For over a decade, our work has helped hundreds of storytellers in culture change work utilize audience and narrative research for their ongoing communication efforts in spaces like immigration, poverty and economic mobility, and AI and racial justice. In 2022, we were fortunate to work with Narrative Initiative and a cohort of artists, organizers, and educators to prototype a new approach to challenge problematic Asian American and Pacific Islander cultural narratives, particularly the Model Minority Myth. Our work was twofold:
For the first phase, Narrative Initiative provided resources on narrative change work and the narrative landscape for AAPI communities, including research from Jeff Chang's Butterfly Lab, who had also collaborated with Harmony Labs, and an introduction to narrative organizing as a framework. As the cohort dug into these resources, we surfaced with members possible entry points within the existing culture on AAPI stories in media. Together, we led the cohort through robust discussions on culture change, audience, the content testing process. This initial layer of context helped bridge each creator’s unique objective for their work with the existing cultural narratives around AAPI identities in the U.S.
In the second phase, we tested the final work produced by the cohort, work that included spoken-word poems, infographics, social media posts, and TV pilots. Our focus aimed to measure to what extent—if at all—the content might shift viewers’ perspectives on existing and potentially harmful narratives about AAPI-related issues.
While the unifying, broad objective for the cohort was to shift audience perspectives about AAPI experiences and identities in the U.S., each creator brought individualized goals to their projects, naming areas of interest like: Hawaii, poetry, queer experiences, insufficiency of “AAPI” as a term, oral histories, colonization, decarceration, immigration, empowerment. Additionally, each creator envisioned specific audiences for their content pieces. We collaborated closely with Narrative Initiative to adapt their content pieces to broaden their reach on digital platforms.
We turned to YouTube to search for story patterns in media currently being consumed by people who self identify as Asian American or Pacific Islander, and those who don’t, to find existing narratives, many of which intersected with topics cohort members were already interested in building their work around, allowing us to point to possible opportunity areas.
Much of the content about Hawaii, Guam, and other Pacific Islands is the recognition of occupation or colonization, like this mele of opposition to the annexation of Hawai’i
An important flag in our methods and general approach to the "AAPI” label for identity: we understand and recognize that AAPI itself is not necessarily a designation that captures the vast and varied lived experience of people who self-identify as AAPI, but in our processes, we used statistical methods to partition content viewed by people who self-identify as AAPI vs content consumed by non-AAPI people. This is a useful statistical shortcut to move past stereotype-reinforcing content that other audiences consume. What this means is that in narrative change work, a generality like AAPI cannot be a monolith—it must create a web of diverse stories connected across elements like protagonists, cultures, and resolutions that are legitimately shared across cultures.
Following Phase 1, the cohort members turned to making prototype content for hypothesis testing to inform their larger narrative intervention strategy. We tested this prototype content with a testing panel of respondents and, to understand where audiences were already at in relationship to AAPI narratives, we framed the Model Minority Myth (MMM) as a common statement against which testing panelists would give answers measuring their agreement or disagreement:
“My impression of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders is that this group is hardworking, values family, rarely rocks the boat, and assimilates well into white American culture.”
The statement did pose a few inherent challenges, namely the requirement for survey respondents to assess multiple concepts as a whole. Its main purpose was to offer a limited gauge of the impact the prototype content might have on a person’s perspective. To supplement this statement, we also tested with custom statements that related to various facets of the model minority myth for each cohort member’s content. In total, we were able to test 10 pieces of media created by the cohort.
There was a notable piece of content that saw a significant amount of positive movement toward a narrative sympathetic to AAPI experiences and perspectives: a video excerpt from a play written by Amy Zhang, a producer, writer, and activist. The play was called ASCEND!, and includes a dramatic monologue by an East Asian female character who describes the anguish of feeling excluded when Asian Americans respond to violent anti-Asian assaults with an “I Am An American” slogan.
While Amy’s excerpt didn’t make a statistically significant shift away from the Model Minority Myth statement as a whole, there was significant movement towards agreeing with the custom statement that all citizens and immigrants deserve a right to safety in America. This shift suggests that Amy’s work has the potential to challenge stereotypes about Asian Americans, particularly in regards anti-Asian violence and immigration equality.
In addition to her play, Amy also tested a TV pilot about a young artist’s journey that is disrupted by immigration obstacles. The pilot effectively highlighted the negative effects that immigration policies can have on an artist’s ability to pursue their dreams and, like her play, was also effective in moving audiences, especially those under 35, toward a custom statement supporting immigrant equality. The extremely personal and emotional themes within her play and her pilot might have contributed to their success. You can take a deep-dive into Amy’s experience in the cohort here.
The cohort brought a broad range of ideas and content to test, spanning oral history projects to fashion to poetry to documentary. With an eye to the impact that the Model Minority Myth has had on AAPI communities, each cohort member tested content that would advance new, more complex stories on AAPI experiences. Stories that challenge audiences to take an active role in change were especially effective. Personal stories like Amy’s are about specific issues that have an embedded call-to-action: after being viscerally made aware of violence, safety, and belonging, the viewer becomes motivated to actively respond to the impact that stereotypes and harmful narratives can have on individual lives.
We want to extend a heartfelt thank-you to all of the creators, advocates, and educators in this cohort, and to Narrative Initiative, for allowing Harmony Labs to join you on this important journey.