Mallika Dutt shows us how to bring broad concepts of culture change and narrative strategy into our organizations.  She shares campaigns and music videos on gender justice and practical lessons learned from her time leading Breakthrough.

Mallika Dutt is the president of INTER-CONNECTED and the founder of Breakthrough, a global human rights group that she led for 17 years.  She has produced and created several multi-media campaigns and initiatives that have reached millions.


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Full Transcript

Mallika Dutt: Welcome to Leadership Moves presented by Interconnected. I’m Mallika Dutt. In this episode I take us on a very practical journey to bring broad concepts of culture change and narrative strategy into our organizations. I show you music videos and multimedia campaigns, and practical lessons from my time leading Breakthrough.

Mallika Dutt: Welcome back everybody, it is so great to see you all here, and this time around, I get to facilitate the session, which is very exciting for me, because this work around culture change and narrative strategy has been very dear to me, for quite some time now. We started out in session one with Bridget really giving us a 30,000 foot, 10,000 foot overview of the field of culture change, how narrative strategy works, how you create narrative structures, the ecosystems that are necessary for us to change really the ocean that we are all swimming in, the ocean of culture. In the second session we went much more micro we went into the power of stories and how each one of us is a storyteller and how we might create a relationship with storytelling even as we do our social justice work that reminds us about making sure that hearts and minds are always integrated and how we are communicating, how we are sharing, how we are thinking about the people around us that we are sharing with. And we went through the hero’s journey in terms of some arcs that seemed to work really well in communicating with folks as well as elements of our own stories that we shared at the end with Kirk where he helped us take apart some of their components, so we kind of went from a big macro to a part of the ocean a drop of the ocean, which is stories. In the session this morning we worked with Alan to really take and synthesize some of the teachings from yesterday to think about how we create communications, how do we think about what it is that we want to put out into the world, how is it that we want to change the world how do we, how do we think about audiences how do we think about framing. He gave us examples and then he shared the seven lessons that he’s learned from his time at Opportunity Agenda and from the work that he’s been doing these past many decades in terms of really creating a communication and a narrative strategy that allows us to be engaged with the audiences and communities that we so deeply care about.

So that’s just a quick journey to this moment and in today’s session what I’d like to do is share with you my own journey and also to share a journey that comes from a different part of the world, and this journey was how I entered the world of culture change, of narrative strategy, and I’m going to be sharing with you a lot of the media that we created in India and some of the, some of the lessons that I’ve learned along the way – but also to kind of show how even as we’re giving you all of the structure and all of these approaches that it is important to remember that this is an emergent journey, it is an iterative journey we go, we work with tiny fractals, tiny small stories, even as we imagine big scale and big shift it’s an adaptive journey. It’s not like we now have this theory and now we all just supply it. It is very much a dynamic and magnetic process, it’s a process of deep listening and ultimately it’s about our hearts and the dreams, that we have about the world that we want to live in so that’s a little bit of a frame for where I wanted to take us today.

I began this work about 20 years ago while I was a program officer for the Ford Foundation in India. I was coming out of the World Conference in Beijing on women who had been a part of the movement already for quite a few years, and had started a small domestic violence organization in New York City which worked with South Asian Women who had been abused. I did that, while I was a lawyer at a big law firm, then I went into a small family foundation that did social justice funding around the United States and got to travel around the United States. From there I ended up at the Center for Women’s Global Leadership that was at the forefront of the articulation of women’s rights as human rights and was sort of my first experience of a narrative strategy that tried to shift a public policy, a global public policy understanding of women and human rights and from there, I ended up at the Ford Foundation in India as the human rights program officer for human rights and social justice, and I was really feeling that our work was extremely – okay, let me put let me put it this way, and you know I’m just going to be completely straight with all of you because we’ve spent all of this time together – after all of this work, trying to change the world trying to end gender based violence, promote human rights, my parents didn’t understand a word of what I said.

Nobody in my social community – my parents, my friends, the folks that I hung out with outside of the social justice community, could understand a word of what I said about treaties and public policy agendas and how we need to transform gender and, you know, all of these kinds of things like nobody got it. Now I’m talking about – 2020 right – I’m talking about 1999, no, 2000 so 1995 was the women’s conference. And so, while I was in India, I started to experiment and that took me on this journey that I am going to share with you, and some of the learning that came along. As I shared the media that got created and partnership would be Indian entertainment industry with Ogilvy and Mather, other advertising agencies, I would love for you to populate in the chat with your emotional reactions to what you are watching, I would love to hear your, the feelings that are being evoked as you watch some of these stories and I’m so I’m going to be sharing something, then I’ll come off we’ll have a quick chat and then I’ll go back to another story. And I’m hoping that this will be a really practical, iterative process for you to integrate into your own work so that everything that we’ve been sharing with you can start finding a place to land. So let’s go to the first thing, which is a music video and I’d love to hear your reactions.

Music Video

Mallika Dutt: So, a couple of things that I would love to share with you about this, so I’m looking at the comments and thank you for all of the positive love that’s coming in. So this music video was part of a music album that we created, that I created, kind of on my own in my own maverick where I had this full time job at the Ford foundation, I was just like, how do we do this, how do we communicate these issues to a larger audience. And I kind of went off to the entertainment industry in Bombay, knocked on a whole bunch of doors, got Virgin records to agreed to release the album found the video director, you know the guy who made the music video well, of course, first the music director and the lyricist and the artist, I had no idea what I was doing. But this idea that we had to find a way to communicate the things that we cared about and really reach a larger audience was what was what was driving me and so, the song was inspired by a woman that I had met in my Ford Foundation had at a community hearing on the impact of violence on Muslim women. And I heard this woman’s talking about her story and how she became a cab driver and I was so inspired by her that I reached out to her and then she agreed to be sort of the inspiration for the music video – we of course took lots of creative liberties. And it was one of those things where I had no idea what I was doing, but it was really trying to weave together this partnership with folks who did know what they were doing but who are getting educated about women’s rights and social justice issues and the contrast between the way in which I spoke. And as you can see what they created was quite huge you know I would have been, and we need to create more public spaces for women to access and we need to make sure that women have a path from violence to living life fully and community and empowerment and you know so many things, and so in this three and a half music video, we were able to communicate all of that, in a way that was completely about reaching people in their hearts in their living rooms. 20 years ago we didn’t have social media so getting Virgin on board made sure that we had the scale of REACH made partnerships with the television industry had no idea why all of these people agreed – maybe it was because it was so novel at that time, but it was an eye opener for me about the power of storytelling, and also the power of creative partnerships where my own abilities and challenges as a lawyer, as an organizer as a movement person met the creativity and the abilities and the challenges of storytellers and music makers and musicians and artists. It was a wonderful coming together of this diverse range of talent, if you will, and sometimes I think as social justice people we are loath to partner with folks who are not sort of in the same mindset as ours, if you will, and so I wanted to share this as a possibility of what happens when unlikely partnerships and alliances can come together to create and communicate and share narratives and stories.

This music video then led to the creation of the organization breakthrough that I then ran for 17 years before stepping down, as the President and CEO three years ago. But what I want to do next is show you how the music video idea and the use of culture change as an approach to our work then evolved so I’m going to be sharing three ads with you and I’m going to play them one after the other they’re like about 60 seconds each. And I’m just going to play them for you, and these were part of big multimedia campaigns that were in partnership with McCann Erickson, Ogilvy, that are huge advertising agencies in India. And also, were able to reach millions of people to our partnerships with TV, but let me go to the ads and as you’re watching them, again, I would love to hear how each one is impacting you, what are the feelings that each one of these ads is creating and your own, in your own receiving of the messages, so let me go back to sharing my screen.

Ad 1: I wish you realize that catering to the taste buds of a five member family is no less tiring than your office job. When we go out in the heavy downpour you wouldn’t hold the umbrella in a way that only I get wet. You’d realize that when we’re walking together, you always walk so fast that often I get left behind. You realize that just because your office schedule doesn’t allow you to take a vacation doesn’t mean I don’t need one. I wish you’d wear a condom just because you want to be sure, nothing ever harms me even by chance, even by accident. Today in India 20 Lakh women are infected with HIV, AIDS, mostly because there has been that kind of men who don’t think it’s important to wear a condom. What kind of man are you?

Ad 2: If you feel this is unjust think about that HIV positive woman whose husband dies of AIDS but she’s the one who gets thrown out.

Ad 3: Hello. Bring domestic violence to a halt. Ring the bell.

Mallika Dutt: So I wanted to share those three ads with you because we went through a journey of trying to figure out how to communicate with a larger audience about the issue of women and HIV/AIDS and the relationship between that and violence against women in India. So, as you saw from the first ad “what kind of man are you”, the Ad was created in partnership with, I think that was with McCann Erickson, and we had to go through a whole process of working with the creative team, because some of the ideas that they were coming up with were incredibly sexist and patriarchal and it may have been getting to the point of men wearing condoms with their partners, but it wasn’t really evoking the kind of conversation that we wanted to. So we ended up with that first ad that we showed you which we thought was just so lyrical and such an amazing way of showing the way in which gender, actually gender based discrimination, actually plays out in intimate relationships and so that ad went on air we were working closely in partnership with a network of positive women in India, so a lot, you know a lot of this was happening in partnership with communities on the ground. And we had a whole training program that we were doing with Community based organizations, but we knew the importance of making sure that we had the norm change strategy, the culture change strategy, the norms that were leading to this issue of women getting infected with HIV/AIDS within familial structures and trying to shift the focus away from women and HIV/AIDS only being about sex workers and sex workers infecting men, whereas in fact what was happening was that men were really responsible for very high rates of infection amongst women in their own families so and trying to create that shift you saw a little bit of the jujitsu that we did, because this question of encouraging men to wear condoms with their spouses or their partners, then also raised the question of well are we just implying that all men are having sex outside of their relationships and so you can see, in that narrative structure the complications of showing the discrimination and the relationship when he’s kind of walking right ahead of her and then getting to the narrative punch line about wear a condom with your partner.

You know it just ended up being a little complicated. It created a huge stir, there had never been a conversation like this in a larger public way, and so we were getting lots and lots of calls, reactions, and we created an SMS hotline where people could ask questions about sex and sexuality and we were sort of deluged with questions from all over the country which also kind of indicated the lack of conversation about sex, certainly about safe sex, so it was a it was an amazing campaign and we learned a lot from it. And then we went into this whole question of women being thrown out of their homes as a result of being HIV positive, especially after their husbands died and transitioned. And so there was an increasing homeless population of women who were positive and apart on an increasing population of their children, sometimes the children would be taken in by other members of the family, but the women were being thrown out of their homes.

And so, then you saw what we did with the second ad which was in partnership with Ogilvy. And again, we ended up doing sort of this parallel construction of this guy’s trying to park his car and then you know he hits the motorcycle because some other dude puts him in the wrong direction,

but what does he do he turns around and blames his wife, and so the parallel construction of that with – Why you blaming women for being positive and why are they the ones being thrown out if their husbands are dead – kind of became the way in which we tried to thread that needle and again it created huge conversations in the public domain, and I know I’m not supposed to say, the general public, but when I say the public here humor me because I’m not getting into, you know, whether these were the persuadable or the not or what but we were doing all of this tracking of polling so we were following numbers of people that were watching the ads and then we were doing focus groups of how people were receiving the message and the ads to really understand the narrative arc that we were following. And what we were getting back was that it was pushing people to think it was certainly putting the issue into a public conversation in a way that it had not happened before and people are finding it confusing to go from one argument line -and you’re hearing the sirens in the background, because I am in New York City – so the parallel construction with them the point that we were trying to make and the norm, that we were trying to shift was a little complicated for people to follow.

That research and then the work that we were doing with women and the communities that breakthrough was working within led us to the third ad which was Ring the Bell. And the women in the community said “look it’s great that you want to talk about HIV/AIDS and what’s happening to us outside of it, but really the underlying issue that we face is domestic violence and our inability to even have any of these conversations within our home there’s no way in which we can even ask our partners to be wearing condoms or any of this there’s no space to negotiate, because the underlying problem of violence is so pervasive and so enormous that, can we have that conversation”, and then the second thing that they said to us was “look, without men being involved and shifting violence, nothing is going to change. It’s great that you focus on the women, but the men have to be part of the solution, they have to be part of addressing the problem”. And so the third ad that you saw, which was the Ring the Bell ad came out of those conversations, it was created by Ogilvy and that campaign became a game changer campaign. The clarity of the message line – if you hear something, if you hear violence interrupt it. And there were six different ads and it was go ring the bell and ask for milk, ask for a ball, say you know the mail got delivered to the wrong place, there were all kinds of different scenarios, we had younger people ringing the doorbell, different kinds of people ringing the doorbell, in those in that campaign in the Ring the Bell campaign, and it was like we had sort of uncorked some kind of a genie from the bottle because what happened was that narrative gave men apart to being something other than just the perpetrator. It allowed for a multiplicity of roles to emerge in the context that we were speaking in, so I hope you’re finding this helpful because sometimes in were just talking about it at the theoretical level, it’s difficult to figure out how we actually take this and work with it, and what an iterative, an emergent process looks like.

So a couple of things that I just want to make sure that I leave this conversation with and then there’s just one more video that I want to show you. So one is if you’re thinking in the in the realm of culture, then you’re thinking about norms and you’re thinking about behaviors and you’re thinking about attitudes that you want to shift, a lot of times we get stuck on knowledge, we think if people just know something, ever have a factual piece of information that that is somehow going to lead them to acting in a different way, and what we have discovered – as Kirk also pointed out in the storytelling section is that there are deeply embedded belief systems and as Alan pointed out, competing belief systems within us and around us. Many of them are unconscious and so, if we’re trying to just appeal to the conscious mind and to the factual mind, we often do not communicate effectively and so having a way in which you think about hearts and minds together and therefore thinking about cultural norms is really important.

The second thing is about partnerships, there is no way in hell any of us at breakthrough could have come up with those ads, even the music video. And there’s no way the folks from the entertainment industry would have come up with those ads or that music video without us. It was a creative partnership, where we were all willing to learn from one another, give and take. For me, you know relieve, release myself of many kind of specific ways of thinking about gender justice that allowed this partnership to evolve and it took folks that we were working with to also release a lot of the ways in which they understood gender and relationships across gender to shift for us to be in this creative partnership together.

So I’m going to share one more video with you

Video 4: I’m Ban Ki-Moon, Secretary General of the United Nations. Men and boys in many countries are stopping this violence just by lifting one finger. Ring the Bell.

Mallika Dutt: So I wanted to share that video at the end to, basically, demonstrate where the culture change strategy fits into a larger strategy for the organization right. So that video at the end is pulling out some of the narrative arc that we created, it shows the community based work that we were doing. So, we were using video vans, where we had trained young boys and young girls and young people, to act as leaders to initiate conversations within the communities that the vans were traveling in, and we were using music videos and movies, songs and all manner of things to attract people to those conversations, so that there was a way in to then be talking about some of these issues. We did trainings of women leaders around the constituencies, within the constituencies that we were working with that sort of then became part of the communities and continue that work, and then we invoked celebrities, the UN Secretary General, the Clinton global initiative, so wherever it is that we could find an avenue to move that narrative because while violence against women was something that we wanted to address within India, violence against women is a global pandemic. And the message of ring the bell and the message of engaging men and boys and challenging violence against women was a universal message.

So again, one of the things that we talked about in the first two sessions was the relationship between the micro and the macro and individual story and a universal story and individual story and how it connects to archetypes or how it connects to broader metaphors. And so I think you can see the arc of how you can start threading that needle within your own context and that it doesn’t have to be that you figured everything out from the beginning, but it can be an iterative process with fractals that you bring together.Or if you’re ready to jump into a much bigger culture change narrative structure strategy within your organization and partnerships with your networks then you have the larger framing and the arc that you need to be following in order for this approach to begin to get integrated into the work that we are all trying to do to build a different world.

I think the only other thing that I’ll say is art and creativity really need honoring as well, there are ways in which sort of in our social justice world – and I said that yesterday as well – that we can get a linear into what’s the impact, where are the top five outcomes, what are the three outputs, what are the indicators, you know how is all of this happening, and I, and you know the Black Lives Matter movement has really shown us what having your eyes on the prize allows you to do, while also allowing the building and the creation of something that has the moments, and the opportunities that you see along the way, but that also allows this very creative storytelling hearts and minds approach to shifting norms and shifting culture.

For the time that we have remaining I would love to hear from you about what are some of the questions that still remain for you, what are the challenges, what are the opportunities? How does this whole field of culture change, narrative strategy storytelling, resonate with you and how you might bring it into your work?I think I saw a question. Oh about reporting. So I’m, as you’re thinking about the questions that you do want to bring up, I’m going to actually invite you to unmute yourself and ask the question so Monique would you like to just share the question with the group?

Monique: Yeah it was we were talking in our group, we were wondering how this narrative strategy translates into the philanthropic world and will personal stories and data be viewed as in high regard as other data set points and outcomes, and is there an effort to emerge, the language of what foundations are looking for, as we report our results?

Mallika Dutt: Monique that’s a great question, I mean that was something that we struggled with constantly at breakthrough, because you know it, especially when you’re working on norms like violence and discrimination that don’t necessarily lend themselves to this number of people, received a vaccine or these number of people were educated, you know when is always trying to figure out how to measure those kinds of shifts while also making sure that we’re being true to the spirit of what it is that we’re trying to do so on there’s a fair amount of writing now about how to measure culture change and there is a combination of quantitative reporting and qualitative reporting that you can really incorporate into these measurements and how you share this information.

What I have found with funders is that one size does not fit all. They are quite different in their own approaches and requirements of what it is that they want to do. When breakthrough was being considered for a scholar award for social entrepreneurship, the kind of data driven outcome results that we had to provide them was beyond anything that we had ever had to do for anybody else in the funding world, and so it is a question, and it is a challenge, what I often say to funders is this: “If you had to look at the impact that your funding has had on any one area over a particular period of time, how would you do it?” Right and if you kind of think about where philanthropy has succeeded where it hasn’t succeeded I think everyone’s really struggling with how do we be accountable for what it is that we’re doing, while also making sure that we are being emergent and creative and iterative and the work that we’re doing.

So, based on that question Monique I’m making a note to myself that when we share the recordings with you that we also share some of the resources around evaluation and how one does cultural change evaluation with you.

Ruth McFarlane: I think you were calling on me, I am yeah no it’s helpful to hear the stuff of the last question about philanthropy and reporting and storytelling and philanthropy. I think also one of the pieces that’s been very valuable from this is thinking about audience and thinking about it in the context of, for me, a national organization, foundation that’s doing this doing audience and storytelling to philanthropy within sector, and then we are also trying to amplify the stories being told by our grantee partners and amplify, and and lift up the work that they are trying to do to build power and create change, and so, for us, the company strategic comms work has to keep toggling back and forth in ways that, frankly, can confuse us internally when we’re thinking strategically about who we’re talking to and what’s the story we’re trying to tell and where should we allocate our resources from a staffing perspective, you know. Those are some of the thing just the complicated structure of the organization and then taking these tools and applying them there.

Mallika Dutt: That’s really helpful to hear it from the perspective of a foundation that is both raising money as well as giving money, right, so that’s an interesting insight that you just shared with us. And thank you for that. Nandita, did you have anything that you wanted to contribute to the conversation ?

Nandita Shah: I think that this whole idea of storytelling in a different way, is something that we have also attempted and inspired with you know with friendship with Mallika but the challenge we always faced with is this about, you know, does it, how do you assess the impact, these are the questions that are constantly also raised with us and that’s something that also came up that, how do we assess the impact? You know, even though campaigns reach large numbers, does it have conversion and you know when you’re talking about a thought process it’s not like you know you went and bought something So how do we, how do we get into those areas, and that is a challenge.

Mallika Dutt: Thanks Nandita that I think that you’re all of you this conversation is making me think that we might want to do one of the webinars just on this whole question of evaluation and how do we evaluate particularly social justice, and what are the ways in which the current ways in which evaluation work and the other ways in which they don’t work and what are ways in which we could as a movement and, as a community, start really pushing for change in the very constructive ways in which evaluation gets imposed on organizations and really create something that is, again, for me, an emergent process that allows us to really create the transformations that we want in society, so thank you.

Mallika Dutt: Alvin did you want to jump in?

Alvin Toussaint Herring: Sure, well, first of all shout out to Andre and Lydia who I spent time with in the small group I’ve been and I really appreciated the small group partners. Our conversation really focused a lot on sense of agency that can be generated using these kinds of tools and approaches, narrative tools and approaches and how and how these narrative tools and approaches can not only have impact on the culture on society, but can have we can begin the process of laying down some much deeper kinds of tracks that would we think evidence a more long term and systemic change which, which I think is really quite quite exciting then and then just as to your, that first video was just extraordinary. I mean just extraordinary and we thought it was so powerful because it actually gave a powerful statement about the world we want to see, where we want to be in the world, we want to occupy and for the three of us, we were thinking that this kind of work when it’s using that effort just has even more impact so. And then, a general comment I just find this oh today’s just to be absolutely lovely and glad I could tune in.

Mallika Dutt: Thank you, thank you so much, I received the comment about the video with an open heart and big gratitude, because it was a big experiment that then led to the creation of the organization I ran and that album kind of went out of the public domain and it’s just getting relaunched tomorrow so it just feels like this moment of the wheels turning and someone came and Mann Ke Manjeere will be out there in the world and accessible for folks and I’m going to put that link in all of the resources that I share with you as well at the end, and thank you so much for the feedback on this session. It’s always a little bit of a challenge to think about what can be a value to incredible leaders like yourselves, because each one of you could be leading a training session for this community and there’s 350 approximately of you, and so, trying to find ways in which leadership moves can really be of service in the ways in which make sense and create the openings that we need, as you just pointed out, album for this world that we want to live, in that we want to create.

This series of Leadership Moves is supported by the BUILD program of the Ford Foundation. Stay connected at

This series is supported by the BUILD program of the Ford Foundation.

“Inter-Connected Theme” composed by Devadas, (c) Mallika Dutt, LLC 2021.

Production team: Mallika Dutt, Devadas Labrecque, Ambika Pressman.