At Living Cities, we believe collective action is the framework through which we can achieve change at a systems level. Most recently, we decided to approach narrative change through a collective action framework with the belief that it will help us shift consciousness and values to match those of racial equity and inclusion (REI).

We have been working over the last year and a half to build a cross-sector collective action infrastructure with members and partners in the field to help push forth new narratives that center racial equity. A key theme in our work over the last year and a half with our Narrative Change Working Group has been the power that collective action holds and the ways in which that power grants us the possibility of creating large-scale change.

The power in collective action is the agency it gives to those who are at the table. In our own experiences, we’ve seen people use their roles to truly make a case for the work they’ve been charged with as members of a Living Cities working group. Participation in working groups like the Narrative Change Working Group has shown members the value in diversity of thought.

While it can be daunting to be surrounded by so many powerful peers, the learning and growth that takes place in these settings are priceless. They have allowed members of our working group to show up and lead with authenticity and engage in racial-equity focused conversations that aren’t usually had in their 9-to-5 jobs. Although it shouldn’t be, discussing race and equity at any company is risky. Being at a table where everyone is committed to embedding equity into all operations is empowering and equips those present with the courage necessary to effectively create change.

We each have the power to use our roles, both as people and professionals, to advance REI in a number of ways. Acknowledging the skills and power a group holds is necessary to truly understand how to best harness those skills and power for the goal of the collective. Some ways in which skills and power manifest and can be used to move work forward are:

Personal passion and leveraging identity: As we’ve learned, the personal is professional. This is especially true for collective action work. Each working group member approaches collective action work from a different perspective based on lived experience. Acknowledging the differences in those perspectives is just as important to the work as the differences in our professional roles. It’s also critical to have people in this work who are passionate. For some, that passion stems from a personal stake in the success of the work. For people of color specifically, REI work embedded in collective action feels that much more critical and essential. And it is critical to the work to have white people around the table who are equipped to use their power to educate and help other white people along their own journey. This leads us toward a better more equitable whole committed to social impact and change.

Influence based on role: In our experiences, we’ve seen members use their roles to influence their institutions and thus influence broader systems. Influencing through your role can look different depending on where you sit and what power you hold. Some use their role to influence culture internally, using lessons from external contexts to change the systems they are in. Some members are asking the investors they work with about the role of REI in their work; this tactic puts the onus on the investor to assess the ways in which REI shows up for them. Others who are in leadership positions can use their power to put REI spark plugs (anybody who fiercely advocates for racial equity in the workplace) into leadership positions. Actions like these may seem simple but are transformational steps that many aren’t willing to take due to the associated risks.

Cross-sector insights and dot-connecting: The ability to glean insights and make connections across sectors is also a powerful tool in this work and can break down silos. The ability to convene powerful people to pursue a common goal and further connect dots is critical to this work. Collectively, we are thinking about how to push past tendencies that reinforce barriers and discourage risk-taking. This work requires us to organize as a collective with different areas of expertise and perspectives; otherwise, we won’t see progress.

It can be hard work to materialize the potential of collective action, but our working group members have learned to suspend disbelief. Collective action is as good as the action that each individual in the collective manifests. The power in the collective is that together, the group works through office and company politics that dictate how far they can push on certain issues, where and when they can push on them, and with whom. As you navigate these nuances, there’s a collective action table behind you, guiding you, supporting you, and sharing tips and tricks from their own experiences in navigating these risks to push this work forward.

In the process of pursuing collective action, you’re combining the collective competencies of your group; that is what equips you to solve the issues you’re tackling. Often, especially with work that relates to social change, the goals and process can feel ambiguous. The key is to be comfortable with the idea of falling and failing, with the intention of always growing into a better collective. A clear understanding of the challenge is always necessary and present but the plan to get to the end goal isn’t always clear. It is incredibly important to be open to what the work could be. This work requires that we imagine new possibilities and new realities different from our own because what we need and require does not yet exist – we need to create it, together.

All inputs, insights and lessons were gathered directly from Living Cities' Narrative Change Working Group Members