In this episode, we welcome Bridgit Antoinette Evans, a decorated artist, philanthropic executive, and thought leader in the field of narrative change. Working at the intersection of pop culture storytelling and social change, she has dedicated more than 15 years to unlocking the potential of artists to drive cultural change in society. Since 2017, Bridgit has been the CEO of the Pop Culture Collaborative, a philanthropic resource and funder learning community working to transform the narrative landscape around people of color, immigrants, refugees, Muslims, and Indigenous peoples in America, especially those who are women, queer, trans, and disabled.
In 2008 she founded Fuel: We Power Change, a creative strategy studio where she designed long-term campaigns in partnership with many of the nation's leading movement organizations, including the Save Darfur Coalition, GEMS’ Girls Are Not For Sale campaign, the National Domestic Workers Alliance, the NYCLU/ACLU Policing Project, and the Make It Work campaign.
Join this conversation as Bridgit takes us on a journey of how starting in theater at a young age helped to ignite her passion for storytelling and how it has enabled her to become a trailblazer in driving narrative change.
Darren Isom (00:01):
Welcome to Dreaming in Color, a space for social change leaders of color to reflect on how their life experiences, personal and professional, have prepared them to lead and drive the impact we all seek. I'm your host, Darren Isom, and I invite you to join me in these candid kitchen-table conversations where together we celebrate these leaders' ingenuity, are inspired by their wisdom and wit, and learn how collectively we can all strive to do and be better. This is Dreaming in Color.
Bridgit Antoinette Evans is an award-winning artist, philanthropy executive, and thought leader in the narrative change field, pioneering the use of pop culture strategies and narrative systems methodology to advance social justice. Since 2017, Bridgit has served as CEO of the Pop Culture Collaborative, the philanthropic resource and funder-learning community working to transform the narrative landscape around people of color, immigrants, refugees, Muslims, and Indigenous peoples in America, especially those who are women, queer, trans, and disabled.
She has dedicated her career to relentless investigation, the potential of artists and stories to drive change in society. Through Fuel: We Power Change, the creative and strategic consultancy she founded in 2008, Bridgit has designed and tested long-term culture change strategies in partnership with many of the nation's leading movement organizations, including the Save Darfur Coalition, Girls Are Not for Sale campaign, National Domestic Workers Alliance, Caring Across Generations, the ACLU, and the Make It Work campaign. I always enjoy talking with Bridgit and so hope you enjoy her brilliance as much as I do. Bridgit, it's great to kick off the conversation. I have been waiting for this conversation all week, and I throw it to you to give us the invocation.
Bridgit Antoinette Evans (01:34):
The invocation that I wanted to bring into the room was actually an idea that I was first introduced to by my imaginary mentor, Octavia Butler. And I remember reading at some point an essay that she wrote called “Positive Obsession,” and she describes that any obsession can be a positive obsession if it is actually sort of guiding you towards a level of really active and passionate focus on what you love. And the idea was really helpful to me, to my younger self, because I think I grew up like, you feel like you're a little odd, a little off when you really do enter into your work and into your play with a kind of intensity and focus that may be unusual for children and teenagers.
And so, this reflection back from this incredibly brilliant powerful person, that it was okay and in fact it could be a real kind of source of abundance to be as focused and as passionate and curious as I was, in my case, about art and theater and story and character and justice. All that stuff that was swirling in my head as I was growing up and coming of age, that that could be my superpower was just a transformative moment for me. And so what I want to bring into the space today is the celebration and embrace of obsession as a thing that makes us more powerful and even more creative and is quite liberating when we just embrace it wholly.
Darren Isom (03:18):
I love that. It's beautiful. And I think it's also just a shoutout to all of us very intense kids. I was joking with someone just last week that now we have this concept of being on the spectrum, and back in my day that was called gifted and talented. We were pulled out of the room, there was something very special about us, and I think it was that intensity, that intense curiosity.
Bridgit Antoinette Evans (03:37):
Darren Isom (03:38):
And that intense curiosity is still something to live by. So Octavia Butler definitely has some indications for all of us to live by because she was talking to all of us, she was all of our personal mentors. We're so lucky to have her. I want to kick off our conversation, from a question perspective. You have a fascinating family story, but I know that so much of your legacy is rooted in your family's rooting, if you will, in the Civil Rights Movement and fights for change in Georgia, really advocating at a time when justice meant putting your safety or even yourself or your life on the line. I mean, clearly we're all carrying those torches, those legacies from our families as both an honor. With that as kind of a a basis for the question, why have you chosen to pursue social justice through the lens of influencing pop culture and public narratives?
Bridgit Antoinette Evans (04:23):
It is inspired by the legacy of my family, particularly my mother's family in Savannah had quite an influence on my career trajectory. So my mom grew up in Savannah, Georgia, in the '40s, '50s, early '60s, one of 13 children and a single mother, and then this large old house that I remember very, very clearly. And many young Black people at that time really relied on learning how change happens, how you build power, and then getting out on the streets and doing it for themselves. So my Uncle Benjamin Van Clark, he was older than my mom and he was ultimately a field director in the Civil Rights Movement in Savannah specifically, and my mother was this kind of the younger sister who really looked up to her brother and wanted to be engaged and wanted to be involved and learned beside him. So she became very much involved in the movement organizing that was happening at that time.
And what my mom carried forward out of that kind of deep understanding of activism and organizing in the Jim Crow Era was that you take the steps that you can take in your leadership and organizing, and then you set the stage for your children, other young people to take over and move things forward. So what she did for my sister and I was to say, "Look, where we have gotten to is a place where you have some choice. You can dream about a future for yourself and you have some more choice about how you get there. You can imagine more expansively about how you will learn and where you will learn and who you will learn with. You have a wider array of career opportunities that you can pursue." So she said, "That's where we've gotten you to, but it's really up to you to figure out whatever it is that you're doing. Whatever career you choose, you are also carrying that torch forward, you are building on the legacy of our family."
And for me, I really wanted to make art. I was incredibly shy as a child. That is also something that resonated with me the more I learned about Octavia Butler's story, is that it feels really terrible to be a young person who has a voice and has thoughts but is terrified to share them. And I lived for a good part of my early childhood… I would call myself kind of very near to being mute in public, a level of social anxiety that really prevented me from opening my mouth and saying what I thought when I was in my younger years. And then my mom and dad pushed me into the theater. It was first in school plays and really encouraging me to explore that. And I found a level of freedom and confidence inside of other characters.
So I began to love talking to the world through these other people and other story worlds. And so, that was a lifeline for me, that was definitely theater saved me and brought my voice, kind of connected my body to my voice. And yet that question in the back of my mind from my mom of “How are you actually carrying on the legacy of justice by acting in a play?” was always very present. And that question of what about making theater, what about telling stories is contributing to the fight for justice, has really been, that's my positive obsession. That is the thing that when my mother, I was home for the holidays a few years ago, and she's like, "I found your assignments from school in high school."
And I'm sitting in a chair and I'm flipping through these high school book reports typed out on a computer or written out on journal paper, and I've discovered that I have been pretty obsessed with these questions since I was a child, since I was a teenager, writing about them in my essays, writing stories about, obsessively reading about artists, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee and other artists who had figured out what that connection was between their art and the just world that they yearn for, and I've been in this.
And so that was the obsessive question that has led me on so many different directions as an artist, as somebody who began to advise and consult with movement leaders to help them understand what the relationship was between organizing and storytelling and pop culture and entertainment. I worked for a number of years advising high-profile artists in entertainment who were awakening to their power and their yearning to be engaged in justice work. So I've taken it from a lot of different angles, but where I landed was in the culture change field, the narrative and culture change field, which is this brilliant space where people across entertainment and art and justice movements and research and strategy are all in the same work of trying to understand how narrative change can happen at scale.
Darren Isom (10:12):
This is powerful, and we're going to spend some time, I would love to spend some time a little bit later in the call or our conversation talking through what is narrative change. This sounds like a silly question, but talk about words that are thrown around, what is narrative work? But I do want to double down a little bit more on how you've used your background in theater and performance as a professional actor, if you will, and producer, how we use this ask of your identity to drive cultural and societal change, like how you leverage this skill in a way that really drives the work and makes it personal and high impact.
Bridgit Antoinette Evans (10:47):
I think it's been about an inquiry that has evolved in stages throughout my career. As an actor, I didn't realize it until I looked backwards, but I had a strong instinct and pulled towards characters, Black women who, I think, a lot of people in the world might consider to be in distress or survivors of trauma, people who held and sometimes were felled by mental illness. And what the through-line of many of these characters were was deep and profound despair around injustice. That was the trigger for them that launched them into crisis and sometimes moved them through crisis and sometimes not. What I was aware of as I was building characters was that actors, artists, have choices, you have a million different ways that you can choose to interpret a moment in a script. And how you interpret it really determines how you end up in dialogue with an audience.
So for instance, one of the first roles that I really, really dug into when I moved into New York was the Lady in Red in For Colored Girls. This is a character who, depending on how you interpret it, it's a character that really evolves from a young woman who experiences an unspeakable trauma when her children are murdered by her partner, and evolves into a woman who knows how to survive in the world because she's figured out how to keep everybody out of the places in her where her trauma is actually thriving without healing. And in thinking about that particular character, I remember very specifically when I realized that there was this strong connection between Crystal, this young woman who has this memory that she's, I imagined, never spoken out loud before, but reaches that moment in the pitch of night as an older person where you suddenly cannot move forward without looking back at that moment of trauma.
So at the start of the play, in this particular production, you find this woman sitting beside a bathtub in the middle of the stage with a slip on and her hair in a state. And you could imagine that this woman had been on that floor, beside that tub, for days. She begins her introduction, her kind of relationship with the audience from this place of a kind of catatonic state. And over the course of the play, because of the angels of memory is how I saw it, these other women who flutter into space and become a part of a journey of healing that begins at that moment, on that stage, in that imaginary space, she begins to actually piece together the stories until the penultimate moment when she's able to finally say out loud the story of this deep original trauma that she's had.
So that work was very much about, how do you bring audiences into the intricacies of trauma and also the intricacies of injustice, how do you make people feel injustice in a visceral, palpable, embodied way in an audience? That was my first inquiry as an actor. And from there, as I started to move into producing and really looking at other people's stories, how they were holding them, I began to think about the gap, really, between how most … a lot of people who are leaders in movements are trained to tell stories, which is actually not about reaching into embodied space, it's actually about telling stories at a distance. It's about listing the facts of a person's experience of injustice like, "Let me introduce you to this person. Her name is this, this is what happened to her, this is why it's hard that that's happened to her." There's actually a structure for that story that many, many movement leaders are trained to use to tell the story.
And so as an actor, I felt that my intervention was to actually bring a different technology of storytelling into those relationships with movement leaders and help them to see the three-dimensionality of the story, and that very naturally moves you into relationship with artists. And particularly in the case of the movement leaders that I worked with, it was artists who also when they make art or when they tell stories, not just 10 or 15 people listen, but millions of people listen, because that was what these movement issues needed is, millions of people listening to them. And that was the evolution that led me into really looking at first-story strategy, how do you actually tell a story that creates a real moment of catharsis for the person who's engaging with that story. And by catharsis, I mean one of my teachers in school defined catharsis as the moment when the blood and breath of the artist meets the blood and breath of the audience. That is that moment.
And how do you actually achieve catharsis in the context of movement storytelling? So how do you scale the techniques, the craft, the expertise of people within movements to achieve catharsis in their storytelling, and then how do you actually create the field of storytellers that have that goal and that skillset to be able to do that at scale?
Darren Isom (17:10):
Wow. And there's so much to unpack there. I definitely want to acknowledge from a storytelling perspective the fact that Black women have a longstanding tradition of some of the most predominant culture bearers in American society and storytellers.
Bridgit Antoinette Evans (17:23):
Darren Isom (17:24):
Black women just often play a large role in shaping our national conversation and shaping the stories in a way that's powerful and meaningful. And before I jump into some questions around narrative work, I would just love to get your thoughts on why do you think this demographic, speaking personally, I hope, has such a profound impact in shaping American culture and determining what we talk about?
Bridgit Antoinette Evans (17:44):
I think there are a number of reasons why, and I was actually very, very moved and really grateful for the writing that you did in the Stanford Social Innovation Review about BIPOC leadership because some of those ways of codifying the principles and the techniques of leadership, and we can speak specifically of Black women's leadership, just have been, I don't want to say intuitive, but they're just so organically built into how we are making choices and navigating space in relationships, that they can be invisibilized and seen as instinct and not as strategy and technique and expertise. There's the things that we can easily speak to like, what it looks like to be someone capable of making decisions and taking care of people that you care about and staying alive in a culture that doesn't actually want you to, the skill involved in that, and that is honed and that is also passed down.
Darren Isom (18:49):
I'm over here giggling nervously, but I mean it couldn't be more true.
Bridgit Antoinette Evans (18:52):
Darren Isom (18:53):
They don't even want us to be alive and here we are. It’s surprising, right?
Bridgit Antoinette Evans (18:57):
Right. I often say that in order to survive, let's just talk about American culture, you also have to become an expert in this kind of culture, this white supremacist culture, all of the norms and systems. You can't actually survive unless you have obsessively studied how this world works, what are the rules, who are the powers that be, what are the systems at work, what are the myriad of languages that people are speaking? So there's also just this long since the day you're born, you are accumulating information about how this world works, and I think other people are not. I think that some people come to an understanding of the inner workings of our society and culture at a later point in life because they aren't being harmed by it. It's not like the water that's seeping into their nostrils, in their throat, that is drowning you, so you didn't have to learn how to swim.
Darren Isom (20:03):
That point is so amazing as well because you take for granted the things that you do very naturally. I joke all the time, Black people do the black count naturally entering a room without thinking about it. I can tell you how many Black people are in any room that I'm in.
Bridgit Antoinette Evans (20:18):
Without a doubt, yes.
Darren Isom (20:22):
And so this sense of self-awareness makes you have just a very strong sense of what's happening around you. And I joke all the time and I talk with an earlier conversation, this concept of my uncles always say, "You can't beat white people at being white," but you can understand how white people operate better than they understand themselves.
Bridgit Antoinette Evans (20:38):
That is true. That is absolutely right. That is expertise and a skillset that we begin accumulating very, very early in life. So that's actually an advantage, that we've been studying longer than many people. But I also think that culturally it is often left to Black people, Black women and girls, and Black children to hold space, whether it's on the playground or inside of families and certainly in communities. And so there's also skill involved in organizing people, in holding people, there is skill in taking care of people, whether it's elders or siblings, for instance, who are younger than us. There are those kinds of things, whether it is altogether a positive thing to have those kinds of responsibilities hoisted upon us. We are actually acquiring all of these skills and talents through these behaviors and through the sort of norms of a lot of Black communities and Black-centered spaces.
I also believe that there is just a kind of modeling that is powerful. So there is actually just an undeniable legacy that we can point to of Black leaders, particularly Black women and gender-expansive leaders, who did it before. We are not starting from scratch, we are learning at a very young age, we are seeing it in our own closest relatives and friends and community members, but certainly we are modeling based on clear, unequivocal evidence that this kind of leadership exists, this is what it looks like, and we're constantly building on that.
And I actually think that's been a huge training ground for me in my own leadership path, has been, whether it's people I know or it's through really digging into the writing and documenting of other people's leadership journey, that I have learned. bell hooks was a leader who taught me many, many things, particularly how to lead while navigating white-centered space, like in academia. I was reading bell hooks when I was in college, and I was at a predominantly white institution, and I needed guidance and navigation tools in that space. And those like bell hooks were a part of my imaginary kitchen cabinet of people who were helping to frame what the challenge was and how I could confront it.
Darren Isom (23:24):
And I think, Bridgit, it's worth calling out that, I mean, we talk about these people as imaginary cabinets, I do believe that there has been always, within the Black community, this generational expectation that those elders were meant to inspire folks that would come long after they were gone. They were there for a reason. I think that we are lucky within the community, the Black community particularly, and I would argue with even within the Black community, even more so, to have folks who knew that they were offering insights that actually wouldn't be relevant for generations to come, or they were offering guidance that may not necessarily be relevant at the time. I mean, Octavia Butler wasn't writing for herself, she was writing for generations to come after. And I'm reminded of the beautiful Haitian quote, "Beyond the mountains, more mountains," which sounds like a very dark quote variation, in that sense.
But in my mind it's the concept of, you actually get to the top of a mountain and you're celebrating that there are mountains ahead. You can actually see from that mountaintop, the mountains that come in, that's success to be able to see the mountains ahead as opposed to still being stuck on the mountain that you're climbing. And how many of folks that came before were actually letting us know about the mountains ahead as they got to the mountaintop within their time in their space as well? So I appreciate this calling out of those who came before, because I think that modeling gave us not just models, but also an expectation of what we're supposed to do, a blueprint that we were supposed to live into that was really powerful and meaningful.
Bridgit Antoinette Evans (24:52):
I think that's true. We don't actually talk enough about the role that our connection to indigeneity plays in how we have articulated our identity as Black people and descendants of enslaved people on this land. I'm a part of I think a lot of millions and millions of Black people who do not know where on the African continent might people were originally kidnapped and displaced from. But I do know the connection to African indigeneity through so many of the customs and traditions that are baked into my identity as the daughter of Black Southerners, the granddaughter, the descendant of Black Southern ancestors. And there are principles of how we build relationships, how we build systems of care and mutual aid and abundance in terms of our ability to provide for ourselves and each other, that are long and old and ancient, and we carry them forward in ways that seem very contemporary, very 21st century, in terms of our habits and norms. But they actually, they're …
Darren Isom (26:12):
They’re rooted in something so old.
Bridgit Antoinette Evans (26:14):
From something so old. And the more and more that we name that connective tissue, we begin to embrace that the systems of belonging and the systems of justice, that we are actually not trying to create but actually remember from the fragments. We become stronger and stronger in our clarity of how we actually get free. We are both imagining something that has never happened before, and we need to be hearing the strains of our memory that have actually devised and laid a lot of ground already.
Darren Isom (26:58):
And honoring the cultural anchors that have allowed us to thrive and survive through however many years of enslavement and oppression, the beauty in those things that have actually been our navigating tools that are central to our culture, although they often go unnamed, often unappreciated, and we don’t often know where they come from, but the similarities, the existence that are across the entire Black diaspora, it's really powerful and meaningful. Part of that naming process comes with the conversation I want to shift to now. You've developed a reputation as one of the most impactful leaders in culture change strategy. And I just want to give you some space to, I wouldn't say define, but explain, what is narrative work? How does one change narratives? And I ask that because I feel like it's one of those buzzwords now within the last few years, like, "Oh, let’s do narrative work. Let's focus on narrative change.” And I think it's great for folks to have an understanding of what that means.
Bridgit Antoinette Evans (27:51):
That question of what is narrative change and how do you do it, of course it's become even more of, I don't even if it's buzzing anymore, it is a big loud concourse at this point both in philanthropy and in social justice movements. And that's a good thing, it's taken a lot of people, including myself, a long time to get to the place where everybody is talking about it.
Darren Isom (28:13):
It's a cause for celebration, for sure.
Bridgit Antoinette Evans (28:14):
Yes. And I think where we are now in the field is really beginning to say, "Okay, now that we've got your attention, let's get a lot more nuanced about what it is we're talking about." And one of the things that has been a drumbeat for me right now is this idea that we have to stop, have to check ourselves in this kind of goal of changing the narrative about something, and really begin to think about what it's going to take us to transform the narrative oceans that we are all swimming in. So the reality is that a narrative or the narrative isn't in isolation, that's not where the power lies, is in a narrative. Where the power lies in our culture around narrative is the fact that every day, we are immersed in narrative oceans of many powerful narratives and ideas and norms that swirl around us the way that water swirls around a fish in the ocean.
And we're not always aware of them, and in fact, most of us are almost never aware of these narratives and mental models or ideas that are informing how we think about ourselves and other people, how we relate to people, how we make decisions about who belongs and who doesn't, and who has value and who doesn't. And whether or not we think that it's even possible to bridge our gaps, to bridge our differences, there are all of these ways that this ocean of narratives is creating reality for us and actually influencing how we behave and make choices in the world. So the work, I would argue … If I could change the name of the work, I would say we are in the transforming narrative ocean's work.
Darren Isom (30:11):
Listen, I'm all about a name change. Is there anything more American than reaming something and listening to it?
Bridgit Antoinette Evans (30:16):
Darren Isom (30:16):
Bridgit Antoinette Evans (30:18):
We are in the transforming narrative ocean's work. And that is actually, I believe, the next great work of social movements, is to begin to think at that level of scale and breadth, and then begin to draw down and say, "How do you actually transform a narrative ocean?" And when we began thinking about this question, even at the Pop Culture Collaborative, we began looking at culture-change processes, all kinds of culture change processes, that really did transform narrative oceans. We looked at the Civil Rights Movement, which is like, I'm very steeped in that history as we mentioned. We looked at marriage equality because a lot of people in movements and in philanthropy are paying attention to what happened in the marriage equality space, but we also looked in the realm of advertising.
We looked at like, how is it that suddenly everybody drives SUVs instead of station wagons? How did that evolution happen? What was it culturally that made people think that that was the answer to all of our needs? Why was that normal? We looked at bottled water. How in the world did we all come to believe that the water that comes to us, for instance, in a plastic water bottle is more safe and healthy than the water that's actually …
Darren Isom (31:45):
For the folks at home, as she holds up a plastic water bottle.
Bridgit Antoinette Evans (31:49):
Yes. How did that happen? So we looked at all these things, and what we discovered is that underneath, in all of these different processes, there are a couple of things. One is that there was some kind of organizing framework. There was a group of people who came together, and they designed an organizing framework, what we call a narrative system, that they agreed to pursue together. There was a goal that was enlivened by this narrative system, and they agreed to work together to try to achieve that culture change goal through whatever this framework was. And then the second thing that happened is that, I will just repeat, they agreed to work together to get it done. What we've done is really dig in and pull from learnings that began almost a decade ago. I started working with a movement leader named Ai-jen Poo at the National Domestic Workers Alliance over a decade ago.
And it was in that collaboration with Ai-jen that we began to sort of think about what we called, at that time, the surround sound of narrative, what has now evolved into this idea of the narrative ocean. And we began to think about the architecture of a framework that could hold hundreds, if not thousands, of people in a network together, in purpose. And that work has evolved over the last decade into a narrative systems design methodology that we believe actually is the way for networks of movement leaders and artists and researchers and cultural strategists, entertainment industry, pop culture industry, people to come together and work with purpose to transform narrative oceans. That's the big idea that I think everybody needs to readjust in our brains around, is that that we're not going to win, we are not going to endurably shift our circumstances, our reality, what is norm in society, unless we take on that holistic approach to narrative ocean transformation. And that the way that we do that is through narrative systems design and activation.
Darren Isom (34:13):
And I want to also just unpack a little as I think that as a generation, Gen Xers, we’re the Sesame Street generation. We were the generation literally, we were plopped in front of Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers, and we thought that was normal. We had no idea what radical worldviews were being normal, were being normalized, as we watched these shows. And then depending on the family and neighbor and the community, those views were normalized in school and your community and home. And so it speaks to both this ability to tell a story that's compelling and inclusive, but also to build the systems that are echoing, if you will, some portions of that strategy and giving place to others in this work. And also speaks to, in many ways, the importance of pop culture in general as a vessel for shaping American perceptions of social change and normalizing what's best practice. I would love to just get some thoughts from you on how societal leaders and philanthropists, particularly, can better utilize culture to achieve social good.
Bridgit Antoinette Evans (35:04):
I think that if we speak specifically about philanthropy, what is really clear is that the approaches to social change, or social justice movement building, whatever, however you define that work of foundational transformation of society. In that context, we now have decades of evidence that strategies that pursue that kind of change that do not acknowledge or, better, yet deeply, deeply dig into the power and role of narrative and culture, are both not successful and not sustainable. In social justice circles, we lean back and we say, "How are we here again? How is it that in decades of work on immigration, for instance, we are here again, where we do not have clear pathways to citizenship, we do not have strong infrastructure as a welcoming society in this country?" And I would argue that the reason that we're here again is because primarily the strategies that we have used are policy litigation, to a certain extent organizing, but not necessarily organizing at scale, and we haven't really attended in all the ways that we need to, to narrative and cultural work.
And the reason that's significant is because no matter what systems you change, those changes are purely symbolic unless the American populace believes in them and has been transformed in their behaviors, in their beliefs, and how they relate and comprehend the world in alignment with those changes. So what we have is a political context that is in profound disalignment from our cultural and personal identity context. And we have to solve for that really, really big chasm that is forming between those two things.
Darren Isom (37:19):
I'm reminded of, and I quote him all the time because I think that it's a powerful piece, Donald Hollowell, that rights attorney, he used to always say there were two battles happening. One, there was the courtroom and policy battle, but there was also the kitchen table battle. And we couldn't win all the policy fights, and we can't sustain the policy wins unless we won the kitchen table battle. And I think that we are definitely at a point in our country's history, we are always at a point in our country's history, but there's definitely a fight for the American narrative, there's a fight for the kitchen table conversation of what's normal, what's American, what's acceptable, and unless we can shore up that fight, win that fight, and own the narrative and really set the narrative, those policy wins will be unsustainable.
Bridgit Antoinette Evans (38:03):
That's right. And in fact, when we really dug in around the marriage equality strategy, a lot of people really think that, just in general, it was in pop culture reflection that the change happened. But what we found when we looked at dozens and dozens of pieces of content that emerged, we studied the trend lines and Gallup polls to understand the evolving public sentiment around marriage equality. And what we discovered was that there was this kind of very sharp increase in public support for marriage equality around 2009, so we zeroed in and we began looking at the content that emerged through the Supreme Court cases. And what we found is that it wasn't that people were being exposed and in proximity to queer folk that was actually the turning point. It was actually a shift towards a narrative systems approach, where people across a lot of different sectors agreed to really hone in on a few really key ideas and story archetypes in just about everything that was moving out into the world.
But they also began to recognize that it wasn't about us, it wasn't about telling the stories of queer people, it was about telling the stories that would catalyze change in other people, in parents who were resistant to their children's identity, people who didn't recognize queer identity as real or deeply, deeply rooted identity. There were all these people who had barriers in their emotional and cognitive makeup that they actually needed to speak to. And so when they began to more strategically tell the story, there are dozens of stories, for instance, that are all about mostly white, mostly boomer fathers grappling, becoming awakened to their bigotry and recognizing that their bigotry is preventing them from staying in right relationship with their child.
There are dozens of these stories, and that is because there are millions of boomer fathers and their spouses who were terrified, uncomfortable, angry, upset, uncertain about the lives that their children could live if they embraced their queer identity, and they needed storytelling that modeled how you get through, how do you get through your fear and overcome your bigotry in order to express your love and to stay in loving relationship with your child? That was deep strategy.
Darren Isom (40:52):
There's a roadmap.
Bridgit Antoinette Evans (40:53):
Yes, they needed a character roadmap that showed them and modeled how to get through and get to a more liberated relationship with their children. So when you think about leaders like Rashad Robinson, when he was at GLAAD and certainly has continued that tradition at Color of Change, that really astute, keen story strategy is actually what made the difference. And it wasn't one story, it was dozens of stories all around people that, surround sound, that immersive ocean that I was speaking of that actually made the difference. So in philanthropy, we have to actually take on the work of learning actually how does narrative transformation happen? How do we fund towards narrative transformation? How do we understand what narrative infrastructure is, and how you create a grant making program that builds out the narrative infrastructure that makes immersive narrative ocean building possible. We have to get busy, roll up our sleeves, study up, and begin to make more intentional, more structured, and strategic grant making decisions in the narrative space.
Darren Isom (42:08):
Yes. I'll have to bring you on again so we can talk more about this narrative stuff, I find it fascinating and for a number of different reasons, I think it just speaks to our strengths, and we're a country of stories, a country of stories and people telling stories, and Black people are truly experts at telling powerful and masterful stories. I would love to close to some degree with a question that I asked folks all the time. I had a really good therapist many years ago who said that sometimes hope comes from experience. As we think about the times ahead, because we're living through some stuff now between four years of Trump, followed by COVID, and all the things that we're living through, it's very often easy to lose sight of hope and inspiration. But what things have you seen or lived through more recently as experiences that bring you some hope about the times ahead?
Bridgit Antoinette Evans (42:50):
There's so many things actually. I was really hopeful when I sat in the theater and gave over my imagination to Ryan Coogler during the last Wakanda Forever, Black Panther film, hopeful not just because of the storytelling, but because of the surround sound within movements and the cultural strategy field and the cultural criticism field, the surround sound that really is enabling millions and millions of people, particularly Black people, to imagine forward and to feel a sense of genuine Black euphoria for what is possible and what we are capable of. I was really grateful for the leadership that was expressed through that story world and the complexity of what uncolonized and decolonized and decolonizing leadership looks like.
That was one of the things that gave me hope because it's actually a beacon, an indicator that of all the ways that the entertainment industry is becoming a place where Black leaders, where BIPOC leaders, where other historically excluded communities are not only finding seats at the table but actually building new tables and building those tables on the moon. My life's work is the table on the moon, and what's all the ladders and stairs and infrastructure that we need to be able to create our worlds in that kind of expansive place? So that makes me quite hopeful.
Darren Isom (44:23):
Yes, I agree 100%. I think there's so much to be hopeful for. I think there's also something quite radical about the assertion that they're Black people in the future. We're running the future childs, it's just all about us.
Bridgit Antoinette Evans (44:34):
Yes, the leadership and vision of Black people, Indigenous people will shape the world for years to come.
Darren Isom (44:41):
Yes, definitely. Thank you so much for making time. You also bring me great hope, folks like you at the helm when it comes to narrative work and changing our larger narrative. Really, it brings me some degree of calm. We're in excellent hands, and I’m excited to be in community with you as we carry out this great work.
Bridgit Antoinette Evans (44:53):
Yes, you too. It was a pleasure. Thank you.
Darren Isom (44:57):
Growing up, my Grandma Lucinda's kitchen was my favorite place in the world. Like most American cities, '80s and '90s New Orleans was one steeped in chaos. White flight in the resulting economic precarity, the war on drugs and AIDS epidemic all came together to create a two-decades-long hurricane that brought the city to its knees long before Katrina came through in 2005 with a near fatal blow. But despite the chaos outside in the city, my Grandma Lulu's kitchen offered comfort, warmth, and solace and endless supply. It was an ultimate safe space. My grandma was a masterful dream interpreter and believed that sometimes the ancestors visit you in your dreams to comfort you and help you chart your path forward. And our morning breakfast routine included her offering her take on my nightly musings in translating those ancestral messages for me and the family. I've always had a very vivid dream world, and my grandma's interpretations were often more whimsical than the dreams themselves.
There were stories and explanations for each of my musings. “You came upon a river, huh, but how deep was the water? Was it clear and muddy?” My dreams were Oscar-worthy productions, and my grandma was like a member of the Academy, curiously taking it all in. "But did you fly?" she'd ask. Men in my family were gifted with ability to fly in dreams, and she'd look on with both approval and relief when I confirmed that, "Yes, I did fly, I was flying all over the place in my dreams." I learned some years later that I was her only grandson of 11 who inherited the gift of flight. But in what was a generational anomaly, all four granddaughters did too. The granddaughters and the one gay grandson: a generational shift that left them all both puzzled and pleased. The world was indeed changing.
At some point at the start of the Trump years, the weight of the world made my dreams go black and white. We were living through dark times. And the dark, real world cast an imposing shadow over my once vibrant dream world. But some months after my dream world lost all color, my Grandma Lulu visited me in a dream. In the dream, she visited my home here in California, made a big pot of red beans to celebrate her visit and to be sure that I hadn't forgotten my New Orleans home. The beans were delicious, of course, and we sat around the table for some dream hours, laughing and talking. And as I looked around, I noticed punctuations of pink and yellow and purple, and a few bursts of red and orange. And while the real world outside remained an imperfect mess, I was dreaming in color again, and some hope had managed to push through.
"But do you still fly?" she asked as we finished our dinne, and it was clear that the dream was coming to an end. "Yes, I still fly my dreams," I responded. "Good," she said, looking more pleased than ever. Some years ago at the Association of Black Foundation Executives convening in Memphis, the ever-brilliant LaTosha Brown closed out her remarks with, "We're all on assignment. This time is calling us to be as courageous as possible. Black people must begin to trust each other's assignments. We're building safe houses on the way to liberation." My conversations with Bridgit always remind me of both the beauty of the assignment and the beautiful minds who are engaged in this work with us. Building a future more vibrant, more vivid than anything even my dream world could imagine, one where we all fly.
Well, y'all, that's a wrap. And while the episode is finished, the work continues. Thank you for tuning in and listening generously to Dreaming in Color, a Bridgespan-supported StudioPod media production. Special shoutouts to our wonderful show producers, Teresa Buchanan and Denise Sevas, our video editors, Dave Clarke-McCoy, Diana Roy Dailey, and Alejandra Ramirez, our graphic designer, Deanna Jimenez, and our show coordinator, Nicole Genova. And a huge shoutout to our ever-brilliant Bridgespan production team and family: Cora Daniels, Jasmine Reliford, Ami Diané, Christina Pistorius, and Ryan Wenzel. Be sure to subscribe and leave a rating and review wherever you listen to your favorite podcast. Talk soon.