Whether it’s Disney’s Encanto sparking positive conversations about refugees, Nida Manzoor’s We Are Lady Parts busting stereotypes about Muslim women or Alice Oseman’s webcomic (turned Netflix romance) Heartstopper normalising young gay and trans experiences, we are experiencing growing representation and diversification of narratives on our television and cinema screens.
Pop culture for social change (by this I mean work that connects social and environmental justice to pop culture and entertainment) is an area I’ve been researching and cultivating for the past six years and it’s exciting to see how it is developing in the UK. With support from Unbound Philanthropy, I first began researching the UK’s pop culture for social change ecosystem in 2016. I started by reflecting on work in the US, in particular the establishment of a (then) new pooled fund, the Pop Culture Collaborative. And I took stock of case studies highlighting the remarkable power of pop culture to spark social and environmental change.
At that time I recall marvelling at the long-running radio programme, The Archers, which worked closely with women’s domestic violence charities to create its now infamous Helen Archer and Rob Titchener storyline. Media outlets up and down the country were amplifying the message so that even if you were not an Archers fan, you would most likely still be aware of the story. As well as cementing a crucial understanding of the term ‘coercive control’ amongst the population at large, It even prompted a change in the law around domestic violence, which pretty much hits the social change jackpot.
Armed with the influential Archers case study (which Esme Peach and I wrote about in our 2017 report, Riding the Waves), along with a number of other examples from both the UK and the US, I confidently set out to speak to funders and alert them to the exciting potential of work at this intersection. But to my surprise, it proved more challenging than I expected to make the case for trusts and foundations to invest in pop culture for social change. Some funders felt that celebrities were too fickle as messengers or that investment in content creation was too risky, too commercially oriented and too challenging to evaluate and thus out of their scope and would never fly with their trustees. Framed like this, it’s understandable to see how pop culture for social change was viewed with hesitancy at best and scepticism at worst.
But several years ago something shifted in the ether and my sense is that the emerging narrative change community has had a significant part to play in nudging funder perception about the power of pop culture to create social change. The work to explore and understand narrative shifts has created the space for a conversation about the theory of how change happens and the role of narrative in creating that change. It has given us a much-needed vocabulary and has paved the way for conversations about the potential of pop culture for social change in a way that’s easier to understand: after all, the stories we tell through popular culture is narrative change happening in practice.
The Pop Culture Collaborative understood from its inception the significance of narrative change in shifting culture. Chief Executive, Bridgit Antoinette Evans, describes this as follows:
“We are all swimming in a kind of ocean, except instead of water swirling around us, there are narratives… these narratives are influencing everything about how we think about, live, and see ourselves in the world.”
Her analogy of ‘swimming in narrative waters’ allows us to visualise how the culture that is all around us (and particularly pop culture which reaches millions of people) can play a vital role in shifting public awareness and opinion about social and environmental issues. Investment targeted at exposing harmful stereotypes about Muslims in films, in Color of Change’s work unearthing the opportunities to re-write crime stories and police procedurals, and research to understand the impact of immigrant storylines on television (see: Define American and Norman Lear Center’s work: Change the Narrative; Change the World) all help to demonstrate the power of culture to shift these ‘narrative waters’.
More recently, in 2021, again supported by Unbound Philanthropy, Marzena Zukowska and I set out to research and produce a more up to date analysis of the pop culture for social change ecosystem, which culminated in a report called New Brave World. This report embraced the language of narrative change, and in particular narrative power, to describe the opportunities and potential of pop culture for social change work in the UK.
This time the conversations with funders have been completely different. We were able to communicate using a shared language and an understanding of how change happens, with narrative change at the heart of our discussions. Funders are seeing how their investment could pay dividends by building relationships between creatives and social change activists in order to promote a multiplicity of narratives on screen, influencing how systemic narratives play out in popular culture and shifting the power balance so that people who have lived experience, or have historically been marginalised and discriminated against, can lead and shape the narratives that grace our screens. On Road Media, Counterpoints Arts (through its PopChange programme), OKRE and Albert are all pioneers in this space.
The latest chapter of this journey is the launch of a new pooled fund (housed at Comic Relief) called the Power of Pop (PoP) Fund, which is receiving investment from Unbound Philanthropy, Comic Relief, Esmee Fairbairn, Oak Foundation and Paul Hamlyn Foundation. The funding partners all acknowledge the power of narrative and cultural change and view this as an opportunity to invest in a new cohort of creative leaders. Taking on board the findings in the New Brave World report, the PoP Fund is investing in organisations whose work sits at the intersection of pop culture and social change, with a particular focus on migration and racial justice. The first cohort of grantees includes Pocc, Skin Deep and We Are Bridge, which are led by creative visionaries producing necessary work at the intersection of narrative and cultural change.
In New Brave World we wrote that: “The fusion of social change‑makers, movement builders, narrative experts, creatives and funders has the potential to be one of the biggest, driving forces of social and environmental change in our world over the years to come.” This work has begun in earnest and it is exciting to see where this dedicated investment fusing narrative and cultural change will take us in the future.
Alice Sachrajda is a consultant working in the philanthropic and social justice sectors. She currently works as a freelance cultural strategy consultant for Unbound Philanthropy and Comic Relief. She has co-authored two reports exploring the pop culture for social change ecosystem, Riding the Waves and New Brave World and has advised on the creation of the new Power of Pop Fund at Comic Relief. Alice is Co-Chair of the Board of Trustees at Counterpoints Arts, which runs the PopChange project. You can find her on Twitter: @AliceSachrajda
From narrative theory to narrative practice: Cultivating the pop culture for social change… was originally published in Reset Narratives on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.