At the Frank Conference 2019 held in Gainesville, Florida, the Pop Culture Collaborative—and the vision that drives it—were gloriously in action. Seven Pop Culture Collaborative (PCC) fellows or grantees presented their work in short, TED-style talks, and Tracy Van Slyke, Strategy Director, also spoke. The MC for the event, Liz Winstead, creator of the Daily Show, remarked at one point, “The Pop Culture Collaborative is the greatest mother of social change. Such good things are coming out of it.”
Indeed, with more than 60 cutting-edge, diverse, inspiring partners in just two years, the PCC (of which Unbound is a founding member) is having a growing impact on narrative, cultural, and communications strategies across the social justice sector. At Frank, the fellows and grantees who spoke illuminated what it means to harness and shape pop culture to reflect the complexity of the American people and “make a just and pluralistic future feel real, desirable, and inevitable.”
All of these speakers shared a message about the incredible power—good and bad—of story, and media. There was talk about media as a slow form of violence. There was also talk about its power to drive us to do seemingly impossible, or otherwise unthinkable acts. A connection to a particular tv show or character has the power to lift a young person up out of a deep depression, or compel a group of Black teenagers in the US to learn Japanese so they can follow along with Japanese anime. Or call in sick to work so you can go see a movie at midnight with a group of fans, even though you’ve already seen the movie one hundred times, just so you can see it with a group of people who love it as much as you do. Shawn Taylor, Senior Fellow of PCC, described how fandoms are where people aspire to something greater, where they build community—even across differences—and where we elevate ourselves outside of the mundane. He noted, “We have all this talk about microaggression, but never about microalliances.”
The speakers frequently invoked the future. Heidi Boisvert, whose organization futurePerfect Lab is a PCC grantee, described her work to build the first “media genome.” She is capturing the brain’s and body’s response to pop culture. Imagine, she asked, if nonprofits and mediamakers could alter media on the fly based on audiences’ responses? She said, “Biology is the latest secret weapon. Let’s harness its intelligence for narrative medicine.”
We learned about what needs to change for more just narratives to take root. Zahra Noorbakhsh, a comedian and Senior Fellow of PCC explained how currently the bar scene is the only pipeline for stand-up comics, and this scene systematically alienates and deters people of color and women. For instance, she explained how when she begins a comedy routine (as a Muslim woman) everyone wants to know where she is from, before she can get to where she is headed. There is a context that has to be established, and it slows things down. It’s not that way for white men, who have a shared context, particularly in the bar scene. Zahra is mapping out a new type of pipeline that offers a new pathway for aspiring and experienced comedians.
The speakers conveyed how narrative taps into our deepest emotions and passions, and beliefs. Ryan Senser, Senior Fellow of PCC, began his talk by asking people to stand up. The room stood. He then asked people why they stood up. Some responses: out of respect for the speaker; the cultural context of a conference; etc. He asked if any of the life experiences that had led us to stand up came in the form of a press release? He noted that strategic communications is one of the weakest tools we have at our disposal, relatively speaking, when trying to shift culture and people’s beliefs. Tracy drove home this point in her talk, where she described people-powered pop culture change: in partnership with artists, strategists, and movements, people (who are part of “mass audiences”) become insight generators, playful collaborators, hard-lined organizers, interactive explorers, and creators within narrative experiences. Culture change doesn’t just happen to audiences, she noted, it is manifested by them.
In addition: Maytha Alhassen, Senior Fellow of PCC, presented findings from her groundbreaking study, Haqq and Hollywood: Illuminating 100 Years of Muslim Tropes and How to Transform Them. Alan Jenkins, Executive Director of Opportunity Agenda, a PCC grantee, gave a compelling talk in which he showed two different videos of Brian Stevenson talking about the death penalty, but in each case Stevenson used very different methods of delivering the story. Caty Borum Chattoo, PCC grantee, presented a research study on comedy about Syrian refugees, and its impact on viewers. She found that comedy alone is more impactful than news, or comedy and news. The key, she stressed, is the entertainment value. If it’s not truly funny, it won’t have an impact.
To get a taste of the magic, you can watch this under-3-minute video of Frank.
-Elyse Lightman Samuels