Episode 10 / Season 1Shifting Norms Through Culture Change and Narrative Strategy
with Bridgit Antoinette Evans
Bridgit Antoinette Evans takes us on an in-depth journey from the personal to the political as she explains the burgeoning field of culture change. Join her in a powerful exploration of narrative structures, archetypes, and a whole system ecological approach to transforming cultural norms for social change.
Bridgit Antoinette Evans is an award-winning artist and thought leader in the culture change field, and since 2017, has served as Executive Director of the Pop Culture Collaborative.
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Mallika Dutt: Welcome to Leadership Moves, presented by Interconnected. I’m Mallika Dutt. In this episode, I’m joined by Bridgit Antoinette Evans, the CEO of the Pop Culture Collaborative. She is recognized as one of the foremost thought leaders in the culture change strategy field, and we do a deep dive into how we can transform the narrative landscape and the stories and beliefs and behaviors that define American culture. Good morning, Bridgit. It is so great to see you and have you.
Bridgit Antoinette Evans: Good morning.
Mallika Dutt: Welcome to this conversation about culture change. I just want to give our listeners and viewers a little bit of a background about you. You are one of the foremost field builders around the theme of culture change in the United States right now. You’ve brought your love for theatre and performance and art into this incredible alchemy with social justice to explore how we can co-create a different value system, a different culture, a different way of being in the United States and in fact, globally. And to do that, you’ve created this initiative, the Pop Culture Collaborative, that works with artists and social change activists to come together to really experiment and explore how we can embark on the shifting and the creation of a pluralist value system where we really learn how to value one another in all of our incredible diversity in this country. I’m curious, Bridgit as to the paths that led you to believe in so much in the power of culture change.
Bridgit Antoinette Evans: Yeah, well, thank you for having me Mallika. That is a very big question, but the thing that comes to my mind, there are actually three or four women – black women who have I think, really shaped how I came into this work and the curiosity or what I call positive obsession that I have within this work. The first is my mother, who was a civil rights activist in Savannah, Georgia, and really believed when she had children that she was a part of creating a world where we could choose to do anything we wanted to do, very optimistic and hopeful outlook as she was sort of entering her adult life. But she always told us that you can do anything you want, but you need to be improving the world around you while doing it. And I wanted to be an actor, and I had no idea at a young age what being an actor had to do with changing the world or fighting for social justice, as my mother had done. But I knew that I had to figure it out just because I needed to come home for the holidays and hold my head up and know that I was a part of this incredible family legacy.
And so where that led me was to really investigate what the relationship was between a great story, the kinds of stories that I yearned to tell as an actor and producer in the theatre, and the widespread cultural change that I think people in movement – social justice movements, really seek and what I discovered by testing, right. So the first woman was my mother, the second woman was a woman named Saartjie Baartman, who was a South African Khoisan woman who was trafficked from southern Africa to Europe in the 1800s. And I had the opportunity to portray this woman in a play here in New York Off-Broadway, in a workshop, and she wouldn’t let me go. I thought this is a woman who is seeking some kind of justice through the making of a story that she seemed like almost like a ghost that was following me. And so I continued to follow her around the world, producing different expressions of her story – a play, radio drama, etc., in five countries around the world and I thought this is the story, this is a story that can galvanize people to really change the world, particularly around gender based violence, the intersection of race and gender, and exploitation, and empire, and colonialism. It was like a — it’s a Pulitzer Prize winning playwright, an Obie Award-winning play, this is the story.
And while there was great audiences and great media attention on this production, it didn’t really move the dial. And so I had to kind of go back to the drawing board and say, what else is needed to catalyze change at that scale? It wasn’t just the telling of the story, it wasn’t just the experiencing of a story, there was more needed. And what I came to discover through my work with leaders like yourself and Ai-jen Poo and others in social justice movements, human rights movements, was that what was needed was strategy. There is a kind of larger, more systems level strategy in the culture change space that’s needed to really understand how a story not only works within a person or a group of people, but how it contributes to the larger narrative environment that we are all in.
And so the third woman that I would point to is Octavia Butler, who actually coined the phrase ‘Positive Obsession’ early in her career. And she speaks of it as sort of the tool that can help you stay very focused, like laser focused on a question or a curiosity or a challenge throughout the course of your life. The thing that you are — that you will do no matter that you are afraid, no matter that you have self-doubt or that you don’t have support or people look at you like you’re crazy. And I think I’ve experienced all of those things in my career. But that positive obsession with the question of how you actually transform the narrative environment or narrative oceans that people are swimming in through the intentional creation of all manner of story experiences, whether it be stories created by artists or in other realms of pop culture, creatives in advertising or literature or whatever it might be, how can you actually see new realities that people begin to embrace and begin to sort of live and behave and make sense differently through.
Mallika Dutt: So this positive obsession of yours, and that’s such a great way of framing it, I mean, Octavia Butler was so incredibly prescient and ahead of her time, and it’s so exciting to see the kind of attention that her work and her words are getting.
Bridgit Antoinette Evans: Yeah.
Mallika Dutt: Culturally, I mean, in terms of a culture change piece, even just watching the arc of her influence in our pop culture is an amazing thing to witness. When I think about culture change and the narrative strategy that then allows us to actually change the ocean within which we’re swimming, I think a lot about how important stories are even to ourselves in terms of how we make meaning of the world, right. So they’re storytellers who we listen to and who we observe, and then there’s our own ways in which we tell stories and how we engage in making meaning of our own world. So I would love for you to just create for us the arc of culture change narrative strategy story and how all of those pieces come together to really enable us to shift something or to co-create something or to lead to the emergence of something new.
Bridgit Antoinette Evans: Yeah, well, one of the things that’s really helpful to think about, it’s the way I make sense of some of those questions in my mind is I think about things in terms of like the elements of a narrative ocean. And one of them is all the stories, as you mentioned, that we engage with every day in pop culture and other realms of our life, the created content so to speak, that we are engaging with, the magazine article at the dentist office, the podcast that’s in our ears when we’re commuting, when we used to commute to work, some of us, the music that we listen to when we need to be soothed or when we need to be physically embodying joy or anger or all of those things that music helps us to do, the books we read, etc., etc., all of that, that’s a part of the narrative ocean. But another really important kind of story that lives in that ocean or what we call narrative archetypes and these are as we at the Pop Culture Collaborative have come to understand it, these are stories that people already know and believe to be real.
They are these kind of old stories that live in us that we pick up along the way in our lives from the moment that we make our way into this world and throughout our lives, we begin to accumulate this repository of stories that help us to make meaning or in some cases compel us to distort our kind of instinctual understanding of our reality. So these stories, these narrative archetypes, excite our imagination in one way or another. For instance, I might sit in a room with a group of people and somebody in that room might stand up and say, I am the facilitator, everyone stand up. And many people in that room will stand up because this person told them to. And when we step back and we ask ourselves, why, why do you stand up when the stranger tells you to? It’s because we have stories in our mind related to the relationship between teacher and pupil. So when somebody says, I am the facilitator, we begin to tell a story to ourselves about who they are in relationship to us. We have stories in our minds, archetypes in our minds around authority and compliance, right.
And so we begin to actually instinctively make choices and make meaning based on these signifiers, these kinds of stories that live inside of us and the work in our space, in the culture change space is in many regards, it’s about understanding what the story landscape is that already exists inside of us and then analyzing whether that story landscape is helpful and moving people towards their best selves, moving people towards a sense of justice, of inclusion, of belonging, of equity or are those stories helping us, it seems strange to use the word helping us, but guiding us towards instincts that are actually counterproductive, toxic or harmful. And the reality is in that our own world today, it’s a mixed bag, right? There are real stories that we call upon every day that are actually not working for us, working in opposition to our survival, the survival of other people collectively, our ability to feel whole, to feel safe, to feel like we can thrive.
And so the question becomes, what are the kinds of experiences? And in the case of the culture change field, what are the cultural experiences that could ignite a journey of transformation in people, so that they begin to question the stories that are not helping us, and they begin to actually go through the process of dislodging those stories and replacing them.
And to give you a sense of like how delicate and long-term, the process of dislodging and replacing these kinds of stories within our imagination, I often think about narrative archetypes living in us, the way that a really catchy, like 80s pop song lives in you, like where you never remember learning it and yet when it comes on the radio, you can sing every word and you don’t know why. And I have spoken all over the world and often I will show a slide where I put words to a pop song or a popular theme from a television show. I did it once with a roomful of immigrant rights funders with the theme song from The Jeffersons. And what was so stunning was to see hundreds of people with backgrounds from all over the world who could sing every word of The Jefferson’s theme song. And when you get over the laughter and silliness of it, what it helps you to understand is that that this narrative ocean is genuinely like water to a fish. It is genuinely enveloping us every day in ways that are both conscious and subconscious. And the work of the strategy field is to really become quite attuned to the subconscious ways that these narratives are working in people, and to think about how we can develop over time a continuum of experiences that can begin to expand people’s imagination and the repository of stories through which they make meaning in the world.
Mallika Dutt: It’s an incredible time to be having this conversation. We are a year into a global pandemic, so talk about shared cultural experience that the whole world has been immersed in at the same time, unlike any other time really, which has given us insight into how we structure our societies, who has access to healthcare, who doesn’t, inequities, the role of women, and caretaking, the increase in domestic violence in the home, as well as extraordinary stories of care and concern and communities coming together. All of the debates around to mask or not to mask, now with the vaccine rollout, all of the different ways in which we are responding because of the stories that we carry in our different communities and our different cultures and our different races and our different classes, right. And all of these contested places are operating within this shared ocean of navigating a pandemic as we also navigate a deeper understanding of our planet and our relationship to the planet because in this pause of all of us not rushing around and traveling or doing the things that we’ve done so much of in the past, we’ve also had a moment to really think about consumption and the impact of our footprint on this planet and the earth itself.
And so I’m just struck by what you were sharing about The Jefferson song that everybody sings along to and how the pandemic meme, if you will, is going to be has already become sort of this global experience that we all have as a shared reference point. All of this to say that we’re also had an incredible moment of inflection for things to shift and change and emerge in different kinds of ways and so I’m curious about your thoughts on where are some of the places where the social justice world, the art world, the storytellers are coming together in some creative ways or an example of where something has happened, where that shift has taken place in the ways in which you desire, that we desire. Could you share some examples of that?
Bridgit Antoinette Evans: Sure, I mean, I think the one that you point to Covid as being an unifying experience in the sense that it is this rare moment where literally billions of people are having a common pain point and crisis and experience of grief and loss and uncertainty and kind of awakening, a kind of cracking open because of all that has been lost and all of the edifice of like, almost feels like an old world that was standing on shaky pillars before the pandemic and now the dust is in the air as these pillars are beginning to kind of crumble around us. And what has happened in many places in the world and certainly in the US is that social justice movements have both been at the front lines of caretaking people’s grief in this moment, but also taking hold of this very fragile kind of cracking open moment where people feel like it’s not just, what else could happen, we need something new, but that we have no choice but to move forward into a new terrain because what is behind us is literally crumbling. And so in that space, in that opening that has emerged, for instance, in the US, the racial justice movement has stepped in to serve as an extraordinary pillar of meaning making around not only racial inequity and class and ability inequities in the Covid response, but also shining a light on the relentless assault on black and brown bodies by police in this country.
So the thing that has been painful in previous years, over the course of, say, the last five or six years of the Movement for Black Lives is that there are these groundswells, these incredible moments where many of us are focused on the crimes that are being committed by police. And then there are these other moments where people and movements, people who are deeply connected to the racial justice fight, have to live with the painful reality that the news cycle has usurped that attention. And so countless people, black people, for instance, have died at the hands of police over just these short years in moments when most Americans haven’t really noticed, and that is excruciating. And that is because of the rhetoric and the news cycles that have really turned people’s attention away from these atrocities really, and pointed them towards other things, frivolous or not. What the racial justice movement did in relationship to the killings of George Floyd, Brianna Taylor and others in 2020 was to say, this opening, this period of grief/wonder that we are in, in this moment is the time for us to focus, focus as much of our attention as possible on this injustice and inhumane relationship that police have had to BIPOC communities over so many years.
And what they did was not only to organize at the grassroots level across the country, The Black Lives Matter network of organizations and activists across the country and around the world organized it in an incredibly masterful way to bring people into the streets. But they also recognized that change – political power building and cultural change happen across multiple different layers of strategy. And so they also understood that there were symbolic policy solutions that needed to be developed, whether it was at local levels, and really urging city councils to pass measures to decrease funding to police, or whether it was the gorgeously articulated BREATHE Act, which took a lot of these ideas about reinvestment in BIPOC communities to the fact that — to the national or federal level, those kind of symbolic points of legislation became a part of the cultural landscape. They also took hold of this incredible creative moment where artists were painting this statement as Black Lives Matter statement on streets in D.C. initially and then all over the country and turned that into a signifier of a cultural sea change happening across the country and through organizations like Color of Change and the Movement for Black Lives, they also recognized the role that pop culture industries play in creating a story landscape for people to immerse in new ways of thinking new behaviors.
So we saw partnerships and spontaneous action from major streaming services like Netflix and Amazon, who were transforming their home pages to Black Lives Matter curated content so that if people wanted to dig into the legacy of American racism through films that like Selma and others that really looked at the civil rights era or looked at the slavery era or looked at police violence, they could do so, if they wanted to really revel in representations of black joy and genius, they could do so by digging into the content by Issa Rae or other artists who are really embracing the sense that black people live multidimensional lives that include the freedom and the liberation to be loving, to be beautiful, to be embodied and to dance, to feel joy, to express their magic, whatever it might be. People could do that. They could lean in, there were book lists of anti-racism literature that people could buy and those books were sold out on Amazon and all of these other booksellers, particularly independent booksellers were doing record business around long form literature that could help people make meaning in this moment.
So we saw all of these different touch points culturally that actually created a narrative ocean around black futures and the future of this country in which our operating system is rooted in justice and particularly racial justice and the concept of pluralist belonging where we understand that we are meant to do the hard work within ourselves in order to show up differently, to show up with greater accountability across our different identities, across our different communities and geographies, and ultimately to co-create something new in this country, a new America that is rooted in these more just and equitable values. So that’s to me, like an incredibly inspiring example of how different movements, different sectors and industries came together to actually create a new reality that enabled people to change, to transform, to commit to a different path in life and ultimately see themselves as a part of an epic process of transformation in our country that I think is still growing in its momentum today.
Mallika Dutt: And what’s been so incredibly powerful about this momentum has also, for me, being the impact of all of this globally and watching the reverberations of the Movement for Black Lives and everything that you just described to take hold, to take hold of the imagination of people who are experiencing discrimination on the basis of caste or ethnicity or religion or different kinds of belief systems, being able to really build on the momentum that emerged out of this movement in the United States and make it their own and find ways in which to begin this conversation and this dialog in their own cultures and in their own contexts. Bridgit, what you just laid out was really the importance of an ecosystem right, when you put on a culture change hat, if you will, and once you start looking at the world through a culture change lens, then you start understanding that ecosystems need to be engaged for things to shift and change and emerge differently. So you’ve talked about a moment, a political moment, an opening in terms of what was happening because of the pandemic and other issues in the country, you’ve spoken about the role of artists and storytellers, you’ve talked about the role of organizers and people who really understand power analysis and understand how to deploy that.
You’ve talked about the role of policy and advocacy with new legislation being encouraged and all kinds of organizing happening from the city level to the federal level to move the needle on these issues. You’ve talked about the role of institutions – storytelling institutions like Netflix and Amazon. You’ve talked about the role of books, and you’ve also talked about the role of the self, of the individuals that need to then step into these moments and take responsibility for their own education, for their own transformation as they read or watch or converse or dialog or organize to start doing things differently. And so we also saw a lot of white communities, a lot of white people, young people especially, also taking to the streets in solidarity and looking at how these conversations could become infused in their own communities and in their own world as well. And so this ecosystem approach where sort of serves community, systems, and actually the entire planet kind of come together in this interconnected way to move culture change, I think is such an important understanding of this concept in the social justice world.
And particularly when we talk about organizations, we can sometimes be extremely narrow in our understanding of what it is that we’re trying to do, or we can have a very big goal without really understanding all of the different pieces that need to come together for that goal to be realized. And so I am reflecting on what you’ve just described and thinking about what would be your advice to a leader of an organization if they wanted to embark on really incorporating a culture change narrative strategy approach into their work? Where would you invite them to begin this journey? What are the kinds of questions they might ask? Where might they go to explore, how this might apply to their work? So that’s the question I have for you now.
Bridgit Antoinette Evans: Yeah, I think one of the first things that I would say is, culture change work is actually not work that we can do by ourselves. It is not work that can be done with one organization sort of in their own strategy, to do work that really does reach the scale that we need, that has the lasting enduring effect that we absolutely need, we have to work together. We have to work as you noted, inside of ecosystems or ecologies of people who are doing parts of that work and it is all coming together to create a kind of vast infrastructure for the change that we seek. So the way — there are two things that I think should be noted as you’re entering into the process. The first is understanding and coming to some kind of an idea about what you as an individual or you are as an organization, are trying to get done through the Cultural Strategy work. And then where does that work live inside of the broader context of work that’s getting done, in the related fields that you are working in. So understanding that sort of ecosystem mapping is an important step in the process, because if you say our goal is to change this particular perception of immigrants, that is a big task.
There are a lot of people who hold really, really complicated views of immigrants in our country, for instance. And transforming those perceptions is going to take work at many, many different levels of our cultural environment. And so what is your input and how is that interacting with other people’s input to create a real viable opportunity, to change, to affect change at scale, that’s one thing. The other thing is understanding that narrative infrastructure, which Rashad Robinson goes very deep into, in an essay that he recently published, looking at not only the infrastructure within your own organization, the capacity, the strategic planning, the other resources to activate and organize the partners that you need to be able to actually implement your strategy, the ability to evaluate and reassess, recalibrate your strategy and try again and again to move that strategy forward. That’s the infrastructure within your organization. There’s also infrastructure that you need in the world, right? You need the infrastructure of other organizations. You need infrastructure within the consultant community that might be a part of your strategy.
You need infrastructure within the story making industries, entertainment, advertising, media and otherwise that are helping to take these ideas that you are trying to move into the world and really animate them through story experiences and ensure that they are going to reach the audiences that you hope to reach, right. So there’s an analysis of the infrastructure, and it’s really important to understand the gap between the infrastructure that exists and the infrastructure that’s needed because you do actually need to be able to articulate that in your needs when you’re talking to people who want to resource you around network. Funders like myself need to hear you say, it’s not only about the story, it’s also about the infrastructure that needs to be in place in order for this story or this collection of stories to be really useful and to do the work to create the change we seek. The other thing that I think is really, really important that we learn through looking at a lot of culture change processes over the years, including the Civil Rights era and the Marriage Equality Fight, but also looking, for instance, at the growth of the AA movement, Alcoholics Anonymous movement or the rise of minivans or the transition from our trust in natural sources of water to our absolute faith and reliance on bottled water, right?
There are all these ways that culture has shifted, new norms have taken root. And we looked at a lot of them and what we came to discover as a team at the Pop Culture Collaborative was that while culture change happens in a myriad of ways, the intentional development of a narrative system or narrative strategy that a group of people, a narrative network, can come together, join forces and begin to activate around dramatically accelerates the pace at which cultural change can happen. So the Marriage Equality Movement is a really great example of that. It was not one organization moving and advancing these ideas in culture. It was actually a broad network of people who were advancing shared ideas through a lot of different channels, including pop culture, but also door knocking and policies, symbolic policy and all manner of litigation and legislation and through strategies that really looked at one-on-one engagement between people, particularly people within families and friends, right. So there was a whole multiple layers of strategy at the cultural level that were happening in order for that transformation of cultural norms to become possible.
And so looking and delving into narrative systems thinking, in your development of strategy, is a really important part because it enables you to focus on, again, what you are contributing to that narrative system and the new narrative ocean, while also having faith and being able to rely on the work that other people within your community or narrative network are doing to also see that new narrative environment. And it’s through that faith in the collective and intentional community of people who are working to create that change at the cultural level, that culture change can happen at scale. So another thing that I would also recommend is don’t delay in finding some thought partners for your investigation of how you will input into a culture change strategy process at scale. Finding culture change strategists who can become your deep thought partners, who you can ask all of the questions and you can test all of your ideas with, is a really, really important step, because we don’t expect that everybody knows culture change strategy. We shouldn’t expect movement leaders to understand everything about how culture changes and the way that you develop plans to do that work. That’s what culture change strategists are there to do.
And when you look for systems level culture change strategy designers, which is the work that I did for many years, those are strategists who can really help you walk through the process of laying down a long term culture change strategy and identifying the other cultural strategists and narrative researchers who can help you to really bolster and create an evidence based strategy that you can then begin to activate through partnerships with artists and other content creators and media makers. So those are the things that I would say will really give you the best foot forward, understanding that you are a part of an ecosystem, understanding that you have a particular role to play and there are questions that you can ask in order to decide what that role is, understanding that there are cultural strategists who can help you to make those decisions, and then understanding that it is through the power of an ecosystem or narrative network of people who are activating around a shared strategy essentially that we get to scale, like national or global scale shifts.
Mallika Dutt: That journey of really coming together and working in partnership with one another and understanding the ecosystem approaches, and then in and of itself, a culture change, is in itself a shift in the culture of how we have operated often in the social justice community or even in the ways in which the nonprofit world and funders and foundations think about what it is that you’re supposed to be doing in the world, so even the journey that you’ve outlined is in and of itself, a narrative shift. It’s a transformation in how we see ourselves and how we do our work. Bridgit, one of the things that often comes up in the conversations that I have with people about culture change is that it quickly becomes a conversation about communication strategy and there’s a difference between a communication strategy and a culture change strategy. And I’d love for you to talk a little bit about that difference and when and where a communication strategy is important and useful and how we can keep the distinction between the two clear as we step into doing this work?
Bridgit Antoinette Evans: Yes, it’s a great question and it does come up a lot in this work. And I think for good reason, because over a 20 year period, the social justice movement radically expanded its understanding of why communications, strategic communications mattered. There was a time when organizations didn’t have communications staff and over the years, due to work of Frank Sharry and others in different sort of strategic communications fields who made the case and sat in the rooms to demonstrate how strategic communications could enhance the work that social justice movements were doing, that we now have a norm within our social justice sectors, that there are comms people on our teams that we work even with external comms consultants or strategic communications firms within nonprofit teams. That’s a good thing. That’s innovation that has become norm and it has a role to play. In the context of change making and I’ll say not from the brand storytelling perspective around an organization’s work, but looking at how strategic communications interacts with public perception and relationship to issues and ideas. What we know is that strategic communications is often really critical area of work in short term fights, right. When we are trying to make the case for a particular legislation or we are trying to capture a particular peak moment in culture, in politics, really, really well resourced communication strategies have the ability to narrowly focus in the positive sense, narrowly focus, media attention and even public attention on a particular idea.
Strategic communications is less, its capabilities are more limited when it comes to moving beyond the sort of like surface levels of our opinions and ideas about how the world works and begin to actually change and transform some of those deeper ideas, like deep foundational ideas, like mental models or it’s these narrative archetypes that as we mentioned before, are helping us to make meaning in the world. Strategic communications is often not necessarily the methodology that one might use to get at some of those deeper ideas, stories and motivations that are at work within people. So we think about culture change strategy as really kind of getting into the deep messiness of people’s ideas and ways of being and ways of relating in the world and strategic communications, really looking at the ways in which we think we know the world, looking at the ways in which we think about the world, not necessarily about the ways we feel about the world, right. So when we think about culture change strategy, strategic communications is absolutely a layer of strategy inside of a larger culture change strategy. But it is layered inside of some systems level strategy that says these are the ideas that sit at the heart of our strategy. These are the new ways of thinking and relating and behaving.
These are the new values that we are trying to advance through this strategy. And then we look at strategic communications by asking how can this specific methodology of storytelling, of idea spreading serve to advance this deeper, broader culture change goal that we have set forth? And then those two things can work together and that systems level cultural strategy can actually become the North Star through which strategic communicators can actually build short term strategies that begin to actually build power around these deeper ideas. So we see this actually interplay happening. For instance, often in the immigrant rights space. Immigrant rights space actually has a really, really advanced strategic communications infrastructure in place. And so when things happen, like the painful crisis at the border in 2018 where children were being separated from their parents, the strategic communications work really served to help focus media attention on the fact that this crisis was happening, and the reality that it was an atrocity. Those two things happened through the work of strategic communications teams across the immigrant rights movement.
Now the work of helping people to understand how they should relate to that atrocity, what they should be doing, and how their own misperceptions, distorted concepts of immigrants or immigration or the permanency of borders and all of these related ideas were contributing to this atrocity, right. Understanding how all of those deeper things were working. We’re really in the realm of work that cultural strategists were doing, by bringing people together for these days of action where incredible storytelling was happening from marches across the country or videos that were being created, that really kind of rattled the cages of our imagination. And I use that term deliberately, not only in allusion to the imagery of that moment of these cages, but also the ways in which our imagination about what is possible in relationship to immigrant justice is trapped in some very, very toxic and harmful constructions of how society works and how citizenship works.
So these stories, whether it was a video or a song that’s being produced by John Legend or it’s children’s books that were helping people imagine a way of being beyond the closed borders of our imaginations, right, like all of these different cultural experiences that the National Domestic Workers Alliance and families belong together, Paola Mendoza as an artist was doing incredible work during that period. All of these ways that artists were helping people sort of break open the bars of their imagination and think about what just immigration could look like. That’s the cultural strategy work. And in an ideal world, those two things – the strategic comms work and the cultural strategy work are happening in deep alignment so that where we land as this kind of crisis begins to evolve, is in a place of greater power to change the conditions of society around immigrants and immigrant justice. And as a field, we are still learning how we work together and so we’re not perfect and quite frankly, we’re not landing in the most powerful places through these experiments yet.
We are gradually and consistently gaining in our power, gaining in our knowledge base, gaining in our ability to collaborate with the infrastructure we need to do it and that’s encouraging but we’re not perfect yet across all of the different movements and cultural strategies that are being advanced. But that’s how in an ideal world, how cultural strategy and communications strategy would work together to build power for deep, transformative change.
Mallika Dutt: You just reminded us about how culture actually evolves and emerges and shifts and changes, and so even as we talk about strategic communications and the field of culture change, the actual journey of culture transformation is iterative. It’s adaptive, it’s emergent, it’s tiny little fractals and big scale, its self and community and other and everybody else. And so what you just articulated is just a reminder that even as we have our concepts and our theories, that when we walk on the land, when we walk the talk, it is a journey of the coming, of unfolding, of co-creation. And that’s the journey that we’re all on. Well, I mean, I think humanity is really on the journey of really asking ourselves, what is this world? What is this earth? What is this culture that we want to be living in and that we want to be a part of? Bridgit, my last question to you is, what’s making you full of delight these days? What’s giving you joy? What’s giving you pleasure?
Bridgit Antoinette Evans: Oh, what a great question. I have to say, I have — I started out the conversation talking about some of the black women who have shaped me and helped me to move along my path. But I’ve become really, really attached to and comforted by a whole range of black women, particularly artists who have either made or are making really incredible stories right now. So I recently wrote about my lifelong love of Cicely Tyson and the ways in which she was like a mentor to me, even though she didn’t know it. And I think she’s an example of a kind of artist that I’ve been trying to really just embrace and learn from and revisit in recent times. So I am feeling a lot of joy and delight, as you mentioned, in the surge in attention on Octavia Butler’s work, because she’s so incredibly brilliant and so many of her stories are moving into production now. I am particularly so excited about Ava DuVernay’s production of the Dawn trilogy of books that I think really are going to be a touchstone and real catalyst for conversation about many of the things that you just mentioned, how do we belong here? How are we connected?
How are we connected from like this planet to kind of other spaces in the universe that clearly have signs of life and are very much a part of who we are here. Octavia went there and she doesn’t just sort of do that in a lofty way. She has very, very concrete theories about how we share lineage with the stars, for instance, and our accountability to land and planet and the bigger, bigger universe that we’re all a part of and how that relates to the minutia of choices and decisions we’re making as individuals and collectively in society. So I’m really excited about Octavia Butler’s worlds and the ways in which they’re becoming more and more centered in pop culture. I’m really excited about the innovation in business structure that Issa Rae is experimenting with in creating a larger media company that incorporates, like her passion projects, the projects that she is advancing for her own creative edification, as well as the Color Creative brand that she has launched with Deniese Davis, that is bringing an entire generation of BIPOC creators along and creating infrastructure for them to build their story telling.
And also she has a music company now and this larger media company that’s integrating all these things together. And so I’m just following so closely that innovation and how you take up space as a black woman in the industry and begin to actually pull the industry towards your way of working rather than trying to find a seat at somebody else’s table, so that’s something as well. And then I mentioned Ava, but I think that the ARRAY model of creating physical space in LA for BIPOC artists to create, to conspire around their change visions, to learn together, and to also be innovation hub for new technologies like the ARRAY Crew app that recently launched that is for the first time creating a very, very accessible way for people across the industry to learn about, contact, hire BIPOC below-the-line crew members. It is extraordinarily exciting to me. And then I would say the last thing is I’m really excited about the ability to be in learning partnership with black transwomen.
And I will lift up one of our grantees, Imara Jones, who is the founder of TransLash Media, who is doing really incredible work to tell a very multidimensional constellation of stories about her life, about her experience, and about the future of trans people in this country. And so I’m excited about all of those things. I’m excited about continuing to be able to grow and expand our community at the Pop Culture Collaborative through those kinds of partnerships with genuinely some of the most brilliant innovators, thought leaders, creators, and organizers in the land. It’s a really lucky position to be in.
Mallika Dutt: And Bridgit, you are one of those brilliant innovators, organizers, thinkers, strategists, and you have been such an incredible partner, collaborator, teacher, inspirer in this culture change journey for me all of these many, many years. And since we’ve talked so much about Octavia Butler and since we are talking about culture change, I’m going to end with one of her teachings from the Parable of the Sower, which is, “All that you touch you change. All that you change changes you. The only lasting truth is change. God is change.”
Bridgit Antoinette Evans: Yes.
Mallika Dutt: And may we all change and transform into the best versions of ourselves for the shared well-being of humans, all species of this very beautiful planet that we inhabit. Thank you so much, Bridgit.
Bridgit Antoinette Evans: Thank you for having me Mallika, this was such an enjoyable conversation.
This series of Leadership Moves is supported by the BUILD Program of the Ford Foundation. Stay connected at Mallikadutt.com.
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.