Building Our Narrative Power Fourteen change-makers Reflections from the first residential of our narrative leadership programme

Since launching Building Our Narrative Power last summer, we have had the incredible opportunity of working with 14 community organisers, campaigners and activists. The folks we’re working with come from a variety of different backgrounds and social justice struggles. We have been working together to shape the programme, bringing in their ideas, skills and experiences to co-design a year of learning and leadership development.

Group Photo!

The programme fully kicked-off this January, when we hosted our first residential gathering at the Centre for Alternative Technology, in mid-Wales. Together, we were aiming to get connected & clear on the programme, explore our collective understandings of narrative change, and set our learning goals for the year.

The night before the Residential held a feeling of calm anticipation, like waiting for a concert to begin. Faith had baked cookies and while we ate them, we chatted about the zombie apocalypse, laughing as we imagined what each of us would do.

The next day, day zero, wasn’t exactly a zombie apocalypse, thankfully: we came together as a team and everything was done in time before the participants finally arrived. I took a big deep breath and thought: “Here it is! The thing we’ve been working on for over a year!” I snacked nervously on multiple bourbon biscuits before building up the courage to say “Hi! I’m Sara!”. And then it was time to officially open the programme, and we gathered together for orientation and a game of get-to-know-you bingo!

As the day drew to a close, we set up an altar for peace and justice, bringing parts of ourselves into the room. We contributed items to the altar which served as a reminder of the things present in our hearts throughout the week.

Altar for peace

On the first full day we began getting to know one another in more depth, starting the day by sharing a story of ourselves. I told the story of me, and I listened to the stories of others. A thing so normal as introducing ourselves, was already shaping a narrative: the story of this residential! The stories we shared created an early picture of where we come from, the things we care about and why we care.

Next, we began to explore our hopes and needs for our working culture, starting to map-out a ‘group agreement’ (a resource outlining our North Star for how we all participants agreed to show up in the space) that would guide us through the programme. We quickly ran into our first challenge: there was a difficult balance to strike between enabling the group to delve into tension within the group agreement, or moving forward with other learning. We adapted the plan and gave space to hear the participants’ discomfort and tensions with the group agreement. Although it was challenging, the experience helped establish trust that conflict and difference can be explored in this space. One participant talked about the difference between “safe spaces” and “brave spaces”, where creating a completely safe space is impossible as it is not possible to predict and protect people from all behaviours. In a “brave space” participants enter the space to bravely talk about their identities and responsibilities to themselves and others. (This article offers some interesting reflections on safe and brave spaces.)

Overall the group agreement session gave us a lot to think about, it will definitely be a rich area for reflection and development. Training for Change gives some insights which may be useful for us as we move forward with the programme.


On the second day, the main question on the facilitators’ minds was: “will we be able to come together as a group after yesterday’s challenges?” Soon we got our answer: a resounding YES! During the first session, participants shared their understanding of narrative. One participant shared an interesting metaphor: comparing narrative to genre, for example a romance narrative or a gothic novel; lots of little stories together shaping the overall feel. We reflected on the dominant narratives enforcing existing systems and found that narratives of division were a common theme (in-groups and out-groups, violence, culture wars, etc). We explored the narrative: “I don’t have any power”… that we are too small, and the machine is too big. We challenged this by exploring the power that we have as an ecosystem of change-makers. We likened ourselves to tiny microorganisms in a body, each working on its own thing, but powerful together. We reflected that our ecosystems will always be evolving and developing. For some, the activity was useful in revealing the gaps in their ecosystems and it got them thinking about how to address those gaps.

There was a lot of excitement about each other’s work and about the year to come. A few participants said they discovered unexpected connections, and they were excited to identify shared networks between them.


On the third day we introduced the concept of a narrative ‘North Star’, experimenting with weaving together the issues we are working on. The ‘North Star’ began to give participants the destination to ground their narrative projects, helping them find alignment and consensus across different approaches. One participant likened it to singing from the same song book, though not the same songs!

To begin setting our North Star, we explored the power of visioning. Kaan led us in a powerful visioning exercise, their voice transported us 5-10 years in the future, “look around, what does your community look like? What does your day look like? What does the world around you look like?” We drew our visions together and created a giant shared vision that built off each others’ ideas.

“Visioning without action is useless, but action without vision, does not know where to go or why to go there”—Donella Meadows.

With this beautiful tapestry of our visions, we then took a step back to explore the themes and values that we could see within our visioning work. People named nature connection, land justice & re-indigenising, sharing, spirituality, collective consciousness, safety, love, generosity, belonging, freedom, equity, abundance, creating not owning, holding space not dominating. And then we got stuck into a bit of values theory—looking at the role that values play in the context of strategic communications (for more, check out the Common Cause Handbook). Folks offered some rich perspectives on the need for analysing how values work in different contexts, with questions raised about the role of valuing security in conflict and post-conflict zones.

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Next up, we began to get into the causes of and solutions to the issues that are currently blocking our visions. We used a tree to unpack the problems we are seeing and experiencing, identifying how the problems manifest as leaves and fruit, looking at the roots to identify what has been causing the rot, and then identifying what is needed to nourish and heal the tree. This session was both rich and painful at times, as we reflected on systems of oppression and the violent histories and narratives that underpin them. To close the day, we sang together and took a walk in the beautiful grounds of CAT to reflect and ground ourselves.

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On the fourth day we worked on co-designing the rest of the course with the participants: lots of amazing ideas and opportunities came out of our brainstorm. The next challenge will be to coordinate our work effectively together! It was beautiful to see the desire to both give and receive each others’ time and knowledge. As one participant put it: the network is only as strong as the relationships in it.

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Throughout the week we saw the wealth of skills, knowledge and experience the participants of Building Our Narrative Power brought to the sessions they led, as well as in contributions to PIRC-led sessions. Participants led various activities including collaging, grief work, permaculture design, writing and vent diagrams. It was beautiful to receive the gifts of their experience and it helped us to feel the shared ownership of the space.

The session on vent diagrams was interesting as a tool to help us recognize and reckon with contradictions, accepting intersections and overlaps of our work. We explored the polarity of different conflicting aspects of our work and our lives: the fact that two things can be true at once. (In this photo is an example of one participant thinking about the blurry boundaries between personal life and work).


On the fifth and final day we spent the morning reflecting on the week, saying goodbye, and we drew the first chapter of this programme to a close. For us, it was a story of true diversity (a term always worth problematising), deep thinking, questioning, people power, vulnerability, resilience and dreaming.

Together, we built a solid foundation for our group dynamics and it was truly amazing to see the group already taking so much agency over the programme and the space. We had challenging conversations and we felt privileged to be challenged by one another’s wonderful minds. We closed the space by sharing affirmations for each other, it was a memorable and encouraging way to end the week.

We are looking forward to the next chapter in this story with Session 2, a one-day online workshop planned in March. Look out for our next blog!

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