For all of history, we’ve told stories.
Stories about who we are and who we’ll become;
About what we have been and who we will be;
About our mistakes and our triumphs and the messy in between.
Because, life is just that: messy.
Because people succeed and fail, but nobody does it alone.
Because every time some feels like they’re the only one, chances are they’re not.
Because daring to tell stories about our aloneness helps us realize that we are, in fact, in this together.
But, we live in a world that amplifies some stories over others.
Stories tell our past and write our future but mass media only leaves room for one kind of history-maker.
The stories that move mountains are the ones that are authentic, and real, and raw, and complicated, and vulnerable, but we live in a world that expects everyone to wear a superhero cape.
But, the stories in our textbooks, in our newsfeeds and on the billboards on I-94 (or the 606, or the red line, or the 3 express), tell a story—not the stories.
The stories we tell build communities. They create relationships. They comfort the disturbed.
And, they have the power to disturb the comfortable.
Martin Luther King Jr. once said that “the moral arc of the universe bends towards justice”—if only we bend it.
We bend it by telling the stories.
Stories about individuals, about communities, about power, about privilege, and about change.
Stories are not just something we passively consume. Storytelling is something we can actively do.
The stories we tell and how we tell them matter.
They can either reinforce norms, or they can chart a new reality—comfort and disturb—
one by one, bending our moral arc towards justice.
The public gets information through mass media. And, this media tells people how to behave, what to believe, and who to become. As philosopher and media theorist Noam Chomsky explains (2002), corporations understand the way to reach the public (to buy their product or support their business) is through the media. In turn, the media has become reliant on such corporations buying ad revenue to reach their audience. This, he argues, is a propaganda model such that corporations by virtue of buying (or not buying) ad revenue dictate the stories people see. This means that the media has built a mass of people who invest in the corporations that discovered how to reach them—staring at their screens, waiting for the next great story.
The Medium is the Message
The medium in which creators tell a story changes its efficacy. People and technology do not live in a vacuum separate from each other. Rather, technology affects humans and vice versa. Thus, as technology evolves, our tools to tell stories change—as does our capacity to affect human behavior. As media theorist Marshall McLuhan (1964) argues, “The effects of technology do not occur at the level of opinions or concepts, but alter sense ratios or patterns of perception steadily and without any resistance” (p. 26). With this, we must acknowledge two things: first, technology and media has the power to subliminally affect human behavior; second, the way we use such power presents both great promise and grave danger.
In the mass media model, which sees humans as an extensions of technology and content consumers as a public for advertisers, stories available to the public offer a limited world-view predicated on the capitalist systems on which they are built. According to the Geena Davis Institute of Gender in Media (2019), as of 2017 male leads in films outnumber female leads in films two-to-one (para. 2) and when it comes to race, white leads outnumber leads of color four-to-one (para. 6). As gender and media journalist Susan Douglas (1995) explains: “Mass media, predicated on the notion of national, unified market, and their reason d’être was to reach as many people as possible… TV and advertisers offered homogenized, romanticized images of America, which… eschewed controversy and reinforced middle-class, white-bread norms and values” ( p.15). In practice, when the public turns to media for stories about the world, this system significantly limits access to narratives. Author Chimamanda Adichie adds, “The single story creates stereotypes. And the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”
People build communities around media
I have over 1,000 friends on Facebook. Over 1.5 million people liked Lady Gaga’s Instagram photo on March 12th. 103.4 million people tuned in to the 2019 Super Bowl. Billie Eilish’s new single, “Bury A Friend,” has been streamed over 250 million times on Spotify. 4.3 million people ride the MTA every single day, where they encounter creative content—usually from advertisers—plastered all over the walls. Media theorist Michael Warner (2002) identifies the people who consume particular pieces of media as publics: “a concrete audience, a crowd witnessing itself in visible space… Such a public also has a totalitarity, bounded by the event of by the shared physical space” ( p. 66). Thus, when artists—big and small—put creative work out in the world they have the capacity to build communities bound by the work they produce. Given this, we must work to create and share content to build communities unbound by a capitalist agenda and instead produced and distributed with the purpose of building a more just world.
Social work as social justice
Social work—a discipline rooted in both individual self-empowerment and a systems-level approach to creating a more just world presents a promising lens to create and distribute content intended to build communities rooted in social justice. As the National Association of Social Work Code of Ethics (2017) explains, “The primary mission of the social work profession is to enhance human well-being and help meet the basic human needs of all people, with particular attention to the needs and empowerment of people who are vulnerable, oppressed, and living in poverty. A historic and defining feature of social work is the profession's focus on individual well-being in a social context and the well-being of society. Fundamental to social work is attention to the environmental forces that create, contribute to, and address problems in living.” We know that people engage with creative content both individually and within a community. And, we know that the content people consume—or don’t consume—affects the way they navigate the world. With social work (enhancing human well-being), how might we re-imagine getting creative content to the public? And, how might creative content with express purpose of enhancing human well-being transform the way people experience the world?
Hacking Pop Culture
A key tenant of social work includes finding people where they are. Through media theory, we know that people gather around creative content and that because of the media landscape few, very particular people and artists have risen to the top echelons and built a mass public around their media work. There is power in recognizing these artists and creators’ cultural capital. And, there is a need for collaboration between such artists and those working to enhance human wellbeing everyday. Ultimately, engaging the artist means access to the people. If artists with cultural capital can engage in meaningful social impact work, they can reach a mass of people who can carry out such a mission. Additionally, if those who have reached the top can carve space for artists who are not traditionally represented in mainstream media, we can begin shift the whole media system and redefine manufactured consent.
Part 1 — People are what they consume; the medium affects media’s power; the stories we tell unite people, but the capitalist nature of mass media has limited the public’s access to world-changing stories; this limitation is social injustice.
Part 2 — Because we know this power of media, we can hack pop culture to affect positive change and enhance human wellbeing.
In accordance with the National Association of Social Work’s Code of Ethics, media intended for social impact should meet the following standards:
Service - Content should be made and shared with the primary purpose of service, not self-interest. There should be constant interrogation as to how the content serves the world instead of solely serving the capitalist media machine. There is importance in recognizing that creating art itself is an act of service, particularly when the work intends to critique a social structure or address socially taboo topics.
Social Justice - The capitalist media machine is social injustice. It creates a limited view of the world, shuts out marginalized identities from work opportunities, and serves only to make money off of a captive audience. A social justice approach to media requires dismantling these systems. This means greenlighting more scripts that are not traditionally mainstream, building pathways to work at every level of the media industry for people who are not traditionally represented in these spaces, and challenging corporations to put their ad revenue behind content that falls out of their traditional scope.
Dignity and Worth of the Person - At the core of social work is an understanding of systemic racism and oppression. In a media industry built on euro-centric capitalism, so often stories that make it to the mainstream of pop culture are about vulnerable populations, but never by vulnerable populations. This perpetuates stories of white saviorism and glorifies white fragility. In order to promote vulnerable communities’ self-determination, content creators and artists must see them as experts in their own stories. When telling stories about a population of which the artist is not a part, they must engage the community at every step of the process.
Importance of Human Relationships - Much like Warner’s understanding of publics, social workers understand that relationships are the primary catalyst for change. Media for social impact must be cognizant of what communities they are building, how and why. And, when possible, the artist should engage with the community they’ve built around their work, mobilizing their public to civic action.
Doing The Right Thing
Particularly in the digital age, there are many content creators, artists, media companies, and even celebrities that are getting media for social impact right. This is a preliminary (and growing!) list of some of the leaders in the field.
Soze Agency: Soze Agency is a team of artists, strategists, filmmakers, activists, storytellers that creates campaigns around social impact. The agency is worker-owned, with each member of the team on-boarding as a partner. They’ve told powerful stories from the frontlines of family separation and traveled the country with the young activists fighting for gun safety. Their mission? To “achieve real equity for all people in our country and around the world.”
DoSomething.org: This non-profit organization understood the power in digital storytelling long before many for-profit companies. Over the last two-and-a-half decades, they’ve used digital storytelling to mobilize young people to give back to their communities. Through DoSomething’s digital campaigns, youth have clothed half of America’s homeless youth, cleaned up 3.7 million cigarette butts, and 1.4 million pounds of textiles to save the planet.
Lady Gaga + Born This Way Foundation: Not only has the Lady Gaga used her platform in Hollywood to shine a spotlight on mental health and sexual violence, but she also Co-Founded an organization dedicated to youth mental wellness that provides opportunities for storytelling by and for young people. The organization launched an initiative called #ChannelKindness that connected youth with tools to become reporters on kindness in their communities and then shared their stories with the world.
Ad Council: With decades of experience, this non-profit is most well-known for having created smokey bear. The organization uses powerful storytelling and advertising strategies to shift culture. Their campaigns about everything ranging from workforce readiness and girls in STEM to LGBTQ+ rights raise awareness and then drive the public to non-profits doing tangible work in these areas.
Terrible, Thanks For Asking + Still Kickin’: When Nora McInerny’s life took an unexpected turn in her early 30s (she lost her second pregnancy, her father and her husband in 6 weeks), she started writing about it. Her husband’s obituary went viral, she wrote two books all about the messy process of grief and she now hosts a podcast, “Terrible, Thanks For Asking,” where she share’s stories about love, grief and loss. Through these stories, she addresses relationships, racism, sexual violence, classism, ability and more. Additionally, she founded a non-profit dedicated to helping people experiencing medical challenges the afford care they need.
Grey’s Anatomy + Shondaland: When Shonda Rhimes pitched Grey’s Anatomy, executives told her audiences would never fall in love with a character who is late to her first day of work because of a one-night stand in the first scene of the whole show. Fifteen seasons later, that shift culture, change our perceptions of people, and create pipelines to resources for those in need. This season, the show featured the first-ever scene with a rape kit on primetime television and then directed viewers to find support through a partnership with Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN).
Call Your Girlfriend: The podcast features two long distance best friends who call each other weekly to talk about life, friendship, politics, and the world. In this structure, they’ve built tools for women to continue to connect with each other, facilitated conversations about anti-racism, the healthcare system, and community organizing. Plus, when one of the co-hosts was diagnosed with cancer, they tapped into their community of listeners and organized a nation-wide blood drive.
The Mighty: The Mighty is digital health community created to empower and connect people facing health challenges and disabilities. The site has over 2 million users, with a new user on the platform every 20 second. The runs through a core staff of editors who work to curate and amplify stories from the community.
Modern Loss: Modern Loss is a storytelling platform run by and for people who have experienced loss in their life, with all essays coming from community submissions. The founder also regularly hosts events (Modern Loss IRL) where she brings together a group of storytellers to talk about loss in their life and facilitates the audience in crafting their own narratives.
Queer Eye: A re-boot of the early 2000s “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” the new and improved show follows the fab-five on their quest to makeover heroes. Quickly, you’ll see that this show is about far more than appearances: it’s about self-care, relationships, trauma, and community building. Through their work with the heroes, they never shy away from productive conversations about gender, sexuality, racism and classism. Plus, they’ve built a community of dedicated fans who have stepped up to the plate to help some of the most-beloved heroes.
Chomsky, N. (2002). Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media.
Douglas, S. (1995). Where The Girls Are: Growing Up Female With the Mass Media.
Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Media. (2019). The Geena Benchmark Report: 2007-2017. Retrieve from: https://seejane.org/wp-content/uploads/geena-benchmark-report-2007-2017-2-12-19.pdf
Mcluhan, M. (1964). Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. MIT Press. Boston, MA. Retrieve from: http://web.mit.edu/allanmc/www/mcluhan.mediummessage.pdf
National Association of Social Work. (2017). Code of Ethics. Retrieve from: https://www.socialworkers.org/About/Ethics/Code-of-Ethics/Code-of-Ethics-English
Warner, M. (2002). Publics and Counterpublics. MIT Press. Boston, MA.