I first met Christine Cordero at a conference several years ago. She was leading a workshop for the Center for Story-Based Strategy, the organization where she is now the executive director. The conference, like so many, was stuck in a self-congratulatory groove — until Cordero got people to think about the stories that lie beneath the work of the environmental movement.

Christine Cordero
Christine CorderoElla Baker Center

If we were going to apply the dramatic triangle to an environmental campaign, what would that look like? Who was the hero? The victim? The villain? “A target has a face, a name, and an address,” Cordero said. “You need to get it down to specific people. Your audience is who has influence over your target.”

Was there a way to flip the story around, so that either the victim or the villain could become the hero? Why did we need a hero, anyway? “I’m so tired of cult-of-personality organizations,” one seasoned campaigner said, wearily. “But people like that. They want to say, ‘I like you. I will follow you.'”

In the years since, I’ve seen ideas that we talked about then percolate through the culture. Black Lives Matter emerged as a movement that deliberately avoided anointing a leader and found a common story behind many, many isolated ones. The September 2014 People’s Climate March happened, and I noticed that climate change stories became much more of a mainstream topic of conversation.

I wondered what Cordero thought about these developments, and she was kind enough to agree to an interview.

Q. Have you noticed any changes in the stories around climate change in the last few years?

A. During the buildup to the climate march, we saw the big greens shift from polar bears and science experts to people who are being directly affected by climate change who were also at the forefront of change. We began to see ourselves as the characters of a story where we have mismanaged the land and our labor to get to where we are. This economy is at the root of it, and climate is just the biggest symptom that is showing.

I mean, people love big furry polar bears. But for the most part, they weren’t stories people could see themselves in. They would think, “Well, OK. Smarter people than me are taking care of that. People who like to hug trees and bears are taking care of that. That’s a story for them.”

Right now I’m seeing a lot of that “Oh shit, we’re going to hell in a handbasket” story.

Q. We write that story a lot.

A. And it’s not that it’s untrue. But it’s too big to deal with on a day-to-day basis, and it’s easy to say, “Well, those U.N. politicians are dealing with it. The heads of nations are dealing with it. And those are the only ones who can make significant change on this.”

But based on the climate talks so far, climate solutions are going to be market-based solutions. Communities that are going to be impacted are probably not going to see the benefits of that. The U.N. is already managing expectations that they are not going to make the 2 degrees. They’re like, “Maybe we can keep it down to 3 degrees, or 3.5.” So they’re already lowering expectations.

The stories we’ve been really excited about have been Just Transition stories. There is a whole movement that is primarily among people who have been in environmental justice and now see it as climate justice work. There’s the Climate Justice Alliance, which is about 35 frontline groups who got together and said, “Sure, our officials and politicians should be working on this, but we are on the front lines and we need to build our own economic resiliency. The economy is about how we manage our home — the land, the air, the water, food – but also the resource of our human labor.”

There is the Our Power campaign. The Just Transition pilot sites: Richmond, Calif.; Black Mesa, Ariz.; Detroit, Mich.; San Antonio, Texas; Jackson, Miss.; Eastern Kentucky. These are places where particularly there is an effort to say that the way we have been managing our environment and our communities is wrong.

And so, really, change is happening all the time. When people have their “Oh shit” moment and they realize they have to do something, the solutions are going to be all over the place.

These communities have been saying: If part of the problem is at the scale at which you’ve managed things, perhaps the solution to that problem should not be at that same scale. You can’t have a cookie-cutter solution when the land and the communities you are working with are very different. Black Mesa, which is a Navajo Reservation, has very different climate solutions than Detroit. We’re not under any illusions that, to save this planet, any one thing is going to be the magic bullet.

Q. Doesn’t a story have to have one solution?

A. The thing that’s exciting about it is, your cookie cutter’s not going to work, but you can still wind up with two dozen cookies. This is the only story right now where you are empowering people to actually help build into the solution.

The other thing that has been super awesome — but it’s harder, because people are more removed from it — is that all of the indigenous people who have been at the sites of extraction, there’s no quibbling over little policy details. They want to keep it in the ground. To them, you can talk about numbers and policy, but it’s their land that’s in danger, and they’re like, “No more.”

Q. When that study about gay marriage and conversation got debunked, was that a surprise to you? How much do you think personal stories actually affect people to change their minds?

A. Well, basic psychology — and I am not a social scientist, let’s get that straight — but people don’t actually change their minds unless there’s a confluence of factors. You can read stuff. You can have the experience of someone telling you something. But the biggest one is very experiential. It’s a person’s ability to experience and relate their personal impact to whatever the situation is. In the environmental justice community, the idea around toxic tours is that people need to actually feel it and experience it. I’ve seen the Laotian community in Richmond, Calif., take a toxic tour and see how close Chevron is to their houses — it’s really shifted so many people. Being there, and breathing it for 20 minutes, you get a sense of what it means.

Q. I know progressives fell madly in love with George Lakoff a few years ago. Is this something you’ve had issues with at all?

A. Lakoff’s stuff on framing was a huge game changer when it came out. The unfortunate pattern that happened after Don’t Think of an Elephant was polling and messaging to existing frames. We’re always less interested in research that shows where people are at than we are in research in what shifts them. We’re not here to message to the middle. We are here to figure what pulls people to solutions.

Whereas when Lakoff’s stuff came out, people thought, “You have to water down your message.” We don’t want people to water down what they do just to get more people to agree with them.

Q. There was definitely this feeling that if you could just come up with the right words, suddenly people would start listening to you, and they would get it. While conservatives seem to have done a lot more hyper-specific messaging to different groups, like evangelicals.

A. Let’s be clear. The investment that they did in organizing to build up that Tea Party base? They emerged right about the same time as Obama, and everybody was like, “Oh, they have these catchphrases!” Oh, no. Organizers started eight to 10 years before that actually started to roll out. What they were doing was building the meaning. They did tons of testing with their base.

Q. What kind of backgrounds do people come from who build that kind of meaning?

A. PR and advertising. Some of them have social science degrees, but PR is a lot of trial and error with focus testing behind it. Advertising and the whole “magic words” theory is about repetition and pervasiveness.

We get people who come to us and want us to provide magic words, and we say, “the magic is not in the words.” The magic is in the meaning you are able to build with a larger set of people. It’s about those words encapsulating values and stories that move people. But that’s not in the words themselves. The words help. But it’s not the only thing.

What is the story that wedges in there first, and how do you open the door wider? Sometimes there’s a slow burn of building up the influences and the norms around someone that changes their behavior because the current is moving that way.

And then there are situations like Black Lives Matter and Occupy. We call those “psychic breaks.” There is this big moment where reality meets up with a conflicting worldview and people start to question their deeply held beliefs on something. For New Yorkers it was Sandy. Increasingly, as we have more of those big moments of climate disruption, we are going to have those psychic breaks.

At that moment, there’s an opportunity where people can insert narratives that will either entrench the status quo and power structure, or really challenge it. 9/11 really entrenched existing power. Occupy and Black Lives Matter changed the whole landscape.

Q. What did you think about An Inconvenient Truth? Was there even a story there?

A. Hm. Not really. That was kind of a polar bear story. It was very well-done analysis and synthesis of the science in a way that normal people at the time could grasp. It’s so interesting how Al Gore was so much more compelling when he didn’t have the pressure of the campaign on him.

A lot of the time what we see are people pushing the science and policy without any kind of narrative. Which is why most people seem pretty disconnected, even when the impacts are so day to day.

Q. Is there a group that you hold up as an all-time example of a group that got it right?

A. I can tell you whose work we’ve admired. Kentuckians for the Commonwealth built a really beautiful platform around Appalachia’s Bright Future that, in a coal-dominated state, really captured a lot of the hearts and minds. There was a Doritos palm-oil brand hack that was pretty great … It’s hard. I can tell you more about opposition.

Q. Yes! Tell me about that.

A. The easiest example of amazing work over the decades is the anti-union work, like Worker Center Watch. The capture they did on the “Right to Work” frame was really kind of evil. They totally co-opted a lot of union terms too — it’s genius.

The corporations, they do beautiful story work. It’s always easier to stay ahead when you’re already winning, and you also have a lot of money. Monsanto does beautiful story work.

A lot of what we are doing with groups is showing them what that looks like. We don’t want people to completely outright lie in the way that some corporations and groups are willing to do, but we do ask what it means to tell your most compelling and authentic story where you can still hold a lot of truth and facts but lead with meaning.

A lot of social justice infrastructure kind of sounds like a cacophony. We don’t believe in stifling. We believe the multitude of voices is beautiful. Our argument is, what would it look like if everyone can harmonize? Keep it in the ground, Appalachia’s Bright Future. Those are starting to echo each other. We’re trying to get those arrows pointed in the same direction.

Q. I feel like there’s not a lot of storytelling around solar, and that’s something that would appeal to a wide variety of people, from paranoid prepper types to more classic environmentalists.

A. They may not have done a lot verbally, but visually, they’re one of the only standard images for renewables and alternatives.

Q. Good point. So we’re thinking visuals now. We can’t do polar bears anymore. Is there a new visual that you’ve noticed people using?

A. The one I see the most is your everyday people in hard hats installing solar on a house. Wind — that’s an iconic visual, but I don’t see it as much. I see the urban gardening picture a lot. Who doesn’t love pictures of produce?

Q. As someone who is often looking for article images, I sure love a dirty vegetable. Any other trends you’ve been noticing?

A. Well, storytelling is so trendy right now. A lot of people look at Marshall Ganz’s work. I’ve been looking a lot around visual storytelling. People have been doing a lot of story banking.

Q. What’s that?

A. People just say, “Let’s collect as many stories as possible from our members, and we’ll just have all these great stories.” And we’ve worked with them, like, “What are these stories used for? How are they framed? Is your member a hero or a villain or a victim?”

One of my favorite People’s Climate March stories is Stanley Sturgill, a former coal miner from Kentucky. That man walked the whole march, even though he has severe health problems from being a coal miner for a decade. Stories like that are things you can point to. Who is actually living the transition?

MIT just did a really interesting look at queer and LGBTQ issues and the narrative mapping around that.

Q. That’s interesting. Living in San Francisco I hear so much about how early gay rights activism looked like Occupy or Black Lives Matter. It was very angry and in your face. And now there’s this hazy memory over it. When the Harvey Milk movie was made, they showed the peaceful march but not the riot.

A. Protest movements are meant to elevate the conflict. They’re there to define and illustrate a problem that hasn’t been visible until that point. So by nature those movements are confrontational.

When people disperse into the different strategies for change from that, adaptation and assimilation is a strategy that gets people closer to that empathy that I mentioned earlier.

We’ve been trying to track what is the evolution of narrative, and then how it gets into public discourse — what is the norm. The labor movement and the eight-hour day and the weekend were all radical in the same way — and people have completely forgotten. It will be interesting to see what we are able to move that will become quote unquote basic rights.

I find it fascinating because international folks in developed countries think it’s crazy how behind the U.S. is in human rights. Here, a person will agree with you that a child shouldn’t be starving in Africa but kinda hesitate if you tell them a child is hungry in Detroit. They’ll say, “Well, what did their family do? What did their parents do, as individuals? Whose fault is it that that child is hungry?”

Q. Do you have any theories as to why that is?

A. I think it stems specifically from American exceptionalism and bootstrap mythology. “Well, if you have it, that must have been what you deserved.” It’s all about that frontier. We built it ourselves, and we’ve done this on our own, and we built this country. We know that’s not true. But that’s the story.