Rampant anti-immigrant narratives in American culture have made difficult the work of advocacy for meaningful, systemic change in immigration. The Butterfly Lab for Immigrant Narrative Strategy at Race Forward was launched in 2020 to counter these harmful narratives and construct new, effective narratives that honor the humanity of migrants, refugees, and immigrants.
Listen now to Riki Conrey, PhD (Science Director at Harmony Labs) in conversation with Jeff Chang (Senior Advisor at Race Forward) as they talk through how Harmony Labs and our Narrative Observatory help media makers and advocates use data to build effective storytelling opportunities and build narrative interventions that reach and resonate with unlikely audiences. A transcript is available below, with shorter audio segments throughout.
If you’re interested in learning more about this work, stay tuned to this space for future conversations like these, and don’t hesitate to get in touch.
Riki: We’re going to talk about Butterfly Lab today. Can you talk about what the butterfly lab was up to last year and what your role in it was?
Jeff: The Butterfly Lab for immigrant narrative strategy was started about two years ago by Unbound Philanthropy and Race Forward. And the reason that we did it was we [00:01:00] wanted to try to figure out a way to really advance pro-immigrant narratives.
Jeff: What we know is definitively is that a large part of the culture wars has been organized around anti-immigrant narratives, and that we have, especially in the last decade, been very much losing the battle around immigration reform, around systematic change in immigration because of anti-immigrant narratives. So the idea was for the Butterfly Lab to be a place where we could explore what it would mean to construct pro immigrant narratives, and then to implement them, and then do iterations of research around that to build our knowledge on how to move in the long run towards a pro-immigrant majority.
Riki: We’re always looking for ways to help people refine our own work and our own process, and also help people understand how the process can [00:02:00] unfold. So, before we talk about the process, let’s talk about the product. You produced a narrative with the Butterfly Lab, right? This year, you produced some, some things that are named a narrative. What’s a Narrative?
Jeff: The way that we define narrative is, it’s the accumulation of stories, of messages, of images, of memes, of different types of, bits of culture, so to speak, that point us in a particular direction as to how we should think and act about certain kinds of issues. So, for instance, a dominant narrative around immigrants is that immigrants don’t belong here. They are outsiders. They will contaminate. You know, our country this is the way that that narrative is talked about.
Jeff: That’s an, obviously an anti-immigrant narrative, a pro-immigrant narrative might be that immigrants are essential and they’re not just essential as essential workers, but they’re [00:03:00] essential to the life of their their, their families, their loved ones, their community. And also our larger institutions as a whole that immigrants are, are essential human beings within the fabric of the society that we live in.
Jeff: So those are two examples of narratives that, that are in conflict with each other right now.
Riki: You kind of answered my next question, which is one of the things I find is really different about when we do narrative work. So we have to tell stories and they have to not just name the problem, but envision an arc and then like a happy ending, right. So do you have a way to describe America when we get there? When we’re, what does that future look like?
Jeff: Well, the way that we’ve kind of framed it is, and I don’t know if this is going to spill over into some of the questions that you have, so forgive me if I kind of ramble here and get to your point, but the kinds of work that we did in the Butterfly Lab what we did was we brought together 16 different immigrant narrative leaders, [00:04:00] and they’re working across a whole bunch of different types of issues.
Jeff: They’re working along different timelines and of course they were working in different kinds of forms and methods and ways. And in order to kind of think about how we wanted to harmonize though, that work, what we did was we had a lot of very intense discussions and they all pointed towards thinking about the world that we want to build.
Jeff: And in doing so, what are the underlying values of that world that we wanted to build. And so we did a fair amount of sort of imagining some sort of a work that we were helped through by people like the Wakanda Dream Lab and other futurists to kind of help us think about those types of things.
Jeff: And what we landed on were six, what we call, deep narratives or value frameworks that we believe would help to activate a pro immigrant majority. And those are interdependence, belonging, abundance, dignity, safety, and the freedom to thrive. And if we are able to move [00:05:00] people on one or two into an adoption of all of those deep narratives, then what we think we’ll do is be able to get people to a worldview in which immigrants are welcomed, in which they, they feel a sense of belonging, in which they’re allowed to be able to contribute and thrive and all the ways to be able to help their communities and and make this a better country. But yeah, that’s sort of what we arrived at. We call that a narrative system, a narrative system of six deep narratives that we want to activate long-term in our narrative work.
Riki: So we’ve done a lot of support work for cohorts. Like this one, they all have different shapes. I think we’re definitely as a field coming to a pattern of working around this. So this is, has nothing to do with what I contributed, but I’m really curious. What was the one design choice you made for the Butterfly Lab in particular around, like who participated or how they participated or how you got together or whatever that you, that [00:06:00] turned out to be the smartest decision you made? Like, I absolutely would do that again. A plus plus.
Jeff: Absolutely a plus plus the was what I’m really proud of, I should just say is our, our selection process. We actually landed on, through a bunch of amazing factors and really the stars aligning and the constellation showing up, that’s in everything, was literally a perfect balance between folks who kind of work in advocacy, um, the law, policy, community organizing, we had eight of those and we had eight people who considered themselves to be cultural strategists, artists people who are working, if you will, on the, on the arts and culture side of the ledger. And what we didn’t really realize. Was we’ve talked about it for years, but we didn’t really realize the amount of sharing that would go on and the amount of new conversations that we’d be able to [00:07:00] have because we were able to bring together such a diverse type of group.
Jeff: And I think that ultimately, too, that’s what led us towards the notion of the narrative system was okay, so we got all these different folks. How do we make sense of this? And then how do we figure out how to move together? And in, in a field like like this, right? When you talk about folks who are working on immigration as opposed to who as opposed to folks who are working for immigrants, people who have been working on immigration have been stifled and it’s been a brutal, brutal decade since the last attempt at comprehensive immigration reform.
Jeff: There’s a lot of trauma from that. There’s a lot of fighting that, that went on and. And so, you know, to be able to bring folks into a space and see these bonds of trust, developing that basically sealed for us the two big ideas of the lab, which are the narrative system, which we just talked about, and this other notion of building a narrative ecosystem so that people can actually think about what it [00:08:00] means to have a narrative infrastructure built that’s equal to the complexity and the sophistication, the velocity, right, and the sort of depth of policy infrastructure. If people figure out ways that they can interact with each other via narrative across the different types of ways that they’re working on the different issues that they’re working on, they actually can give each other a stronger sense of a unity of purpose, if you will.
Jeff: And so the top two things that came out of the report out of this one thing, this one choice that we made was that, was that we can do all of our work in the way that we’re doing. If we just align ourselves towards a building this narrative system and building a narrative ecosystem.
Riki: For what it’s worth your cohort, which was the one I’ve been involved in that had the strongest balance, like a straight 50, 50 of the advocacy space with the artist space.
Riki: And I, to experience that as really like just being in the room and seeing it reflected, that was really productive. Maybe it helped [00:09:00] to sort of focus the artists, but also helped the advocates imagine something bigger than message. And I think that was, it was a pretty great cohort as these things go we’ve, we’ve had some good ones.
Riki: So you had a couple of folks who really experienced actually pretty significant success, like really, their stuff ended up in the world. You don’t have to pick any favorite creators. We all have our favorite creations, but do you want to talk about some of the ones that are in the world that people can explore a little bit?
Jeff: Absolutely. We can start with, like, there were, there were a number of cohort members who were working because the cohort coincided with the rise of the pandemic and our quarantining and that kind of thing, it really drove us in maybe a different direction than we might’ve understood. And as well with the changeover in administrations, there was a huge change over of course, in administrations from Trump to Biden.
Jeff: And that actually impacted our cohort as well. But what it meant was was that we have multiple people who are working on the Immigrants Are [00:10:00] Essential campaign in different kinds of ways. And so two of , uh, the, We Are Home campaign in particular, right? We had two people who were kind of involved in both of those tables, who did narrative projects that were amazing are an out in the world and have had quite a big impact and are continuing to have impact. So Paola Mendoza’s poster and art exhibition series around Immigrants Are Essential was really powerful. It was a collaboration between her as well as the Resilience Force folks and the NILC folks, the National Immigrant Law Center folks and also Justice for Migrant Women.
Jeff: And and that work literally highlighted the individualized stories of um, essential undocumented workers who passed away because of COVID and was, it was a brilliant kind of way to flip the notion of, of essential work into like a central human beings. And that project got massive press. It was displayed in New York, in [00:11:00] Washington, DC, and now in Los Angeles and there’s discussions about it continuing to tour. So that work was, was amazing.
Jeff: And then at the same time, you know Mónica Ramírez from Justice for Migrant Women did a very similar type of project where she created this intervention called The Humans Who Feed Us and also presented portraits of farm workers, because the notion that she wanted was to present that centrality of farm workers in the food chain and also to talk about all the different aspects of the food system that are interdependent upon each other. So she was really advancing, um, that notion of interdependence. And this work began literally at the county fair in her backyard, which is a county that’s something like 90% white or more with seasonal migrant workers coming in.
Jeff: And then she took the portraits now and they’re being displayed in restaurants all across the country, in high-end restaurants, all across the country. And it spawned other work that is looking [00:12:00] at food workers and other parts of the system, such as at universities’ food services, all these different types of things.
Jeff: And so she’s been able to actually engage, replicate the project, and scale it up, both. It started from a very small, you know, like, county fair thing. And now it’s both scaled up and it’s being replicated. And that, to us, is a perfect example of some of the kinds of ways that people can make these narrative interventions.
Jeff: There’s a whole bunch of other amazing projects, but I wanted to maybe kind of highlight those two.
Riki: So we should talk about Harmony Labs. So we did a bunch of different things with you guys on this project, how would you describe what we did for you?
Jeff: What we kind of encountered were, were sort of two needs. One was to support the individual prototype projects with thinking about audience and how to target their audiences a lot better. So I think the first round of work that we did with you all really had [00:13:00] to do with trying to give the entirety of the cohort an understanding of, who are the people, literally out there, who are our target audiences? How do they consume media? And to give folks a really good sense of this is the universe of people out there that you are trying to get at, and here’s where they, they fit. And that was just brilliant. That served as a amazing foundation for everybody.
Jeff: It was like 16 light bulbs went off, um, when you were able to kind of present to us this notion of the segments and the quadrants and thinking about where we could find people. And it surprised us a lot and where we can move people to, which I think was also a surprising too, to many folks.
Jeff: People were, I think, genuinely surprised to learn that it might be possible to be able to get audiences who might vote, you know, not Democratic or people who, right? [00:14:00] Like, it’s, it’s a weird to say that, but it was a revelation, I think, for, for folks working in a movement that has had to really play defense for like 10 plus years. Like that was a wide open, like kind of like, oh, wow, that’s right, this is a universe of people who are out there who we can go out and, and really convince. And your, the results that you found pointed forward to different ways that those audiences could be moved.
Jeff: So the second part of the research is that, that we did with you all had to do with literally testing content and trying to understand how we might be able to move this narrative system that we had created. What we did was we tested content from some of the different projects that people had created in real time, around real issues that were burning in that moment, um, And some, of course, which all of which are, are still burning and maybe in different ways, but literally like the middle of the African refugee [00:15:00] crisis. The middle of incarceration of families and family separation. In the middle of this fight around extending protections to undocumented immigrant essential workers. In the middle of all those fights, what does this content mean? And what is the long-term value of this content, like, does it point us in the direction that we need to have it pointing us? Does it move us from messaging campaigns towards long-term narrative power building?
Jeff: And that stuff was a revelation, I think as well, being able to understand the gap between our core audiences and our stretch audiences that we’ve been moving the core audiences a lot, and people will always move when we asked them to, but that the stretch audiences had specific narratives that were going to move them forward.
Jeff: That like has greatly like, it’s helped immeasurably. That became a core part of the things that we’re trying to give out to the world and is going to really shape how we look at our projects that we want to select for phase two.
Riki: We’re calling that “Aim for the Edges” and I want to talk about it again because they think it’s really important. This is the first project where we’ve really seen just very, very strong evidence for it. But first I want to talk about Omar because I love his stuff so much.
Jeff: We love Omar.
Riki: I mean, I love Omar himself as well, and I actually feel a little bit close to greatness when I’m like, yeah, I know Omar Offendum.
Jeff: Yeah, his shine is like that, like bright. Yeah, for sure.
Riki: He’s so great to be around . He’s just really wonderful. Also, I think I made him cry too, but I know I’m having a good narrative day when I make one of the creators cry. The thing I want to talk about about Omar’s content is actually a couple of things.
Riki: The first thing is, how would you talk about what testing is for when we’re doing narrative and art, because I’m not going to go to Omar and be like, you can’t use that word in your song. You need to change that word. So that’s not what we’re testing for. Even if the testing doesn’t influence the specific piece of art we have [00:17:00] made, what’s the goal of testing for something like this?
Jeff: That’s such a great question. So Omar’s work was really interesting in that what Omar did was, and what we tested were, excerpts from a play, sort of musical performance that he’s doing, that’s a narrative performance. It’s called Little Syria and it’s literally about recreating this world in which Arab American immigrants at the turn of the century were able to create a Haven for themselves. Early 20th century in Lower East Side Manhattan. What was powerful to it, and I think what we all kind of suspected , just to reemphasize, Omar’s work, he’s a rapper and spoken word poet, is just, it’s incredible. It’s stellar. And like the artistic aesthetic excellence of it is just, you know, it’s beyond, it’s just off the scale. So we knew that there were going to be people that were going to be kind of interested in it, regardless whether or not that was going to you know, move them.
Jeff: But what we wanted [00:18:00] to test was whether they were going to be moved and where they would be moved to. And what we found was that the form of Omar’s work and the excellence of his work really grabbed people from across the spectrum. Just the spectrum of ideology. The spectrum of class, of race, all of the things, there was a universal appeal that Omar had tapped into which, you know, we could have guessed it, he’s a great artist and that’s what great artists do. But the other part of it was that it specifically moved people around questions of how they might actually think about immigrants. Um And then the next stage of it would be to kind of test behavior change. That was an affirmation.
Jeff: It also showed us the avenues in which the work was opening up narrative possibilities for hard to reach groups. I think the next level of it is. Okay. There’s the [00:19:00] sort of, “Arts, so what?” Question which we always get to, which is, can you love the peace and still, you know, vote the wrong way or still not be moved to treat immigrants in your community a different kind of a way. And that stuff is going to be much harder to test. But I think within the time that we had, we were just in prototyping phase, it was a significant amount of information that we can build from, for another phase of this, for sure.
Riki: So that piece. Well, actually we tested three different pieces in four different iterations of Omar’s content. We did a lot of testing here, which I think is always worth noting, a lot of little tests, a lot of diverse content. And the thing that definitely surprised me about Omar’s work is not that it worked, it is objectively great. It’s actually that it worked for an audience that I did not expect to pick it up both because they’re anti-immigrant and because he’s rapping. So I was like, well, you know, the hip hop audience is going to pick this right up. Right. And they, I mean, I guess they might, but honestly, the [00:20:00] audience that moved the most is an audience we call Don’t Tread on Me that’s Conservative, very Conservative, largely self identified as Republican, and they popped right up, they were willing to say “strongly agree” to all immigrants, including undocumented immigrants, have a place here in America and belong, after they consumed that media. Is there a behavior change? Maybe, but I think there is one thing to note for you, for your next iteration. One of the biggest things we find for even Latino Americans who are consuming anti-immigrant narratives through the news is that they’re getting huge quantities, huge quantities of anti-immigration stories. And no stories about any actual immigrants at all. And so if you reach a Don’t Tread on Me with something they want to listen to, like Omar’s content is the only story that features an actual immigrant in their lives. Everything else is about who stays and who goes, and this judge and that law and crisis crisis crisis.
Riki: But I think I would be very surprised if you didn’t see behavior change, if [00:21:00] Omar was on their regular playlist, which I hope he is someday.
Riki: I want to return to aim for the edges because this is so important. We tested like 18 different pieces of creative from like eight different creators from the advocacy stuff to the artist stuff, and virtually everything worked to activate the base, Which is great news. It means a diverse set of stories can move the base toward the narrative you want. We tested two pillars. We tested the Freedom to Thrive and the Belonging pillar.
Riki: And then we found that some things worked outside the base and those things tended to feature things like freedom, striving, and responsibility. The things that worked outside the base almost always work inside the base like 99% of the time. And the reverse is not the case. The base for immigrant stories or immigration stories tends to be focused on community. They care about caring, and not everybody else is really focused on empathy. So there are other ways of reaching them. [00:22:00] So we would recommend based on. But actually well, outside of the immigration narrative space, when you’re thinking of creating narrative work, you aim for persuadables and assume your base will get activated by virtually anything you make. What’s your reaction to that? And what’s your cohorts reaction to that
Jeff: been? I think there’s a range of reactions to that particular finding. On the one hand, like looking at that statement that you just made, it seems just very obvious, right? It seems very common sense. In practice, what’s interesting, though, is that even in the Butterfly Labs space where we encourage folks to really take risks in terms of thinking about the audiences that they wanted to reach, in a prototyping process where the word “failure” was banned, right.
Jeff: That people actually chose in many cases. Originally, some people moved from this, but originally, so like go for audiences that, that in retrospect you would consider them to [00:23:00] be base or core audiences. And I’m not sure exactly what all the reasons are for that. Whether it’s a type of thing of like, oh, we can take our risks with our core audience, we don’t want to offend or lose folks. Or if it’s like a, a long-term type of thing of we’re actually coming out of this particular period in which we had a very nasty administration. We actually don’t know who might be left for our team after this. Right? To join our team after this. I’m not sure. It could be any number of different types of reasons, but that’s, I think a really important kind of thing to emphasize to people who are interested in any kind of issue, which is to objectively kind of look at what those edges are, and then actually assess strategically what your tolerance level is to make moves in those types of areas.
Jeff: One of the things that we didn’t talk about in the research, but of course was a huge [00:24:00] discussion in our one-on-ones, as people are moving through their design and implementation process is if we move too far, are we going to lose the folks here? Right. And I think that there’s a genuine and legitimate kind of worry that that’s possibly going to happen. We have to get people out of campaign mode and thinking about how you build a longterm majority, which is much different, it’s much, much different.
Riki: Something to really highlight there is something that comes up again and again and again. There’s this real challenge, especially because people are coming from a campaign mode where they’ve been instructed by their research people, this is the framing you’re going to use to reach the Conservatives, or the young people, or whatever demographic blob has been assigned to them as the persuadables, you’re going to make sure you, we use the word shame, or you’re gonna make sure you use this word or that word. And so that kind of approach, where research is instructing you, what you’re going to say, feels like pandering. They didn’t ask you if you want to say that. [00:25:00] That’s what they want to hear.
Riki: And here we need to find an aim for the edges, an opportunity for you to keep telling the exact story you want to tell, and tell the parts of it, or bridge the parts of it, that you share with that audience you’re heading into. So it’s not about asking that audience what they want to hear and feeding them some nasty gram. It is about finding the points of connection between you and where they are. It’s about incrementalism, not pandering. That’s the work of narrative. That’s not the work of messaging. The biggest thing I think that we would combine it with is something we found very consistently around some of the crises currently around nukes and climate, and that is, if you do not have a future in your story, you are going to lose.
Riki: I think attendant on that is something you brought up very early, which is that it’s part of the answer around this measurement thing and around campaign. So many advocates have been at it for so long that they have, they they’ve forgotten that the offensive game is available to them. It feels like defense. But that’s just because of the political framing, the truth is, that in people’s everyday lives, they’re [00:26:00] mostly not consuming you and your issue, they’re mostly consuming Key and Peele, or dumb gaming videos online, and there’s plenty of room for people to engage in and celebrate and get excited about an alternative future. The fundamental thing that we need to move people toward, is a belief that not only does America have a future, that we can have a really great future that involves change and innovation, diversity, tolerance, and all of the things that are fundamentally small P progressive.
Riki: When we talk about measurement, what’s coming out of the campaign world is a few things. Some of it is the impact of behavioral economics and this idea that we need to measure behavior in order to believe a thing has worked. But really what I believe it is, is the measurement tail has wagged the impact dog.
Riki: It’s very easy to measure whether someone clicked on your ad, very easy. And so we took all of the things that are easy to measure and [00:27:00] decided those are the things that we want to move.
Jeff: Yeah. Yup.
Riki: I think as a measurement person, and I am fundamentally first and foremost, a measurement person, that makes me bananas.
Riki: It makes me super, super frustrated that people are like, well, but does it drive clicks? I don’t care if it drives clicks, I want it to drive a governing majority.
Riki: I think that the problem with that is that it’s much easier to get clicks on fear and anger than it is on hope and joy and celebration and the future. Much easier. But I guarantee you, the getting those clicks is hurting us every time we’ve played that game. Every time, in the two weeks, right before the election, we threaten people until they agree to vote. It does, in fact get them to vote.
Riki: It does not get them on board for a complete overhaul of our immigration system and imagining immigrants, because we’ve just tired them out even more than they were tired before. To create a lasting progressive narrative, we need to be focused on the [00:28:00] future. We need to be focused on the long game and we need to be featuring positive emotions that keep people coming back.
Riki: So not only is it a dumb way to measure, it’s a way to measure that incentivizes us to do the wrong thing.
Jeff: That’s really powerful.
Jeff: When you say positive vision for the future, it’s not necessarily the same as: positive words in messaging all the time.
Jeff: It’s a completely different type of thing. Right? So I remember when we tested a positive narrative around refugees, Um, it worked for our core audiences, but it didn’t motivate the stretch audiences, the folks on the edges. What they needed to hear was actually a story of pain of people sacrificing their lives for the US.
Jeff: But then they moved when they heard that story, they moved and these are the people who are the hardest to move. And so in part, I, it feels like [00:29:00] one of the cases that needs to be made is that this is a progression. And I think this is what we learned from you. Absolutely, the focus has to be on creating a future that we can all see ourselves living in.
Jeff: The next question becomes, how do we get there from here? And, and so maybe this is a super broad question, but you’ve kind of alluded to some of the answers, right? Like, it feels like some of the research that’s being done in the moment, it’s not about getting them to act in the moment, but it’s about to onboard them onto the road that’s going to take them to where we want them to be in the long run. And how do you convey that in the research and the findings, and what are the different steps that you have been able to figure out as you move folks along? In other words, how do you measure that?
Jeff: How do you build a case for folks actually investing in this type of work, whether it be a funder or whether it be an organization or a group of [00:30:00] artists, how do you get them to think about what the steps are in the long run?
Riki: We’re all co-creating this together, right?
Riki: So I’m not sure we’ve cracked it in by any means, but here are two things that I like to talk about a lot for those campaigners who are used to having exactly two seconds of somebody’s attention in a digital ad, we’re going to re-imagine what we’re going to do. And we’re going to call it a story.
Riki: And instead of having a tagline or a message, we’re going to have a beginning, and a middle, and an end. And that meansthat in the middle, we can acknowledge the very real and present trauma that people are experiencing. I don’t want to write a balloon gram. Everything is fine, guys. There’s no problem here. I want to say, you know what, this is bad. The climate is, in fact, on fire. That is actually happening. But then because we’re telling a story, something happens and what happens is humans can do hard things. And we’re going to start fixing this today, and here’s how we are going to do it. So when we shift from message to story, we give [00:31:00] ourselves the opportunity to have the “both, and”. To move through the real trauma, to name the real thing, which is, I think, where a lot of creators in particular , and advocates, they don’t want to pretend it’s not happening.
Riki: They don’t have to pretend it’s not happening. They only have to tell the story in, in many different pieces about how we’re going to get where we’re going. Um, From a measurement perspective, when I think about narrative, I think about the solution to a fact that some of our colleagues who are studying how youth in America want to engage with politics, they’re finding that youth really want direct democracy.
Riki: They just want to personally vote on everything. Well, what we definitely want to respond to, there is the fact that we have started to ask individuals to become experts on every conceivable issue in policy, because we have not given them the narrative heuristics they need to evaluate whether or not something new presented to them fits with their vision for how America works. And so when we’re doing narrative work, we [00:32:00] are building the groundwork for never having to message again. I’m not surprised at all that we see our news feeding audiences, constantly consuming information to try to make sense of it because we’re asking them to be the rational actors they could never conceivably be.
Riki: So narrative work is about establishing a heuristic for people to check against all of the different policies, behaviors they’re asked to engage in and different opinions they’re asked to have in the future. It is impossible for me to believe that we can build a governing majority and a future in which immigrants are fully embraced members of our society without having that narrative in place.
Riki: Thanks so much for joining us for this conversation with Jeff Chang. We’re hoping to do a few more conversations like this with narrative practitioners, what works for them, what doesn’t work for them, how they sort through the difference, and how they actually put our work into practice. We are going to be having a few more conversations like these over the coming [00:33:00] weeks and months. Stay tuned to this space for more updates in the future.