Leveraging pop culture for social change | In conversation with Alice Sachrajda and Marzena Zukowska

In our podcast we chat to Alice Sachrajda and Marzena Zukowska, authors of New Brave World: The power, opportunities and potential of pop culture for social change in the UK.

We explore the opportunities for leveraging pop culture for social change and share examples of where pop culture has already proven to be a powerful driver of social change.

Listen below (or through your favourite podcast provider), or continue reading for the interview in full.

Introducing Alice Sachrajda and Merzena Zukowska

Kate: Hello, and welcome to The Social Change Agency podcast. I’m Kate and in this very exciting episode, we’ll be diving into a conversation about pop culture for social change. I’m joined virtually by not one, but two guests, Alice Sachrajda and Merzena Zukowska. I’ll let you introduce yourselves and say a word in your background and what brings you here, but I’d like to preface this conversation with mention of the report that you two have recently, co-authored, New Brave World: The power opportunities and potential of pop culture for social change in the UK. It’s a really very engaging call to recognise that pop culture is a significant driver of change and a whistle stop tour through the various opportunities and possibilities that exist in this space. Anyone who’s intrigued or inspired by the conversation we have today should absolutely look it up. But first Alice, Marzena, would you like to introduce yourselves?

Alice: My name’s Alice Sachrajda. I work as a research and communications consultant and over the past five years or so, I’ve been exploring how arts and culture can influence social change and increasingly with a particular focus on popular culture. I mainly work as a consultant for a US/UK funder, which is called Unbound Philanthropy and they’ve been really instrumental in catalysing, this work, both in the US and the UK. In 2016, I wrote a report called Riding The Waves. It was a scoping study. It was to try to understand a bit more about the pop culture for social change ecosystem here in the UK and it was very influenced on similar work that had been done in the US. Then last year, Marzena and I began working together to research and write a follow up report. And that was the New Brave World report that we put out earlier in the year. So I’ll pass over to Marzena.

Marzena: Hi everyone. Thank you, Kate, for having us on the podcast. My name is Marzena. I’ve been a comms and press strategist for about a decade, primarily working for social movement organisations in the US. And I came very much into the social justice work for personal reason. I had grown up as an immigrant in Chicago’s Polish community. My mom was a domestic worker and so those were kind of the first moments that politicised me. I grew up with really good storytellers around me and so I found that in addition to organising, I had a passion for communications as well. Specifically thinking about ways that we can tell stories from the grassroots up, but on our own terms and, how those stories can serve, as a form of empowerment and agency. And then I’ve always been a big pop culture nerd. So film, television and gaming has been a way to think about that empowerment and agency, but at scale. And so this, partnership and relationship with Alice around our report, grew out naturally from both of our passion.

What does pop culture for social change mean?

Kate: So you’ve both been looking at the intersection of pop culture and social change for a little while now, can we just start by defining exactly what you mean by that? I think you call it the pop culture for social change ecosystem.

Alice: There’s a great definition from the Pop Culture Collaborative in the US. They talk about it as the conversations and big ideas, major narratives, immersive stories, films, TV shows, music, books, games, political speeches, journalism, and much more, which is experienced by mass audiences of millions of people every day. And I think the key bit there is about the millions of people. We’re talking about content that goes out to huge numbers of people. And so the Pop Culture Collaborative in wanting to define this type of work, call it pop culture for social change. And we actually came up with a definition of that in our report, and we described it as work that connects social and environmental justice to pop culture and entertainment. And I think it’s really about understanding that this work is at that intersection of, these different industries. We find that using the term ecosystem is really helpful because it, it indicates just how many different players there are, the different industries, the different sectors that are all operating at this.

Examples of pop culture for social change

Kate: I was going to ask for some examples of where this has worked really well, where you’ve seen big success in popular culture, whether it’s like TV or gaming, being used really effectively for social change purpose.

Alice: There are so many examples to turn to it’s really difficult to think of one. One of the examples that I often turn to is The Archers, a UK BBC radio for drama series that featured a long running domestic violence storyline.

the writers worked really closely with violence against women, activists

It ran between 2013 and 2016, and it was based on the relationship between the couple Helen Archer and Rob Titchener. But I think what’s really illustrative about that example is the fact that the writers worked really closely with violence against women, activists, particularly from the charities Refuge and Women’s Aid to be able to actually develop the story. And it received unprecedented attention and has really been largely credited with awareness, amongst many millions of people about the offense of coercive control. I think that that cultural content helped to support and amplify the work of the activists who’d been doing all of the fantastic movement building around around that area. The editor of The Archers Sean O’Connor spoke about the power of popular fiction to inform and even change the law.

so often the kind of dominant narrative that we are trying to uproot has been really embedded in our societies

It’s just a great example. I think another one that came out recently is It’s a Sin. I know a lot of people really enjoyed watching that and it had a huge viewership. The Terrence Higgins Trust, interestingly announced that the number of HIV tests that were ordered went up and smashed their previous record once that was aired. But I do think one thing that’s quite important to clarify around a programme like that is that yes, HIV tests take up is great and that’s a good outcome, but I don’t think just one kind of particular outcome like that should always be the objective of cultural change work. I think often it’s about multiple different types of outputs coming out and then change happening over a multi-year period. And so often the kind of dominant narrative that we are trying to uproot has been really embedded in our societies and will require a huge level of shifting over time. But nevertheless, it’s an interesting example of where a quick impact was made.

What were the questions you were looking to answer in your research?

Kate: I’m interested in the kinds of questions that you’ve been exploring to come at this work and understand it better.

Marzena: A lot of my analysis questions revolved around the who’s and the hows. So really who are the people in the communities who are driving social change and ultimately shaping our world for the better. A lot of our report focused around doing in-depth interviews and really analysing and talking to the key players at the intersection of this space, but obviously the who isn’t enough. And we are really interested in how culture reflects and shapes the existing power dynamics we have in society.

even if we recognize that culture has power, how do we organise it in a direction that actually leads to long term social change?

Ultimately that led us to the relationship between social movements and culture, right? How were movements like Black Lives Matter, like #MeToo, and Time’s Up, like the fight against climate crisis, really leveraging cultural moments and entertainment to meet broader social justice goals. Because the question is, even if we recognise that culture has power, how do we organize it in a direction that actually leads to long term social change? Ultimately, what trends are missing, what for example is happening at the intersection of gaming and social change? Which was an area that was very emerging, but not so much explored by people in our space.

Alice: I think that’s absolutely right. Some of the other questions that we were were definitely thinking about was what is the role of funders in this space? That’s a huge area that’s developed in the US and there’s a big level of investment that’s happening there, but in the UK we haven’t so far had the same level of interest and investment from funders. So that, that was a really big question. What’s the role for philanthropy and then to follow on from that, how do you evaluate this work and how can you measure its impact was another question that we, we tried to cover and touch on towards the end of the report as well.

Yeah, I think that’s a really interesting point, Alice, about it being wider, narrative change, being as important as a specific policy change and actually being crucial to that longer term positive changes.

It’s representation, normalisation, it’s agitation over, over a long period of time.

Marzena: I’d also add that it’s so much pressure for a single film or a single TV show or a single game to kind of have to carry the weight of all of our expectations and identity pressures. I mean, I always think about cinema or pop culture. Every time something comes out, I kind of brace myself and I think, oh, no, are we as a community going to hate this? Or are we going to love this? But really the reality is that we want to have the full range of experiences and representations and depictions. It’s not just about excellence or it’s not just about black excellence. It’s not just about having the shows that are really the standout example. It’s really about normalisation. It’s about the fact that you can have really mediocre cinema and that’s totally fine because we deserve to have the full gambit and ultimately no one piece of pop culture, I think as Alice was saying, can possibly carry us to this social change that we’re imagining. It’s representation, normalisation, it’s agitation over, over a long period of time.

Has pop culture been overlooked as a lever for social change?

Kate: Do you think that pop culture has been overlooked as a lever for social change, and if you do, why?

Marzena: Absolutely. I know that Alice has a lot of broad examples. I love to drill down into gaming in particular because I think gaming is the overlooked element of pop culture that’s already overlooked. I’ve heard it referred to as like this third add-on to the entertainment industry that no one’s really considering. And I think in the circles where Alice and I often operate. Gaming has got this reputation as like low culture, it’s something that couldn’t possibly have more complex and astute narratives, right? So it’s not really taken seriously as a vehicle to have something more imaginative. And I think also the communities that gaming attracts are sort of viewed stereotypically, right? Gamer communities are seen as areas where toxic masculinity happens to be on display, people who just enjoy first person, military style shooters.

a third of the global population that plays some form of a game

Unfortunately that’s completely inaccurate because if you look at statistics, and I personally love this one, it’s a third of the global population that plays some form of a game, whether they own a console, are playing something on their computer or even playing candy crush on their mobile phone. But that’s a third of the global population getting some form of entertainment and stimulation from games. And today many video games, the narratives that are embedded within them rival, the kind of cinematic production that we see in Hollywood. I mean, these are crafted narratives that take years to develop. It’s not a two hour film, these are games that take 40, 50 hours to complete, so the narrative exposure is going to be immense. We need to be asking questions like, ‘what would an open world game version of It’s a Sin look like? Or, could we talk about the aids epidemic, but in a way that feels interactive and that can rival the kind of love letter that Russell T. Davies gave to London’s community, but in a game form? Or, what would it look like for games to actually tackle systemic violence and police brutality?

To talk about these issues rather than have them seen like an add on to the entertainment industry. I think the space is completely untapped. And just to do a shameless plug, one amazing thing that came out of the report that Alice and I worked on, New Brave World, is a collaboration between three social justice organisations, two in the US and the UK that work at the intersection of care and labour justice, and an organisation that’s dedicated to diversity in the gaming industry. We decided to test what it would look like for games to tackle care and reimagine care narratives and caregiving, and actually have protagonists who are carers themselves or might be recipients of care. And so this is something that’s going to be happening. It’ll be an opportunity for us to low level test, what these narratives could look like in games.

pop culture for social change is about building relationships

Just to add on there, in terms of your question around whether pop culture has been overlooked as a lever of social change. I think, again in philanthropy, it’s an area where it has probably been overlooked for some years. I was having conversations with funders four or five years ago and there was an assumption that when you talk about pop culture, you’re talking about, you know, a celebrity fronting a campaign, or having to fund creating some content, which may or may not further the cause that you want to progress. When in fact, actually there’s now a growing awareness that this area of pop culture for social change is about building relationships. It’s about brokering. It’s about supporting people to be able to access the industry. It’s about power. It’s about creating the opportunity for, for people to, to shift narrative power. It’s about the connection between movements, movement building and creative content. And so there’s been a real journey that funders have had to go on to be able to recognise a role that they can play and that they can and should be playing in, investing in this space. And that’s been really exciting to see. That’s a big change that’s happened.

Who are the pioneers leading the change in this space?

Kate: From the kind of interviews that you’ve done. Do you feel like this is also being pushed by people who’ve been working predominantly just in a pop culture space, so they haven’t necessarily thought of themselves as having this power to change narratives. They’ve just been thinking about what they’ve been doing, maybe as entertainment. Do you think there’s like a burgeoning realization on that side as well? Or is it something that’s more being pushed by funders and activists in a more traditional social change space?

Alice: It’s a really interesting question. I think there’s probably a bit of a coming together on both sides. I think the climate change sector is a really interesting area. You have organisations like We Are Albert that spun out of BAFTA. That’s bringing together people working in the creative industry and people working on climate justice and organisations like, OKRE brokering and creating space for people from the creative industry to connect and meet with people working in the social justice sector. Organisations like On Road Media that are helping people with lived experience to be able to share their story and their lived experience with creatives. And so I do think there is now a growing acknowledgement of this field which we call pop culture for social change, this intersection.

Marzena: I’d also add that I think perhaps in the gaming space, you’d have people who were agitating for change internally or, on the indie side, creating games that maybe were smaller in scale, but pushing more radical narratives, or touching on social justice issues outside of the traditional gaming context. Those individuals wouldn’t necessarily see themselves as activists. Through a lot of the interviews I did for the report, it became quite clear that this intersection was a new space, a new identity that people were starting to wear. And I’d also say that one interesting trend that’s happened in the US that I I’m curious to see where it goes, is that people who then saw themselves as activists, as traditional organisers, as people part of the “movement”, were then stepping into roles as creators, as entertainers, as people advising on scripts.

you’ve now got distribution platforms like Netflix, like Amazon Prime, like Apple TV, seeing opportunities of building partnerships with social movement organisations

Marzena: So we saw this with a number of people who were part of the #MeToo, and the Black Lives Matter movements, writing memoirs or books. I think most recently Tarana Burke’s memoir, I believe she has some sort of a contract with Netflix. So you’ve now got distribution platforms like Netflix, like Amazon Prime, like Apple TV, seeing opportunities of building partnerships with social movement organisations, and the leaders at the helm of them, to platform those stories, which I think is quite interesting. I think it’s pointing to an audience appetite as well for, for these kinds of stories.

If you want to leverage pop culture for social change, where do you start?

Kate: If you were someone who had been listening to this podcast or read your report, or had become aware that this was maybe an area to think about, and you were working towards some kind of social change, what could you do? I mean, a TV or a big gaming kind of narrative might seem like wildly out of reach for what you might be thinking about. How could you start to think about this in your work and in the kind of work that you’re trying to do.

Alice: I think the first thing I’d suggest is to look at some of the organisations that are starting to develop work in this area. Counterpoints Arts is doing some fantastic work through their pop change programme. They’ve got a series of salons that they’re running with really excellent people from the creative industries and the social sectors. Likewise, OKRE I mentioned before is brokering between the entertainment industry and the knowledge sectors and they’ve been putting out very interesting research, including a recent report on how video games can engage the public on climate action.

So those are some of the organisations in the UK that are doing great work. And then I think also it’s worth looking at the US and some of the organisations there for ideas and inspiration. The Pop Culture Collaborative is a tremendous initiative. It’s a huge resource as well, it’s website is a treasure trove of really great content on pop culture and narrative change. And there are many organisations that it funds that are doing great work at this intersection, organisations like Define American, Color of Change, or Storyline Partners. There are many, many more, but they can help to give some ideas and inspiration for how this work is developing.

I’d also add start with your organiser hat on. Figure out locally, start with the local and the personal. What stories, narratives and entertainment mediums are the communities you’re trying to reach connecting with? What are you watching, listening or playing, and then what are your community members doing? How frequently? I’d say let the grassroots be your north to help you really figure out where your audience already is.

we turn to fact driven information and messaging rather than understanding that we as human beings, we love stories

Because rather than throwing things at the wall and seeing what sticks, the reality is so many of us are constantly turning to pop culture for so many different reasons. For inspiration, for escapism, to be entertained, to laugh, to cry. In the organising world that I’m a part of I often feel that we turn to fact driven information and messaging rather than understanding that we as human beings, we love stories. And so we shouldn’t see our community members and our audience as separate from that just because we send out a message, or a press release about a policy ask. That it might be so much more effective if it’s woven into a narrative, like The Archers, that people are already paying attention to. That is what I would hit home for people – just start small and local.

Kate: What makes me think when you’re saying that Marzena, is about your broadest, softest goals. Going back to what we’re saying, it doesn’t always have to point to a policy change, ask, or some really concrete achievement that might be one of your goals, but actually just raising awareness, or raising sympathy. An understanding around a certain character, or a certain way of life is in itself a really important thing to be doing. It doesn’t necessarily have to have a hard advocacy angle.

Definitely it comes back to that point about multiplicity of stories and the more content that’s out there, that shares different experiences. And that’s definitely a goal for this work.

What does the future hold for pop culture as a tool for social change?

Kate: Was there anything that you wanted to shout out in terms of what’s practically happening in the UK at the moment and what you think we need to see more of? If there was a plea to funders what would it be?

Marzena: Well, I’d love to just point to a few trends that maybe we could be paying attention to and that could point to the direction of where the cultural tide is heading. I’d say first and foremost, we have to acknowledge that COVID 19 has had a massive impact on the film and TV production industries. On the one hand, the entire cultural sector has been hurt, but then on the other hand, streaming services have boom. So it’s this strange space that we’re in, where I personally am not sure the direction that that is going to head in. We have seen that there’s been greater demand for things like live action and animation, right? So cultural products that aren’t necessarily dependent on human beings being in close proximity with each other. I’d say we should monitor those trends and see what perhaps unexpected outcomes they could lead to.

I’d say there’s also been many, many industry shifts. For years, people within the industries, people who identify as LGBTQI, people of colour, disabled individuals, have been organising and putting pressure on industries to change and to really uplift underrepresented voices and communities and stories that aren’t being told right, through a gaze and through the voice of people who come from those communities. We’re definitely seeing industry shifts at the level of more inclusive hiring practices and at the BBC more diverse programming. Channel four has really been a pioneer of this. We should definitely also keep tabs on that.

And then I’d say maybe on a cultural level, I think looking at the zeitgeist and the conversations that are happening in the UK. So, for example, reckonings around British history that has been typically told through a very white, very middle class, very heterosexual male lens.

we’ve been experiencing this really amazing Renaissance of entertainment and creators, really asking the deep questions of who’s getting to create what stories and on what

We’ve seen works like Steve McQueen’s anthology of small acts or Russell T Davies, It’s a Sin, which we’ve already talked about kind of shattered this myth. That is the only lens through which we could view you British history. So there’s been this real reckoning of the UK’s particularly colonial past and history of racism. And then on the other hand, we’ve been experiencing this really amazing Renaissance of entertainment and creators, really asking the deep questions of who’s getting to create what stories and on what, so I’d say those are maybe the trends that we should be looking at.

Alice: Love that roundup of trends Marzena. I’d add comedy as well. I think comedy is a really, really interesting area where there’s an ability to be able to tackle social issues. We actually commissioned Suchandrika Chakrabarti to write a piece in our report, and it was fascinating about the role of comedy and the power it can have. The Counterpoints Arts run No Direction Home, which is a comedy trip for refugees and migrants to do standup comedy, which is a really exciting development.

Another area which I am really keen to try and see is more collaboration between funders from the UK, but also from the US to share and learn from one another and not just transatlantically, but also with the global south and other areas of the world where this work is happening. I think there’s been a big change in development in recent years in acknowledging the power of culture to create change. And we need to get better at networking and learning from one another.


Thanks so much much for listening and do look up Alice and Marzena’s New Brave World report to go further with this topic.

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