Combating Swampy Thoughts and the Man in the Hole

Susan Nall Bales is the Founder and President of the Frameworks Institute [@FrameWorksInst] – a team of social scientists who have developed an award winning process they have trademarked Strategic Frame Analysis that develops communication strategies through a rigorous examination based in cognitive and social science. At the Open Places Initiative convening in San Juan, Puerto Rico last week, Ms. Bales presented the theory of their practice along with case studies that have given advocates for social change powerful metaphors to reshape the debate around some of the most challenging and entrenched issues facing historically marginalized populations.FrameWorks Institute

The Frameworks Institute pushes the organizations that it works with to be conscious of The Swamp: the culturally engrained values and assumptions that all messages will ultimately be filtered through, regardless of their intent. One of these deeply engrained notions in the U.S., that of the “Triumphant Individual” (also known as the bootstraps mentality: assuming that everyone has an equal chance to make it if only they work hard enough), can be incredibly detrimental to social change by placing the focus on the individual rather than socially constructed conditions that have a powerful impact on the opportunities and outcomes that groups and individuals have access to.

Bales points out Kurt Vonnegut’s explanation of the story of the Man in the Hole exemplifies this kind of story that we all know so well. And while the story of an individual overcoming adversary may be a fantastic hook to tug on heart strings, it may not be the most effective way to gain new understanding and new support for real change. The accidental message or subconscious message may be, in fact, if this person did it so should / could everyone else and it’s their own laziness/ lack of focus/ poor decisions/ etc. that are holding them back.

The Frameworks Institute challenges organizations not to tell Man in the Hole stories but instead to tell The Way the World Works works stories that can place individual challenges within a much broader context that make the case for real structural change.

Susan Bales’s powerful presentation challenged some commonly accepted approaches to communication strategies within the field of social justice and also gave all the Open Places Sites the opportunity to test these approaches against their existing issue-focused work. Combined with additional strategies and tools that were presented throughout the Open Places conference, participants walked away with a host of considerations and approaches that can hopefully combined to build the movement that they seek.

In addition to the Frameworks Institute site, the organization also hosts an online Frameworks Academy to help organizations rethink their current storytelling and push their audiences to think fundamentally differently about the social challenges they seek to address.






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