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“The current political moment calls for bold leaps of imagination, new forms of organizing and a fearless blend of confrontation and celebration.”

Naomi Klein, author of No Logo & The Shock Doctrine


Contributed by and

“There is a basic truth about framing. If you accept the other guy’s frame, you lose.”

George Lakoff
In Sum

The easiest way to win an argument is to redefine the terms of the debate.

Reframing is a process of replacing an old story with a new one by widening the frame, narrowing the frame, or shifting the frame to another scene entirely.

The powers-that-be usually go to great lengths to frame their agenda in a way that is favorable for their interests — think nanny state, tax relief, death panels. Like a camera’s viewfinder, the frame of a narrative focuses the public on specific information that reflects the interests of the framers.

How do you reframe an issue? The first step is to conduct a narrative power analysis see THEORY— a study of how the issue is currently framed, which seeks to identify its underlying assumptions — for example, “there is no alternative,” or “a rising tide lifts all boats,” or “the U.S. brings democracy to the Third World.”

Following from your narrative power analysis, come up with another story that exposes the faulty assumptions of the status quo. For instance, cast new characters who previously haven’t been heard from, or redefine the problem by introducing a different set of values, or pose a new solution that is more compelling than what is currently on offer. Reframing often involves making the invisible visible see PRINCIPLE by highlighting aspects of the story that have been left out of the dominant story.

Next, design a reframing action that seeks to relocate the story. Redirect the public’s focus to the scene of the crime to reveal a villain, whether it’s a corporate boardroom or a CEO’s seventh home. Use an emblematic location tied to an historical narrative, like a monument or a park with a name that is significant in the story (Liberty Plaza Park or a Christopher Columbus statue for instance). Tie your action to high-profile events or dates that are soon to follow, framing and foreshadowing the public conversation around those celebrations. For instance, on Tax Day posing as tax collectors at the HQs of the Big Banks and trying to get them to pay their proper share might reframe the public discussion of tax evasion.

If you expand your reframing action into a campaign, you might succeed in injecting powerful new memes into the media and policy discourse. Adam Kader of the Arise Workers Center in Chicago offers this example:

“Institutions like the Department of Labor and the mainstream media referred to the phenomena of worker exploitation as “non-payment of wages.” Then, several years ago, worker centers designed the “wage theft” meme. This meme overthrows the dominant assumption that wages are the property of the boss, to be shared with workers. Rather, in this new narrative, wages are the property of workers, and have been stolen by the boss. . . . The media has begun to use the meme when they report on our campaigns and legislators have incorporated the phrase “wage theft” in the names of bills”.[ref]Adam Kader, “Storytelling as Organizing: How to Rescue the Left from its Crisis of Imagination,” In These Times, January 10, 2011, http://www.inthesetimes.com/working/entry/6824/[/ref]

Effective creative action should serve the larger strategic goal of provoking a shift in the public conversation. Reframing is often a critical step to winning a campaign and making real change.

Doyle Canning was struck by a tear gas canister in the streets of Seattle in 1999, and has never been the same since. She is a creative strategist with a deep commitment to building broad-based movements for social justice and an ecological future. Doyle is a co-founder of the Center for Story-based Strategy (formerly known as smartMeme). She delivers training, coaching, facilitation and framing to high-impact networks who are taking on greedy corporations, corrupt politicians, racist laws and polluting policies. Doyle is co-author of Re:Imagining Change with Patrick Reinsborough. She lives with her husband in Boston, where she enjoys practicing yoga, cooking, and making music.

Patrick Reinsborough is a strategist, organizer and creative provocateur with over twenty years of experience campaigning for peace, justice, indigenous rights and ecological sanity. Patrick has helped organize countless creative interventions, including mass direct actions that shut down the Seattle WTO meeting in 1999 and protested the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. He is the author of numerous essays on social change theory and practice, including co-writing Re:Imagining Change (PM Press 2010). He is the co-founder of the Center for Story-based Strategy (formerly known as smartMeme), a movement support organization which harnesses the power of narrative for fundamental social change. He lives with his family in the San Francisco Bay area.

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