“If we want a change, we have to be quite intentional. We’ve got to tell the damn truth that the system we currently have is oppressive.” That’s how Michael McAfee, president and CEO of PolicyLink, describes the centrality of narrative change to the cause of housing justice. In 2020, Funders for Housing and Opportunity (FHO) gave Community ChangePolicyLink, and Race Forward an $800,000 grant to analyze the dominant housing narrative, design and test new messages, and train housing leaders to use a new narrative centered on racial justice and housing security in their organizing and advocacy efforts. In 2021, FHO gave these organizations a $1 million, three-year grant to encourage broad adoption of the new housing justice narrative, in part by working with artists and creators to shift the cultural landscape. Individual FHO members also gave a total of $7.3 million in aligned funding, over three years, to support this work.

More than 1,500 housing leaders have been trained in the new narrative, and 24 fellows (most of whom have experienced housing instability) practiced the new narrative in community actions and national forums, spurring concrete policy wins across the country, such as changes to restrictive zoning in Denver. This unusual collaboration among three very different organizations reflects FHO’s emphasis on silo-spanning efforts that use narrative change, policy advocacy and organizing, and local collaboration to make the housing system more racially equitable and economically just. FHO interviewed the organizations’ leaders, Dorian Warren, Michael McAfee, and Glenn Harris, respectively, about lessons on narrative change from this experience. Their responses have been combined and edited for length and continuity.

Funders for Housing and Opportunity (FHO): What is narrative, in the context of housing justice?

Michael McAfee, president and CEO of PolicyLink: Narrative about housing is the dominant logic held by citizens about who belongs in a community and who does not, who is worthy to have places designed for them and who is not.

Dorian Warren, president of Community Change: Narrative is a dimension of power. It shapes what is seen as normal, or status quo. In terms of housing narratives, the dominant narrative is one of neoliberalism, in the sense of all risks and outcomes being based on individual behaviors and actions. This narrative doesn’t address systems and rules or what we know, from social science, to be the actual causes of housing injustice and housing insecurity, especially for Black and Brown folks. In the dominant narrative, you’re on your own and any failings are your own fault.

Read the full article about changing housing narratives by Glenn Harris, Michael McAfee, and Dorian Warren at Stanford Social Innovation Review.