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Resettlement Narratives: Changing the Conversation on Humanity in Motion

This post is adapted from a talk I gave on migration narratives at the The Global Gathering for Sponsorship, where I have been talking about how we change the narrative around people on the move using the shared humanity worldview.

It was very important for me to attend this event because in workshops around the world, when people draw an image that shows what it looks like to act on their values, they constantly draw people sitting together around a dinner table - hosts and newcomers as equals, both fulfilled and changed by the encounter.

Stories of community sponsorship can be for migration work what equal marriage was for LGBT rights, what George Lakoff calls a strategic initiative, something that has added importance beyond its direct impact because it changes how people think about an issue.

We have to make narrative change happen. We do this by repeating our ideas, and mobilising our base to share them too.

The first step is to figure out what we want the narrative to be: what are the ideas we want to constantly repeat, and get others to repeat to, even if they don’t agree with us. I have been trying to figure out what the human rights narrative should be. Based on hundreds of workshops with activists all over the world, I believe it is centred on the idea of shared humanity.

We need to keep in mind some basic facts about how the human brain works:

  1. A lot of different things can be going on in our brain and our lives at once - good and bad. But our brains love to categorise. How we tell the story of what is happening, how we make meaning of it, has political impact. AFter a revolution, we might ask whether all the sacrifice was worth it? And a dictator might convince us freedom isnt great. And when we welcome new people, there will be ups and downs, do we tell ourselves it was an exciting time that changed us all for the better, or a time of disruption and crisis. We cannot leave that categorisation to chance. We have to provide the frame and words with which to make meaning of what has happened. We have to be conscious of our own negativity bias, and remember to consciously train ourselves to focus on what works.

  2. We learn behaviour from each other. This means the actions and ideas that are most salient in society influence us, and become our own. So we need to put in front of people actions and ideas we want them to copy and share.

Step 1 Message

What do we want the narrative to be?

Any narrative change work MUST begin with this question: what do we want the narrative to be?

I developed hope-based communications because in many parts of social change, and in human rights in general, we had not articulated what we actually want the narrative to be. I believe anyone can do narrative work. Indeed, we are always contributing to narrative whether we realise it or not. And to change narrative we all intentionally need to be putting out the narrative we want to make salient.

We need to articulate our worldview. The division of our time is not left against right, it is open versus closed. It is between seeing human nature as fundamentally kind or cruel. A hopeful vision of humanity is essential for being open to others. Hope swells outward, fear shrinks back.

As Anat Shenker-Osorio says, good messaging is not about saying what is popular, it is about making popular what needs to be said. The purpose of narrative strategy is to take an idea that feels radical and make it common sense.

You can try to avoid using a narrative, but if it is salient, your audience may still interpret the story that way. I will write an article on this soon, for now I’ll say this: tell stories of values, of encounters, rather than making individual stories fit a pre-cast mould.

For example, More in Common’s research consistently shows audiences in host countries value new arrivals learning their language. That could be a very good immigrant story. But if we put it in the context of humanity’s amazing capacity to constantly learn new ways of speaking to each other, it becomes a story of shared humanity, that moving and learning new ways of being is part of what makes us all human.

We need to build a new intrinsic values-based vocabulary for our work. For example, last week the concept of Dreamers in the United States has been a powerful way of talking about undocumented migrants. We need similar language for talking about people who host newcomers - something more inspiring than “sponsors”. (suggestions welcome!)

Salience is not just about volume, its about the emotional resonance of content. To compete with fear, we needs stories that tap into core human experience.

The vulnerability of intrinsic values

This means we give up the moral high ground and accept vulnerability - we may get things wrong (not every sponsorship goes well) but we believe in what we are doing. And then build movements around the kinds of actions we want to see more of. But it means relinquishing some sense of authority that we derive from international law. Instead of telling people to do what we say because we hold the keys to international law, we ask people to join us because they share our values - and we justify our action - successful or not - based on values not our infallibility. And when things go wrong, we openly admit where we failed to live up to our values, apologise and take steps to ensure healing and improvement.

Activists are often worried about how to talk about failure. The difference between success and failure is a matter of framing. The point is not creating utopia, its about living our values. We try to make things better, sometimes we fail, but the trying is the point. Quoting AOC - When you act, be definition you change the world.

The human rights movement needs to shift away from the information deficit model that if people get more information and facts they will change their mind. Instead we need to simulate the ideas and behaviour we want to see more of. We cannot be experts making judgements from the sidelines, we have to be very clear that we stand for a one set of values over another.

If our message is that we are good, and immigration is good, then we will end up with good immigrant narratives. We need to say that we believe in certain ways of thinking and acting, even when they feel hard. Our message still needs to say things are valuable and worthwhile, even when they do not work out. After all, humanity shines brightest when we see it at work in the darkest, hardest times.

Step 2. Tell stories

We cannot just change narratives with words. The things we do every day create narrative: we have to be the narrative we want. It is hard to bring our values to life with words, because these mean different things for different people. But images and stories have the power to trigger deeper meaning without the need for translation. For example, in workshops with migration activists around the world think about what they want to see, people draw a table with people from different backgrounds encountering each other. This suggests a strategy of empathy-based activism, dinners not demos.

Positive social contact creates empathy. So can stories of positive social contact.

Be the narrative

The human rights movement needs to shift away from the information deficit model that if people get more information and facts they will change their mind. Instead we need to simulate the ideas and behaviour we want to see more of. We cannot be experts making judgements from the sidelines, we have to be the narrative ourselves and build movements around the kinds of actions we want to see more of.

"In order then that the distant situation shall not be a gray flicker on the edge of attention, it should be capable of translation into pictures in which the opportunity for identification is recognizable. Unless that happens it will interest only a few for a little while. It will belong to the sights seen but not felt, to the sensations that beat on our sense organs, and are not acknowledged. We have to take sides. We have to be able to take sides. In the recesses of our being we must step out of the audience on to the stage, and wrestle as the hero for the victory of good over evil. We must breathe into the allegory the breath of our life.” - Walter Lippmann

Building our movement’s storytelling muscle

We have to produce the words, images, stories, content that bring our narrative to life. And then we have to make sure it spreads and engages. Nobody is going to do that for us. Not the media, not political parties. We are social change, its up to us to make that change happen.

Roll up our sleeves and tell stories. In Latin America, a group called Puentes are building narrative power with facebook graphics and whatsapp stickers. But that content is putting out a new way of talking about family and faith that is diverse and tolerant. Similarly, in El Salvador we worked with a feminist news organization to get stories told that build the narrative of civil society as community to counter attacks. Nobody else was telling those stories. We need solution journalism but for social change values.

The other side has organizations training extremist influencers to give interview, spending up to 80% of their budget on social media advertising. Creating salience for narratives that belong in the gutter.


Then we need an Avaaz for narrative change: building a movement to create, tell and spread the stories that show the change we hope to see.

Step 3. Audience

Mobilise our movement - narrative change is social change

How do we get our stories out when the media want to focus on shock and crisis and the other side have huge resources to spread fear? By focusing on our strengths. As AOC said, they’ve got power, we’ve got people.

Powerful communication today is authentic communication

We live in the era of the micro-influencer. Any individual can build narrative power using their phone and a social media account. All of us in our movement need to learn to be micro-influencers to spread our narrative.

We need to encourage, empower and elevate our supporters to be influencers in their communities and their countries. Some training helps, but above all it is about having the courage and the imagination to talk about our deep moral values.

We need to encourage them to talk about intrinsic, compassionate values by doing so ourselves. After that, they will find the words, images and stories themselves.

Who is the messenger? All of us, all of the time. Yes, we need to elevate marginalised voices. But today’s activists also need to speak more about our values. We need to lift up any voice that will effectively spread our message. There is space in our choir for any voice in harmony with our core values.

Our power is people -> theyve got power, we have got people

There are lots of people out there who agree with us. We need people to say they want to live in a welcoming, caring, open, diverse society. People have to say that for it to become a reality. Right now, the smaller group of people who want the opposite manage to project their voice and trick us into thinking they are the majority. They trigger the fear and doubt in everyday people and cow them into silence - they silence the better angels of their nature. They convince us that we need to be cruel. We need to give people permission to be kind.

When Ireland passed two historic referenda that cemented two huge cultural shifts on LGBT and women’s rights, what made the difference was people of all walks of life going out and talking to each other. And those people felt incredibly empowered and excited to be part of making change happen by having those conversations, and by having effective conversations that changed minds instead of deepening divisions. Civil society supported those conversations, without dominating them. That is the difference between organizing and mobilizing.

Campaigns for equal marriage achieved more than those specific policy changes: they changed how people think about LGBT communities, about gender in general. They became what George Lakoff calls a “strategic initiative”: one aspect of an issue that, by being in the spotlight, was able to change how people think about a wider issue. Community sponsorship can have the same effect for migration narratives, for how we think about how humans live and move around the planet. They can be the conduit for a shared humanity worldview.

Organising for narrative change

When we see a story that illustrates the narrative we want, we need to organize as many people as we can, our colleagues, our allies, supporters, everyone, to share it. That is low hanging fruit in our movement that is not being picked right now - we do not have a mindset focused on making the things we want more salient in society. Activists have to lead by example so that others relearn what it means to talk about social change (ie, talking about the change we want, rather than the things we are against).

Human beings learn behaviour from each other. If you want someone to act or think a certain way, they need to see someone else say or do those things.

So telling stories that show how we want the world to be do not just change narrative, they change the world.

We need to mobilise our base to make our values more salient. A rough analysis of social media conversations around migration a few years ago suggested the breakdown was 50% negative, 40% neutral (eg news about crisis) and only 10% positive or pro-migration. The only way to change that is to put more content out there that shows migration is a good thing, and make it more engaging and emotionally resonant.

Mindset shift: Civil society’s power is imagination.

Civil society is not the only messenger, but it can encourage people to share different messages. Right now, the lead we give is to talk about what is going wrong. If we encourage people to tell the stories about how sponsorship and openness in general is working.

Humans all have an in-built negativity bias - we tend to focus on what is going wrong, especially activists! But we have to prompt the people in our movement to tell the stories that show that our change is desirable, that our solutions work.

Civil society can have a big impact by adopting a hopeful mindset that supporters can copy.

Call to action

The work of people in sponsorship is the narrative we need to elevate.

As I said at the start, anyone can do this. Indeed, it is essential that everyone do it, in whatever way they can. And that starts with mindset.

In everything we do we need to ask ourselves, what narrative am I feeding? Am I reinforcing the old way of thinking, or am I breathing life into something new? Am I contributing to the us vs them worldview, or am I building shared humanity?

Ben Mason-Sucher from More in Common shared forthcoming research showing growing public fear about the future harming support for welcoming policies in Germany. This insight is one of the original ideas behind the hope-based approach: we need people to feel hope and agency over the future in order for them to be open to others. As Martha Nussbaum says, hope swells outward, fear shrinks back.

We tell ourselves stories about how things are going, and there will always be good and bad perspectives. But we cannot always give in to our negativity bias and our habit of binging bad news, we also have to focus on the things that are working, so we do them more.

Participation: It also makes it so important to give your audience a role, however small, in what you are trying to achieve - that sense of agency and belonging are crucial to building deep, lasting, passionate support far deeper than anything a fact-based argument can achieve. Another reason community sponsorship is so crucial.

At a really simple level, we need more people to say “this is working”, “this was hard, but really fulfilling”, “we should do this more”. We need to show that people want to welcome. Sometimes it is necessary to be told you like something in order to remind you that you like something!

We all make choices every day about the stories we tell, and how we tell them. We can all start to do narrative change work by training ourselves to think with a hope-based, change-focused mindset so that we make salient the things we hope to see more of in the world.


This is about the story we tell ourselves, and others, about what is happening.

If we see this is a moment of crisis, we will close the door. If we see this as a moment of pulling together to get through a challenge, and that together, we have got this, we will open the door.


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