Creating Narrative Power from the Ground Up

At a Land Stewardship Project Policy and Organizing Program staff meeting in January 2016, I had a deeply moving experience that will stay with me for a long time. My fellow organizers and I read aloud an early draft of a document entitled, “A Transformational Narrative for LSP Policy & Organizing: A Work in Progress.” I had never seen so many of my own core values and beliefs laid out in front of me on a single piece of paper. The most powerful part of the experience was knowing that these values and beliefs were not mine alone, but shared among the 50 or more LSP member-leaders and staff who had taken part in developing this narrative.

I saw what I learned from my parents about why they farm in a way that values the health of the land, and from my grandfather who was an outspoken advocate for the water, land, and wildlife throughout his life along the Wisconsin River, reflected in ideas so many others had contributed from their own backgrounds as well. By the time we finished reading it I couldn’t help crying, and I had the same reaction the next several times I heard the narrative read aloud.

I can’t overstate the importance of the creation and use of this tool in shaping my understanding of organizing, power, and the work LSP has before Imageus. Our Policy and Organizing Program, consulting with Dave Mann of the Grassroots Policy Project (GPP), convened member-leaders in 2015 out of the growing recognition that in order to achieve the change we seek, we must intentionally contend for power in the arena of narrative.

A “narrative,” as we use the term in this work, is a way of expressing a worldview, or set of values and beliefs, that shape how people see the world. Narrative shapes what people believe is right and even possible; so, what narrative holds the most sway with the most people shapes what is possible. A prime example of a negative narrative at work is the “get big or get out” message being promoted by corporate agriculture and its supporters in the public policy arena.

LSP has recognized that, in so many ways, we are up against a dominant narrative based in values contrary to ours — one that sees the land as a commodity, corporate profits as more important than people’s lives, small- and moderate-scale farming as an inefficient thing of the past, and so on. To get serious about breaking this narrative’s hold on our society and democracy, we needed to start by clearly articulating what we actually believe instead. Initially, in the summer of 2015 I saw value in doing this kind of work. But I worried about the time commitment involved, since I was staffing the just-launched campaign to win a frac sand ban in southeastern Minnesota’s Winona County. But by the time we completed the narrative development process, I understood how essential it was not only for the success of that campaign, but for everything LSP seeks to achieve.

This past summer, GPP produced A Narrative of Rural Abundance: A Case Study of Land Stewardship Project’s Narrative Strategy. This report tells more of the story of our narrative development work and contains insights from members, staff, and allies on the value of this process and the tools created. For me, taking part in that work at the same time as the Winona County frac sand ban campaign turned out to be a valuable learning opportunity. I could directly see the truth of the assertion that, in order to win our goals, we cannot limit ourselves to playing on the other side’s turf; we cannot simply try to frame our issues within the context of the dominant narrative.

If the only narrative that holds sway says that property rights trump all other rights, that economic factors should determine all decisions, and that government must not limit the ability of corporations to do business, then something like a frac sand ban is unthinkable. But if we can build power around a different narrative that says the land has inherent value, the health of the land and of people are interconnected, and the role of government is to act boldly to protect the common good for people and the land, then we can win. And that is what we did in Winona County. We won passage of the frac sand ban in November 2016, in large part because we changed the nature of the public conversation by framing it in our own narrative. And the narrative power we built continues to be effective long after the end of the campaign. Working for narrative change is more than a way to win any particular campaign; the point is to make more possible across the board.

Our narrative development work in the Policy and Organizing Program is one of several threads that have brought LSP to its current level of understanding of narrative as an arena of power. Narrative work has been undertaken in other programs, as well. And in a sense, part of LSP’s mission since its founding has been to operate in the arena of narrative, values, and beliefs: “To foster an ethic of stewardship for farmland.”

Now we recognize a need to unite these threads and move forward even more powerfully. We are embarking on a new, organization-wide narrative development process. This will engage many more members and staff; make sure our developing understandings of racial, gender, and economic justice and the inherent value of the land are all centered; and set us up in a stronger position to build narrative power throughout all of LSP’s work into the future. Stay tuned to learn more.

LSP policy organizer Johanna Rupprecht is based in the organization’s Lewiston, Minn., office. This essay originally appeared in the No. 3, 2019, Land Stewardship Letter.