent memes has been always been central to the work of shifting the dominant culture: whether its using symbols like the peace sign, teaching new practices like recycling, or packaging new ideas for a better world—like “living wage” or “fair trade.” As a meme spreads it often carries a specific framing. A frame is the overarching perspective or larger idea that shapes our interpretation. You can think of the frame as the edges of the television screen or the rims of the eyeglasses—it’s what defines what and who is in the story and what it all means. What is left out of the frame is as important as what is inside the frame. And most importantly for those of us working for justice and change, the frame defines who has power in the story.

Collective, cultural stories are embedded with powerful frames that define cultural norms and shape common perceptions of what’s possible. The mythologies and memes of Plymouth Rock, Manifest Destiny, 40 Acres and a Mule, and the American Dream are the narratives of the past—but they continue to haunt our political discourse today. When we are working to change the dominant stories about racism, immigration, war, and protecting the planet, these narratives are already in peoples’ minds, acting as filters to social change messages, and often limiting a collective sense of possibility.

Effectively framing for change means intentionally setting the terms of the debate, and shifting power and possibility in the story. Perhaps our framing amplifies the perspective of previously marginalized characters, reveals hidden impacts, or highlights a better alternative. As a new story is told, the meaning shifts and people draw different conclusions...

As the old advertising industry mantra says, “People can only go somewhere that they have already been in their minds.” The same is true for social change stories. Effective framing often foreshadows a specific future, subtly defining or redefining what is politically acceptable. The power holder’s side of the story often relies on the belief that change can’t happen, and the status quo is the only way. Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher even coined an acronym to define this tactic: TINA—There Is No Alternative.

What better way to challenge this common myth then making the abundance of alternatives real and visible? Framing for change is often as simple as manifesting the changes we need: The residents’ occupation of the public housing office transforms it into a day care center… The abandoned city lot becomes a community garden… The site of the planned juvenile prison becomes a playground…

Framing for change is often as simple as manifesting the changes we need.

In the place of the failed narratives of U.S. empire, assimilation, and corporate monoculture, a multitude of new stories are taking root. Inspiring campaigns of resistance and transformation are underway in countless communities, and social movements are quite literally changing the stories that structure our lives, and thereby changing the story of our future. Around the world, there is a contest to frame the story—will the dominant narratives justify exploitation, destruction and conquest, or encourage ordinary people to take the side of the Earth, humanity and hope?

All of us have a part to play in these ongoing framing efforts. As we discuss the events of the day and spread our stories of positive change, it is up to all of us to chose our memes wisely, and to tell the story that reflects our values and frames the future we really want. Humanity’s greatest gift is our power to create images and frame ideas so let’s be smart about how use it…Psst, Pass it on!


Doyle Canning and Patrick Reinsborough wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Doyle and Patrick are strategists with the smartMeme Strategy and Training Project and co-authors of Re:Imagining Change – How To Use Story-Based Strategy to Win Campaigns, Build Movements, and Change the World (PM Press, 2010). 

Interested?

  • Winning the Frame Game: As our society approaches major transitions ahead, we may welcome or resist the changes … How we react will rest partly on how we frame those changes.
  • When Numbers Aren't Enough: Statistics rarely get under our skin, but stories do. Paul Loeb offers advice for catalyzing social change.
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