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American Aspirations: Driving Change by Driving New Narratives

ComNet16’s closing plenary drives home the conference theme with a focus on driving change by driving new narratives. Alfred Ironside of the Ford Foundation and Doug Hattaway of Hattaway Communications will share groundbreaking research on the aspirations of Americans—with useful insights for framing even the toughest issues in ways that inspire people and transcend political divides. (Hint: Connect your cause to people’s hopes for their own lives.)

In exploring innovative ways to drive change in America, the Ford Foundation confronted a major challenge facing its grantees and partners across the country: Certain ideas dominate the public conversation about what kind of country America is and what kind of people Americans are. These ideas often stand in the way of driving positive social change.

For example, programs and policies to help people lift themselves out of poverty run up against the idea that “Americans lift themselves up by their bootstraps and stand on their own two feet.” This is one idea in a “dominant narrative” about America that stands in the way of building public support for anti-poverty programs.

Of course, that idea doesn’t tell the full story. America is also a place where public programs and infrastructure help create opportunity for people to get ahead. Like most half-truths, narratives that only tell part of the story can lead to polarization and stagnation. The foundation and its grantees aimed to drive narratives about America that could transcend divides and motivate people to support positive social change.

The foundation launched American Aspirations, an ambitious research effort to uncover narratives that speak to the aspirations that animate most Americans today. Motivational psychology tells us that people’s hopes for their lives shape their decision-making and behavior. So aspirations are powerful motivators of attitudes and actions—and a powerful place to begin exploring narratives that drive change.

In Friday’s closing plenary, we’ll reveal insights from American Aspirations that can help you connect your cause to people’s hopes for their own lives. We’ll share stories of foundations, nonprofits and social movements driving new narratives by tapping into the motivating power of aspirational communications.

One of those examples is a familiar success story: marriage equality for same-sex couples. In the mid-2000s, the issue of marriage equality for LGBT Americans was a political third rail—and few politicians dared to touch it. Today, the national conversation has completely changed. Marriage equality is the law of the land. A majority of Americans support it, and many politicians have embraced it.

A critical step in driving this change was driving a new narrative about marriage. When the movement talked about the issue in terms of legal rights and benefits denied to same-sex couples, marriage equality was losing in public opinion, at the ballot box, and in state legislatures. The civil rights frame wasn’t moving the needle—because acquiring legal rights isn’t the aspiration most people associate with marriage.

Creating a new narrative about marriage began with asking a simple question: “When it comes to marriage, what are your aspirations for your own life?” The answer was simple, but profound: Most Americans saw marriage as a lifelong commitment to someone they loved. Most didn’t see it in terms of the legal rights and responsibilities that come with a marriage license.

LGBT Americans agreed. Most simply wanted to marry as part of honoring their commitments to each other, not just to get benefits. So the target audience for the movement—American voters—actually shared the same aspirations for marriage as the constituency directly affected by the debate.

This straightforward but powerful insight informed a new approach: LGBT organizations drove a new narrative by telling authentic stories of couples who loved each other, committed to each other, and stuck together through thick and thin. This “storytelling strategy” guided grassroots organizing and advocacy, along with advertising, digital, and earned media tactics.

The new narrative wasn’t the only factor in winning hearts, minds and a Supreme Court victory—but it was a key ingredient. It shows the power of re-framing a controversial issue by finding the common ground that unites people, not just pushing political arguments that divide people.

That’s why the American Aspirations project began by asking people three simple but powerful questions:

What kind of person do you want to be?
What are your hopes for your life?
What kind of country do you want to live in? 

These questions get at people’s personal identity, aspirations for their lives, and ideas about the kind of society that makes it possible for them to be who they want and achieve their goals in life.

American Aspirations is uncovering answers to these questions, and discovering ways to use the insights to help social organizations inspire and engage people in new ways. You can learn more at Friday’s closing plenary, where we’ll also talk about ways you can join forces with others around new narratives that drive change in America.


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