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The Power of Narrative: Bringing People Together to Advance Equity with Jonathan Heller

By Joanne Lee on March 23rd, 2022

2022 March HPbD Blog feat JHeller UWPHI_Image_ccexpress (2)

As our nation continues to face multiple existential threats – including the pandemic, systemic racism, and civil unrest – we have seen people become divided. In these times when we need to harness cooperative action to solve big issues, what can we do to overcome current polarization?

The University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute (UWPHI) is working to address this question through the Health Equity Narrative Infrastructure Project, co-led by County Health Rankings & Roadmaps and Human Impact Partners. Healthy Places by Design is pleased to be a partner in the project by engaging community leaders across the nation in the work.

I had the pleasure of speaking with thought leader Jonathan Heller, Senior Equity Fellow with UWPHI about the power of narrative to transform health and equity.


JL: What are narratives and why are they important to creating and sustaining healthy and equitable communities?

JH: People use the word narrative in many ways now. I have been taught to think of narrative as a reflection of our worldviews. I like this definition from the Grassroots Power Project: “narratives are values-based meta-stories about how and why the world operates that have the ability to shape public consciousness, including our collective senses of responsibility and possibility.” In other words, narratives are not specific stories with s/heroes and villains, and they are not specific messages to be repeated. Instead, they are a level or two deeper – narratives are the themes those stories and messages are emphasizing.

There are a set of narratives that are dominant at any time, meaning they are believed by many people. The ability to influence which narratives are dominant is a form of power – the narratives that are dominant shape what is thought of as commonsense in our society, and therefore make some policy proposals seem like no-brainers and others feel like they were beamed in by aliens.

Many of the narratives that are dominant in the United States today make it very hard to advance policy and structural changes that improve health and advance health equity.


What are some current examples of how narrative can harm or help in our efforts to support healthy and equitable communities?

In this country, we tell “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” stories all the time. The underlying narrative of those stories is individualism, that people’s health, wellbeing, and survival is their own – and solely their own – responsibility. If people face challenges, our stories say that if they just tried harder they would do better, or that they behaved incorrectly.

But we know from decades of research, that well over 50% of our health is the result of the social, economic, and environmental conditions that shape our lives. Our individual behaviors and decisions take place within a framework that has been created through policies and practices at all levels. And, as the COVID pandemic has demonstrated, our health is interconnected – my health impacts your health.

So, today’s dominant narratives point us in the wrong direction, or at least a very incomplete direction. The commonsense solutions that come out of an individualistic narrative are educating people so they do the right thing, and providing them with services when they need help or get sick. Solutions that are more collective and longstanding – like making sure people have good jobs and affordable housing and high-quality public schools – are much harder to move forward.

The battles around COVID-19 mask policies are a great illustration of this. They are completely tied up in worldviews about individualism versus seeing our mutual interdependence and interconnection.

And what I just described is all about just one aspect of today’s dominant narrative. There are many other pieces to it as well, which also impact health and equity, such as government is inefficient and oppressive, free markets are a miraculous cure for everything, competition is necessary because resources are scarce, racism is only an interpersonal issue and a thing of the past. These beliefs as part of the dominant narrative make advancing equity nearly impossible.


The Health Equity Narrative Infrastructure Project is part of the solution to creating a healing narrative for our nation. Tell us about the project.

The Health Equity Narrative Infrastructure Project has three goals: 1) To shift dominant narratives by developing transformative narratives that advance structural change for racial and spatial health equity; 2) To disseminate these shared, transformative narratives through organizations that align their work to advance health equity narratives; and 3) To develop and strengthen relationships with those in the health equity narrative space to expand our collective impact.

We’re partnering with about a dozen organizations across the country. We train facilitators to conduct a series of narrative conversations with folks they bring together from their communities. Through these conversations participants share values and beliefs, develop a shared understanding of narrative and its power, unmask current dominant narratives to reveal what we’re up against, develop elements of a transformational narrative for health and equity, and then develop an action plan for using that transformative narrative.

Each partner organization is hosting a few of these facilitated conversations and then reporting back to us the transformative narrative themes they came up with. We’re then synthesizing what we hear – all the themes from dozens of conversations – into a single transformative narrative that all of us can use in our work.

So the outputs of the project are 1) A joint transformative health equity narrative draft that we all can integrate into our work; and 2) A network of partner organizations and community members who understand the importance of narrative and have begun to gain the skills to apply, adapt, and disseminate the joint transformative narrative across the nation.


We look forward to seeing the outcomes of the project! In the meantime, what actions can local community members take now to overcome polarization?

I believe that people across the country actually share a lot of values and beliefs, but dominant narratives from a subset of people skew how we think, lifting up a particular set of values and beliefs that drive the polarization we are seeing. They are fanning the flames of polarization.

So, to overcome that polarization, I think we need to go back to the basics – we need to have conversations about the values and beliefs we hold, and to realize that we share a lot, that there is actually a lot of common ground. I think folks can start having those conversations now, and experiment with ways to get to productive conversations that expose the common ground that is there.

Having those conversations will raise the consciousness among the people participating about societal problems and shared grievances, power, and who is responsible for and who can address those problems and grievances.

This is clearly not a quick and easy fix to the problem of polarization, but I think it’s a crucial part of getting us to where we need to go.


The project and broader work you are engaged in feels like progress toward healing for our nation. What gives you hope during the current times?

Mariame Kaba, an organizer, was quoted as saying, “Hope doesn’t preclude feeling sadness or frustration or anger or any other emotion that makes total sense. Hope isn’t an emotion, you know? Hope is not optimism. Hope is a discipline… we have to practice it every single day.” This really speaks to me. There are so many things that are going wrong in the world today, so many reasons to be angry and frustrated.

But I do the work I do – focusing on helping people understand how they can build power to advance health and racial equity – because I think we, together, can create a better world, leave our kids with a better world. Being part of the movement to build that better world gives me hope. Doing this work gives my life direction and meaning. Meeting the amazing people who are doing amazing things, gives me hope.

I’m not delusional, I know this is a long, hard slog and that the changes we seek will take more than a lifetime. But being part of the social justice community is my source of hope. I show up every single day because of that.

Joanne Lee

Collaborative Learning Director

Adventurous strategist, cross-cultural explorer, and human and animal welfare champion.