A Future for All of Us


IN 2018, DURING THE HEIGHT OF THE TRUMP ADMINISTRATION’S attacks on migrants, immigrants, and refugees, a landmark study warned pro-immigration forces that “attitudes towards immigrants and immigration are extremely complex: even those who appear to be pro-immigrant (who even think of themselves as pro-immigrant) are often very conflicted.”

A majority of Americans support the idea that migrants, immigrants, and refugees deserve to belong and thrive. Many recoiled from horrific images of family separation, violence against migrants at the border, and white nationalist violence against immigrants in cities like El Paso. Yet when the country locked down under the threat of the coronavirus and the Trump administration nearly shut down the entire immigration system, too few stood up to challenge these severe policies.

How does the pro-immigrant movement begin to confront such contradictions? To begin to answer this question, it might be better to look not to the tools of policy in the realm of traditional politics, but the tools of narrative in the realm of culture.

Cultural change precedes social change. Narrative drives policy. This is why we must be as strategic and rigorous in building narrative power as we are in building all other forms of power. Narrative is the space in which energies are activated to preserve a destructive system or build a better world for us all.

Right now, anti-immigrant forces continue to shape the dominant narratives around migrants, immigrants, and refugees, claiming that they are exploitable, expendable, criminal, and unworthy of equal treatment. These dominant narratives have fostered policies that terrorize migrants, immigrants, and refugees emotionally, economically, and physically. They protect a harmful status quo.

We are called instead to forge a new consensus. We must move a majority of people to imagine and act to create a world that does not yet exist. In order to make this world a reality, we need to orient ourselves toward the world we want to win, and make this future tangible and irresistible to a majority.

In this first phase of the Butterfly Lab for Immigrant Narrative Strategy, we hosted sixteen leaders to develop, test, and align narratives that meet our current political moment and advance our vision for the world we want to build. We supported their work with research,coaching, and funding. We were heartened by the many breakthroughs we made together.

Our work in the Butterfly Lab in this first phase affirms what we have known and gives us some directions to advance the movement towards more strategic alignment. We found:

• Nearly everyone believes immigrants deserve to belong and thrive.

• But many find it difficult to imagine an America in which that may be true.

• Core audiences respond well to all tested narratives, including those focused on shared humanity, compassion, dignity, and respect.

• But stretch audiences do not respond well to those aforementioned narratives. They do respond well to narratives of striving, responsibility, and liberty.

• Our narratives need to make sense of the past and present, and point toward immigration futures that are compelling to all.

Artwork by Angelica Frausto, Detention Watch Network

Immigration remains the “third rail” of progressive politics. And yet, even in these discouraging times, we believe it is possible to win. When we look at the cultural transformations that other recent narrative movements—from “love is love” to #BlackLivesMatter—have made, we see pathways forward. Over a long period of time, many people built narrative infrastructures that could work in concert with policy infrastructures. When narrative power-building met the social moment, cultural inflection points turned policies previously thought unreasonable into ideas worthy of serious consideration. With immigration, we too must invest in narrative as key to winning power for migrants, immigrants, and refugees.

In this report, we share with you learnings, frameworks and tools, and insights into directions we can take to move forward together. Whether you are an advocate or artist, a long-time veteran of the culture wars or thinking about how to apply narrative or cultural strategy for the first time, this report is designed to work for you.

It is also designed to help you think and act at multiple scales—locally, regionally, or nationally—with rigor, alignment, and purpose. The best narrative strategy should foster a unity of intention with a diversity of voices, approaches, and methods. It should help people work together with a sense of alignment along different timelines and fronts. We want this report to be used to build skills, capacities, and networks within the movement, and, above all, to help all of us approach narrative strategically.

You can access the full report at Race Forward HERE or at Network Weaver HERE

You can also access a standalone version of the toolkit HERE

Race Forward catalyzes movement building for racial justice. In partnership with communities, organizations, and sectors, we build strategies to advance racial justice in our policies, institutions, and culture.

About the Butterfly Lab: Race Forward’s Butterfly Lab was launched in 2020 to build power for effective narratives that honor the humanity of migrants, refugees, and immigrants, and advance freedom and justice for all.

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