December 10, 2014

How a Hero Can Save the Day—and Rally Support

Gan Golan/Opportunity Agenda

Who hasn’t fantasized about being a superhero? Who hasn’t wanted to save the day?

Two groups have tapped into our cultural obsession with heroes to tell big stories about the world they’d like to see. The Heroes’ Narrative and the Opportunity Agenda have both laid out practical advice on superhero storytelling.

Heroes’ Narrative is a project of the Communications Hub, which supports the communications needs of progressive nonprofits in Washington State and does occasional trainings outside the state.

The group’s Heroes Handbook helps groups gather stories that convey the drama in the work they do and invite others to join the fight. The handbook outlines six key elements in stories of social-justice heroism:

  • There must be a hero, a real-life person in the community who has values (like  justice or opportunity) and the power to defend those values.
  • That hero is on a quest to promote or defend her values, which could be an effort to change policy or behavior.
  • The hero faces a threat to her values, be it climate change or financial insecurity for families.  
  • There must be a villain that embodies that threat, whether it’s big oil companies or even a particularly malevolent CEO. Whereas a hero is always a person, villains can be organizations.
  • The villain has a weapon to carry out the threat, and it might take the form of an army of lobbyists or a media empire.
  • The hero has tools that help the community. Policy proposals, for example, can be framed as tools to complete the quest and help fulfill the hero’s values of freedom or justice.

The benefit to groups that use this method, says Heroes’ Narrative director Spencer Olson, is that it helps them connect with their supporters in more ways.

“People no longer feel they have to be experts in every detail of the policy,” he says. “Instead, they can communicate with their neighbors about their values. Our success in Washington has been to find and share stories that everybody feels a part of.”

The Communications Hub has worked with groups on such issues as climate change and gun responsibility. This year they helped gather stories, like one from this woman, to get state ballot initiative 594 passed to close loopholes on gun purchasing.

And meanwhile, additional heroism is in evidence at the East Coast superhero headquarters—the New York offices of the Opportunity Agenda. That group uses public-opinion research, communications, media, and the arts to “build the national will to expand opportunity in America.”

Last year the organization introduced Helvetika Bold, a superhero who champions social justice with the power of her words.

Helvetika Bold is the public face of Vision, Values and Voice, a comic-book style communications toolkit for social-justice advocates. Her spirit “resides in anyone who wants progressive change,” says the organization.

The flashy colors and fun look of the toolkit is not just a superficial design feature. The heroes-and-villains theme taps into deeper currents in our consciousness. After all, aren’t many groups truly struggling against towering threats to justice and freedom and health?

Herein lies a tricky matter in advocacy communications.

When telling stories about heroes—which is to say, anybody who fights for justice—you run the risk of focusing too much on the individual.

That’s why, says toolkit author Julie Fisher-Rowe, it’s important to tell “systemic stories” that address the larger social problems behind any given individual’s plight.

Tell a story about a worker who loses her job and health insurance coverage for her family and you may get audiences to sympathize with that one person. But if you tell a story about a worker who organizes her fellow employees being stripped of their rights, you get audiences to understand how her personal struggle is tied to big structural challenges.

Systemic stories, when well told, also reveal the villain as part of a larger problem rather than just being a bad apple. But it’s a fine line.

If you successfully tell a “systemic story,” audiences walk away understanding the larger threat, and, with any luck, the feeling that they can be heroes.

The second Wednesday of each month, Paul VanDeCarr will write about some of the best nonprofit storytelling and what others can learn from it. Readers can submit examples for consideration in this feature via this online form or e-mail Mr. VanDeCarr at Mr. VanDeCarr is the managing director of Working Narratives, an organization that collaborates with advocates, artists, policy groups, media-makers and others to “change the story” on the big social justice issues of our time. He is also the author of “Storytelling and Social Change: A Strategy Guide for Grantmakers,” and is working on a second edition to be released this winter for nonprofits, advocates and storytellers.