Coming up on Juneteenth, which will for the second year be recognized as a federal holiday in the United States on June 20 to commemorate the emancipation of enslaved African Americans in the United States, Rebecca sat down with Trevor Smith, the director of narrative change at Liberation Ventures, an organization working to fuel the movement for Black-led racial repair, for a sneak peek at a new initiative he’s building called the Reparations Narrative Lab. As he describes it, the lab will serve as a first of its kind creative space designed to build narrative power behind reparations. Trevor is also the creator, curator, and editor of a newsletter titled Reparations Daily (ish) and working on his first book, Lethal Stereotypes: How the Stories We Tell Take Black Lives.
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REBECCA VALLAS (HOST): Welcome to Off-Kilter, the show about poverty, inequality, and everything they intersect with, powered by The Century Foundation. I’m Rebecca Vallas. Coming up on Juneteenth, which will for the second year be recognized as a federal holiday in the U.S., on June 17th to commemorate the emancipation of enslaved African Americans in the United States, I sat down with Trevor Smith, the director of narrative change at Liberation Ventures, an organization working to fuel the movement for Black-led racial repair for a sneak peek at a very cool new initiative he’s building called the Reparations Narrative Lab. As he describes it, “The Reparations Narrative Lab will serve as a first of its kind creative space designed to build narrative power behind reparations.”
He’s also the creator, curator, and editor of a newsletter titled The Reparations Daily (ish), and he’s working on his first book, Lethal Stereotypes: How the Stories We Tell Take Black Lives. Let’s take a listen. [upbeat music break]
Thanks so much for taking the time to come on the show. And I have to say, it’s very cool to cross paths with you again. It’s been a minute. It was definitely the before-times.
TREVOR SMITH: [laughs] Thank you for having me. Yes, it was before-times. But these are new times, and I am excited to be here.
VALLAS: [laughs] New times, indeed. We crossed paths the last time when you were actually working at an organization called the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, an organization that I’ve actually had several people from CBP over the years and worked closely with them. You were doing communications and narrative work with them. But I would love for us to kind of start this conversation by giving you a chance to talk about how do you come to this work, this work of narrative shift? Talk a little bit about how you got to where you are.
SMITH: Yes, no worries. And I have to kind of warn you that I’m a bit of a name dropper, so I think I’m gonna probably set the record for names dropped on your podcast. So, to answer that question, I’d really like to start with my parents, Gerald and Olivette Smith. They came to this country as immigrants in the ‘80s from Freetown, Sierra Leone. So, I’ve always really thought it was really cool to come from a place named after freedom, and it’s neighboring a country named Liberia, so named after liberation. So, I think it’s actually quite poetic that I’ve dedicated my career and life to fight for our collective freedom and liberation.
But career wise, I started my career in D.C. I graduated from American University with a undergrad degree in Journalism. And my professors were telling me that my articles were too opinionated, so I decided after school to go into the field of advocacy. So, I started my career at a PR firm called M+R, a firm here in D.C. that only works with non-profits and foundations. It was really great, sunk my teeth in, and learned a lot of great skills that I still use today. And then, as you know, went over to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, where I was a media strategist there. Really was excited to focus on, focus more explicitly on economic policy, something I wasn’t really able to do at M+R, and working on housing issues, income inequality, food justice, and really thinking deeply about how all of these issues intersect with race.
And it was there that I was formally introduced to the work of Darrick Hamilton, Dr. Sandy Darity. They did a paper on the federal job guarantee, on a federal job guarantee, and it’s still get cited today. And I did some of the comms around that paper, and it really inspired me and allowed me to dive deeper into the work of stratification economics. And so, because of that, really wound up arriving at the point of reparations. A lot of what they write and talk about is related to reparations. They’re some of the foremost experts on that. And so, I think I always wanted to go into the field of narrative change. I wasn’t calling it that when I was at the Center, but it was definitely something that I think I was grasping for. And so, that’s what really motivated me to move to New York. I did. I got my graduate degree from New York University, where I got a master’s in Public Administration.
I was working at the ACLU of New York throughout grad school, and I reached out to Dr. Darity when I was moving, and I was like, “I’d love to help with some research, if possible.” He was convening a group of academics who were gonna write a series of papers that would basically highlight what reparations could look like in different sectors: so, what reparations could look like in the housing sector, in health, in criminal justice. And I contributed to what ended up now being it’s now a book. And so, I contributed to the wealth chapter, and I ended up writing the media chapter. And so, my chapter really traces the origins of anti-Blackness in the U.S. and how it was really popularized by our first form of mass media—minstrel shows—and the constant, and how the constant retelling of these anti-Black tropes, stereotypes, and stories have molded the narratives and therefore the collective mental models about Blackness and then how they, these mental models impact Black people in the labor and housing market.
And so, after grad school, I went into philanthropy. I was at the Surdna Foundation for a couple of years focusing on economic narrative change and funding organizations that were reframing how people think about the economy. And while I was there, the issue of reparations was gaining more traction, I think, in the mainstream. And so, I was thinking about how I could use all of my learnings over the past few years in the work that I was doing at Surdna and apply it to the issue of reparations. And so, was thinking about how could I potentially start my own organization focused on building narrative power around reparations? I met Aria Florant and Allen Kwabena Frimpong, two of the co-founders of Liberation Ventures, and they were excited. They were like, “We wanna do narrative change. It sounds like you have a lot of it figured out. Why don’t you come on?” And so, we kind of workshopped a job description together. I came on as the director of narrative change, and I’ve been here for about nine months. So, that is the long, that is a long story of how I arrived at this point, and really excited about digging deeper on what narrative change means as it relates to reparations, but more so as it relates to race and Blackness.
VALLAS: I love that. And you’re dropping names, but you’re dropping names of people that I love, many people that I love, and actually many people who have been on this show at different points. So, I love that whole story.
Before we get into what you’re doing with the Reparations Narrative Lab and really kind of how that is going to work to change narratives, as you’ve been alluding to, to make possible something that a lot of the Very Serious People—capital VSP—in Washington say is not a serious policy conversation right now, that being reparations, before we get into all of that, I’d love to kind of zoom out a little bit and give you an opportunity to talk about what we mean when we say “narrative.” What is narrative? And in particular, how narrative can be a form of power. And I ask that question knowing you have a lot to say on this topic, but also really with the context that narrative change is critical to social justice work because if you are not doing narrative change work, you’re working within the realm of what people consider to be already possible, which is really limiting you. That’s personally my nerdiness, why I get so into conversations about narrative change and bring that into this show on a regular basis, something people might be wondering when they’re like, “Isn’t this usually a show about policy stuff?” Well, this is why narrative really should matter to you even if you’re not a comms person. Don’t turn this episode off going, “I don’t do comms.” So, with that as my little kind of lawyerly caveat here, Trevor, what is narrative? How is narrative a form of power? What is your case for why people who do social justice work should care about and learn more about what narrative change means?
SMITH: Yes, thank you. And 100% agree with you. Communications experts do not get the respect that they deserve. But I know that. I know all the work, the hard work that they do, and my heart goes out to all of them. And yeah. So, to answer your question, you know, first I wanna give a shoutout to folks like the Narrative Initiative, Pop Culture Collaborative, Frameworks Institute, and I think that dozens of social psychologists, psychologists, sociologists who’ve really dedicated their career to really try to define what narrative is. And so, I define narrative as the collection of stories that we tell each other that are rooted in shared values and common themes that uphold a particular frame or worldview. And I love how the folks at Harmony Labs put it. I actually just got off a call with them funnily enough. I love how they put it. They say that narratives are the averages of our most popular stories, and I really love that. And I think that’s a just a really easy way to remember what narrative is.
And then, so then, how it relates to power. Power is defined by social psychologists as the capacity to alter another person’s condition or state of mind. And so, I think that the idea of power then is deeply intertwined with the idea of freedom. And even though freedom is like an abstract value, I think that we can define freedom as the ability to act, speak, think freely, without hindrance. So, therefore, I define narrative power as the ability to tell stories that shift cultural mindsets that define our cultural norms. So, shifting the cultural mindsets that define our cultural norms. And it brings me back to the Frederick Douglass quote where he says that, “Power concedes nothing without a demand.” And that, “It never did, and it never will.” So, to me, narrative, or just stories, are nothing without building power behind it. And so, narrative power really is all about empowering people, empowering movements to tell stories that shift cultural norms, and ultimately, cultural mindsets.
VALLAS: I love that definition. And I wanna refer listeners for some other kind of really good discussion and explanation of what is narrative, why is narrative’s really core to any level of power building or power shifting work. We had a two-part series on Off-Kilter a couple of years ago called Shaping Narrative, Shifting Power, and the first of that series was with Dorian Warren, a dear friend, and Anat Shenker-Osario, really one of the greats when it comes to narrative work and just an incredibly thoughtful leader in that space. If folks are looking for kind of a deeper 101 on what is narrative, why is this really important for organizing, for power building, I would definitely send folks to that conversation, Shaping Narrative, Shifting Power, Part 1. It was just a couple of years ago, can be found in our episode archive on Medium or at TCF.org/Off-Kilter.
Trevor, what are some examples of narratives? I feel like here it would probably be helpful to get really concrete so folks can be like, “Oh yeah, I see an example of that in practice.” So, I’m gonna ask, what are the dominant narratives today that you see, or at least maybe some of them that are worth mentioning? There are plenty when it comes to race, and in particular, Blackness. And you’ve done a lot of thinking about this. You’ve done a lot of writing about this. You actually have a book coming up about this where you talk about the narratives when it comes to race, and in particular Blackness, actually having, “lethal consequences.” Talk a little bit about some of those dominant narratives and what some of those lethal consequences are. And to the extent that it’s possible, would love to just hear a little bit of some of how you’re thinking about that for your upcoming book.
SMITH: Yes. Yes. Happy to. So, I think it’s a great question, and I’ve been doing some research on it and other folks have as well. So, I think that the lost cause narrative is one that we don’t talk enough about, but one that we see all the time. I think throughout the United States, there are various Confederate monuments, Confederate statues, streets, schools that are still around. And I think those, the reason why they are still around is rooted in the lost cause narrative, you know, this kind of false, ahistorical retelling of the Civil War and really the story of the United States. I think that if you tell the story about the United States, you have to start with the fact that this country is built on stolen land and then its wealth was built on the backs of stolen people. And that really goes against the lost cause narrative that America is this great country. So, that’s one that I think that we don’t generally name or talk enough about.
Then there’s the racial progress narrative, and I think that one’s a little bit more prevalent. There’s a social psychologist at Yale, Dr. Michael Kraus, who I think I also mentioned in my Twitter thread, who’s done a lot of research around this. And he talks about this idea, this racial progress narrative, is really rooted in this story that we live in a post-racial world, this belief that this country has embraced racial progress. So, we can easily remember critical moments of progress such as the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, the abolition of slavery, the election of Obama, but we don’t generally talk about the MOVE bombing in Philadelphia or COINTELPRO. I really didn’t learn about counterintelligence, the counterintelligence of Black liberation movements until college. And even then, it was because I sought it out. So, they really shield us from these types of stories because it pushes back against this racial progress narrative.
And the most annoying example that I think of and often refer to is when Mitch McConnell, who is honestly like my arch nemesis, when he said, you know, we don’t need reparations because it happened so long ago, and we’ve already kind of paid for the sin of slavery by electing Obama. So, there’s this idea that we live, that because we elected the first Black president, that we have now addressed the vestiges of slavery. And it sounds ridiculous when I say it, but for some folks, I guess it doesn’t.
And then we also heavily misperceive wealth inequality. So, I think the study that I’m gonna reference was also done by Kraus and others. They surveyed it was over 1,000 American adults, and the respondents thought that the Black-white wealth gap was around 40 percentage points smaller than its actual size in 1963 and around 80 percentage points smaller than its actual size in 2016. So, this idea of racial progress—that we’re actually further along on this journey to a multiracial democracy than we actually are—leads people to make these optimistic estimates regarding the state of affairs in this country, the state of racial and economic equality in this country. And I would urge folks to definitely look into Dr. Kraus and all of the work that he’s doing and has done at Yale.
And then you have the meritocracy or otherwise known as kind of this bootstraps narrative that anyone, no matter their race, can climb the social and economic ladder. And this is really essentially the story of the American dream. But Raj Chetty and his team over at Opportunity Insights proved years ago that the American Dream is a farce, with actual literal data. So, my pinned tweet on my Twitter from 2018 is a New York Times article on this Raj Chetty research, and it found that in 99% of neighborhoods in the United States, Black boys earned less in adulthood than white boys who grew up in families with comparable income. So, no matter whether you’re the son of LeBron James or the son of a minimum-wage worker who works at a fast food chain, if you grew up next to a white boy, they will make more in adulthood than you in 99% of neighborhoods. So, there’s something more than that. So, I’m really curious what the folks, the meritocracy folks, the bootstraps folks have to say about that. And that is why it’s my pinned tweet, because the data shows that no matter how much hard work or who your parent is, you actually won’t out earn the white boy who grows up next to you if you look like me. So, I just find that one very interesting.
And then the last one I’ll just name is the personal responsibility/Black culture narrative. This is one that we’re very aware of, gets talked about a lot, going to talk about it in my book, obviously. It’s around Black on Black violence, broken and dysfunctional homes, this idea that Black people have a victim mindset. All of these narratives, all of these stories are rooted in anti-Blackness and harmful.
VALLAS: So, I wanna zoom in into one particular issue that you have worked on a great deal. It’s the focus of the Reparations Narrative Lab. It’s where I wanna spend the next chunk of our conversation. That is reparations. I mentioned before, it’s an issue that sometimes gets kind of an eyeroll from the very serious crowd in Washington, D.C., as, “Okay. Well, that’s not a really serious policy conversation, is it?” So, before we get into the work of the Reparations Narrative Lab and how you’re specifically working to try to change that about how it’s viewed within policy circles but also within the broader public, I’d love to give you the chance to talk a little bit about kind of what is the 101 on reparations. For folks who may be familiar with the concept at kind of a top-line level, “Yeah, sure. I’m aware that reparations is a conversation that folks are having sometimes or still having possibly, and maybe I’m surprised that it’s still happening ‘cause maybe I’m in one of those camps believing one of those narratives that you just spelled out. And I feel like we’ve made lots of progress on this issue. Didn’t we elect the first Black president? Shouldn’t, why, why are we?” So, for anyone who’s like, “So, I’d love to know a little more about reparations and what is actually referred to there in modern times as folks like you are working on this issue,” do a little bit of that 101 to help folks have a little bit more of an entry point here.
SMITH: Yes, of course. So, reparations is a legal term and framework, really, that is meant to acknowledge and repair egregious human rights violations. So, the UN, the UN states that victims of such abuse, of human rights violations, have a right to reparations, which should include some combination of restitution, compensation, rehabilitation in mind, body, and status. And so, reparations is rooted really in transitional justice, which is a process of rectifying large-scale conflict or violations or abuses. And the goal of transitional justice is dealing with and getting some level of justice for the victims and then reinforcing the possibility for peace and/or reconciliation.
So, folks have different frameworks and plans for reparations. The National African American Reparations Commission, who has been doing this work for decades, has been advocating for reparations in the United States for decades. They have a 10-point plan. Dr. Darity in his book, From Here to Equality, he put out a framework called ARC, which stands for Acknowledgment, Redress, and Closure. And then at Liberation Ventures, we have a repair framework which we think is kind of a good compilation of everything that’s out there. And ours is composed of redress, reckoning, accountability, and acknowledgment. And so, we talk about these as a cycle. We say that you have to cycle through these, and by doing so, you create a culture of repair. And creating a culture of repair, for us, is kind of the essence of reparations. And so, I know folks are gonna be saying, “Well, what does that mean? You’re talk, you’re kind of just like talking in framework. Like, you’re not really talking about specifics.”
And so, when it comes to redress specifically, I think that should look like some form of financial compensation. And so, I did a paper, or I wrote a paper alongside Dr. Darity and others on how much it would actually take to close the racial wealth gap. In terms of reckoning, I think that should look like curriculum change. It should look like a truth telling process. I think it should look like a radical narrative change effort, the likes of which this world has never seen before. I think it should look like deconfederizing the nation in a similar way that Germany denazified their nation. I think it should look like acknowledgment. I think it should look like public apologies. It should look like research. It should look like detailing the harms. And I think Harvard, the report that they put out recently does a great job of acknowledging all of the harm that Harvard has caused, but I would likely say, or I would say that it doesn’t really go far enough. It doesn’t go far enough in redress or reckoning. And then accountability, making sure that the wealth gap doesn’t expand again, making sure that the harms aren’t recreated. And to me specifically, I think that this should also mean transforming our society, transforming our economy.
And so, I don’t think reparations within this current iteration of capitalism will be that fruitful because the way, because of racial capitalism, because of the way that the economy is set up, it’s not set up for Black people to win. And so, I know Jeremie and Solana talked about that with you. And so, what point, what’s the point of closing the racial wealth gap unless we’re also reconstructing our economy? So, I’ve been reading a lot about restorative economics, a lot about cooperatives. And I do think that this accountability piece is changing our society, changing our economy to one that is fair, just, and equal so Black people can thrive after reparations are, or as part of the reparations process, I should say.
VALLAS: So, this is where I’d love to kind of get into what the Reparations Narrative Lab is doing about this and what the work is that you’re leading there. I mean, you were talking before about some of the narratives that are standing in the way of actually achieving racial equity and actually building an inclusive and an equitable and a just economy and on and on, but specifically when it comes to reparations. Talk a little bit about how you got to the place of viewing this effectively as a narrative problem. And I’d love to have that be a jumping off point for you to talk a little bit about how the Reparations Narrative Lab is working to actually change this and share a little bit of the story behind it. How did it, you mentioned kind of how you met up with the folks that brought you on, but how did you come to this theory of change in doing this work?
SMITH: Yes, happy to talk about that. So, I think as we mentioned earlier, I think you said it: Narrative change is as important as policy change in my eyes. And then I would add to that that narrative change is needed for successful long-term policy change. And so, the folks over at the Butterfly Lab, which was holding a space for leaders in the immigration movement to think deeply about narratives, released a report that said that, that made the case for why narrative change is as important as policy change. And so, I define narrative change as an intentional effort to shift the stories that guide our values and shape how people make meaning of information and experiences.
And so, Brett Davidson, he’s a former narrative change funder at the Open Society Foundation, and he just wrote a really great piece for SSIR on Narrative Change. And he states that, “Narrative change rests on the premise that reality is socially constructed through narratives, and that in order to bring about change in the world, we need to pay attention to the ways in which it takes place.” So, for me, in order to do this, then we need an infrastructure, right? So, I think if you wanna create a thriving neighborhood, you need city, or a thriving neighborhood or city, you need roads, streets, bridges, houses for people to live adequately in.
And so, I think I love this definition, and it’s a long definition. But it’s from the Othering & Belonging Institute. But I think it really gets to the essence of what we’re trying to do with the Reparations Narrative Lab. And so, they define narrative infrastructure as, “The resources, networks, and tools available to develop, create, implement, and distribute narrative and storytelling so that it reaches public audiences, including key target constituencies who support organizers required to bring about lasting social transformation. Elements of narrative infrastructure can include research and analysis, staffing, training, publications, curriculum, or digital media tools. To be impactful, the infrastructure is diverse across movement sectors and strategies, has the convening and agenda-setting space to create alignment, and is looking both internally and externally to the movement to set markers for strategies and goals. Communities, movements, and organizations vary in the depth and heft of their narrative infrastructure.” And so, again, that’s from the Othering & Belonging Institute.
So, I was doing a bunch of research while I was at the Surdna Foundation, both related to economic narrative change and thinking about what are the narratives that we need to change about the economy, but then obviously more broadly about race, about reparations. And I was thinking about, okay, well, a narrative infrastructure. I read this definition from Othering & Belonging Institute, and I was sitting with it. And I was thinking about, well, how do I operationalize that? And I came up with a lab. You know, I was thinking, looking at different universities, and universities have tons of labs. And academics always complain about how they’re doing such great work, but it’s actually not reaching movement; it’s not reaching organizers. So, I was like, okay, why don’t we take tenets from what folks are doing in academia but not do it within a university?
And what really clicked for me on how to structure this lab was when I read a piece by Rashad Robinson. It’s titled Changing the Narrative About Narrative, and it’s required reading. It’s also mentioned in my Twitter thread. And he says that creating a strong narrative infrastructure, “To create this infrastructure, you have to have the ability to learn, create, broadcast, and immerse yourself in narratives.” So, I took this literally, and we’re building the Reparations Narrative Lab on these pillars.
So, in terms of learning, we wanna enable shared learning about the theories of narrative and culture change, talk about successful and unsuccessful narrative change strategies in other social movement. We’re gonna commission some audience segmentation research. Then we’re gonna kind of figure out what is the current narrative landscape we’re up against. And I’ve talked a lot about that already. And then we’ll figure out who is doing what within the reparations movement and who’s pushing back currently against the harmful, dominant narratives that we’re up against.
In terms of create, after we do all this learning, we hope to ideate in this lab. Once we name the transformative narratives that we need to see in the world, what are the different narrative interventions, what are the different vehicles that can get our narratives out there? And thinking creatively about it. I think, as you know, Rebecca, there’s kind of a overreliance on kind of traditional press, print, TV, radio when it comes to getting our message out. At think tanks, at large organizations like the ACLU—not to put them on blast—we are really good at getting in the New York Times, NPR, Washington Post, and all of those things are great. But I think we need to meet people where they are, and people spend most of their time in culture. And so, what does it look like in the creating phase to create interventions, narrative interventions, that meet people in art, music, television, fashion, public space, where people spend most of their time? Not just the Washington Post, the New York Times, where the majority of people who live in the United States don’t have a subscription to.
And that’s where the broadcast and immerse comes in. How can we broadcast these narrative interventions far and wide, yes, on traditional mediums, but also on nontraditional mediums, so that we are getting our narratives in front of different audiences, in front of mass audiences, and diverse audiences? And then immersive. How can we ensure that these narratives really stick, really hit home for folks? Really…. And I think the way to do that is to try and speak to folks’ emotions. And the way to speak to folks’ emotions is to meet them where they are in different things that mean different things to them—and so, sports is something that resonates a lot with people, food, fashion, religion, art, things that I just named—to immerse these narratives within our culture. Then we have to meet people where they are within culture. So, the lab is really built on that.
And so, the first year and so, we’re hoping, we are planning to launch in August. We’re gonna invite a core team of 11 organizations throughout not just the reparations ecosystem, also the racial justice ecosystem, anyone who really cares about racial justice into this space to be a part of the first phase of the Reparations Narrative Lab, which will focus on the learning and the creating part of it. And so, we’re working with, we’re planning to work with Harmony Labs—that was what my last call was just about—on doing some of this research around audiences. Who are the audiences as it relates to reparations? Who’s our choir, who’s our base, who’s our persuadables? And then how do we meet them? How do we tell stories that resonate with them?
And the last thing that I’ll say is that the larger focus of the lab is to build what we are calling a narrative house. And so, the narrative house to us is kind of the synthesis of the stories, messages, deep narratives that we need to tell about reparations to move our respective audiences. And so, I tweeted that we need to put a moratorium on frameworks, but this is a [chuckles], this is a framework that we’re putting forth that we think hopefully folks, or hopefully resonates with folks. We’ve been talking about this first phase of the Reparations Narrative Lab being about co-creating this narrative house alongside folks within the racial justice ecosystem.
And then phase two will be about turning the house into a home, inviting our neighbors, inviting our allies who are our neighbors into this house so that they can see themselves and the stories that they wanna tell about the United States, about democracy, about racial justice with us. Because we see reparations as kind of like a large umbrella of which all these other policies fall under. And so, phase two will really be about how do we tell stories at the intersection of other social movements, what we call narrative weaving? How do we tell stories of the intersection of reparations and abolition or reparations and guaranteed income or reparations and baby bonds? Because the stories are there, and we do tell similar, we uplift similar narratives. And hopefully what this lab can help us do as movements who care about justice is to tell stories alongside each other.
VALLAS: What’s your sort of elevator speech to someone who says, “Cool, I’m interested. That sounds really great. I’m glad someone’s doing that. But that’s not really an issue that impacts me, or that’s not an issue that overlaps with my work.” How is this something that— And I love hearing you describe that kind of family you’re creating, right, of organizations that can, and people and stakeholders from a range of different perspectives and places in the social justice movement being able to come together and see themselves in this work. Make that, like, I kind of wanna ask, make that concrete. I’m interested, but I also can guess there’s probably a lot of folks listening who are saying, “Cool, this is great. It just also isn’t really related to my work.” Make that case. How do you, what’s your elevator speech?
SMITH: Yeah. Well, I would just simply say that it is. It is related to you because you live in the United States. And so, therefore, you do benefit from racial capitalism. You do benefit from white supremacy, and particularly if you’re in a position of power. And so, it’s really up to all of us to really radically reconstruct what this country will look like. And that, to me, is what the essence of reparations is really about. It’s about creating a better country, fulfilling the broken promise not only of 40 acres and a mule, but the broken promise of reconstruction, pushing us closer to that. And I think throughout the history of the United States, when we have centered Blackness, we have seen this country become better. And Nikole Hannah-Jones talks about this a lot. She talked about it in The 1619 Project. Using, saying that is simply an excuse because you’re comfortable with the current system that we have and the way that power is shaped in this current system.
And so, no matter who you are or what you do, whether you work on justice-related issues, whether you’re a nurse, whether you, you know, whatever you work on, whether you work in manufacturing, whether you work at for-profit companies that work in tech, this is all about you, because we’re not just talking about one thing. We’re not just talking about slavery. We’re not just talking about racial discrimination or Jim Crow laws. We’re talking about it all. And so, reparations really encompasses, to me, it’s a culmination of all of the justice campaigns, justice movements that currently exist. And I think that if we, again, if we’re able to better tell these stories as the choir, if we’re better able to tell folks about how my movement is related to the immigration movement, why the reparations movement is related to the immigration movement, and why my success depends on your success, then hopefully, folks who are outside our movements can better understand that.
VALLAS: Yeah, I love that answer. And I also would love to give you a little more time to talk about really kind of how this fits into the broader theory of change of actually delivering on reparations. It is, I think, to a lot of folks sort of a tilting at windmills because it’s not something that feels within the realm of the politically possible to a lot of people who do work in Washington, and yet remains, obviously, a huge priority for the movement and for a lot of folks who say, “Look, we’re never gonna get to actual racial justice and healing, and we’re not gonna be in a position where we can move forward as a country if we don’t confront our past in this way.” And no, electing the first Black president is not the check-the-box moment that some in that Black progress narrative camp might believe that it was. That being said, there are a lot of folks, I’m sure, who are listening and going, “Cool. I love hearing about all of this, but this is never gonna be something that’s actually politically possible.” What is the broader theory of change that connects the narrative work that you all are doing to actually getting this done at some point, ideally within our lifetimes, or, as our colleagues at Liberation in a Generation might argue for, within a generation?
SMITH: Yeah. I mean, really, really great question. And a couple things are coming up. I think when folks say that, I think that they, again, are operating from an ahistorical mindset. We have done tougher things in this country, I would argue, than what we’re talking about right now, which is reparations for Black Americans in the United States. I would say that the ultimate narrative change challenge in the history, one of the ultimate narrative change challenges, in the history of this country is the abolition of slavery. What they had to overcome and what they had to change mental models about for the majority of people in the United States, I think, was a much tougher task than what we’re up about. And so, when folks say it’s not politically feasible, I mean, I just point to that. But there’s tons of other examples that we can point to. I think marriage equality is also a really great example and a recent example that when Obama was running the first time, he did not endorse marriage equality, unfortunately. But ultimately, the tune around that has changed, and there was a campaign to, and various organizations involved in that campaign, to make sure that happened. So, that’s what I generally say when folks say it’s not politically feasible. I mean, I think they’re generally not operating from an abundance mindset and a ahistorical mindset.
VALLAS: Well, and obviously, it’s also people who are operating within the current Overton window, right?
VALLAS: And so, just to state the obvious, and to pull on that thread as well, right? I mean, that’s the whole point of narrative change, is to get us beyond what’s politically possible today, to create the opening to do the thing that we know is necessary to justice. But I love how you’ve kind of connected those dots and also hearing about some of the different phases of the work as you’re envisioning it and the different audiences that you’re working to reach. You mentioned a couple of times, and so I wanna get into it just a little bit and lift it up and also say that a lot of the things that we’re talking about are actually in this episode’s show notes. You can find the show notes in obviously, podcast apps, wherever you’re getting your podcast. You can also find it on the landing page, TCF.org/Off-Kilter. You’re just, you’re mentioning so many great resources, I wanna make sure folks are able to find them. And they’re going, “But where am I supposed to find all these things he’s talking about?” Well, they’re all in the show notes.
But you recently did a pretty rad Twitter thread. That was actually what gave me the idea to do this episode with you because Kendra Bozarth, a mutual friend and colleague who is amazing and still needs to come on this show—So, Kendra, we are officially putting you on blast—but you did this kind of really good Twitter thread where you talked about the narrative change field, but in a way where you did something that isn’t usually what happens when people are talking about narrative change. Usually, it’s a very white conversation. You actually pointed that out, “The narrative change field has largely been dominated by white voices.” Obviously, narrative changes is something that’s applicable to any different policy or advocacy conversation that one can have. We’re talking specifically here about its relevance in reparations. But as you pointed out, there are tons and tons and tons of amazing leaders of color doing really incredible narrative change work, and many of whom you’ve mentioned at different points already in our conversation today, but many who have also influenced what you are doing, how you think about your work, how the Reparations Narrative Lab is thinking about its work and more broadly, how Liberation Ventures, your organization, thinks about its work.
Talk a little bit about some of the other narrative shift priorities that you’re seeing in the field right now when it comes to what’s really being centered by leaders of color. Obviously, it’s not just reparations, narrative shift is going to be critical, as I mentioned before, to building a just and inclusive, equitable economy. And that’s true in a lot of different fronts. So, I’d love to give you the chance to give some shoutouts from that Twitter thread. Who are some of the folks that folks who are maybe listening and going, “Hey, I would love to learn more about narrative shift generally, and I would love to learn more about narrative shift’s relevance to the push for racial equality, for example,” who are some of the folks that you lifted up in that thread that we should talk about?
SMITH: Yes. Yes, love that. And yeah, I think before I dive into giving some of the shoutouts, just wanna note that narrative change, well…lived experience is such an important component about narrative change, and nothing really beats it. Because I can’t tell a story about what it means to be a trans person or something that would happen specifically to a person because they are trans. So, I just wanted to note that folks who are trying to change narratives should really center the folks who are the most impacted when it comes to doing this work. And then that’s essentially why I wanted to lift up the thread. So, there’s folks at, the first name I’ll say Pillars Fund. Arij Mikati is the director of culture change at the Pillars Fund. And Pillars Fund is focused on amplifying the leadership of Muslims in the U.S. They had a Muslim narrative change cohort that really informed a lot of my thinking behind the Reparations Narrative Lab. So, shoutout to Pillars.
You have Malkia Devich Cyril, and fingers crossed, they can be a core team member of the lab. So, I’m kind of speaking this into existence that they’ll be a core team member, but the invitation is going to go out to them. They’re a real OG in this work. I have the pleasure of being in a cohort with them in the Narrative Initiative of the Changemaker’s Authors Cohort. And I realize I didn’t talk much about my book, but I’m in a cohort with them. And they help coined the term “media justice” a couple of years ago and have just been in this work for a long time, shifting narratives around media and technology. And then they also closely, they work closely with another organization who is within the reparations movement called Media 2070. And I would say they coined the term “media reparations,” and they’re doing a lot of great work of chronicling the harm media systems have caused and what repair might look like as a result.
And then I have to give a shoutout to the folks at the Butterfly Lab, which, as I mentioned earlier, was housed at Race Forward. And they’ve just been super, super helpful to me as I’ve been thinking about this, thinking about the Reparations Narrative Lab. Folks like Dennis Chin, Jeff Chang, Nayantara Sen, they hosted this Butterfly Lab that was focused on immigration narratives. And so, they’ve been a real inspiration to me.
And then I’ll mention the folks at Pop Culture Collaborative. I think anyone in the narrative change space knows them not only because they’re unlocking funding for the narrative and culture change field, but also leading on the research. And then folks like Insight CCED, they’re writing pieces about centering Blackness, and you don’t really see that in the think tank world. Or folks like Janelle Jones or Kendra who are uplifting frameworks like Black Women Best. Also, you don’t see a lot of that in the think tank world, but frameworks, think pieces that talk about centering Blackness that really frame how we approach policy, I think, are also, should also be considered as narrative interventions.
VALLAS: And I’ll just say another shameless plug because we’ve been talking to Kendra for quite some time about doing an episode about Black Women Best. So, I believe she and Azza Alt, over at Liberation in a Generation are, at some point this summer, are gonna come on, and so we’ll do a deeper dive on that. It would be amazing to include Janelle in that episode, but I know she is a busy lady and much in demand.
So, we’ve got a few more minutes. And I feel like one of the things that we would be remiss if we didn’t really talk about it at all is obviously the moment that we’re at in the political climate, right? We’re sort of at that run-up to the midterms, where we end up with a lot of the usual games of Whac-A-Mole and kind of icky, you know, like which conservative narrative can be worse than the other that’s all being kind of thrown as red meat to the base, right? That’s kind of classic midterm year experience for folks who are seasoned at doing social justice work. That’s something we’ve talked about actually pretty frequently and actually recently on this show in the context of criminal justice reform and what we’re seeing in terms of the turn that that conversation has taken nationally and the challenges we’ve seen around its continued bipartisan support, especially in Washington, and with sort of a tough-on-crime rhetoric rise pretty much everywhere, very, very, very much driven by the midterms moment that we’re in.
So, I’d love to give you a chance to sort of talk a little bit about, and comment on, how this conversation about narrative shift shows up against the backdrop of what is honestly kind of an uglier and uglier by the day narrative landscape when it comes to how race is being talked about in a midterms year. And obviously, critical race theory is really kind of on Fox News and Newsmax and everything almost every single day as one of those red meat to the base getters. Talk a little bit about how we’re seeing narratives in this moment—the good, the bad, the ugly—and how you’re grappling with some of that.
SMITH: Right. Yeah. I mean, great question. And yes, I think people are maybe talking a little bit more about it as it relates to the midterms right now, but we really have seen it, right, since Obama left office. Trump ran his campaign on overt racism and got into the White House where he spewed overt racism for four years. And then he fanned those flames up until the day that he left, which culminated in January 6th. And I think that all coalesces around these narratives about whiteness, about Blackness, about who is deserving, about power, and obviously about race more broadly. And so, yes, I think since Trump started this conversation, and others as well, this idea of critical race theory— And I try really, really hard to call it the anti-history movement instead of calling it the critical race theory fight, because that’s actually not what they are talking about. And I think that they actually, unfortunately, did a really good job of changing the narrative as it relates to critical race theory, because they muddied up what critical race theory means and successfully passed policies that seek to ban what teachers are allowed to talk about in school. And so, I think critical race theory, as they call it, is the most well-known one, but we see other little bits of it, too, when we saw the stories around crack pipes, I think, a little bit earlier this year, that the White House is passing out crack pipes. So, there, it looks like the strategy of the right is to really lean in hard to overt racism and anti-Black narratives, unfortunately.
VALLAS: And so, what do we do about that, right? I mean, I don’t wanna like put you, put like the million-dollar question on you singularly, and say, “Go! You have to have the answer.” But I know you have a lot of thoughts. I know you’ve obviously done narrative shift work. You’ve talked about a lot of it, not just within the context of reparations, but within kind of tackling those poisonous narratives on race that you were talking about before. Where does that leave us?
VALLAS: I mean, there’s been a lot of research on this. There’s been a lot of it is kind of public opinion research. A lot of it is message research. Demos and others have really been at the forefront of a lot of that. What are folks to do in a moment where we see those poisonous narratives not necessarily being created for the first time by any stretch, right? And I would argue it’s not even Trump who started the conversation, right? He was picking it up and just dialing it up so that it was no longer a dog whistle, it was a trombone on Main Street, the way he did it. But what are folks to do when we feel in the kind of the water we all swim in the temperature get dialed up the way that it is in a moment like this that’s so incredibly ugly, but that’s also, as you said, so incredibly ahistorical?
SMITH: Right. So, I’ll talk to a couple of different people. So, I think, one, elected officials, especially those on the left, just have to have a stronger backbone. I mean, not even talking about reparations. We saw one, we saw massacre after massacre after massacre in the span of three weeks, and we’re not able to do anything. And then you have the president tweeting saying, “We must do something about this,” as if he’s not in a position of power to at least try and shape the narrative. I understand the limits of power that he has in the White House. But I would firstly start off with those on the left who are in elected seats have to have more of a backbone.
Then I’ll talk about movements. And so, for me in the reparations movement, and I think that this can obviously be adopted in other movements, my theory of change is that if we can create a strong narrative infrastructure—and again, for me, for the reparations ecosystem—while also facilitating narrative interventions between social movements and different cultural sectors, then we will build enough narrative power to create the environment needed to pass the policies that we wanna see, including reparations. So, to me, my theory of change falls into two buckets: building strong narrative infrastructure and narrative weaving and/or facilitating the growth of a broader narrative network, which social psychologists might call frame alignment.
And then my last audience: funders. Fund liberatory movements, fund the movements of Land Back. Fund the movements that are advocating for reparations, abolition, guaranteed income. We’re doing such great work with little funding. So, imagine what we could do with a lot of funding. And a funder recently said to me that we are putting out all these fires related to critical race theory and white nationalism, so we might not be able to fund reparations. And to me, it misses the point. Reparations, to us, is a solution to all of these things. And so, hopefully you will, and if done right, you won’t have to put out as many fires if you were to fund reparations in other liberatory movements, because we would live in a more just and equitable and fair society.
VALLAS: We’ve only got a few minutes left, and there’s a lot more we could talk about. But I wanna give you an opportunity to talk about how folks can learn more about the Reparations Narrative Lab and how they can get involved. We’ve got obviously links in show notes to a lot of what you’ve been talking about and resources that you guys are able to provide at Liberation Ventures. But would love to give you sort of an opportunity to talk about what’s coming next, what folks should be watching for, how they can connect. And then also, you’ve got a newsletter that I should give you the chance to plug as well.
SMITH: Yes, thank you. Yeah. So, if folks wanna, to stay tuned to updates about the Reparations Narrative Lab, you’ll hopefully see it. We’re hoping to get the message out across kind of platforms, but if you wanna watch closely, go to the Liberation Ventures website, LiberationVentures.org and subscribe to our newsletter. You can read about it there. You can read about it and just follow the conversation on reparations and reparative policymaking more broadly by following my newsletter called Reparations Daily (ish). June is a busy month for me and I think for those focused on liberation. And so, it’s been about a week (ish) since I did my last newsletter, but I do try to do it on a daily (ish) basis. So, you can follow at ReparationsDaily.substack.com. I also do interviews. I give an opinion here or there, but I mostly compile articles related to reparations and reparative policymaking.
And then, yeah, the Reparations Narrative Lab we’re gonna launch in August. We’re gonna co-create this lab with at least 10 organizations across the racial justice ecosystem, and really excited about some of the folks that we are extending invitations to. And so, I’m just really excited about that. So, if you hear this, share it with your friend. If you hear this podcast, share it with your friend. If you know someone in philanthropy or are a funder yourself, reach out. Email is [email protected], and I’m always down to talk to people around reparations, around narrative change.
VALLAS: And give a plug to your Twitter handle as well so folks can find the thread that you did as well.
SMITH: Yes. TSmith1211. Yes, @TSmith1211. And then the Reparations Daily (ish) newsletter also has a Twitter, and that is @reparationsIsh.
VALLAS: Great. So, a lot of places folks can find you. We’ll have those in our show notes as well. Trevor, thank you so much for taking the time to join the show. It’s been cool to get to chat. I’m looking forward to your book, Lethal Stereotypes: How the Stories We Tell Take Black Lives. And it’s been really fun getting to hear about the work that is becoming now this entity that will be called the Reparations Narrative Lab.
Trevor Smith is a writer, a researcher, and a strategist focused on topics such as racial inequality, wealth inequality, reparations, and narrative change. He’s currently the director of narrative change at Liberation Ventures, and he is launching the Reparations Narrative Lab, as we’ve been hearing. Trevor, thank you so much for taking the time. [theme music returns]
SMITH: Thank you! Appreciate it.
VALLAS: And that does it for this week’s show. Off-Kilter is powered by The Century Foundation and produced by We Act Radio, with a special shoutout to executive producer Troy Miller and his merry band of farm animals, and the indefatigable Abby Grimshaw. Transcripts, which help us make the show accessible, are courtesy of Cheryl Green and her fabulous feline coworker. Find us every week on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your pods. And for the Superfans, you can find a full archive of all past episodes and show transcripts over at TCF.org/Off-Kilter. Got an idea for a topic you’d like to hear us unpack or a guest you’ve been wanting to hear on the show? Send us a note at [email protected]. Or if social media is more your bag, give us a holler on Twitter @OffKilterShow. And if you like what we do here at Off-Kilter Enterprises, send us some love by hitting that subscribe button and rating and reviewing the show on Apple Podcasts to help other folks find the pod. It really does help. Thanks again for listening and see you next week.