Narrative Change Lab 2021

THE INITIATIVE

In November 2020, Inspirit Foundation launched the inaugural Narrative Change Lab. This national initiative is a creative experiment to support practitioners and content creators from underrepresented communities to develop strategies that advance BIPOC narratives. The Lab engages innovative BIPOC leaders in arts and media to collaborate and imagine new ways of shifting narratives and seeding new stories in the Canadian pop culture landscape. 

2021 THEME: REIMAGINING MUSLIM NARRATIVES

Our 2021 theme is Reimagining Muslim Narratives and focuses on Muslim communities in Canada and their narratives.

Led by Angie Balata, Inspirit Program Manager, and Sarah Hagi, Narrative Change Lab Fellow, the Lab explores the various issues affecting Muslims in Canada, focusing especially on the intersections of community narratives and pop culture, and will convene a cohort of Muslim leaders in arts and media to create the strategies to advance Muslim-led narratives in Canada’s pop culture space. This cohort will be selected to represent the cultural, ethnic, and sectarian diversity of Muslims in Canada.

WHAT’S NEW IN THE LAB

19 October 2021
Update by Angie Balata

Developing the Narrative Change Lab has not been an easy process. The ideas and timelines we began with have been set aside for something unlike what we imagined. 

The Lab has expanded and is now made up of three parts collectively focused on (1) creating and developing (new) narratives, (2) investing in research and (3) studying audiences. 

We have been challenged to dig deep and ask hard questions about how narratives develop, particularly the negative ones. How have various actors and platforms actively contributed over the centuries to the expansion of a system that, much like a spider’s web, produces and reproduces the same rotting stories that transform singular narratives into mainstream beliefs? And how do we forge a completely new path, one that is unconcerned with changing what exists but rather focused on looking forward to what is and can be? The process has also made us consider what our role is as a funder and where we can best support the development of something new in Canadian philanthropy, but with great potential benefits for the communities we serve.  

For Muslims, as with many other communities, narrative work, particularly narrative change, isn’t simply about spreading a bunch of positive stories spotlighting their contributions and ‘humanizing’ them. Although the heart-warming stories are nice, maybe even great soundbites, they are not enough, nor do they make change. The fact is we need to look beyond the small pieces and moments of representation, and consider what change looks like. The kind of change that cuts deep and transforms people’s behaviours, desperately needed now, forces us to look at the entire narrative ocean. That is, the ecosystems of narratives, ideas, and cultural norms that shape the behaviors, mindsets, and worldviews of mass audiences (1) 

As Bridgit Antoinette Evans explains:  

“The hard truth is that large swaths of the narrative “ocean” in which we currently swim are toxic—poisoned with terrible ideas about who we are, who belongs, and who does not. On the best of days, these ideas make it hard to see through the muck. They distort our sense of self and our faith in our ability to meet each other across our differences. At worst, the ideas swirling in these narrative waters are killing some of us, and our planet.” (2) 

For our work, we recognize that great narratives without a system (i.e., the ‘ocean’) to support them, give them life, and link them to mass audiences, will only remain a collection of pleasant stories.  

The Lab is our first step in this direction. But, to create new narratives and have them connect with audiences in a way that makes them question their actions, believe that a different reality is possible (3), and demand that things be different, starts by laying foundations. We need to answer three important questions: 1) what are the new Muslim narratives we want to support promote, support and embed in the public imagination? 2) what does the current Muslim landscape look like in Canada? and 3) who are the audiences and how do we connect with them? 

As we continue to build out the Lab and develop a narrative change process that centres Muslims, we confront two critical issues. First, we move on a narrative change path that does not focus on the existing narratives, choosing instead to look forward to what Muslims can be from where they stand. However, in a field where most of the thought and movement on narratives comes from secular spaces, we explore what narrative change can look like coming from a religious community. Specifically, how do we develop a narrative change model at the intersections of Muslim, Islam, arts and media?  

Second, we dive into the intricacies of power, certain that dominant worldviews supported in the public space are possible because of power relationships (4). Narrative power, defined as “the ability to create leverage over those who set the incentives, rules and norms that shape society and human behavior…[and] having the power to defeat the establishment of belief systems that oppose us” (5), is a non-negotiable factor in narrative change. The key question then becomes: how can a narrative change model factor in power in a way that results in narrative building power for people? (6) 


Footnotes: 

  1. From Stories to Systems: Using Narrative Systems Approach to Inform Pop Culture Narrative Change Grantmaking, Bridgit Antoinette Evans, p. 3 
  2. Pop Culture Collab, From Stories to Systems: Using Narrative Systems Approach to Inform Pop Culture Narrative Change Grantmaking, Bridgit Antoinette Evans, p. 2 
  3. Pop Culture Collab, From Stories to Systems: Using Narrative Systems Approach to Inform Pop Culture Narrative Change Grantmaking, p.4 
  4. The role of narrative change in influencing policy, Brett Davidson 
  5. Rashad Robinson, Changing Our Narrative About Narrative: The Infrastructure Required for Building Narrative Power 
  6. Rashad Robinson, Changing Our Narrative About Narrative: The Infrastructure Required for Building Narrative Power 

12 July 2021
Update by Angie Balata

It’s been four months since we began our work in the Narrative Change Lab. Our plan for the Lab has been to develop it in phases, while intentionally integrating different narrative approaches and theories, building networks of consultation and exchange, and inviting allies, supporters, and stakeholders into each part of the process. 

This initial phase has focused on asking the deeper questions around both Muslim experiences and Muslim narratives in Canada, as well as other places. We centered engagement and consultation, allowing us the opportunity to connect with both Muslim and non-Muslim creators, practitioners, and industry executives in different arts and media sectors in Canada, the US, and Europe. We also focused on the critical work of building the Lab’s narrative foundations by exploring what a Muslim model of narrative change could look like and how to design a process that incorporates the tools and customs specific to Muslim approaches to community engagement, building, and consensus. The research and the conversations have moved us to think about the wide-ranging issues affecting Canadian Muslims, the critical events that have shaped different generations and their relationship to Canada, the current state of Muslim narratives and where they need to go, and the possibilities for Muslim Futurism.  

So far, we are discovering that:  

  • Narrative change for Muslims has focused considerable attention to countering Islamophobia. However, this is limiting to the expansive potential of what Muslim is and can be. More importantly, speaking only to and about Islamophobia results in narratives that focus on responding to the racism of others, promoting only trauma stories, and/or overemphasizing the ‘good citizen/good neighbour/good community’ tropes; 
  • A model has yet to be developed for narrative change that is specifically and tangibly Muslim. The rich histories of both Islamic and Muslim cultures with respect to building community, as well as customs of collaboration and consensus offer critical tools for the design and process of narrative change that is grounded in being Muslim. We look to the examples of other communities, particularly Indigenous communities, who have connected change with their rituals, customs, and identities; 
  • There is a lack of a Muslim creator community and network in Canada. Muslim creators often feel siloed in their work and alone in their career paths; 
  • In spite of commercial and critical success for many Canadian Muslim creators, they are seen as outliers, a fluke to the ‘normal’, and this has not translated into a wave of opportunity for Muslim stories because most industry gatekeepers continue to believe that there isn’t an audience for Muslim content, despite the fact that there are five million Muslims in North America; 
  • And, the systemic racism and discrimination facing Muslims are not particular to this community. Indigenous and Black communities have long struggled with these issues and cross-community learning and collaboration are fundamental to the narrative power for all. As well, Muslim is a multiracial, multicultural, and multi-ethnic identity, characteristics that allow for the great potential to build community power. 

An important lesson we have learned, particularly from consultations, is that in every Muslim’s story is a moment when a decision is made to break rules and boundaries, and to become something more than current narratives allow. These moments are not only transformative on an individual level, but also critical in moving forward to a place where Muslims create and own their narratives without having to constantly look over their shoulders at the expectations of others. 

As we move forward, it is important to recognize that expanding Muslim narratives in Canada’s public space is complex. Facts to consider include: 

In this political and policy context, Canadian media continues to recycle and promote Islamophobic and racist tropes without accountability, and, TV and film content about Muslims excludes them from the public space, emphasizes their ‘otherness’ and encourage non-Muslims to believe these narratives as truth. The result is that Muslims have spent decades trapped in the toxicity of Islamophobic narratives produced by the unchecked racism and discrimination promoted by politicians and media. 

But these are not insurmountable obstacles. We move forward with the optimism that there is a historical moment of opportunity for Muslims to lean into their power as a community of communities, to connect the network of creative content creators who change narrative in their everyday work, and to build on the historical tools and cultural wealth of the diversity of Muslims. This Lab is pivoting towards a new space, by moving beyond those narratives and imagining something wildly different. 

As we continue this phase of designing the narrative change process and finalizing details for the activities to come, we move closer to recruiting the cohort of Muslim creators and practitioners. They will be part of the Lab with us to figure out how to make the imagined change a reality. 

MEET THE FELLOW

MEET SARAH

Sarah Hagi | @KindaHagi
Writer, Essayist, Journalist and Pop Culture Critic 

I’m a Toronto based writer, essayist, journalist and pop culture critic. Since 2015, I’ve been writing pieces about identity, race, and just about anything I’m interested in for places like The Globe and Mail, Hazlitt, GQ Magazine, Time Magazine, The Cut, The New Yorker, Food and Wine, and more. Currently, I’m a panelist on CBC’s Pop Chat and CBC’s Canada Tonight with Ginella Massa.

As a writer, my work is heavily informed by my experiences as a Black and Muslim woman, even when I’m writing about things that seemingly have nothing to do with either of those things. Essentially, my identity informs my work and my take on pop culture, which is exactly why I’m excited to lead the Narrative Change Lab. Canada has such a rich and distinct community of talented Muslims throughout so many industries — something we rarely see reflected in our country’s pop culture and media landscape. This Lab is important to me, because as someone with years of experience navigating Canadian media, I want to make sure the conversation around Muslims goes beyond the same “representation” conversation I’ve been seeing since I entered this profession. 

MEET THE JURY (APPLICATIONS NOW CLOSED)

Pacinthe Mattar, Omer Ismael, and Khadija Aziz supported our search for the Fellow, Sarah Hagi, as our external jurors for the Lab. They were chosen through an outreach and application process and bring strong experience in the arts and/or media sectors, pop culture, and deep knowledge of and engagement with Muslim communities in Canada.  

Learn more about the exciting work they are doing and their interests in this Lab. 

Pacinthe Mattar
[Phonetically: pah-SENT MAT-tar]
Journalist, Writer, and Producer

My life can be summarized by this Georges Simenon quote: ““I am at home everywhere, and nowhere. I am never a stranger and I never quite belong.” Growing up between Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Dubai, and Toronto between cultures, different worlds, in between languages and communities, it was so rare to see that kind of experience reflected in art, literature, and news.

I’ve always been drawn to stories of being on the periphery, of being both at home and homesick simultaneously, no matter where. Stories that don’t fit neat, clean narratives. I also grew up seeing how often women, and Muslim women specifically, are written about, spoken for, and how little space or agency they are given to write, create and shape stories about their own lives. That’s what drew me to a career in media and storytelling, and now as a juror for the Narrative Change Lab.

 

Khadija Aziz (She/Her)
Textile Artist & Educator
www.khadijaaziz.com

I am a Toronto-based textile artist and educator currently pursuing an MFA at Concordia University. My commitment to community engagement through arts is rooted in inclusivity, accessibility, and intuitive learning. From my experience in facilitating public narrative workshops through the Institute for Change Leaders, I have learned to incorporate storytelling and narrative-building exercises into my community education practice to empower more people to take pride and ownership of their personal stories. As a South Asian immigrant artist, I am familiar with the challenges faced by marginalized professionals in creative institutions and the industry.

This Lab is important to me because I want my younger cousins to see more diversity in the arts so that they can focus on building their narratives rather than justifying their experiences.

 

Omer Ismael
Program Manager and Strategist
Digital Main Street
@omerismael

I am a program manager and strategist committed to addressing community change through arts, technology, and entrepreneurship. For over a decade I have led programming at several non-profit organizations, museums, and festivals where I designed training programs and strategic partnerships that worked to serve newcomers, youth, and young professionals across Toronto. Arts and culture have always been a powerful way for me to address issues present in my community and throughout my career. I’ve designed programs that leveraged different forms of artistic expression to address issues ranging from anti-black racism, equity, and youth violence prevention.

I use art as a tool to address issues of inequality, just as mass media has been used as a tool for perpetuating stereotypes of Muslims and adding fuel to the fires of Islamophobia. And, through the Narrative Change Lab, I am excited to be a part of the process of undoing these narratives and rebuilding narratives of Muslims, by Muslims themselves.

CALL FOR FELLOW (APPLICATIONS NOW CLOSED)

Applications are now closed. The jury will select a 2021 Fellow who works within and has deep knowledge of the arts and/or media sectors, a passion for pop culture, and lived experience and connections within Canadian Muslim communities.

The Fellow will receive a $65,000 stipend to co-lead the Lab with Inspirit from February-December 2021. The expected time commitment is approximately 25-28 hours per week.  Inspirit will also provide additional funds to cover the associated costs of running the Lab.

DELIVERABLES

The Fellow will:

  • Collaborate with Inspirit to convene and facilitate a multi-disciplinary cohort of Muslim practitioners to develop innovative approaches to counteract and go beyond Islamophobic tropes within Canadian pop culture;
  • Generate creative strategies and solutions to amplify diverse Muslim-led pop culture narratives through public arts and media events/projects;
  • Provide research and insights into the current landscape of Muslim impact and engagement in arts/culture and media in Canada; and,
  • Elevate public dialogue and awareness of critical issues within Muslim communities and the broader public around Muslim identity through associated public and community engagement activities.

Please note: The final design and deliverables of the Lab will be mutually agreed upon with Inspirit during a kick-off phase in February 2021.

FELLOWSHIP CRITERIA 

The Fellow will demonstrate:

  • Deep experience and knowledge of the arts/culture and/or media sectors in Canada;
  • Experience using storytelling and pop culture tools to shift narratives and advance social change;
  • Knowledge of and experience in multiple storytelling platforms and/or disciplines, including, but not limited to: web, podcast, print, film, television, and radio; and/or, visual arts, performance, music, comedy, etc.
  • Commitment to civic engagement and strong relationships in a diversity of Canadian Muslim communities;
  • An ability to collaborate with others, and develop and maintain positive working relationships;
  • Experience and demonstrated skills in engaging and facilitating groups.

Additional skills and characteristics:

  • Based in and eligible to work in Canada;
  • Eagerness to listen and engage diverse perspectives of others;
  • Self-starter with strong project management skills;
  • Exceptional research skills;
  • Excellent written and verbal communication skills, and the ability to convey information effectively for a variety of audiences;
  • An understanding of systems and strategy development;
  • Comfort with risk and exploration in an emergent and highly experimental process.

TIMELINE

  • Applications open: November 11, 2020
  • Application deadline: December 7, 2020
  • Selection process: December 9, 2020 – January 14, 2021
  • Shortlisted candidates notified and interviews: January 18 – 22, 2021
  • Selected Fellow notified: February 1, 2021

APPLICATION FAQs

Q: When is the deadline to apply for the Fellowship? 

 The deadline to submit applications is  December 9, 2020 at 11:59 PM EST. 

Q: Can I apply with another person? 

Applicants must apply individually.   

Q: Who can apply?  

In keeping with Inspirit’s commitment to equity, we encourage self-identifying Muslims from across Canada with relevant experience to apply. We are committed to all forms of diversity and welcome applications from all racial, ethnic, and sectarian backgrounds. We also welcome candidates with disabilities, as well as all genders and sexualities. 

Accommodations are available upon request for candidates with disabilities taking part in all aspects of the recruitment and selection process. Please contact us at 416-644-3600 or info@inspiritfoundation.org to discuss how we can assist. 

Q: How do I know if I’m qualified? 

We are looking for applicants who demonstrate:   

  • Deep experience and knowledge of the arts/culture and/or media sectors in Canada;   
  • Experience using storytelling and pop culture tools to shift narratives and advance social change;   
  • Knowledge of and experience in multiple storytelling platforms and/or disciplines, including, but not limited to:  
  • web, podcast, print, film, television, and radio; and/or,  
  • visual arts, performance, music, comedy, etc.  
  • Commitment to civic engagement and strong relationships in a diversity of Canadian Muslim communities;  
  • An ability to collaborate with others, and develop and maintain positive working relationships;  
  • Experience and demonstrated skills in engaging and facilitating groups.   

Additional skills and characteristics:  

  • Based in and eligible to work in Canada;  
  • Eagerness to listen and engage diverse perspectives of others;  
  • Self-starter with strong project management skills;   
  • Exceptional research skills;   
  • Excellent written and verbal communication skills, and the ability to convey information effectively for a variety of audiences;   
  • An understanding of systems and strategy development;  
  • Comfort with risk and exploration in an emergent and highly experimental process.  

Q: What kinds of arts and/or media experience are you looking for?  

We are considering participants from all artistic practices and media backgrounds.  

Q: What Is the Lab NOT? 

  • This Lab is not intended to be aacademic study or major research report on the Muslim arts and media landscape in CanadaAlthough some research on the current Muslim landscape is necessaryit should not be considered the final product for this Lab 
  • Individual project funding.  
  • Individual skills training workshops.  The Lab is not intended to focus on individual or group skills training. 
  • An account of all the obstacles facing Muslim creative and content creators, without practical solutions being offered for these obstacles;  

The main aim of this Lab is to consider and identify solutions for multi-layered Muslim narratives to access the pop culture space. What type of initiatives will support Muslim narrative-making in Canada? How do we achieve shifts in narrative power for Muslim communities in Canada? 

Q: What deliverables are there? 

We view this project as a collaboration between Inspirit Foundation and the Lab FellowWhile we have identified some general deliverables, we expect that final deliverables will be further developed by the Lab Fellow in collaboration with those participating in the Lab.  Broad deliverables include: 

  • Collaborate with Inspirit to convene and facilitate a multi-disciplinary cohort of Muslim practitioners to develop innovative approaches to counteract and go beyond Islamophobic tropes within Canadian pop culture;  
  • Generate creative strategies and solutions to amplify diverse Muslim-led pop culture narratives through public arts and media events/projects;  
  • Provide research and insights into the current landscape of Muslim impact and engagement in arts/culture and media in Canada; and,  
  • Elevate public dialogue and awareness of critical issues within Muslim communities and the broader public around Muslim identity through associated public and community engagement activities. 

Please note: The final design and deliverables of the Lab will be mutually agreed upon with Inspirit during a kick-off phase in February 2021. 

Q: Can I apply for project funding through this Lab? 

No. While our other work focuses on funding projects and organizations that align with our goals and activities, this Lab is not a granting program. Rather, we are taking a step back to consider what initiatives are needed to access the pop culture space, which types of initiatives will support the intersection of narrative-making and pop culture, and how to achieve shifts in narrative power for Muslim communities 

For funding inquiries, please email us at grants@inspiritfoundation.org.

Q: What support will Inspirit provide?  

  • As a Fellow you will receive a $65,000 stipend to co-lead the Lab with Inspirit from February-December 2021. The expected time commitment is approximately 25-28 hours per week.  
  • Inspirit will also provide additional funds to cover the associated costs of running the Lab.  
  • Research and travel budget (to be determined) 
  • Stipends for participants in the Lab for the duration of the Lab 
  • Administrative support from Inspirit Foundation 

Q: Can this be my full-time job? 

The expected time commitment is approximately 25-28 hours per week.   

The stipend does not cover health or other benefits, and the Fellow will not be Inspirit employee. 

This project will not prohibit the Fellow from taking on other work, but the Fellow will be expected to meet monthly mutually agreed upon deliverables to Inspirit. 

Q: Will I be an employee of Inspirit? 

No. The Fellow and Lab participants will be engaged as independent contractors of Inspirit. 

Q: What if I have questions that haven’t been answered here? 

If you have any questions that have not been answered here or need any clarifications, please email Angie Balata at grants@inspiritfoundation.org .