Revisioning Social Movement Arcs, Public Narratives, and Citizen Engagement in 2021 and Beyond

Written by Nancer Ballard and Savannah Jackson.


Following the presentation, we have received requests from several organizations and numerous individuals who were not able to attend the presentation, or who heard about it afterwards, asking if we could record and share the presentation. We are now posting the presentation here, free, for our Heroine’s Journey and Beyond audience.  (The original presentation included a provocative Q& A period, but since the original program could not be taped per University rules, we are unable to include that here.)

We have also created a handout that includes links to our research, writing, and activism suggestions, and “how-to’s” on various subjects. That handout can be found here: Narrative and Citizen Engagement Handout Lecture 2021.

Toward the end of the presentation, we offer a number of mental paradigm shifts that we think are necessary to transform our understanding of social action movements from fleeting hero’s journeys into sustainable heroine’s, healing, and integrity journeys.  One of those ideas was to establish “15 Minute Clubs”  that could encourage and support ongoing social action and engagement. Nancer Ballard is currently coordinating a 15 Minute Club pilot program. If you view the presentation and then are interested in becoming a member of the 15 Minute Club pilot program, you can let us know in the “Contact Us” section of this site, and we will get in touch with you.

We appreciate the thousands of followers and guests who have provided us public and private feedback as we have examined the perspectives of participants, witnesses, and those affected by oppressive policies and social change movements. We are grateful to those of you who have accompanied us on our journey to more deeply understand the role of journey narratives in social movements. 

In upcoming posts, we will be focusing on the personal, psychological and biological underpinning of journeys and offer some new perspectives on evolving life journeys in an interconnected  21st century world.

Social Change Journey Narratives and Sustainable Progress

Written by Savannah Jackson; ed. assistance by Nancer Ballard.


As early as 1899, American geologist Thomas Chrowder Chamberlin proposed that changes in the climate could be the result of changes in the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide. Half a century later, Nobel Prize winner Glenn T. Seaborg warned that at the rate at which humans were emitting carbon dioxide, we would soon see marked changes in the climate that we would have no means of controlling or reversing. Another half a century, and numerous international efforts later, climate change today continues to accelerate rather than slow down.

Of course, the movement to protect our planet isn’t the only social movement that has struggled to achieve its goals. How is it that so many of us sincerely want social change, but find our goals so difficult to achieve?

One of the problems is that we—both social activists and the sympathetic public—are relying on social change journey narratives that do not support the goals we have.

Journey stories and narratives are important tools that we use to share ideas, convince others that they should be interested in our goals, and encourage others to actively participate in realizing these goals. Environmental protection, racial and gender equality, and other causes such as LGBTQ+ rights and income inequality, require large-scale, sustainable social change. However, the narratives that have been used to try to bring about these changes often focus on individual action and sudden high-profile moments of change that are presented as changing everything once and for all. In this post we will explore why these narratives are often counter-productive, and we will suggest alternatives that may be more realistic and beneficial for achieving meaningful social progress.

The Paris Agreement, an international treaty on climate change, was signed by 196 countries in 2015 and became law in 2016. It was hailed as a landmark agreement to address climate change and its impacts on a world-wide basis. And it was. But signing the agreement did not change everything; in fact, it changed nothing. The goal of the Paris Agreement is to keep the global average temperature from rising 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. But that can only happen if countries actually make consecutive five-year plans to control and reduce emissions, communicate their plans to the public, support one another, and implement their plans in a manner that is consistent with the longer-term goal. Transformational change requires a slow, tedious, inconvenient, no-guarantee commitment to engage in ongoing shifts in mindset and world-orientation alongside millions of other people.

Heads of delegations pose for a group portrait at the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP21).

We are not used to telling stories about transformational change until after the transformation has supposedly already happened and can be romanticized and mythologized. It is not hard to see why stories that focus on the achievement of a significant milestone are more appealing to us than stories that emphasize the need for long term commitment of personal energy and resources. Social change requires an enormous devotion of time, energy, and attention by thousands and thousands of people in order to achieve even the first remarkable milestone. Success is not guaranteed and the commitment inevitably costs more than we think it will.

When that first milestone is achieved—whether a law or treaty, or recognition of injustice with a pledge for reparations—we want to celebrate our success and assure ourselves that our effort was worthwhile and that our achievement will last. We also want to believe that the extraordinary level of sacrifice, time, energy, money, and uncertainty is at an end, or at least that the change we want won’t continue to require so much work from us. Once the emergency is over; we want to return to our “normal lives.” And so we deceive ourselves into believing that the first step or milestone achievement is instead the culmination of social change, or is such a momentous first step that everything else will roll out automatically.

When the Paris Agreement was signed, people worldwide believed that we had achieved a global commitment to combatting climate change and that success would follow as a matter of course. Each country set emissions-reduction pledges and many people took for granted the fact that these pledges would be met. A scant four years later, to the horror of many, former President Donald Trump pulled the United States, the world’s second largest emitter of greenhouse gasses, out of the agreement. In doing so, he demonstrated how fragile and relationship-dependent transformational change is. Signing an agreement, passing a law, or electing a new official is often a crucial achievement, but should not be confused with success or the guarantee that success will inevitably follow.

When Barack Obama was elected President of the United States in 2008, many viewed the election of a Black American as evidence that the U.S. was finally becoming “colorblind” or “post-racial,” and assumed (erroneously) that the hard work of achieving racial equality was almost complete. It was not until twelve years later that widespread awareness of the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other Black Americans by police officers, and easy-access video proof and testimonies of the violent police response to Black Lives Matter protests, jolted many Americans into fully realizing and/or openly acknowledging that racism has continued to be present everywhere and that we have a long way to go in the fight for racial justice, equality, and equity.

So how do we change our social change journey stories and narratives to reflect the real world without becoming discouraged?

First, we acknowledge—and keep acknowledging—that lasting social change of any type occurs in increments over long periods of time through the prolonged efforts of many people. This shouldn’t discourage us; this is how it has always been. What does discourage us is when we treat milestone actions as ultimate victories, because then we are doomed to disappointment. When the next bump in the road comes, we think we have failed. 

We need to adjust our attitudes and recognize that a milestone or first commemorable step is a significant action rather than the destination. Actions borne of great effort can be followed by a pause, but the exertion and subsequent rest must be seen within a narrative framework in which additional action is both necessary and assumed. Perhaps if we can see significant moments or events as actions rather than ultimate victories, we can avoid burnout and complacency.

Second, we recognize broad-scale public support and participation more, and mythologize leaders less. Social change narratives are often told as hero’s journeys and as such, focus on the efforts of a key individual actor and make that person into a mythic-like leader or hero. Mythologizing a leader is often done to inspire participation, but it can also weaken social movements. Believing that we have a leader who will save us allows us to deny the necessity of long-term commitment from “normal” people. Treating leaders as special heroes also encourages us to believe that only a few special people are needed to change the world, and that only such special people can change the world.

For example, activist Mohandas Gandhi has long been immortalized for his role in India’s anti-colonial civil disobedience movement. His leadership inspired and coordinated many to peacefully resist British control and create an autonomous India, but the tax boycotts, salt marches, home-spun cloth campaigns, and other means of peaceful resistance achieved their intended success because of the wide-spread involvement of “ordinary” Indians.

Individuals can serve as inspiration and can themselves take significant actions, but the truth is that it is the millions of ordinary people who devote their time and energy to a cause who together create change, not one special person. Narratives that encourage and enable large-scale, sustainable social change must be relationship focused. That is, narratives should recognize and emphasize the importance of the actions of a broad network of actors. Within movements working towards social change, relationships create networks of support, motivation, and accountability.

We must view milestones such as the signing of the Paris Agreement or the election of Barack Obama as actions located within a web of other actions that are brought about through a multitude of relationships. Only then can we begin to build social change journey narratives that recognize the achievement of incremental progress while renewing our commitment to our larger goals and strengthening our relationships with one another.

We’d love to hear your stories of how you have persisted and inspired others to value ongoing participation and incremental progress in long-term social change efforts. Let us know in the comments!

The Narrative and the Story

Written by Nancer Ballard; ed. assistance by Savannah Jackson.


Stories are powerful ways to engage people, but they are usually a closed system, that is, they have a beginning, middle and end. This is part of a story’s appeal—the reader or viewer expects that whatever dilemmas the protagonist encounters will eventually be resolved physically or psychologically. Stories provide the reader with a sense of hope and completion—even if their own life feels like a tangled mess.

Stories have narrators, but a narrative is different than a story. A single series of events told by narrators with different perspectives makes each rendition of a story feel very different. The narrator’s perspective and motivations, the order in which events are told, and what events are included and excluded from the story shape the narrative and affect how we interpret the characters and events being described.

Narratives can also encompass multiple stories. Multi-story narratives can often be distilled into a single sentence or phrase, such as “The American Dream” or “Black Lives Matter.” Most importantly for our discussion here, multi-story narratives are often open ended—that is, they do not have a final resolution. 

In a story or story-bound narrative, the reader enters the story-world by identifying or empathizing with the characters or situation. However,  multi-story narratives often include an implicit or explicit invitation for the audience to become personally involved—e.g. to participate– in the narrative and to help determine the outcome of a story propelled by that narrative. For example, “Black Lives Matter” is a declaration about racial injustice, but it’s also a call for the listener to participate in social change.

As we’ve discussed in previous posts, narratives can operate at both personal and social/cultural levels. An example of a social narrative is the colonialist narrative that Indigenous peoples were better off being assimilated into the dominant European-derived culture because their native cultures were regarded as inferior. Another example of a social narrative is the American Dream’s promise that in the United States anyone can succeed if they just work hard enough.

Broad cultural narratives can be true, false, or true in some but not all situations, and they always contain a value-laden message designed to drive attitudes and/or behavior. Individual personal narratives include statements that you repeat to yourself to explain behavior and outcomes in multiple situations such as, “I just didn’t work hard enough,” “Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” “I should have seen it coming,” or “So it goes.” 

Personal narratives that are generalized from incident to incident also contain prescriptive messages that can be helpful, harmful, or both. And, of course, personal narratives are influenced by social narratives, and personal stories and personal narratives can become part of group narratives and gradually alter broad social narratives.

In between social/cultural “master” narratives and individual personal narratives are what can be called “group” or “local” narratives. Local narratives interpret contemporary events in light of master narratives and encourage individuals to align their personal narratives with group and master narratives. Such alignment can be a powerful force for social change and/or extremist zealotry.

In Master Narratives of Islamist Extremism, Steven Corman of Arizona State University describes how Islamist extremists used narratives to interpret contemporary events as threats in order to enlist local participation. The extremist narrative was designed to entice Afghan civilians into seeing themselves as defenders of Islam against the international forces assisting the Afghan government, although the international forces were in fact there to provide security against terrorists. The Taliban portrayed international forces as modern-day Crusaders bent on subjugating and exploiting Muslims, and portrayed themselves as champions of ordinary Afghans, in order to encourage Afghans to take up the Taliban’s cause. By encouraging Afghan civilians to align their personal narratives with the Taliban master narrative the Taliban hoped to create the means to expel foreign forces and replace the democratic government with a pro-Taliban Islamic Emirate.

The recently-defeated American President Donald Trump has demonstrated a similar ability to lead a significant percentage of Americans to align their personal frustrations and anger with his narrative. Trump’s social narrative contends that those who disagree with him are “elitists” and socialists who are trying to destroy America. He also claims mainstream journalists who question his misleading statements or false claims are spreading “false news.”

In his narrative trope, the President simultaneously casts himself as the victim of those who challenge his view of himself and as the protector of true patriots. The fact that the President’s policies are often less favorable for his supporters than the policies of the Democrats, and that many of his claims are grounded on implausible or demonstrably false statements is a testament to the power that socially embedded narratives have to drive beliefs and belief systems. People of all political persuasions can interpret facts to fit their narratives rather than change their belief systems to accommodate inconsistent facts. When narratives operate independently of facts or when facts are treated as fuel for a narrative agenda rather than used to test its validity, then prejudice, rigidity of thought, and polarization inevitably follow.

None of us are immune to narratives that are nonsensical or overly simplistic, or not suited to the facts of the situation. What are your personal narratives—those slogans that you find yourself repeating aloud or to yourself?  Where did they come from?  Do these catch-phrases serve you?  Insult you? Or both? Only when narratives arise from a genuine open-minded inquiry into events rather than a pre-determined or pre-loaded interpretation of meaning and motive, do we have a chance to enlarge our understanding of humanity. How do you fight narratives that aren’t supported by facts?  We’d love to hear from you.