Re:Imagining Change: How to Use Story-based Strategy to Win Campaigns, Build Movements, and Change the World

Re:Imagining Change: How to Use Story-based Strategy to Win Campaigns, Build Movements, and Change the World

by Doyle Canning, Patrick Reinsborough

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An inspirational inside look at the trailblazing methodology developed by the nonprofit strategy and training organization, smartMeme, this unique exploration provides progressive activists with the tools to get stories into the media, build successful campaigns, and connect with other organizations the world over. Providing resources, theories, hands-on tools, and


An inspirational inside look at the trailblazing methodology developed by the nonprofit strategy and training organization, smartMeme, this unique exploration provides progressive activists with the tools to get stories into the media, build successful campaigns, and connect with other organizations the world over. Providing resources, theories, hands-on tools, and illuminating case studies for the next generation of activists, this resource shows how culture, media, memes, and narrative intertwine with social-change strategies and offers practical methods to amplify progressive causes in popular culture. A summation of the smartMeme approach, this study in memetics provides practical exercises to augment movements for justice, ecological sanity, and transformative social change.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Yo organizers! Stop what you are doing for a couple hours and soak up this book!"  —Chuck Collins, senior scholar, Institute for Policy Studies, and author, Economic Apartheid in America

Re:Imagining Change is such an incredible resource! This is a book to consume, to go over meticulously, mark up, share with friends, and keep within arm's reach on the shelf.”  —Adrienne Maree Brown, executive director, The Ruckus Society

"Brilliant and invaluable."  —David Korten, board chair, YES! Magazine, and author, The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community

"The book offers organizers and advocates a new and necessary way to understand and transform the impact of stories on our public life."  —Malkia Cyril, director, Center for Media Justice

"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!"  —Yes! Magazine

"A lot to offer for such a small book . . . If you’re interested in campaign strategy, you’ll want to order a hard copy and take notes."  —Make Wealth History

"The potential to challenge us to use tactics that effectively take on the assumptions of the powerholders and help make change happen."  —Making Waves #22

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Re:Imagining Change

How to Use Story-Based Strategy to Win Campaigns, Build Movements, and Change the World

By Patrick Reinsborough, Doyle Canning

PM Press

Copyright © 2010 PM Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60486-358-1


Introduction: The Power of Story

1.1 From Improvement to Innovation

We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.

~Albert Einstein

Re:Imagining Change is an introduction to the ideas and methods of the smartMeme Strategy & Training Project. We founded smartMeme to innovate social change strategies in response to the movement-building and messaging demands of the globalized information age. We are motivated by the social and ecological crises facing our planet and by a belief that fundamental change is not only possible, but necessary. Our mission is to apply the power of narrative to organizing, movement building, and social transformation. Our dream is a movement of movements with the power, creativity, and vision to change the world by changing the stories that shape our collective destiny.

SmartMeme is dedicated to holistic social change practices — shifting from issues to values, supplementing organization building with movement building, and exploring creative new strategies for confronting systemic problems. We believe that people-powered grassroots movements, led by those who are most directly affected, are the engines of true social progress.

SmartMeme convenes innovators from different movements to share ideas and reconsider strategies in the timeless endeavor of social change. The heartbeat of the work — building relationships, critical thinking, action, and reflection — remains constant. But these practices evolve with new technologies, tools, and techniques. Over the course of the last seven years, we've recognized that innovation doesn't just mean improving what is already happening; innovation requires rethinking underlying assumptions and finding the courage to re-imagine what could happen.

Innovation requires creative thinking and testing hunches with real world experiments. Re:Imagining Change is an introduction to our methodology and a report-back from our first five years of experimentation in what we've come to call story-based strategy.

1.2 Our Approach: Story-based Strategy

The universe is made of stories, not atoms.

~Muriel Rukeyser

Stories come in all shapes and sizes: daily anecdotes, movies, fables, or pre-packaged "news" stories created by the media. The stories we tell show what we value; the deepest personal narratives we carry in our hearts and memories remind us who we are and where we come from.

Historically, the power of stories and storytelling has been at the center of social change efforts. Organizers rely on storytelling to build relationships, unite constituencies, name problems, and mobilize people. Movements have won public support with powerful stories like Rosa Parks' refusal to change seats, the AIDS quilt carpeting the National Mall in Washington, or the polar bear stranded in a sea of melted ice.

SmartMeme uses storytelling to integrate traditional organizing methods with messaging, framing, and cultural intervention. Our training curriculum explores the role of narrative in maintaining the entrenched relationships of power and privilege that define the status quo. Story-based strategy views social change through the lens of narrative power and positions storytelling at the center of social change strategy. This framework provides tools to craft more effective social change messages, challenge assumptions, intervene in prevailing cultural narratives, and change the stories that shape popular culture. Re:Imagining Change is an introduction to story-based strategy and outlines some of the analytical tools and practical strategies smartMeme has used to fuse storytelling and campaigning. (Image 1.1)

1.3 About Re:Imagining Change

Risk more than others think is safe,
Care more than others think is wise,
Dream more than others think is practical,
Expect more than others think is possible.


Re:Imagining Change is a stand-alone introduction to story-based strategy and a curriculum reader that can accompany story-based strategy workshops. We offer tools that can be applied to existing campaigns and explore narrative itself as a social change lens that, when used effectively, can lead to new types of strategies and action. This manual is a resource for people who want to create change and shift our society toward a more just and sustainable future.

We caution that, like all political strategies, narrative approaches must be grounded in principles and ethics. In our case this means a commitment to honesty, undoing oppression, and accountability to our partners and the communities we serve. We situate our applications of story-based strategy in the context of struggles for social justice, self-determination, and an ecologically sane society.

The ideas and tools presented in Re:Imagining Change are ingredients for a story-based strategy, and should be applied alongside the time-tested tools of strategic nonviolence, strategic communications, community organizing, and antiracism.

This manual is divided into five primary sections. The book opens with a visual overview of the story-based strategy campaign model. Section II introduces the theoretical framework of narrative power analysis. This includes using the elements of story to deconstruct the stories we want to change as well as to construct the stories we want to tell. Section III presents the battle of the story method for creating social change narratives and messages. Section IV outlines the points of intervention model with a focus on action at the point of assumption as a means of shifting narratives. Section V presents four case studies of story-based strategy applied in grassroots struggles. The final section explores the unique relevance of story-based strategy in addressing our present political moment as defined by the unfolding ecological crisis.

We have inevitably borrowed theoretical concepts from existing bodies of work. We also humbly offer some new specialized language to communicate innovations in our thinking. Our intent is not to mystify with jargon, but rather to embrace the power of naming to communicate new ideas. We have included a glossary to define key terms throughout the manual. Glossary items are marked in bold throughout the text.

At smartMeme, we approach this work with a curious spirit of experimentation. After five years of developing and applying these ideas, we still have far more questions than answers. It is our sincere hope that Re:Imagining Change will be a conversation starter with people from all walks of life who are willing to think big, dream hard, and struggle like hell for a better world. Share your critiques, ideas, questions, and stories ... join the conversation at

Story-based Strategy Campaign Model

We dream in narrative, day-dream in narrative, remember, anticipate, hope, despair, believe, doubt, plan, revise, criticize, construct, gossip, learn, hate, and love by narrative.

~Barbara Hardy


Narrative Power Analysis

2.1 We Are Made of Stories

There is no agony like bearing an untold story inside of you.

~Zora Neale Hurston

We live in a world shaped by stories. Stories are the threads of our lives and the fabric of human cultures. A story can unite or divide people(s), obscure issues, or spotlight new perspectives. A story can inform or deceive, enlighten or entertain, or even do all of the above.

As humans, we are literally hardwired for narrative. Harvard University evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker argues that stories are essential to human learning and building relationships in social groups. There is growing consensus in the scientific community that the neurological roots of both storytelling and enjoyment of stories are tied to our social cognition.

In one widely cited 1944 experiment, psychologists Fritz Heider and Mary-Ann Simmel showed subjects "an animation of a pair of triangles and a circle moving around a square," and asked what was happening. The subjects' responses (e.g. "The circle is chasing the triangles.") revealed how they mapped a narrative onto the shapes. Numerous subsequent studies have reiterated how humans, as social creatures, see stories everywhere.

Just as we tell ourselves stories about the world we live in, stories also tell us how to live. A myth is "a traditional story accepted as history that serves to explain the worldview of a people." Myths may be mistakenly dismissed as folktales from long ago, but even today a sea of stories tell us who we are, what to do, and what to believe.

People use stories to process the information we encounter from our families and upbringing, educational institutions, religious and cultural institutions, the media, our peers and community. We remember our lived experiences by converting them to narratives and integrating them into our personal and collective web of stories. Just as our bodies are made of blood and flesh, our identities are made of narratives.

2.2 Narrative Power Analysis

Those who do not have power over the story that dominates their lives, the power to retell it, rethink it, deconstruct it, joke about it, and change it as times change, truly are powerless, because they cannot think new thoughts.

~Salman Rushdie

In order to make systemic social changes, change agents must understand the histories and institutions that underlie contemporary social systems, as well as how these histories and institutions shape culture and ways of collectively making meaning.

For example, imagine the following flashback to grade-school geography:

Q: What is the definition of a continent?

A: A large landmass surrounded by water.

Q: And how many continents are there?

A: Seven.

Sound familiar? (Image 2.1)

Let's take another look. With the definition "a large landmass surrounded by water," and allowing that the Americas are two separate continents, there still seems to be one continent that doesn't quite qualify. Apparently Europe as a geographical area has different rules than the rest! It is neither large nor actually surrounded by water. So who made the rules about continents and defined the orientation of the modern map? Maybe Europeans?

A map is a tool to navigate the physical world, but it is also an expression of the deeper shared mental maps a culture provides to understand the world. This is one example of how the history of European colonization continues to influence the way we collectively see. Historic power relations — the social, economic, and political forces of the past — can continue to shape how we understand the present, which in turn impacts our imagination of the future.

SmartMeme describes culture as a matrix of shared mental maps that define how we collectively create meaning and understand the world around us. Inevitably, popular culture is an ever-evolving, contested space of struggle, where competing voices, experiences, and perspectives fight to answer the questions: Whose maps determine what is meaningful? Whose stories are considered "true"?

Whether you call them stories, cosmologies, myths, meta-narratives, the status quo, or some other word, it is clear that powerful stories can shape and inform how we see the world. (Image 2.2)

As certain ideas, practices, and worldviews become normalized over time, they form a dominant culture that disproportionately represents powerful institutional interests and perpetuates the stories that validate their political agendas. These stories can become invisible as they are passed from generation to generation — carrying assumptions that become "conventional wisdom."

Many of our current social and ecological problems have their roots in the silent consensus of assumptions that shape the dominant culture: Humans can dominate and outsmart nature. Women are worth less than men. Racism and war are part of human nature. U.S. foreign policy benevolently spreads democracy and liberation around the world ...

To make real and lasting social change ... these stories must change.

A narrative power analysis recognizes that humans understand the world and our role in it through stories, and thus all power relations have a narrative dimension. Likewise, many stories are imbued with power. This could be the power to explain and justify the status quo or the power to make change imaginable and urgent.

A narrative analysis of power encourages us to ask: Which stories define cultural norms? Where did these stories come from? Whose stories were ignored or erased to create these norms? What new stories can we tell to more accurately describe the world we see? And, perhaps most urgently, what are the stories that can help create the world we desire?

Narrative power analysis starts with the recognition that the currency of story is not necessarily truth, but rather meaning. In other words, we often believe in a story not necessarily because it is factually true; we accept a story as true because it connects with our values, or is relevant to our experiences in a way that is compelling.

The role of narrative in rendering meaning in our minds is what makes story a powerful force. These power dynamics operate both in terms of our individual identities — whether or not you get to determine your own story — and on the larger cultural level: Which stories are used to make meaning and shape our world? For example, which individuals, groups, or nations are portrayed as heroic-and whose story is presented as villainous, weak, or just irrelevant?

These questions show the narrative dimensions of the physical relationships of power and privilege, the unequal access to resources, and denials of self-determination that shape contemporary society. Asking these questions is key to bringing a narrative power analysis into social change work.

2.3 Power and Mythology

Myths which are believed in tend to become true.

~George Orwell

Just as activists apply a power analysis to understand relations between key decision makers and relevant institutions, activists can apply a narrative power analysis to understand the narratives shaping an issue, campaign, or specific social context.

Narrative power analysis provides a framework to extend power analysis into narrative space — the intangible realm of stories, ideas, and assumptions that frame and define the situation, relationships or institutions in question.

Narratives can often function as a glue to hold the legitimacy of power structures in place and maintain the status quo. When working for social change, it is essential to understand specifically how these narratives operate.

For example, when confronted with ongoing injustice, some people will say, "that's just the way things are." In this dominant culture narrative, politicians, generals, and corporate executives have power but the rest of us don't. This is one of the most common assumptions that normalizes existing power dynamics and makes them appear unchangeable.


Excerpted from Re:Imagining Change by Patrick Reinsborough, Doyle Canning. Copyright © 2010 PM Press. Excerpted by permission of PM Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Patrick Reinsborough cofounded the smartMeme strategy and training project as a vehicle to explore the intersections of social change strategy, imagination, and narrative. He lives in San Francisco. Doyle Canning is a strategist, a trainer, and an organizer with a commitment to building holistic movements for racial justice and an ecological future. She lives in Boston.

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