We need to influence culture to achieve lasting social change

12th Sep 2018

It can seem a bleak time for campaigners lobbying for policy change. But, says Abigail Scott Paul, it's time to focus our energies on the bigger picture of social change.

We are at a political impasse on domestic reforms – Brexit is sapping all the energy in the Westminster machine. There is currently no functioning government at Stormont and both major parties are eating themselves from the inside out.

The much-awaited Social Housing Green Paper is a prime example of the failure of the policy and political process to respond to people’s needs. It was quietly published in the summer holidays during Parliamentary recess and was void of any plans to build new social housing. We’ve been through the Grenfell Tower tragedy, been inundated with a slew of ‘housing crisis’ campaigns and have a strong cross-party consensus on the need to build more homes. And yet no action has been taken. How can this be?

But it’s not just housing. The future of adult social care – an issue all of us will grapple with if we are lucky enough to live into old age - is another policy issue that, despite numerous commissions and genuine cross-party consensus, has failed to result in change or a viable solution. While politicians wring their hands, local Government cuts ravish services, leaving many older people to face an insecure, frightening and dangerous future.

Worse still, in many areas of social reform, we are actually going backwards. The Windrush scandal has highlighted the staggering injustice that exists for many people of colour in this country and child poverty is on the rise for the first time in two decades.

Social progress is being undone right in front of our eyes.
Abigail Scott Paul

Against this backdrop we are witnessing the rise of the alt-right across Europe; hearing the endless loop of Trump’s damaging narratives about marginalised communities; seeing a rise in hate crime; and feeling an increasingly polarised public as people retreat further and further into their tribes and factions.

Rather than throw our arms in the air and blame out-of-touch politicians, now is the time for campaigners and funders to refocus their energies on the bigger picture and see the ultimate prize: winning hearts and minds and changing culture. By demonstrating the political prizes at stake and building demand for policy change from the bottom up, we can put pressure on those in power to respond. Faced with the current state of policy and politics, we need to till the soil and prepare a fertile ground in which ideas for change and new policies can flourish. We need to build politicians and decision makers the space to act when the opportunity presents.

For too long campaigners, like politicians, have either tried to ignore what the public really think and feel about issues, or have tried to use statistics and evidence to disprove those feelings and beliefs. In the brilliant Travels in Trumpland, Ed Balls highlights the way in which Trump and his supporters successfully tapped into the American psyche through the use of language and values to play into voters fears and beliefs. The strategy paid off. And while many of us may find Trump’s tactics abhorrent, our energy would be best spent understanding why his approach is effective – instead of casting judgement on the American public or simply giving up hope of any change.

If campaigners for positive social change want to win over the public and create demand for action, they need to deploy these same tactics. We need to speak in a way that taps into the public’s way of thinking and moves it forward. But it’s not just about getting our message right, we need to work hard to weave those messages into the fabric of mainstream culture.

At JRF we know that we won’t reduce poverty in a meaningful way without a significant shift in public thinking about poverty in the UK. And we know that this shift won’t happen by itself. This is why we’re working to change the conversation - from the way poverty is depicted in popular culture to the discussions professionals have about and with those experiencing hardship.

Part of our new organisational strategy will focus on building public will to solve poverty. We will be working in new and different ways as a funder and a social change organisation, to engage with the public to achieve our vision of a prosperous and poverty-free UK.

This is an ambitious aim, so how will we do this?

As an evidence-based organisation, we will be using research and insight to craft effective strategies to engage with the public and mobilise messages into mainstream culture.

Changing the way we talk about poverty: reframing the debate

The language we use and the stories we tell when we talk about poverty have a huge impact on the way the public receive and hear our messages. We can make strategic choices about the way we communicate, based on evidence, to open up space for thinking about the solutions to poverty. If we tap into the way the public think and feel, we can start to have a more effective conversation. We are therefore fundamentally changing the way we as an organisation talk about poverty.

We are using insight from research undertaken by the FrameWorks Institute into how the public think about poverty in the UK, to design communications that can shift the public conversation away from individual failings/poor life choices, to one that focuses on fixing the systems and structures that can trap people in poverty.

We will also be working to support other campaigners in applying this insight to their communications. By being strategic in our communications as a wider sector, we can be a much more effective voice for social change.

Understanding who is persuadable

We think there are whole swathes of the public that are persuadable to unlocking opportunities for people in poverty. We need to have a much more sophisticated understanding of who they are, what motivates and influences them, and how they routinely consume information. We are undertaking detailed research into this group of people, so we can be smarter in our dissemination strategies, as well as in our thinking about partners and messengers.

Working alongside people in poverty to campaign for change

Liberation movements would not have had its successes to date if those affected – women, LGBT+, disability and people of colour - had not demanded equality. Similarly, solving poverty requires that those experiencing it are visible and have a strong voice in change. We will be working alongside grassroots organisations and poverty activists to use our platforms, resource and insight to boost grassroots campaigning efforts.

We will also be working to increase the representation of people in poverty in public – in the media and in political debate. ‘Nothing about us, is for us, without us’, has been adopted as a mantra by the impressive and growing Poverty Truth Movement.We will be supporting people to self advocate and participate in authentic and meaningful ways in the conversations and debates that are often held about them, but rarely with them.

Seeding mainstream culture with our messages

Campaigners tend to prioritise the news media to get messages out to policy influencers. But we need to be putting in as much effort to seed our messages and calls for action into mainstream culture – in the places where people are routinely consuming information and entertainment. But when we do this, it’s not enough to just tell any old story. Building on the work we’ve done to date in working alongside filmmakers and journalists, we will be exploring how we can shape the narratives being told about people in poverty. We will therefore be working with other storytellers and content creators to tell a new story about poverty in the UK that can drown out the dominant negative and stereotypical narratives that persist. And we will be looking at other movements here and overseas such as the Pop Justice Collaborative in the States who are attempting to use popular culture to catalyse social change.

Using data to inform and improve the way we communicate

We will only be successful if we use data and insight to improve how we communicate. We will be harnessing the opportunities digital can bring us to transform the way we work: the channels we use, as well as the way we communicate with the public. And we will continually measure our progress, using analytics and stakeholder research, to ensure our efforts are shifting public thinking. This work will take a long time, but if we test and iterate, based on evidence of what does and doesn’t work, we can ensure our resource is being used wisely.

In summary, progressive campaigners are operating in hugely challenging times. Spike Lee’s outstanding BackkKlansman lays bare the cyclical nature of powerful narratives that can be exploited for political gain; narratives that continue to block progress in terms of race equality in America today. Here in the UK, while the political and policy machine is in such disarray, foundations, social change movements, charities and activists need to get organised, stay disciplined and use our culture as a tool. It’s not simply enough to respond to the zeitgeist—campaigners must collaborate to create it.

Three #cultureforsocialchange projects JRF is currently supporting:

A Northern Soul

Directed by Sean McAllister, produced by Elhum Shakerifer. A feature length documentary co-funded by JRF, BFI, BBC and Sharp House that seeks to tell a new story about poverty in the UK – one that highlights the way in which people can become locked in poverty, but also one that is uplifting that can reach mainstream audiences. In cinemas now – for screening times go to http://anorthernsoulfilm.com

A Northern Soul, a film by Sean McAllister

On Road Media Interactions

An initiative to facilitate a better understanding between journalists, scriptwriters and programme makers and poverty activists, with the aim to improve media representation of people in poverty.


Poverty activists meeting with journalists at BBC Salford

Project Twist-It

A multi-media initiative run by journalist Mary O’Hara with ThinkNation that aims to shift the negative rhetoric around poverty. By working with artists, writers and performers to harness the power of storytelling and by elevating the voices of people with lived experience, it hopes to foster a new kind of conversation around poverty.


Interview with Kwame Boateng, Founder of Project Five Fifths