We have the vision. We have the playbook. Do we have the story?

Originally drafted pre-election, this is a working essay inspired by the latest brilliance of Anat Shenker-Osorio: “The fact that we’re having this whole progressive vs centrism debate in our outdoor voices is proof positive that we have not learned to stop selling the recipe and start selling the brownie.”

In a recent interview, One World editor-in-chief Chris Jackson challenged the potential of the progressive imagination. “Radical change is possible, no matter how people try to scare us into thinking [that] the status quo is all that keeps us from disaster,” he said. “We abolished the office, literally overnight, and, with hope, it will never be the same. What else can we abolish? What else can we remake? What other dehumanizing or broken or just badly designed systems can we re-engineer for human happiness and safety and thriving?”

Though we are together in a fight for an inclusive, equitable, and sustainable future, the progressive movement is advancing across multiple fronts that vary in size, scope, and strategy. We have a common vision for power building. And we’re executing an evolving, grassroots-to-grasstops playbook for politics and policymaking. What too many of us, predominantly in elite spaces and positions, are failing to prioritize is an overarching narrative that tells the collective story of the world — not just the worldview — that we as progressives intend to build and become.

From victorious people-funded political campaigns to a vision of what it means to abolish violent systems such as ICE and America’s police force, the transformative movement building we’re witness to today has been won by strategic organizers and emerging leaders through years, even decades, of intentional narrative work. It’s time to not only lead with but also commit to a progressive story that transcends our “business-as-usual” approach to policy change.

Choosing the world over a worldview

We as a network of people, as a network of communities, and the institutions we operate within have been built to function in a fucked up system. To overcome societal oppression and our oppression in the work, we have to throw away flawed fiction and provide a new story rooted in collective possibility and collective action. It is essential that our narratives — of the past, present, and future — don’t play into the same patterns we’ve been trapped into by the right and instead showcase the world that would allow people to live and thrive with true security, dignity, liberty, and justice.

Progressive organizers especially understand that well-told stories inform our worlds. And as they put working in service of our collective liberation above gaining power for themselves, they are creating a rightful and righteous tension for those in the movement—often, elite establishment—who champion a new world but exercise tactics that cling to the confines of existing or tangential worldviews. “When it is a toss up between a worldview and a world[,] you should walk away from the worldview,” tweeted Dr. Elizabeth Sawin. “What starts to be possible when you orient towards the world, instead of the worldview?” We need to make real what we’ve been researching, advocating, and deliberating over for years. We need to do more to sell the aspirational conclusion we always write at the end of a report or memo, not only elevate the findings.

That is, we need to flip the progressive movement pyramid and use our narrative power from the bottom up. Much of what is moving at the top of the progressive movement is an idea of transformative change but as envisioned and executed within the existing structures of the status quo, a status quo that is literally killing us. Instead of working to replace neoliberalism, for example, we need to orient to the world, not a worldview, and illustrate what it looks like and feels like to break cycles of inequality and begin anew.

Reshaping and rewriting narrative power

We know how we got here, to the unequal and unjust place that the COVID-19 pandemic and unfolding recession both exposed and made worse. That is, we’ve articulated a deep narrative of how historical choices and practices are reflected in and shape our modern-day reality. And, as scholar Tressie McMillan Cottom recently stated at EconCon 2020, “we know who the other side is.” For fifty years, partisan ideologues strategically and successfully redefined the status quo by writing economic stories that remain profoundly ingrained. My communications philosophy is rooted in a refusal to name them, but we’re all too familiar; they involve boots, queens, and forms of water that raise up economic prosperity and rain it down.

The left is almost obsessed with debunking conservative claims. Rather than constantly combating the right’s stories and forever defending our vision and values, progressive organizers and communicators have shown us how to revise the foundations of our public narratives and advance the power of possibility.

“Stop taking your policy out in public,” tweeted Shenker-Osorio. “Your message should be what your policy will deliver.”

As someone who proudly calls Kansas home, it has been immeasurably inspiring and impactful to witness the national campaign for a homes guarantee through the efforts of KC Tenants, directed by Tara “#CancelRent” Raghuveer in Kansas City, Missouri. The status quo won’t easily be rewritten, and KC Tenants is a testament to the strength of solidarity, both in the day-to-day struggle and in developing long-term strategy.

Story is the framework of this solidarity, and it is being told in ways that connect an “individual issue” to broader values, such as public goods and human rights. The stories that uphold a homes guarantee are progressive, not only because they are borne from progressive people and ideas but also because they build on one another, laying out narrative stepping stones to erect the whole story staircase—or the “North Star,” as Raghuveer refers to it. “We haven’t achieved scale. That leads back to narrative: because neoliberal narratives around housing are so deeply ingrained, we need to be more strategic about a campaign to change hearts and minds,” she said. “We need to mainstream the narrative of what’s wrong with the current system and whose fault it is and a vision for a different way…”

As narrative strategist Ryan Senser explains, “Narrative is a strategy towards an end; a tool for restructuring the way people feel, think[,] and respond to the world.” Notably, the organizing efforts of progressive coalitions — including the Abolish ICE, Defund the Police, and 51 for 51 movements — illustrate an inclusive paradigm of interconnectedness, going past our struggles of today and making way for our shared potential and possible liberation of tomorrow.

Across every issue, we must let go of any urge to restate an uninspiring account of what’s practical and instead fight on with a charged, galvanizing story of what’s attainable — as progressive organizers and campaigners, in transcending what’s expected of the party, are working to do. As elected officials, the Squad maintained the organizing spirit and won reelection this year by constantly speaking to and “building a movement that sees my struggle as inherently tied to your struggle, and sees a world where all workers can be uplifted,” said Rep. Ilhan Omar.

Onward—and on the offensive

There are real, and reasonable, barriers to narrative change. Challenging the status quo is hard because its roots are deeply embedded into the very fabric of American society. However, we have seen the shifts in political strategy that are necessary to overcome it. Notably, we must be less reactive. In the end, “what you fight, you feed.” We must fuel the momentum happening among bold organizers, academics, and others who are engaging in the long game instead of only playing rapid response, pushing, for example, narratives that center abundance and deprioritize, and even ignore, scarcity. And doing so relentlessly.

Most importantly, I believe that we have to name the actual villain of our collective story — which will require recasting who the right has villainized, including people of color, immigrants, and the unhoused, and repositioning them as the heroes that they are and can be. This requires that “we center the voices and experiences of people who are directly impacted and try to confront those opposing but dominant narratives whenever we can,” said Raghuveer. This confrontation should also be relentless; by endlessly speaking to our narratives, we can reclaim the space held by the existing and effective stories that remain dominant.

We also can’t let the details deter our direction. It’s, of course, important to be based in facts and data; as Brandon McKoy says, “math is real.” But we cannot lose sight of selling the progressive dream in an attempt to sell pragmatism and policy proposals. We know student debt cancellation, for example, is achievable and good for the economy, but we don’t have to constantly engage in public debates about its policy implications. We should instead relentlessly repeat the economic unburdening it can deliver to people who have been stuck under its weight and that of America’s entire debt crisis; we must tell, tell, and tell again how more of us can live more free.

Ultimately, transformative fights require transformative stories. And these stories, told through the transformative language being developed and deployed by progressive organizers and strategic communicators, are how we build people power, actualize public power, and (re)commit to seeing America fully realized.