The Power of Narrative Change with Jane Mantey of Race Forward

Jo Ann Endo, Director of Dissemination and Digital Content at IHI, interviews Jane Mantey, Ph.D., Director of Narrative and Cultural Strategies at Race Forward.

Jane Mantey, Ph.D., is the Director of Narrative and Cultural Strategies at Race Forward,  where she leads the design of Race Forward's narrative and cultural "blueprint" and seeds, grows, and cultivates a “narrative ecosystem” via partnerships and collaborations that scale narratives for racial justice with a current focus on housing justice, health equity, and education equity.  She works with resource organizers, artists, culture workers, journalists, media makers, and other communicators and creatives to craft and advance new narratives through storytelling and messaging that inspires mass movement.

This interview has been truncated and edited for this publication.

Would you briefly describe the path that you've taken to your current role with Race Forward?

I am a biomedical scientist trained by Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee, and found my passion in science and tech policy, in particular environmental justice policy. I began doing this kind of policy work in the California State Legislature via the California Council on Science and Technology and really enjoyed working with community members, policy advocates, and politicians to address a variety of issues under environmental justice – climate change, solid and toxic waste, Tribal affairs, etc. Over time, though, I recognized the lack of imagination as to what's possible when we talk about environmental justice, that a whole other world that is caring, healthy, equitable, and just can be realized here in the now. We don't have to wait for the future.

I would have such rich conversations with folks in impacted communities about the kind of world they want to live in, that they want their kids to live in –– but by the time you reach someone who is in power, they don't always have those same vivid visions. And so I wanted to pass the mic from those who are in power to those who are impacted by injustice and inequity to tell us the kind of world we should live in. And I do that now with Race Forward.

How do you explain narrative change to people?

First, it's trying to define what narrative is, because many folks don't know or think they know. And so narrative – how we define it at Race Forward– is a collection or accumulation of stories, messages, and images that give us meaning, that speak to our values, to our behaviors, to our analysis of the world, our actions, and explain for us how we should live. Narratives are everywhere. We see them on television, films, games, art. They come up in the stories that we share with others. And so narrative change is how we tell different stories that are still familiar, but at a certain prevalence, a certain scale, through different spokespeople, to share with us new values for fairness, collective care, racial equity, and justice. How do we actually make those narratives pervasive? We do that through storytelling. And so narrative change comes about by recruiting folks who want to share these stories of a new type of world.

If we say we actually want to achieve health equity – how do we understand and delineate the kinds of values we want to put out there, not just in our words, but through our actions? Oftentimes we figure that out in conversation through the stories we share with one another.

Change begins at the level of culture. And culture is where narrative begins and resides.

What are a few examples of what you call “malignant narratives in healthcare” that can be so ingrained that it's to the point where people don't even necessarily realize they're there?

One that I'll share is around racial essentialism: the notion that people are defined by these social criteria, social identities – by race. We see race as being an innate biological thing, and therefore someone's life outcome clearly is dictated by their race or other identities – their gender, their sexuality, what have you. And we make medical decisions based on that.

In medicine, for example, some of the technology that we use have race-based algorithms. Because there was an assumption early on that based on your race, your body is different. These are all things that lead to health inequities.

Other malignant narratives that are out there:

  • Biological determinism: The notion that much of what happens to you is based solely on your genetics; so we disregard the environmental and cultural factors – racism, patriarchy, queermisia, environmental burdens and sacrifice zones – that can perpetuate disease. But even beyond that, just poor living conditions that harm our well-being. These are the kinds of things that show up within medicine.
  • Notions of meritocracy: That if you're failing in society, well, that's due to your own individual shortcomings. Maybe you were too lazy, maybe you weren’t smart enough, you didn’t try hard enough. So that’s why you are poor or suffering from [certain] health conditions. And we know that’s not true at all from the research that is out there.
  • Additionally, there are ideas that people who might be immigrants just won’t “get” western medicine so we don’t try to explain treatment to those patients or try to understand the patient’s cultural perspectives on the body and health.

All these malignant narratives affect how practitioners, healthcare systems, hospitals, clinics, and insurance companies – because we’re all human – think about, respond, and react to patients. It could be unconscious. It could be conscious. It doesn't matter. And so we try to get folks to at least be aware of and recognize malignant narratives and then join us in figuring out how we challenge and neutralize them.

What have been some of the challenges in developing a narrative framework for the Rise to Health Coalition?

I think getting folks to understand not just narrative itself, but narrative change. How do we get folks across various organizations – spokespeople from different regions and geographies – to harmonize around a shared set of stories and narratives that we feel we have to uplift? It takes a lot of conversation, a lot of going back to the drawing board.

You really cannot tinker around the edges. We must have some very tough conversations around greed, around capitalism, around how do we not just diversify, but actually change up business as usual? It cannot remain as usual. We have to consider how certain social factors, both historical and contemporary – such as chattel slavery, settler colonialism, the dispossession of land, labor exploitation, and an extractive economy that treats healthcare as a commodity — have and continue to stop us from realizing health equity.

And so if we are true to what we say — that we want a healthy nation – then it must mean real transformation. It means bringing about better life outcomes, better well-being, better quality of life, not just for those who are already at the table, but for those who have been calling for this for many, many years.

Are there any common misunderstandings about narrative change?

When we talk about narrative change, similarly, many folks feel like, "My story won't change anything. My role won't change anything." But that’s not true at all.

Right now, when there is global strife and many concurrent genocides in the world, many people across sectors have thought, "Well, this is just another day in the world. People are dying. It's what happens." But at this current moment, I think particularly about folks who are Palestinian, who have been calling for their liberation, for their people to have better living conditions, better health, sovereignty, and democracy. They've been calling for that for a really long time.

I saw a physician, a Black man, who on his break went on TikTok and was like, “What is happening right now in Gaza breaks everything about my Hippocratic oath, and I can't be silent anymore. And I need to have others who are like me in the profession, who took the same oath, to also speak out and if we can, do something."

I had never seen that before. A healthcare worker seeing it as their professional duty to speak out on Palestine. And that only happened because that gentleman saw videos coming across his social media even when the mainstream news was different.

That is narrative change. That is when you see mainstream narratives that are telling you, "Hey, this is just what happens in a cruel world." And you decide to say, “No, I’m going to tell a different story,” and be a part of a chorus lifting up heart-felt and righteous counter-narratives. And that moves folks.

This is all evolving because folks are brave enough to speak out despite intimidation and retaliation, to share and connect their own stories to what is happening abroad, to challenge the dominant narrative right now, and to call folks to action. Even in these dark moments, we can use our voices to come together and say, "We can actually do better than this."