Beyoncé meets Breitbart

My parents emigrated from Mexico to Minnesota more than 25 years ago. I have a big familia. I have 10 tios and tias and 23 first cousins on my mom’s side. I grew up listening to their stories. Whether I was playing with my primos, spending time with my abuelita, getting the frijoles ready for dinner, or hanging out in my tia’s living room with my warm canela in the winter or agua de Jamaica in the summer. I was surrounded by my family’s tradition of telling stories – an art form they had mastered.

Like any immigrant family, there were plenty of stories of hardship and triumph, but that’s a small part of it. There’s funny stuff too – the family myths, big fish stories that used to be true but have long since left the realm of feasibility. How my family members were forced to cross the border could be either horror or comedy, depending on who was telling the story. All my primos recall the strange look on our parents’ faces as we tried to explain to them the concept of a sleepover – why do these strangers want to take care our kids for the whole night?

We mythologized the food from back home in Mexico – I’d hear the stories and imagine a brightly colored world of meats and salsas, mole and fresh nopales. I would picture seasoning flying through the air at the mercado like the Milky Way spread across the night sky. And, of course, there was the utter terror of ICE raids, stories of harassment on the job, being called spics and dirty wet backs.

All these family stories shaped how I saw the world – coloring my anxieties, pride, and resilience. They not only shaped my view of the world, but how I made my decisions in it. We all carry many collections of stories that shape our world – many of our stories overlap, but many are specific to us. Some of our stories are fully detailed, and some don’t have any details, they simply emerge from our brains as commonsense.

Narrative is, in its simplest sense, a collection of stories that have power. They shape our sense of reality and how we make decisions in the world. This is our time to deeply examine narrative – how it shapes our culture, how it’s used against us, and how we can begin crafting our own. Quite frankly, our future depends on it.

In 2013, I like pretty much every other 22-year-old on the planet, was swept off my feet by Beyoncé’s booming anthem of self-confidence: Flawless. My feminist heart burst. I was awed by the #blackgirlmagic. Pushing past the stunning visuals of the music video, and the catchy declarative – “I woke up like this!” – I heard the voice-over in the middle of the song with the words of Chimamanda Adichie, the voice sampled in Flawless – and said “I need more of her.”

I stumbled right into Chimamanda’s 2009 TED Talk The Danger of a Single Story, in which she warns against defining the entire continent of Africa through one story. She calls into question who’s been defining the story of Africa. “How stories are told, who tells them, when they’re told, how many stories are told, are really dependent on power,” Chimamanda stated. “Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person.”What Chimamanda calls story, I’d call narrative. A single story hasn’t defined Africa, but a single narrative has, and it’s had steep consequences. 

In Towards New Gravity, a report by the Narrative Initiative, narrative is defined as: 

…systems of related stories that are articulated and refined over time to represent a central idea or belief. Unlike individual stories, narratives have no standard form of structure; they have no beginning or end. It’s the work of shaping how we see the world around us. What tiles are to mosaics, stories are to narratives. The relationship is symbiotic; stories bring narratives to life by making them relatable and accessible, while narratives infuse stories with deeper meaning. Stories can be told, but narratives are understood at a gut level and come alive by simple words, sounds, signals, and symbols.1  

Taking all this into account, narrative is a prerequisite to culture – it’s the intimate ways in which we exist with each other. It is the ambiance, the groundwork, and the guiding light for our mental process. Narrative has the power to shape the framework of our analysis.Either we think about narrative, or narrative alters how we think.

As I got older, and began taking in stories outside of my family, I ran smack into how the US sees immigrants. Whether meant as good or bad, the repeated stories of immigrants never quite matched what I experienced. On one hand, immigrants were hard workers willing to do the grunt work Americans wouldn’t. We started with nothing and pulled ourselves up by our proverbial “bootstraps”. On the other hand, we were lazy thieves, criminals, trafficking drugs or our own people.

Neither narrative felt real. There seemed to be no room for the intimate, complex realities we struggle through. If it wasn’t triumphant in some grand way, or melancholy in some tearjerker kind of way, it seemed to be omitted.

The director of the UC Berkley Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society, dr. john a. powell, echoes Chimamanda Adichie as he reminds us, “Narratives operate within a broader historical and political context that determine their ability to articulate and silence, to include the stories of some and omit others. [Narratives], like politics and economics, are defined by power.”1

The political climate will require that we, as progressives, go above and beyond what we’ve done in our movement. Narrative work has traditionally been left to artists, cultural workers, and storytellers without the support of the progressive movements’ infrastructure or resources. 

Following the national trend, our electoral work is largely defined by the belief that, through data-driven decisions, and sprinkles of storytelling, we will win people over and change the world. Leveraging data is good. So is having facts and figures about policy issues. But this can mislead us if we don’t infuse facts with allegorical meaning.

People think in stories. As the Culture Group noted in their report on cultural strategy, people are sometimes in politics and, most of the time, in culture.3   

The Alt Right has spent years developing and refining theories and strategies for narrative. The Karl Roves and Steve Bannons of the world have been using this very creative strategy to shape political analysis and discourse for decades. Take the reality of a Trump Presidency – there were many factors that led to that win, but undeniably, the narrative work of the Alt Right played an expansive role.

Bannon crafted a method to influence politics that combines the old-style-alternative-fact-filled attack journalism of Breitbart.com, which Andrew Breibart defined as the vehicle to “take back the culture,” with a more elegant approach, conducted through the nonprofit Government Accountability Institute, that generates meticulous, fact-based allegations against major politicians, then uses mainstream media outlets conservatives typically hate, to spread those “findings” to the largest pool of people possible.

They’re the group that made created the Clinton Cash story and made it a definitive part of the presidential race.4 “Alternative facts” is a funny phrase, and it’s also true that the level of “alternative facts” in our political discourse is reaching new highs and rapidly warping people’s sense of reality. In Minnesota, conservatives are aggressively building their own Breitbart-style narrative infrastructure. The Center for the American Experiment (CAE) is a local think tank that’s been around since 1990, but has only recently reinvented itself in the last few years, making itself relevant in Minnesota politics. They ensured their right-wing analysis had a presence at the Capitol this legislative session with their Thinking Minnesota publication. CAE revamped their website into a multimedia platform, regularly pushing out their narrative through essays, audio clips, online magazines, and more. They’re holding press conferences across the state with the sole purpose of framing issues around healthcare, the economy, education, and so forth.

Following a similar method as Steve Bannon, the President of CAE, also runs a conservative blog called Powerline – a Breitbart type operation pushing alternative-fact-filled perspectives. Far right publications like these didn’t often influence mainstream local media, not until the perspectives of Powerline – which is still in operation – were essentially repackaged under the more polished look and tone of CAE.5 They’re doing the work and it’s effective.

But the right does not have a monopoly on narrative, nor do they claim to. We can, and should, use narrative to help build the future for a progressive Minnesota.

In my junior year of college, I was beginning to feel the weight of tests, papers, and social life – I felt isolated on a campus where I’d never struggled to make friends. I started finding reasons to visit home, which, despite being 25 minutes from campus, I had started to avoid. I’d skip the library in exchange for my mother’s living room. Instead of eating in the cafeteria, I’d eat and read at my mother’s kitchen table. One day, while I was reading and writing a paper at home, I found myself in the company of my abuelita. She’s a short, strong mujer who, at the age 90 can still crack a joke, never misses an opportunity to remind me to sit straight and dress properly, and she can spin a beautiful story from thin air.

Sitting there, she interrupted my studying and said, in Spanish, “Do you ever learn about people like me in those books?”  

I love my abuelita, and can think of no one smarter or more courageous – she raised 11 kids. Despite being illiterate, she learned accounting and helped my grandpa run his business; she taught me and many of my primos the basics of la cocina – and yet I knew, as she asked her question, that the thought was ridiculous. Not because she doesn’t deserve to have her story told, just the opposite, but because in all my years in school, I’d never read about anyone like the people in my family.

I put my book down. I didn’t know what to say – I like to think that she already knew the answer. She rested in her chair and I grabbed her a glass of water. She sat and told me stories, and history, and myths for hours. I went back to school the next day having completely rid myself of my isolation. I walked on to campus with 500 years of Mexico behind me.

When I think on that day, and how I felt days after, I’m reminded just how powerful stories can be when we’re armed with the right ones. Which brings me to my last point. How can we begin crafting narrative on our own?

For progressives, narrative work is a new and burgeoning field. Even if we haven’t invested as much time and resources, we know how to do the work. Narrative is how #NoDAPL went from being about a pipeline to positioning indigenous folks as the leaders on climate justice. We were forced to reckon with our history, and a contemporary US that has not stopped reaping profits at the expense of Native Americans. We stopped using terms like “environmentalism” – terms that, while accurate, can lack real meaning – and started referring to the activists as The Water Protectors. And this was done largely through poster making, iconography, and social media.

While the right may have TV, radio, and think tanks, we find that our ability to out do them in the narrative game becomes achievable, even with different resources.

narrative of police brutality in our country. Black Lives Matter began, in part, as a hashtag, that evolved into a public outcry that mobilized thousands across the country.  They did this while continuing to put forward narrative work – through social media, critical essays, and more – that highlighted the way police brutality is a form of state sanctioned violence, and illustrating the ways our country’s criminal justice system and other major institutions devalue the lives of black people.

The founders – Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi – have ensured that the story of the Black Lives Matter movement is documented. Black artists and movement leaders began doing what they do best, making images, organizing people, and writing poems and essays alike, that never allowed the focus to become over simplified or trivial. Images of Trayvon infused with quotes from Ella Baker flooded websites and social media. Other hashtags like #sayhername and #every28hours continue to deepen our understanding of the issue.  

We need to acknowledge the heavy lifting that our movements have already done, and learn from them. What could we do if our political movements began employing people who understand and have tested narrative? How could we get ahead of our constant-defensive policy fights? Some of the strongest articulations of narrative can be found in the writings of folks like George Lakoff. We have artists, culture workers and storytellers doing this work too – Junot Diaz, Adrienne Marie Brown, Roxane Gay, and our local Ricardo Levins Morales, Free Black Dirt, Electric Machete Studios to name a few.

We can all contribute to narrative because we have the power to add stories to our collection. The quality of our storytelling is important, but the consistency and the volume at which we tell them cannot be downplayed. Narrative does not hinge on a singular genius, but the collaborative effort of a movement to make them lasting and accessible.  We need to aggressively develop our own statewide narrative infrastructure.

Artist, cultural worker and organizer, Adrienne Marie Brown says, “all organizing is science fiction. we are bending the future, together, into something we have never experienced. a world where everyone experiences abundance, access, pleasure, human rights, dignity, freedom, transformative justice, peace. we long for this, we believe it is possible.”

I leave you with this, with the question of my abuelita in mind, with the understanding that we have to imagine ourselves into a Minnesota that has never existed, what stories in your life break the mold of our current political conversations? What ideas do you have to help develop the progressive narrative in our state?

I want to hear from you. 

Arianna Genis is the new Director of Narrative and Cultural Strategy. She joined TakeAction Minnesota as the digital organizer in 2015. Contact: Arianna@TakeActionMinnesota.org 

1.   Toward a New Gravity, The Narrative Initiative, May 2017
2.   Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: the danger of a single story, Adichie, C.N, July 2009 
3.   Making Waves: A Guide to Cultural Strategy, The Culture Group, January 2014 
4.   This Man Is the Most Dangerous Political Operative in America, Bloomberg Politics, October 8, 2015  
5.   Center of the American Experiment: Right-wing lobbyists disguised as a think tank, City Pages, August 19, 2016

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