Partner story

Q&A with Pop Culture Collaborative

Over the years, our US grantees have had to be agile, courageous, intersectional, and collaborative to continually build new opportunities and futures for people fighting against oppressive and racist systems.  As we wind down our domestic work in the US by the end of 2023, we've asked our partners to share, in their own words, their plans for the future, learnings from the field, and how funders can support their continued progress fighting for social justice and equity.

By Bridgit Antoinette Evans, CEO and Tracy Van Slyke, CSO at Pop Culture Collaborative

1. What does Pop Culture Collaborative do?

Founded in 2016, the Pop Culture Collaborative is a philanthropic fund and learning community working to transform the narrative landscape in America around people of color, immigrants, refugees, Muslims, and Indigenous peoples—especially those who are women, queer, trans, nonbinary, and/or disabled—by bolstering the infrastructure and impact of the pop culture for social change field. This field is represented by a diverse ecosystem of artists, social movement organizers, activists, researchers, strategists, philanthropists, and industry executives. Together, they are working across disciplines and industries to advance pop culture narrative change strategies that ignite deep yearning for justice and pluralist culture in the U.S.

The Collaborative focuses on four interconnected areas: 1) grantmaking; 2) funder and field learning; 3) convening, network- and partnership-building; and 4) narrative design. The Collaborative has invested more than $20 million since its founding to catalyze social change efforts, amplifying the collective power of more than 300 grantees, senior fellows, and entertainment industry partners. 

The path forward is clear: If social justice movements hope to create the just and pluralist world we seek, we need to commit to the hard work of transforming the narrative oceans in which we all swim.

2. What are the greatest lessons you've learned over the past two years?

Through a formal cultural analysis and evaluation process that synthesized insights from field-led projects, research reports, and a range of case studies, the Collaborative discovered one component common to many successful culture change processes: an intentionally designed and activated narrative system. A narrative system is a framework that outlines the coordinated ecosystem of pop culture stories, narrative archetypes, mental models (foundational ideas of how society operates or should operate), and behavioral norms that are deliberately designed to work together to gradually replace one narrative ocean with a new one, thereby reshaping how people relate to themselves and the world around them. 

While new narrative oceans emerge in many ways, use of a narrative system framework can dramatically accelerate the pace at which a new narrative ocean takes shape. Moreover, when a narrative network shares 1) a clear culture shift goal, 2) a theory for how a new narrative ocean will evolve, and 3) a strategy that operationalizes this theory, this network can attain far greater reach and coordination, and, ultimately, narrative transformation.

The path forward is clear: If social justice movements hope to create the just and pluralist world we seek, we need to commit to the hard work of transforming the narrative oceans in which we all swim. Because if just systems and structures are the bones of a healthy democracy, pluralist culture is its heartbeat, breath, blood, and muscles. One cannot thrive without the other, and now we have evidence-based methodology that integrates policy and organizing strategies with the equally powerful narrative and cultural strategies that philanthropy needs to resource.  (To learn more about narrative systems, you can read the Collaborative’s article on transforming narrative oceans here.)

In 2020, the Collaborative put its theories into motion with the launch of the Becoming America Fund, which supports pop culture for social change practitioners to use narrative systems methodology to ignite imagination, curiosity, and yearning for something new in the U.S.: a pluralist society where everyone belongs. In 2020 and 2021, Becoming America supported more than 50 social justice organizations, cultural organizations, and creative companies to produce and distribute digital fiction and nonfiction videos, podcasts, multiplatform story experiences, games, pop songs and music videos, essays, culture change campaigns, and fandom activations in order to ignite public imagination about the pluralist nation we could become. Collectively, they reached more than 100 million people. The Fund is the Collaborative’s first large-scale exploration of how narrative system design and narrative network organizing can help the field and movements achieve cultural change at the scale of hundreds of millions of people. 

While evaluating the Fund’s first cycle of grantmaking, the Collaborative uncovered another critical insight that informs a narrative systems design and activation process: If narrative networks are at the heart of that narrative system, then the first step in evaluating a narrative systems process is to track and assess the formation, growth, and strength of the narrative network itself. To deepen its practice around narrative network organizing, the Collaborative is exploring how to more deliberately cultivate relationship building, partnership building, and learning together—a core part of connecting a narrative network. The Collaborative also listened to the field, and hired a Network Weaver to build out its infrastructure to support these networks. Finally, the Collaborative learned from field partners that while they feel confident and equipped to create gorgeous, provocative content, they yearn for support to think more strategically about distribution, as well as methods to reach, engage, and activate a larger scale of audience. So, most recently, in tandem with the launch of Becoming America’s second cycle, the Collaborative designed a pilot program that maps different distribution infrastructure, and also matches grantees to distribution partners or advisors with expertise in the creative mediums, distribution platforms, or audiences that each grantee is focused on. 

3. What opportunities do you see on the horizon and what are your plans for the future?

A major challenge to the Collaborative’s overall goals is how well-funded and positioned the White nationalist cultural movement has become, and how underprepared the social justice and philanthropy sectors are to confront this movement’s dramatic reversal of social progress. As evidenced by its current assault on Critical Race Theory, the White nationalist movement astutely recognizes how important it is to shape the meaning of American identity, history, and America’s origin story. That movement’s political establishment, corporate donor network, and grassroots efforts are investing in narrative infrastructure and narrative content in a wide array of cultural distribution channels.

 Their narrative strategies extend far beyond a focus on racial hatred. In reality, White nationalism is an intersectional ideology in which toxic masculinity, misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia are core to the expression of White male supremacy. Attacks on democratic process, abortion access, gender identity, trans civil rights, marriage equality, disability access, and our public education systems all reinforce the central goal of the White nationalist movement: to build enough political and cultural power, as well as public will, to pave the way for an extreme-Christian, patriarchal, White ethnostate.

The investment in White nationalist narrative infrastructure is on the rise; social justice philanthropy’s investment in narrative infrastructure is significantly outpaced. To address this gap, the Collaborative is advancing on a number of fronts, including taking a much closer look at the role that digital culture plays in the spread of disinformation and the fomenting of toxic communities. In a context where social justice power-building has surged and a pandemic has moved social and streaming media to the center of human interaction, digital culture is an urgent area of focus.

It’s more than a matter of rebutting disinformation or combating a single tweet at a time. Seeking to eradicate social justice and pluralist values and advance their toxic vision of society, the White nationalist movement is constructing powerful and pervasive digital storyworlds. Sprawling networks of individuals, micro- and macro-influencers, pseudo-scholarly initiatives, and media companies are constantly manufacturing shareable content infused with disinformation, which overtakes social media platforms, messenger apps, and virtual storyworlds. The Collaborative is currently organizing the field to identify the massive digital narrative infrastructure investment that needs to be made to match these efforts with pluralist forces. 

4. How can funders support you right now?

Because the scale of the White nationalist movement is so vast, the work of opposing those toxic narratives cannot be slow and incremental. The pop culture for social change field must not only expand rapidly, it must strategize coordination across social movements, the entertainment industry, and philanthropy. As the Collaborative has emerged as a leading force working to resource this field, there is an immediate need for funders to more assertively step into the narrative change grantmaking fight. You can support this fight by joining the Pop Culture Collaborative’s Managing Partner donor community. If you want to be more focused in your support, you can invest in one of the Collaborative’s exploratory areas, including gender justice, digital culture, immigration, transfuturism, disability innovation, and true history. Your support will enable the Collaborative to expand its grantmaking and organizing capacity, moving resources to a field that has a critical role to play in replenishing the cultural waters in the U.S. with authentic narratives that center the innovation of people historically excluded from American society.

In the longer view, the Collaborative invites you on a learning journey. Supporting narrative work—which seeds the possibility of pluralist culture in the popular imagination—is an inextricable part of any social justice movement. For funders to better understand how they can incorporate this work into their institutional missions, you are encouraged to reach out to the Collaborative’s funder learning program and grantmakers community of practice, which use evidence-based methodology to integrate policy and organizing strategies with equally powerful narrative and cultural strategies. 

Read more Q&As with leaders of our US portfolio who are working to move the country toward justice in small and big ways.