What is a narrative?
In its simplest term, a narrative is a story. In systems change advocacy, when we refer to narratives, we’re referencing the deeply held beliefs that shape people’s actions. It’s not any one story, it is the collection of stories, memes, tweets, videos, sermons, books, and dinner table conversations that either help maintain the status quo or give momentum to a change movement.
There is a growing acknowledgement of the power these stories can have. Isabel Crabtree-Condor is a knowledge broker for Oxfam, and she describes narratives as the invisible force that hold things in place and prevents change, even shuts down conversations about change.
So, as the story goes, the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) -- a temporary income support of $500 a week during the COVID-19 pandemic -- caused the overdose crisis. Or at least contributed to it heavily. This story is used to prop up the idea that giving money to people who use drugs is not in their own best interest (I've even heard it called a "death wish") because they'll use that money to buy a whole bunch of extra drugs, and die.
Friends, this story is startlingly accepted as fact, even among those who work to support people who use drugs.
But it's just not true.
In this post, I'll point to sources that debunk this myth, explain why it is very dangerous, and suggest a new narrative. (Because by now we know that saying, "No, CERB didn't cause the overdose crisis" just gives that false story oxygen. We need a new narrative using new words.)
Y'all, (<-- read that in a Brene Brown Texas accent please) I've just finished reading Change: How to Make Big Things Happen by Damon Centola, and I have so many things I want to download into the brains of everyone trying to disrupt for good.
Centola uses research and data to explain how spreading ideas and spreading behaviour change are very different, and the distinction between spreading ideas and having them adopted is one we need to familiarize ourselves with to have maximum impact. If you can read the book, do it. (I borrowed it from the library and then ended up buying a copy anyway to have for reference) If you can't, I'll be sharing a few of my hot takes here.
My friend Suzanna and I were given the opportunity, on behalf of the Simcoe County Alliance to End Homelessness, to write a blog post and letter to the editor as part of an ongoing campaign by Just Recovery Simcoe to keep topics like homelessness, racism, and the environment top of mind as our local COVID recovery is developed.
We used the opportunity to remind readers that housing is a right, and also to repeat a version of my favourite line about affordable housing:
Hello! Thanks for stopping by. I thought my first blog post should be a quick explanation of why things are changing around here.
As 2020 wore on, my peppy little change-the-world brand was fitting less and less. It felt inadequate. Maybe even inauthentic? I was feeling less peppy, and more pissed off. A CBC podcast I listen to sometimes was calling 2020 "Year K," because some people were actually benefitting from the pandemic, while others were absolutely bearing the brunt of the shutdowns and the health risks - there was a split. A divide. We were not all in this together.
And I watched/participated in the charitable sector's response. Most charities have always been about band-aid solutions - focused on addressing symptoms more than root causes. But I found this more and more frustrating in 2020.
I also saw some charities interpreting COVID-19 precautions and guidelines in ways that absolutely stripped program participants of their human rights - people with nowhere else to go being forced to swap dignity and privacy for shelter and food. Infantilized.