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If People Don't Tell Their Story, Another Story About Them Will Be Told Instead

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Next week, people from groups and organizations in movements from all over the country are going to be participating in the U.S. Social Forum (USSF) in Detroit. USSF organizers say the convergence will create a space where movements can come together and learn from one another. Much of this learning process will take place through various workshops that will be offered throughout the USSF.

Patrick Reinsborough is the co-founder of smartMeme, a movement support organization and strategy and training project that helps community groups, networks, and alliances focus on how they will handle framing, messaging and storytelling so that their organization can create change and shift the existing terms of the debate to favor their mission and goals.

"One of the greatest obstacles to change in the United States is the existing terms of debate," says Reinsborough. "In many ways our imagination of what's possible and the way we could be organizing in our society has been artificially limited and restricted by the assumptions and narratives that shape the dominant culture."

Reinsborough will be doing a workshop at the USSF and also will be participating in a People's Movement Assembly (PMA).

smartMeme believes as an organization that "the best way to make positive social change is through organized social movements" and that social movements have been "the engine of progress in the United States and other countries around the world."

Social movements are why slavery was ended, why women have the right to vote, why workers enjoy a weekend and 8-hour work day and they are why and how future social and political victories are going to be won for people in this country. And, that's why the USSF is so important to Reinsborough and the people at smartMeme.

"We see the USSF as an incredibly important moment within social movement organizing in the U.S. For people from all sorts of communities, all sorts of different movements to come together and share what's happening in their communities and perhaps more importantly share their vision of how we can make the United States a better country a more democratic, more just, more ecologically sane country," says Reinsborough.

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The project began in 2002 after the founding members of smartMeme noticed how society was changing as a result of 9/11. They saw the Bush Administration using propaganda to justify the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the rolling back of civil liberties and decided to challenge the dominant narrative coming out of Washington, D.C.

Reinsborough says that quite often the narrative in this country only suits the powerful, like the government corporations or entrenched special interests in this country who "have millions of dollars" to frame the debate and fight battles with corporate public relations and advertising.

"Oftentimes, the people who are most impacted by an issue don't have the same type of voice," says Reinsborough. "So, what smartMeme does is help people be better storytellers so [people] can change the terms of the debate and make positive social change."

This can be seen happening in relation to the BP oil disaster in the Gulf. The fisherman and workers are not only incapable of getting the truth out about BP in the media but BP has been effectively working to prevent those involved in the cleanup efforts and those who live on the coast from sharing their perspective on the disaster. They've put a limit on access to the beaches and wetlands so pictures, videos and testimony does not detract from the official story line they would like the media to follow.

The movement support organization also takes on the corporate control of media, the centralization of media and the 24-hour news cycle that often impacts the way society debates issues and responds to major disasters or events.

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Reinsborough provides an example, "Take something like global warming, which represents probably the need for the greatest transformation in human civilization that has ever occurred There's really nothing like it in the history as a species---the need to shift the entire planet off of fossil fuels and create a renewable sustainable energy structure for the planet. That's a complex issue."

And, in the media, it often "gets boiled down into manipulative soundbites" or memes "by the oil industry."

Memes are the "genes of culture" like rituals where you shake someone's hand or now in the 21st Century soundbites or ideas that spread in our culture. Reinsborough and others follow the memes being churned about by media organizations and then unpack those and go beyond certain memes to change the story and really get people to understand what is at stake if these memes continue to be accepted in society.

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Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure." He was an editor for

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