Flipping the Script: A Moral and Economic Case for Narrative Change

Where do our values and beliefs come from? Answering this question is important for people committed to social change, because these values and beliefs drive our work.

Over time, the millions of messages we consume from media, our families, communities, schools, and more shape our perception of the world as it is and define what is possible. Narratives result when powerful personal stories and the language we use to describe our experiences roll up into a common frame or story. Narratives help people connect personal stories and local context with their system of values. They are powerful because they help us make sense and meaning of a complex and sometimes unpredictable world.

Problems arise, however, when narratives widely held by Americans perpetuate harmful beliefs about why inequities exist, and what we can or should do about them. Harmful narratives are important to tackle now more than ever, in part, due to their negative impact on our economy and business practices. Leaders working to fight inequity must be cognizant of these narratives and the ways in which they undermine the missions we are working toward.

Rugged individualism– the idea that anyone in America can climb the ranks and succeed through sheer will and determination– is one such narrative. This idea is an essential part of the mythology of the American Dream. Wealth and income gaps are upheld and widened by narratives like rugged individualism, because they shift our focus to individual actions, and away from the pervasive, systemic inequities that remain unsolved.

Some organizations report that they are committed to diversity, but that there are not enough “qualified” people of color available for hire. This harmful narrative perpetuates falsehoods about people of color, hinders their economic outcomes, and allows for the wealth gap to persist. Another narrative is the idea that “rocking the boat” by changing organizational culture to promote equitable practices is risky, especially for organizations accountable to board members and shareholders.

Narratives like these allow people to justify the status quo. Racist hiring practices, marketing campaigns, and other contributors to structural racism go unchecked.

These well-known narratives persist despite their negative impact on business outcomes and the economy. Humans have a well-established bias toward accepting or rejecting data–and interpreting it–based on how well that data fits within an accepted narrative. Narratives are durable; we’re more likely to reject data that challenges an existing narrative than re-evaluate the narrative itself. These dominant, destructive narratives conceal the economic benefits of advancing equity, inclusion and diversity. Multiple reports, cited below, have highlighted the benefits of racial equity and diversity in the business world, and this research can be a foundation for new narratives that are aligned with reality.

Diverse teams are more successful.
In 2015, McKinsey and Company reported that companies with more diverse leadership performed better financially. Companies were significantly more likely to have financial returns above their national industry median when they had leadership in the top quartile of racial and ethnic diversity. A factor contributing to the success of diverse teams is their ability to use lived-experience as a means to interrogate business alternatives and solutions.

Equity in the workplace supports employee satisfaction.
Happier employees are more productive employees. Higher employee engagement aligned with profitability and lower turnover rates. The report also found that the best way to increase employee engagement was to demonstrate a strong commitment to diversity. By committing to diversity, companies can grow their profit, sustain talent and create a workplace environment where employees are satisfied in their work.

Purchasing power of people of color is on the rise.
In 2018, Kellogg released the Business Case for Racial Equity: A Strategy for Growth. The report shared that if the wage gap between white people and people of color was closed by 2050, there would be an additional $2.6 trillion in spending. People of color will soon become the demographic majority in the United States, and creating an equitable work environment will increase capital that is reinvested into the economy.

Additionally, PolicyLink and FSG released the Competitive Advantage of Racial Equity, which highlights how racial equity can support business growth. For example, ShopRite created business value by serving low-income people of color. By placing stores in Philadelphia food deserts, places with little access to groceries, ShopRite generates $250 million in revenue and serves 250,000 people. Committing to racial equity as a core business strategy is crucial to harnessing the purchasing power of people of color.

We know narratives have a powerful influence on our culture and decision-making. Unfortunately, narratives don’t always align with the facts. New narratives need to be constructed and perpetuated to encourage a culture that uplifts racial equity. Leaders in the philanthropic and nonprofit sectors, such as those in the chart below, are modeling this work by telling stories that highlight truths rooted in data and personal experience.

Racial income and wealth gaps in U.S. cities exist, in part, due to the negative attitudes and beliefs that American people hold about poverty and Americans who live below the poverty line.

A change in narrative – and the resulting change in behaviors and decisions – would translate into greater equity in the world. There would be no racial disparities in hiring, promotion or compensation. We would be one step closer to closing income and wealth gaps in America.

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