Vision -- How You Can Use 'SmartMemes' to Win Campaigns, Build Movements, and Change the World

Patrick Reinsborough and Doyle Canning explore the power of narrative for social change in their new book, "Re:Imagining Change."

The following is an excerpt from Re:Imagining Change: How to Use Story-based Strategy to Win Campaigns, Build Movements, and Change the World, by Patrick Reinsborough and Doyle Canning (PM Press, 2010).

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.

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.

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.

But people-powered movements around the world have shown us that power is a relationship; it is a malleable and dynamic relationship between those who have more power and those who have less. The “consent theory of power,” popularized by Gene Sharp, posits that power structures are inherently unstable and propped up by societal institutions that are operated by rulers with the tacit consent of the ruled. When the governed remove their consent or obedience from the power holders, dramatic changes can happen.

This has been the story of countless organizing campaigns and nonviolent revolutions around the world from the resistance to legalized segregation in the Southern United States to the overthrow of dictatorships in the Philippines, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and several former Soviet Republics.

Social change history can be interpreted as a struggle between collaborative power (“power-with” or “power-together”) and coercive power (“power-over”). When grassroots movements mobilize and make change by uniting people to challenge the coercive power of an illegitimate and oppressive authority, this is a clear contest between collaborative power-with and coercive power-over.    

It is easy to see coercive power in its most physical forms: the policeman’s gun, the invading army’s tanks, or the economic coercion when the boss threatens to fire anyone who supports a union drive. In many cases it is harder to see coercive power when it is operating as narrative.

In the 1930s, the imprisoned Italian Communist leader Antonio Gramsci developed the concept of hegemony (coming from the Greek word hegemonia, meaning leadership) to describe how the elite don’t just physically rule society, but, more importantly, they define society’s moral and intellectual leadership. Capitalism, Gramsci suggested, maintained control not just through violence and economic coercion, but also ideologically, through a hegemonic culture in which the values of the elite became the “common sense values of all.” The power of hegemony is expressed through coercion and consent rather than through armed force. This multifaceted cultural process limits the terms of the debate to make ideas that challenge the status quo almost unthinkable.

Hegemony operates in cultural stories that over time gain widespread acceptance and reinforce a dominant perspective or worldview. These webs of narratives are control mythologies, which shape a shared sense of political reality, normalize the status quo, and obscure alternative options or visions.

Referring to these stories as “mythologies” is not about whether they are true or false—again, it is about how much meaning they carry in the culture. Like religious mythologies (both ancient and contemporary), these stories are powerful in that they give people a lens for interpreting and understanding the world. Some myths evolve over time carrying harmful assumptions of hegemonic culture, while others are specifically designed to manipulate for a particular political purpose.

From the notion that “You can’t fight city hall” to the idea that our economies must always “grow,” control mythologies often operate as the boundaries of political imagination and shape the dominant culture. This impacts not only the political education work of social change movements, but also our own activist imaginations. By noticing and analyzing control mythologies, we can reeducate ourselves and re-imagine our world.


“Just as in the game of 'Telephone’ (where a message is whispered from person to person, being slightly mis-replicated each time), selection favors the memes which are easiest to understand, to remember, and to communicate to others…Rather than debate the inherent ‘truth’ or lack of 'truth' of an idea, memetics is largely concerned with how that idea gets itself replicated. Memetics is vital to the understanding of cults, ideologies, and marketing campaigns of all kinds, and it can help to provide immunity from dangerous information-contagions. You should be aware, for instance, that you’ve just been exposed to the Metameme, the meme about memes...”
~ Glenn Grant

The concept of a meme is a helpful analytical tool for exploring cultural influence and the ways in which narrative power operates. Memes are self-replicating units of cultural information that spread virally from person to person and generation to generation, with a life of their own. The term meme rhymes with “dream.” It is derived from a Greek word meaning “to imitate,” and was coined by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in 1976. Dawkins created the word meme as an analogy to the word “gene,” as a way to explain how cultural practices spread. A meme is any unit of culture that has spread beyond its creator—buzz words, catchy melodies, fashion trends, ideas, rituals, images, and the like. Writer and memeticist Glen Grant defines memes as “contagious information patterns.”

At smartMeme we think of a meme as a capsule for a story to spread. If you want to challenge and transform the dominant culture and spread new ideas, you need some vocabulary to talk about the units of culture, and analyze how stories spread, stick, morph, and change. Memes are rapidly fertilized and cross-pollinated in today’s 24/7 multimedia environment. As change agents we need ways to track how information spreads and shapes political discourse.

Memes are everywhere, from personal mannerisms and collective ritual to the advertising slogans and political jargon that dominate the media. Almost anything can be called a meme—but how effective a meme is it? Will it be a passing fad (pet rocks) or an ongoing cultural ritual (shaking hands)?

Over time most memes tend to morph, disappear, or even dramatically change in meaning, but some prove to be resilient and shape the evolution of cultures.

The concept of the meme as an analytical tool and metaphor is useful for understanding the contemporary context of narrative power: information saturation, 24-hour news cycles, non-stop marketing, and sophisticated government and corporate misinformation campaigns. However, that does not mean that a “magic meme” will ever replace real world struggle.

A well-tested sound byte or powerful image alone will not win campaigns or invoke systemic change. But the right meme can help our organizing become exponentially more effective. The story-based strategy approach is not intended to be a replacement for traditional organizing and movement building, but rather a set of complementary tools made all the more relevant by the con- temporary cultural context.

Toward Ecological Justice

There are no passengers on Spaceship Earth. We are all crew. 
~ Marshall McLuhan

The history of grassroots social change teaches, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” This equation refelcts the power of narrative to multiply a social movement’s power when a common story unites and mobilizes popular energy toward shared goals.

At smartMeme, we believe that our times demand that we build more holistic movements with the capacity to tell stories that bring together a commitment to social justice with the vision of an ecologically sane future. We believe that to address the global challenges of our lifetimes, our movements must cultivate a broader understanding of narrative power and develop more sophisticated story-based strategies.

Our movements need to nurture a culture of strategic innovation. Organizations need research-and-development budgets, street level laboratories, and a swarm of creative strategists. We need to shift the activist culture to see innovation not as a luxury at the edge of “the work,” but rather as a necessity at the heart of “the work.” We must be willing to take risks and re-imagine not only a vision for our communities, but also a vision of what social change process and practice can look like.

And make no mistake, bold innovations are afoot: From the community supported agriculture (CSA) program of the Milwaukee racial justice organization Growing Power, to the cross-cutting work at the Center for Media Justice in Oakland, to the community-based corporate campaigning of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) in Florida. There are countless examples of cross-sector work bubbling up in communities across the country.

Innovative organizations are stepping beyond single-issue politics to open new political spaces, test new models and embrace new organizational forms. Leaders are forging new alliances that build unity amongst different issues, constituencies, and movements without creating structures that deny our differences or compromise our diversity. The victory of the Obama campaign showed the power of hopeful stories to unite people, and the mobilizing potential of the Millennial generation, which mashed up Twittering and good old-fashioned door-knocking to get out the vote in record numbers.

Now the Obama presidency (and resulting backlash) has complicated how social movements engage around numerous issues and underscored the need for flexibility and innovation.

In the midst of this historic moment, one of the exciting trends is the growing momentum linking ecological politics with social justice organizing. Around the world, the call for climate justice is galvanizing social movements to address the root causes of the climate crisis. In the U.S., trailblazing groups like the Movement Generation Justice & Ecology Project are designing political education curricula and facilitating strategic planning for action around the ecological crisis for economic and racial justice organizers working in urban communities of color.

New ways of telling our stories that combine ecological analysis with the historic demands for equity and justice are emerging. Memes like “just transition” and “ecological justice” are spreading and challenging status quo assumptions. Visions are taking shape, foreshadowing the multi-racial alliances, networks and grassroots movements that will undertake the grand project of redesigning our society to be both sustainable and inclusive. Collectively the work to craft a politics that is commensurate with the scale of the crisis is evolving.

Story-based strategy has an important role to play in supporting these types of innovations. When we come together across social divides to share our histories and our dreams, new understandings of interconnection can emerge. Storytelling can help us build relationship across divides of race, class, gender, and culture.Story-based strategycan help us articulate shared values and more effectively communicate the connections between all the “issues.”

The name smartMeme is inspired by a vision of grassroots change agents collaboratively creating and unleashing memes designed to challenge assumptions and change destructive stories. The smart implies both effective and networked: memes that are born from and spread through people-poweredcollaboration. Our movements desperately need smarter memes that encapsulate and popularize stories with the creative power to point us toward a more democratic, just, peaceful, and ecologically sane future.

SmartMeme’s years of experimentation lead us to believe there is vast transformative potential in narrative social change strategies. The story-based strategy model that we’ve outlined in the preceding pages is a rudimentary sketch of the possibilities. There are more ideas to explore, more stories to tell, and more interventions to imagine. We offer Re:Imagining Change as an invitation to change agents from all walks of life to embrace a vision of ecological justice, and step into your power as strategists and storytellers.

To succeed we must resist the despair and overcome the denial that have shaped our responses to the crisis for too long. Our generations have the opportunity to lead a path toward ecological reconstruction, mass reconciliation, a more free, just society, and ultimately a better world for all.

But to succeed our movements must become the culture’s storytellers. The transformational stories of 21st-century change will applaud the heroes at the margins, inspire us to face the true scale of our problems, and herald visions of a world remade. They will accommodate complexity, celebrate diversity, and foreshadow the challenges and triumphs we all will face. But these stories will not be handed down from the meme-makers on high. They will emerge as collaborative strategies from communities and grassroots movements. They will emerge from struggle and celebration.

Our movements can transform fear and denial into hope and action, if we have the courage to experiment, innovate, struggle, and win. In the new stories emerging from grassroots movements around the planet lie the creative sparks to reimagine change and remake our world.

Copyright 2010 - PM Press: All Rights Reserved

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Patrick Reinsborough has been involved in campaigns for peace, the environment, indigenous peoples' rights and economic justice for over 20 years. In 2002 he co-founded the smartMeme Strategy & Training Project ( as a vehicle to explore the intersections of social change strategy, the ecological crisis and the power of narrative. Doyle Canning joined smartMeme in 2003, and serves as co-director and creative strategist.