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My Fellow Citizens,

John Dickerson made a simple statement last week. It sounded like a public service announcement:

There are narratives about who we are in the U.S. that have nothing to do with who the President is.

These other narratives have their sources of power, difficulty, and all kinds of complications too. They have room for us to act. They offer storylines where you can stop watching someone else, where you can imagine yourself jumping in and taking part. 

Without these other narratives, we might forget our own capacity for sorting through complexities and make sense of them. By focusing on one guy or the latest outrage, we lose our connection to the stories that give us strength and carry us forward. 

The word “narrative” seemed so big when Dickerson used it in that single sentence. From anyone else, the word would solicit skepticism. Office holders, candidates, lobbyists, and issues organizations all aim to control the narrative today. That’s a strategic win and proof of messaging swagger. Dickerson’s quick side comment pulled the word out of all this muck. He made it possible to see it again and to remember that these narratives belonged to us before they became the playthings of political operatives.

So, what’s the difference? What do these big narratives have that the marketing strategies only imitate? 

In 2003, The Poynter Institute asked journalists: “What is narrative, anyway?” The response ranged from the sort of technical specifics you would expect to colorful allegories, “Narrative is the dirt path that leads us through the impenetrable forest, so we move forward and don’t feel lost.” (Wade Rawlins, Raleigh News and Observer). 

A narrative works by offering movement, direction, and purpose. 

Bob Barker, who writes for the Los Angeles Times, offered an answer with an even bigger idea, “‘Narrative’ means any technique that produces the visceral desire in a reader to want to know what happened next.” 🤩

That’s the mark of engaging a story. You want to know what happens next. You connect to the purpose and imagine yourself to be the one that finds the path.

So, when did you first imagine yourself to be part of the larger story of the United States? 

I can’t escape hearing the Hamilton soundtrack here, and I haven’t even seen the production! You can find meaning for your own story by interweaving it with the larger project of the United States:

“Hey yo, I’m just like my country
I’m young, scrappy and hungry
And I’m not throwing away my shot! “

(From “My Shot” by Lin Manuel-Miranda) 

With a powerful narrative, you can connect to a shared mission and the greater purpose of a political community. Later in the song:

“But we’ll never be truly free
Until those in bondage have the same rights as you and me
You and I. Do or die. Wait till I sally in
On a stallion with the first black battalion”

What story made you want to “sally in” and be a part of it? 

I wanted to go to the moon. The idea of Americans as explorers, boundary breakers, and scientific geniuses had me thinking about what I could do to be part of this story. The USA would escape the bounds of gravity!

Think on the question for long and you’ll discover the power of Dickerson’s reminder. The possibilities keep coming.

Consider the story of civil rights activists as fearless champions for our highest ideals, and investigative journalists as truth-seeking detectives. We have stories of Generals who stood strong against Fascism and rebuilt Europe. We have today’s innovators working  to unlock the power to restore health to the human body and (hopefully) the planet. 

These narratives need air time, too. We’re just the people to do it. We know that greatness lies within these bigger stories of who we are and can imagine that “history has its eyes” on us.  😉 

Let's write a great story together,


🥇Big thanks to Trish Everett who checked my treatment of Hamilton lyrics. I appreciate everyone who offered to help too. 
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Questions of Civic Proportions

"Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign. But stories can also be used to empower, and to humanize"

—Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, author

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(share your answers in our Learning Studio)
What can we learn about the stories we know once we uncover the stories we attempted to deny?

You may have seen the Washington Post article about the Statue of Liberty’s origin story. A French abolitionist organized the gift to celebrate the end of slavery. Early renderings of the statue included broken shackles in her hand. Slow fundraising required opening up the story to “freedom” more generally. With Reconstruction disrupted and dismantled, Jim Crow ruled the South by the time the statue arrived in the United States. That sad juxtaposition might be the best way to understand the country at that time. 

This month, we have the opportunity to correct a less familiar story. As we mark the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, NYC has plans to honor two transgender activists with public monuments. Many efforts to tell what happened there have excluded the drag queens and transgender patrons at the bar that night. As recently as 2015, filmmakers had white gay men playing the lead roles. Getting the details right in both these stories help us see the reality that change moves slowly and often occurs through the risks taken by the most marginalized. 

How do our stories help us to see across time, space, and even bureaucratic silos?

In the L.A. Times’ review, they say “‘The River and the Wall’ is a border crossing worth taking.” The film documents a team trekking across 1,200 miles of the southern border. They have faith in the people of the United States and want to make it possible for them to see that part of the country with their own eyes:

“With its intense focus on the natural beauty of the constantly changing environs and the myriad wildlife that inhabit what the majority of Americans tend to only think of as a desert, this is one documentary that should be required viewing for anyone and everyone on both sides of the “build the wall” conflict.”

Following this strategy of opening up more of the story, activists in Texas took home a win at the end of this year’s legislative session. Lawmakers made provisions for the “Sugarland 95.” These recently discovered remains were likely the victims of the state’s convict-leasing system. The support of the legislature means the site will become a public cemetery, and activists hope this will help people see how racial inequality persisted long into the modern era. Contributing to that narrative, Ava Duvernay has a new Netflix series where the story of the Central Park 5 shines light on the racial biases that continue to shape our justice system. 

How do stories help us see ourselves within a narrative that's bigger than our own?

In a recent piece for The Guardian, author Rebecca Solnit takes the longest view available. She puts today’s protests in perspective with movements from 200 years ago and the efforts that might shape our future. In “Every Protest Shifts the World’s Balance,” she shows how attempting to see a timeline of it all helps us escape a limited view of how change happens. We focus on stories of “violence and brute power” and miss:

“the great power of nonviolent uprisings and those other moments when individuals become a civil society on its feet… It also ignores how the most important battle is often in the collective imagination, and it is won in part by books, ideas, songs, speeches, even new words and frameworks for old evils. “

These extended and connected timelines create opportunities to engage our collective imagination, whatever the medium. A moment last week might help us see how this collective imagination works to weave individual stories together in powerful ways. In Chicago, the Pulitzer board awarded Aretha Franklin the Special Citation honor posthumously. Jennifer Hudson attended the ceremony to perform “Amazing Grace” in tribute to the late singer. This award makes Franklin the first woman to receive the award since it was established in 1930. The Pulitzer board cited “her indelible contribution to American music and culture for more than five decades.”

Student journalists from Marjory Stoneman Douglas also received awards that day, and Hudson spoke to them backstage. She shared her own experience of losing her mother, brother, and young nephew to gun violence. Hudson told the students, “the only way we can ever make a difference is for those who have not experienced it, to look from the perspective of those who have. And that’s when the change will happen, you know?”

Our stories represent this collective imagination and serve to show us how we can shape the future. 

We have a space where you can share what you're thinking with other thoughtful people. It's up to us to connect with one another by thinking together on civic questions. 
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Have you caught up with these ideas?

💭 Keep Dreaming Democracy concluded last week with an online discussion of Paul Woodruff's book, First Democracy. You can catch up with the weekly overviews and watch the recorded discussion. Start here to find all the links in one place. There's a long list of additional resources that includes podcasts, documentaries, and other short reads.

📚 June is all about our love for public libraries. Check out the announcement to learn more about how The Library Book by Susan Orlean connects to First Democracy (and fits in with today's theme too!).

🗞️ Feeling a responsibility to read the Mueller report? We're assessing interest with this post and a Washington Post article that argues we have a responsibility to read it for ourselves. Leave a like or a comment and let us know if you're interested.

☕ In case you missed it, this "coffee break" post gives a quick update on the Learning Studio and our plans for the summer. We want to make it easier to "tuck away with a good idea" and then share your discoveries.


Good Work: "Change" by Mavis Staples

“What good is freedom
If we haven’t learned to be free?”

A “gospel-R&B legend,” Mavis Staples released a new album this May. These musical traditions have carried the stories of the American people since the country’s beginnings, and Staples lends a powerful voice to the work. The artist is eighty years-old and We Get By is her twelfth album. The Chicago Sun-Times says she has “one clear enemy on her new album: the status quo.”

The lyrics above come from the song “Change.” They sound demanding even standing alone. They pull at us again and again, a chorus between stories we all know:

Fingers on the trigger around here
Fingers on the trigger around here
Bullets flying, mothers crying
We gotta change around here
Get it straight, be sure that you hear
Things gonna change around here

Staples is putting us all on notice. The album represents a collaboration between Staples and Ben Harper, and its songs travel across themes of peace, justice, and heartbreak. Staples sings with the passion of telling us her own story, but the strength of the storyteller and the plea for collective action pulls you into the question of what happens next. You’ll decide you want to be stronger too. 

The Chicago Sun-Times tells us that Staples sings the word “change” twenty times in this song. Listen to just this one track and you will want to march alongside her. Rolling Stone, however, suggests we stay with her until the end of the album. Jonathan Bernstein writes:
"But it’s not until the closing track, “One More Change,” that Staples’ indefatigable spirit shines through most clearly. The song is a late-in-life mission statement for an artist who’s spent her career espousing radical positivity and collective action. ‘Believing too deep to not have faith,’ Staples sings, sounding determined in her twilight offering, so much so that the very act of singing the song fulfills the righteous promise laid out in its full-hearted chorus: ‘But I’ve got just one more change to make.” 

This story isn’t over. Radical positivity is a story of who we all want to be.

Take two minutes and think of the friends who keep you connected to the stories that matter. Now forward this email to them. That small effort would be a big help to us. 

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