Enter The Becoming America Narrative Ocean
7 minute read
2020 laid America bare. With the most consequential election of our lifetimes, the raging COVID-19 pandemic, and protests around the nation in support of Black lives, the events of the past year exposed a tug-of-war between pluralist belonging and nationalist exclusion—a conflict that has raged since the country’s founding. Grappling with what it means to be an American today, we were each called upon to consider our role in civic life, our responsibility to our communities, and the opportunities available to us in such a historic moment.
The Pop Culture Collaborative responded with Becoming America, our new fund to ignite public imagination about our pluralist future. Becoming America supports and coordinates a narrative network of entertainment leaders, artists, movement organizers, cultural strategists, and fandom organizers, who together are building widespread public yearning for the nation we are capable of becoming. Through their projects, Becoming America grantees are seeding a new narrative ocean driven by three cultural shift priorities: The Abundance Mindset, The Seekers Mindset, and The Upstanders Mindset. These cultural shifts are at the heart of Becoming America and our mission of realizing our nation’s most inclusive potential.
We believe a more just and pluralist America is possible—if we make it so.
The Abundance Mindset: More is More
The abundance mindset maintains that a pluralist America is not only possible, but inevitable. Rather than stick with what is comfortable or familiar, these grantees pushed forward into the realm of infinite potential, radical reimagining, and meaningful transformation. They illuminated a “way out of no way” and reminded us that there is always room to grow and embrace more.
As the artist and movement coalition Culture Surge coordinated dozens of artists and movement leaders to work together on a shared narrative strategy, they unveiled a content hub featuring more than 300 videos, art installations, and graphics, paired with concise and meaningful calls for civic engagement. Emanuel Brown of Georgia’s Acorn Center for Restoration and Freedom launched the Instagram Live show BLKTrans*+Whole as a gathering space for personal storytelling, spiritual fellowship, and healing justice. With the election approaching, the Center for Cultural Power’s Bring the Movement to the Ballot Box campaign likewise harnessed the power of art to increase civic participation, drive voter turnout, and illustrate a truly abundant future. The series featured work by BIPOC artists, including Neka King, Amanda Leigh Ponce, Taylor Augusta, Favianna Rodriguez, and Lani Rodriguez. Meanwhile, the Radical Kindness Writers Room, from the Center for Social Media and Impact’s Caty Borum Chattoo and Bethany Hall, curated a group of comedians and social justice leaders to develop a range of projects—all with the goal of spreading joy and creating human connection, one laugh at a time.
To further set the stage for Election Day, PEN America commissioned the We Will Emerge essay series that challenged complacency, celebrated the richness of a multifaceted American culture, and sought to reframe what is at stake in this cultural moment. Poet Natalie Diaz considered building “a practice of momentum” towards who we might still become; investigative journalist Jean Guerrero celebrated multiculturalism as an antidote to extremism; novelist Laila Lalami illustrated the nuanced impacts of voting; and disabled activist and media maker Alice Wong emphasized the connection between the political, the personal, and cultivating hope. Guerrero’s and Lalami’s pieces got added exposure when they were published by The Guardian in its op-ed pages. The CBS national broadcast event Every Vote Counts: A Celebration of Democracy, a one-hour entertainment special hosted by Alicia Keys, America Ferrera, and Kerry Washington celebrated the power of voting; and the multi-platform Becoming America Festival, which featured pop culture influencers like Yara Shahidi and Noah Centineo, and YouTube stars like TwinsthenewTrend, allowed an audience of millions to celebrate the democratic process. And through it all, Election Defenders brought Joy to the Polls through its nonpartisan movement to make voting a celebration. By organizing artists, DJs, and musicians to provide roving concerts at polling sites around the country, Joy to the Polls sparked international coverage in outlets like The Guardian, BuzzFeed News, and The Rachel Maddow Show.
As 2021 arrived, the transformative cultural strategists at 13EXP and Intelligent Mischief opened the first portal into the NationX, an immersive storyworld where nomadic DJs, brujxs, and the fast food underground have been creating and living Black liberation for over 700 years.
Early 2021 also brought the debut of “Fierce!” a dance homage to trans excellence by Grammy-nominated producer Anthony Preston, Angelica Ross of POSE, Mila Jam, and Ultra Nate in partnership with Apple Music and Universal Music Group.
The People’s Inauguration, held on the day after the Presidential Inauguration and produced in partnership with Amplifier, The Revolutionary Love Project, and the Soze Foundation, called on everyday citizens to commit to the work of healing, reimagining, and rebuilding our country. Meanwhile at Sundance, The Guild of Future Architects presented “Traveling the Interstitium with Octavia Butler,” an interactive WebXR experience transports audiences on a journey of imagination and self-discovery inspired by Octavia Butler.
And in March, the cultural strategy team of Moore+Associates debuted the first video from the Essential Americans series. “For Armetta,” remembers those essential workers we’ve lost and how together, we can start to imagine a new future. The digital short was executive produced award-winning actress, director and producer Angela Bassett and directed by Academy Award nominee Kevin Wilson, Jr.
Taken together, these grantees are building a framework of expansive possibility for us as individuals, for our stories, and for our nation.
The Seekers Mindset: Embracing Difference is the Answer
Equally crucial to this pluralist reimagining of America is the desire to embrace difference. Who do we become once we step out of our old patterns and comfort zones? A willingness to explore different perspectives expands the very concept of what’s possible and creates better ideas, an innovative society, and more just systems and organizations. Grantees driven by this mindset created stories and experiences that pushed audiences and generated excitement, rather than fear, around difference.
People’s Action Director and host George Goehl made news this past Fall with To See Each Other, an audio docuseries that disrupted dominant narratives about small-town America. The podcast has been downloaded more than 80,000 times, and Goehl has been featured on NowThis, All in with Chris Hayes, and Getting Curious with Jonathan Van Ness as well as in Rolling Stone and The Atlantic. The Latina digital lifestyle destination She Se Puede also encouraged conversation through its virtual Latinas Make a Difference Tour. Co-hosted by a coalition of artists, movement leaders, and activists, including America Ferrera, Rosario Dawson, Selena Gomez, Monica Ramirez, Jess Morales Rocketto, and Stacey Abrams, the tour highlighted political issues affecting the Latina community across the nation in the lead up to the presidential election.
In late October, Break The Room founder Sameer Gardezi launched his three-part Becoming America Anthology Series. Tying together stories developed by three writers rooms (in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Durham, NC), the series explores our differences and the surprising bonds that tie us together. “Nimzo,” starring D’Lo and River Gallo, follows a trans man commemorating the anniversary of his sister’s death while trying to refill his testosterone supply during the COVID-19 pandemic. In Saleem Reshamwala’s “Van Sanctuary,” a runaway undocumented teenager sets up shop in a church parking lot hoping to seek asylum and ends up forming an unlikely friendship. And “Our Finest Hour,” explores the connection between Pakastani Muslim siblings as they navigate the pandemic, mental health stigma, and family history.
As part of their Every Day is Indigenous Peoples’ Day campaign in partnership with IllumiNative and Nia Tero, Amplifier launched the activist-driven augmented reality app Amplifier AR. By transforming 2-D posters, stickers, and murals into living art, Amplifier AR turned creative work into a direct call for action. Since its launch in late October of 2020, Amplifier AR has expanded to encompass a series of downloadable graphics and real-world art installations that compel each of us to pursue justice across boundaries. In December 2020, Define American added to this conversation through their “Please Explain” YouTube series, a collection of explainer videos designed to combat common misconceptions about immigration spread by the far right online. By teaming up with pop culture figures like The Bachelorette’s Rachel Lindsay, Define American plans to create an off ramp for digital audiences being targeted by the far right and close the rabbit hole of digital disinformation.
In 2021, filmmakers and writer/producers Angela Robinson and Alexandra Martinez Kondracke will join this cohort of grantees with Daemon Cards, their collaboration with card game designer Dan Burdick. This multiplatform pop fantasy franchise will offer gateways into new worlds and stories beyond the violent framing of traditional combat card games. In disrupting narratives like these, our Embracing Difference grantees challenge us to look beyond what we already know and who we assume we can be.
The Upstanders Mindset: The Time to Step Into the Fight for Justice is Now
As we build toward this pluralist future, we must hold ourselves accountable by “crying no” when anyone is targeted due to their identity. In 2020, we supported grantees who moved audiences along a journey of individualism from curiosity to allyship. These projects equipped their viewers to step off the sidelines and directly into the fight against injustice.
In July 2020, IllumiNative brought pop culture strategy and infrastructure to the successful Indigenous-led #TheTimeisNow campaign to rename the Washington Football Team. That same month, Offsides Productions released “What to My People Is the Fourth of July?,” a collaboration with the Movement for Black Lives, starring Hamilton’s Daveed Diggs. The video garnered coverage from CBS This Morning, NowThis, and The Hollywood Reporter and has more than 25 million views to date. Two months later, Offsides also released the viral video “912, What’s Your White Emergency?” in partnership with Color of Change. With appearances from Sarah Cooper, W. Kamau Bell, Lewis Black, Craig Robinson, and Sarah Silverman, the piece racked up over 15 million views on Facebook and was covered by NowThis and Newsweek.
The run-up to the election brought an influx of content grantees, including a library of over 8,000 GIFs, stickers, and memes from the art and design movement Into Action. Into Action’s total 2020 content received 35 billion organic views and 80 million peer-to-peer shares by the Fall of 2020, making it the world’s largest social content creator during that time. The digital video Ride Out to Vote showcased Black, Indigenous, and People of Color equestrians in the Bay Area, evoking the legendary Pony Express as we saw them picking up and carrying ballots through ranches, grasslands, and mountains to show voters that “we ride with you.”
Starfish Accelerator fellow Amir Sulaiman released the visual poem “Laying Flowers.:. Setting Fires” in collaboration with Michael Fernandez (Beyonce and Disney+’s Black Is King). This lush 20-minute short film is at once a eulogy, a war cry, a victory dance, and a call to action in direct response to state violence against Black people in America. Starfish fellow Vanessa Benton also launched the pre-apocalyptic webcomic and horror anthology God Bless the Promise Land in 2021.
ARRAY LEAP launched the Law Enforcement Accountability Project (LEAP), a propulsive fund dedicated to supporting artists and empowering activists as they pursue narrative change around the police abuse of Black people.
Still to come in 2021: PRX’ Inside Stagger Lee, Run It Up Productions’ Hard to Swallow, Noor Theatre’s 2021-2022 Artists Advancing Cultural Change Cohort and Amber J. Phillips’ short film, “Abundance.”
Becoming America is about narrative and cultural change. To that end, our network is generating and participating in valuable audience research that illuminates just how large-scale ideological shifts like these come to pass through pop culture. American We Audience Research delves into how the current narrative environment and the Becoming America grantees’ projects each influence mass audiences toward or away from pluralism, and Narrative Engine Research measures how funded content and audience experience strategies are actually reaching and affecting those audiences. Through these research efforts, we hope to understand and expand Becoming America’s reach and impact, making these cultural shifts sustainable for the long haul.
This is just a snapshot of the Becoming America narrative network’s stunning array of content and experiences: there’s more to come in 2021. The ideas have already reached tens of millions of people, and the Pop Culture Collaborative anticipates connecting with even broader audiences this year. We must continue moving in the direction of pluralism and justice, remembering what this cultural moment has shown us, putting in the work to live up to our promise, and cracking open our collective imagination about the country we are capable of becoming.