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  • Writer's picturekatrice horsley

Seeding structural change through narrative change.

I am going to start with a story of compost.

My husband and I moved to our wonderful house about 18 months ago and one of the reasons for moving there was the garden. (Well I say garden, it was mostly a messy lawn with a few fruit trees and a few very neglected raised beds.) I was desperate to get busy creating new vegetable beds, flower beds, arches and much more and to start composting all of our green waste. (You need to know at this point that I have never really had the opportunity to do any of this and I am very much a novice.) So I bought one of those huge dalek-style composting bins that kept the compost warm and I diligently started filling it with all of our green waste and coffee grounds. In the summer I noticed that when I lifted the lid, there was a really unpleasant, noxious smell of ammonia. It smelt toxic. After reading up a bit and asking friends I realised I had been feeding my compost too much of one type of 'scraps' and it had too much nitrogen in it. I found that I needed to counter-balance this with 'brown waste' such as paper, leaves, cardboard etc. I learnt my lesson and now feed it a balanced diet.

What has this got to do with the image above or with narrative change work? Well, too much of any one-dimensional story causes a toxic paradigm/soil which creates a toxic system and a negative feedback loop that continues feeding it. Let me explain.

First, what is narrative change?

Narrative Change work refers to deliberate processes that explore, shift or reshape prevailing stories, beliefs, and cultural narratives within a society, community or organisation. I often iclude strategic communication, storytelling, and advocacy to promote new perspectives, values, or understandings that align with specific goals, such as social or cultural change. Taken further this work can influence public opinion and policy by altering the dominant narratives that shape collective thinking and behaviour. I have taken this into personal coaching work too and do it on a 1:1 basis.

So, if you look at the image, the soil forms the 'deep narratives' or paradigms that create the systemic structures. As an example, systemic racism is caused by a deep narrative whereby white bodies are valued more than black or brown bodies. Let me repeat that - white bodies are worth more than black or brown bodies. Is that uncomfortable to read....? Is that more uncomfortable than the phrase 'systemic racism?' Think about that. (I would also suggest you read the work of Resmaa Menakem to help you understand why you might be feeling uncomfortable.)

This deep narrative soil then feeds and creates systemic structures such as racism, (white bodies are more valuable than black bodies,) homo/transphobia (Cis people are more valuable than queer folk - queer folk are deviants and abnormal,) capitalism (rich people are worth more than poor people, those who own more are more valuable and have more worth) .... I could continue.

These systemic structures/narratives then impact on out cultural narratives which manifest in ghettoisation, inequality in work opportunities, home ownership, salaries ... I could continue.

These cultural narratives then impact on our personal narratives - what we believe about ourselves and others. I am worth less as a woman because I am paid less - I am worth less as a black person etc - I could continue

These, added together create the 'greenery' of the close environments we inhabit, organisations, neighbourhoods etc. These personal narratives and beliefs, then cause us to tell stories about ourselves and others that drop down into the already toxic soil and feed it. This forms a negative feedback loop and so the cycle continues and we end up with that toxic composting situation that I had in my garden!

It is often the case that when we want to change these systemic narratives we travel up the tree and create new systems or policy. However, with narrative change work we deep dive into the soil and those knotted, underlying narratives. It is uncomfortable but always truthful work, for one cannot solve a problem without identifying it and naming it. Once that is done we can start the work of generating positive feedback loops by identifying positive stories that can be told. These drop into the hard soil and start to break it apart and change its composition, which then goes on to change and challenge some of the structures, which then change some of the cultural narratives that lead to a change in the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and others. The charismatic, wise and witty Baratunde Thurston shows us how this works beautifully in his TED Talk here.

Whilst working up in Skellefteå at the SKR Kulturkonferens I used my Narrative Change Tree (feel free to use the image but please credit me) to help leaders identify some of the deep narratives that underlie Swedish culture and behaviour. It was fascinating and deep work. It was also hugely rewarding as culture and art are one of the most powerful ways to create and share new narratives in order to challenge those deep narratives that often form oppressive systems. The conference was one of the best I have been to here in Sweden as it leant into the discomfort of some deep, deep underlying narratives relating to the colonisation and ethnic cleansing of the Sami peoples (several of whom were present at the conference.) The inability to acknowledge these historical horrors has been very prevalent in the past but is now essential if any part of the Green Transition in Sweden is going to take place with equity. The Cultural Leaders I worked with also identified several other deep narratives that constricted and restricted some of their thought processes and beliefs. As I said to them, the uncovering of these and our reflections on what stories are needed now, is the start of the journey towards a more compassionate, empathic and understanding society - this is the power of story, the power of narrative and the power of what it is to be human.

If you are interested in finding out more about narrative change work take a look at these organisations and BIG NEWS - I have developed a Leadership Residential with Förnyelselabbet here in Sweden. If you are interested contact me.

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