Narrative Change

Helping us make sense of the world

“Narratives are like the air we breathe: It’s the context for everything.”

- Ai-jen Poo, National Domestic Workers Alliance

Don’t Just Change the Narrative. Change the Narrators.

We must build new and positive narratives about social and economic mobility in order to drive effective antipoverty policies. This can happen only when those who are most impacted by poverty are able to tell their stories.

Narratives are “stories we rely on to make sense of the world” (US Partnership on Mobility from Poverty.). Tracy Wareing Evans at the American Public Human Services Association explains how narratives allow us to make sense of the world efficiently this way:

“We have a whole set of patterns of thinking that we came to the world with every day. When we listen to a new story, we sort that information into an existing mindset that we already have. It’s like a record. Grooves on the record are the existing mindsets. Every time we take in information, it falls into a groove. And the more you hear about the topic or issue, the more it ends up in the preexisting groove you created. If a record got struck in a particular loop, it would just make a deeper groove. That’s what we do essentially to make meanings out of new information. When you think about the fact that organizing frames are shared over time, we also have cultural grooves, common expressions or stories that everybody knows.”

Key Takeaways and Insights

Guiding Questions

  • What strategies are most effective in countering the harmful narratives about people living in poverty? What roles can different actors in the antipoverty field play in narrative change?
  • What narratives should the field advance or shape in order for the public to have more accurate perceptions about poverty?
  • What opportunities and challenges do our current political and social conditions present in putting forth more accurate narratives about people living in poverty?

Our Time is Now

There are competing “cultural grooves” - or narratives - about those living in poverty. The emerging discourse on racial inequities - spurred by the health disparities during the COVID pandemic and the murders of George Floyd and other Black people by the police - provides strategic opportunities to examine the systemic root causes of poverty and to advance a more accurate narrative about people in poverty. 

“The system is on the ropes. We are in a moment of paradigm change…but if we’re not steadfast or careful, if we’re not intentional, that change could go worse. There’s cause for concern as well as cause for glee.” (Dr. Darrick Hamilton, Henry Cohen Professor of Economics and Urban Policy, and founding director of the Institute for the Study of Race, Power and Political Economy at The New School)

NextGen cohort members discussed how the pandemic has revealed structural causes of poverty. As the pandemic devastated several industries, many people have found themselves living in poverty for the first time. The “shared trauma” is challenging the idea that getting out of poverty is just a matter of “pulling yourself up by the bootstraps.”

Some cohort members already observed that, during the early days of the pandemic, many public programs relaxed their bureaucratic procedures and eligibility requirements that made access to these resources very challenging for people living in poverty before the pandemic. The “stimulus checks” also gave Americans the autonomy to make decisions about how to spend their money during the pandemic, unlike many antipoverty programs that come with strings attached. One cohort partner observed a shift in conversations in their state about equitable tax policies that ask corporations to pay their “fair share” in order to “mitigate the effects” of gentrification and the wealth gap that thriving industries, like tech, create locally.

The racial disparities of our criminal justice system have also been brought into sharper focus in how they impact employment and housing opportunities, not only for those who are formerly incarcerated, but also for broader communities of color. In some cases, it led to reallocation of public resources from criminal justice to social programs. In January 2021, the Biden administration elevated the racial equity lens on the federal level by issuing an executive order on advancing racial equity and support for marginalized communities.

The time is now to push for antipoverty programs and policies that respect the dignity and autonomy of those living in poverty and help all communities thrive.

As political economist Darrick Hamilton said, “Before it was, government can’t do that. We can’t say that anymore. We’re in a moment when there’s a desire and thirst, and a belief that these policies [like guaranteed basic income] aren’t just pie in the sky, that we actually can implement them.”

Flip the Script

Not all narratives can propel people to action. While a structural analysis of poverty is important, talking about root causes can feel like “the sky is falling,” running the risk of overwhelming, and not inspiring, people. Tracy Wareing Evans said, “Unfortunately almost every narrative about antipoverty efforts runs against this roadblock. Whether we’re centering the blame on the system or on the individual, both can seem too big to tackle.” However, she is confident that we can “flip the script and create more productive narratives that advance social and economic mobility and racial equity.”

It starts with the language we use. In “Framing Two-Generational Approaches to Supporting Families,” Ascend at the Aspen Institute, using research from the FrameWorks Institute, illustrates the way we talk about people living in poverty does not always lift up their potential. For instance, the guide highlights, “Phrases like ‘vulnerable families’ and ‘at-risk children’ strengthen the public’s associations between public assistance and personal failure and weakness. In short, the public interprets these terms as being about fixing people, not systems.” Instead of this, the guide suggests focusing on “the gap or problem that is blocking equal access to essential resources and services.”

In contrast, positive narratives about poverty focus on the collective We, not “Us versus Them.” It does not cast people living in poverty as villains, or separate from the community. Framed more positively, “when we support everyone in reaching their full potential, we all contribute to our communities. Maximizing people’s potential helps our communities thrive.” As Marjorie Sims, Ascend at the Aspen Institute’s Managing Director, said, “Using terms like we, everyone, communities drives a message of standing in solidarity!” When thinking about the narratives we promote, she advises us to ask this question: “Does this framing position human development as an issue that matters to all of us, or to only those families directly affected?”

Similarly, some NextGen cohort members refrain from using passive words like “clients” to refer to the people in their programs. Other cohort members describe their members as their own “solution architects” and invest in building their leadership to tell their stories and advocate for their communities in media and policy discussions.

“The system is on the ropes. We are in a moment of paradigm change…but if we’re not steadfast or careful, if we’re not intentional, that change could go worse. There’s cause for concern as well as cause for glee.”

Invest in Those Who Are Most Impacted

A positive narrative about social economic mobility speaks to the idea that, in the words of Jesús Gerena, CEO of UpTogether, “Families living with limited income don’t need outside solutions or saviors. Power and solutions lie in the hands of hardworking people, families, and communities.” These narratives are most effective when they are delivered by people who share their hopes and dreams and what it will take to get there.

NextGen cohort members are harnessing this grassroots power to drive narrative change by investing in the leadership of those living in poverty to tell their own stories.

A powerful example is the annual Black Fathers Pledge Rally organized by cohort member Center for Urban Families (CFUF) in Baltimore. In this video, a number of Black men upend “the media portrayals of the nonexistence of Black fatherhood” and “the stereotype that Black men should be feared.” The symphony of their voices and images represents “the total experience of Black men in this country.” Narratives like this fill a “critical missing element,” said Joe Jones, CFUF’s CEO, “about the positive attributes that fathers contribute to families.”

Another cohort member, Jeremiah Program in Minneapolis, established the JP Alumni Network, a 12-month leadership program that invests in the single moms who went through their program and gives them an opportunity to influence programs and policies that disrupt generational poverty. These women become ambassador for their communities. The network gives these participants a sustained social capital to work together and amplify their collective voices. The project manifests the words of Jeremiah Program President & CEO, Chastity Lord – “to step aside and give the largest stakeholders in people of color communities – women, often single mothers – the mic and the pen to author policy and agendas.”

Resources for Action

If you’re interested in learning more about narrative change, please visit:

“There's a long way to go, but I think people [in the social service sector] are becoming more aware and sophisticated in terms of how we want to interrupt harmful narratives by describing who it is that we represent or advocate. I think there's a lot of intentionality around that taking place in the sector today versus two years ago.”

Participant Testimonials

What progress has your organization made
in the past two years?

“Programmatically, Jeremiah Program (JP) has seen a ten-fold increase in applications since 2020, and is experiencing the highest enrollment in the organization’s history. We have been able to meet this demand through investments made in program design and staffing; In 2020 we partnered with 374 families (more than 900 moms and children) in seven communities across five states, and in 2021 we partnered with 1,100 moms and children, more than 475 families.”

Jeremiah Program