Posts Tagged ‘James Savage’

Putting words into action: Successful narrative-building in human rights work

April 8, 2021

James Savage in Open Global Rights talks about how aligning principles with practice, addressing the power dynamics of collaboration, and nurturing an ecosystem for narrative power can help narrative work succeed.

…As the program officer for the Enabling Environment Program at the Fund for Global Human Rights, I support human rights defenders to counter a burgeoning conservative and authoritarian worldview by weaving new narratives of humanity and hope. For the past two years, I have had the joy of working with JustLabs’ Narrative Hub project, as we accompany a cohort of four human rights groups in four different countries on a journey to explore the value, tools, and tactics of successful narrative-building. 

A year ago (and one year into the process with JustLabs), I shared some initial thoughts and assumptions about ways that funders might support this kind of strategic communications and narratives work. As a narrative novice, my continued apprenticeship has offered me a reminder of how important and effective it is as funders to align our principles and practice—to be our own narrative. In the spirit of open accountability, here I offer a few reflections on the “glows and grows” I’ve experienced accompanying this work over the last year—and how we, as funders, could equip this exciting, emergent field for long-term success. 

For some other posts on story telling. see:;; and

Narrative as process vs narrative as product

I took my cue from narrative trailblazers such as ReFrame Mentorship and early funders of strategic communications work like the Thomas Paine Initiative. Based on that, I’ve striven to align principles and practice by embracing uncertainty and flexibility, as well as by elevating processes, learning over product and impact, shifting power, building trust, and collaborating authentically. Easy for me to say, but harder to do when faced with the perceptions and reality of funder power dynamics. Particularly, my experience has highlighted the difference in and connection between narrative as process and narrative as product, and how those dynamics shape the expectations and outputs of the funder-grantee relationship.

After nine months spent working with each group to incubate their narrative prototypes through research and testing, we had reached an important review point. Then COVID-19 hit.

Unable to meet in person, we recognized an opportunity to bring new creativity to both our (now online) workshops and our project’s reflection process. Although our idea—to dispense with the standard grantee-funder report and invest in more of a story-led self-reflection—had been percolating before the onset of COVID-19, the fallout of the pandemic presented a chance to operationalize this novel approach to reporting. Allowing this shift in the relationship between funder and partner relieved ourselves of the product-driven parameters we often operate in and allowed us to instead celebrate the process of experimentation and learning. 

From the outset of this initiative, JustLabs and the Fund have supported, encouraged, and created processes for our partners to help them see that for narrative work to be sustainable, it can’t just be a project or product—it must be integral to their organization’s DNA and built into its system.

The power dynamics of partnership

A second reality check came in critiquing the power dynamics of partnership. Despite our best efforts to foster a participatory spirit of collaboration, there remains the uncomfortable truth that each of us still feels somewhat beholden to others’ expectations—activist to accompanier, accompanier to funder, funder to donor. 

With our funding, the four groups wanted to explore new, creative ways of doing narrative work by aiming for ambitious prototypes that may, in fact, have been out of step with their everyday work and core capacity. For our part, we needed to see some level of consistency and coherence in the work across four countries while ensuring that it was shaped by context and driven by the interests and capacity of each of the four groups. 

In working on this together, I have—imperfectly, I’m sure—tried to walk the line between sharing my ideas and resisting my instinct to solve. For instance, to help one partner meet its concern at over-burdening their in-house communications capacity, we offered additional resources so they had the option to engage an external design agency if they wished. Such active accompaniment has power written all over it—it takes a confident grantee or one with a strong relationship of trust to turn down their funder’s suggestion/offer. But rather than avoid it entirely and lose the benefits that come from thought partnership, co-creation, and shared learning, I wonder if we can better surface and own the forms of power at play to enable stronger collaboration between funders and grantees. 

One way we—JustLabs and the Fund—tried to do that was to join our grantees in being interviewed by Rebecca Lichtenfeld, our ally storyteller, so as to also take part in the reflection process. Then, in the spirit of mutual accountability, we summarized and shared our own learning with the four groups, inviting our grantees to further help us define our collective learning process. There is much more to do here, as Panthea Lee has suggested—addressing the power dynamics of co-creation and partnership demands real intentionality.

Nurturing collective narrative power – a challenge for funders

This brings me to my third key reflection from the past year, derived both from my work with the Narrative Hub and from illuminating interactions with narrative veterans. As the points above reflect, my take on power has been mostly internal—focused on navigating the power infused in my relationships. As I think about the sustainability of this process, I realise that it is equally important to nurture the collective narrative power of partners with their peers and allies, rooted in shared values and visions. A critical question for our next year of work together, is whether we are providing the resources and accompaniment that best enables them and their allies to do that. 

As Rashad Robinson has explained, narratives that help change the norms and rules that secure economic, climate, racial, gender, and other forms of social justice will come through “equipping a tight network of people organizing on the ground and working within various sectors to develop strategic and powerful narrative ideas, and then, against the odds of the imbalanced resources stacked against us, immerse people in a sustained series of narrative experiences required to enduringly change hearts, minds, behaviors, and relationships.”

As funders, we must act thoughtfully in how we help create such an ecosystem for narrative power. How we show up and how we do narrative work matters just as much as what we do and what we produce. We must center an accompaniment approach that aligns principles and process, starts from the real-world reality and goals of our partners, and invests in the infrastructure movements need to build and sustain their narrative power.

This article is a part of a collection by JustLabs and the Fund for Global Human Rights on bringing narrative initiatives to life in human rights work.

Publication “Sur 26: Reclaiming Civic Space” focuses on local human rights defenders

February 2, 2018

This weekend I would like to share some new research on issues of civic space and human rights defenders (HRDs). The Fund for Global Human Rights has collaborated with Conectas to produce Sur 26: Reclaiming Civic Space, the 26th edition of Sur – International Journal on Human Rights. This is a special edition of the journal, authored predominantly by activists for activists. It documents the resistance of human rights groups during a time of increasing repression and restrictions on civil society, and offers key insights on the strategies frontline activists are using to reclaim civic space.

As you know, research about the global crackdown on civil society often focuses on how the crisis has manifested and its impacts. Little has been documented about the ways national-level civil society groups are responding to closing civic space, or the effectiveness of these responses. Moreover, international actors conduct much of the current research, and when frontline activists do produce analysis, it is often to inform the work of larger groups or to feature as case studies. Sur 26: Reclaiming Civic Space  helps change this. The research documents the learning of activists from 15 countries, how they have evolved their strategies to reclaim civic space, and the challenges they experienced along the way.

A letter to readers, authored by Juana Kweitel (Executive Director, Conectas Human Rights), Oliver Hudson (Editor, Sur Journal) and James Savage Program Officer of the Fund for Global Human Rights, provides insight into the special issue.

This collaboration with Conectas is a component of the Fund’s Enabling Environment for Human Rights Defenders Program <> , a global initiative that supports human rights activists to resist the crackdown on civic space. A cornerstone of the program is to support documentation by and learning between activists.

Prior to the publication of Sur 26, with support from the Fund, Conectas brought together a dozen of the Sur 26 author-activists at a writers’ retreat in Sao Paulo. This opportunity helped the author-activists examine global and regional trends in closing space, discuss and share their strategies, review and provide feedback on each other’s texts, and reflect together on the importance of writing and documentation. The retreat enhanced and helped shape the final texts of Sur 26 while also providing a valuable space for frontline human rights defenders to collaborate on their work.

A video essay <> , which was produced at the writers’ retreat, and offers a glimpse into the work explored throughout the 26th edition of Sur. Sur 26 is published in English, Spanish and Portuguese.

[see also:]

We must find new ways to protect human rights defenders…and to counter the anti-human rights mood

December 12, 2016

Almost 20 years ago the UN adopted the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, but they face more danger than ever, say Iva Dobichina and James Savage (resp. of the Open Society Foundations and the Fund for Global Human Rights) in a post on 10 December 2016 in the Guardian. “We must find new ways to protect human rights defenders” say the authors in an excellent article so rich and – in my view correct – in its analysis of the current climate that I reproduce it below in full. What is perhaps missing from the piece is a call for more sustained action by the worldwide human rights movement to improve its ‘performance’ in the battle for public opinion. A lot of the regression in the situation of human rights defenders seems to go hand-in-hand with an increase in public support for rights-averse policies (“Around the globe, a tectonic shift towards autocratic and semi-authoritarian rule by law, and the pernicious influence of corporate, criminal and fundamentalist non-state actors, has put human rights activists on the defensive and let rights violators go on the offence” state the authors correctly). To counter this we have to come up with equally convincing use of the modern media, especially through professional-level visualisation and ideas for campaigns that can broaden and galvanize the human rights movement. Read the rest of this entry »