Spotlight Exclusives

‘Poverty and Power’ – Using Narrative Change to Drive Policy Change

Devon Gray and Jacob Kornbluth Devon Gray and Jacob Kornbluth, posted on

When former Stockton, Calif. Mayor Michael Tubbs founded End Poverty in California (EPIC) in 2022, one of the key theories he wanted to test was that substantive policy change to provide more economic opportunity for working families is possible only if activists are also working to reframe the too-often inaccurate, hurtful and stereotyped narrative around American poverty. To that end, EPIC, in partnership with Emmy-award-winning filmmaker Jacob Kornbluth, has released ‘Poverty and Power,‘ a documentary that captures the listening sessions EPIC did with Californians across the state, giving them the opportunity to speak for themselves about the problems they face and the solutions they’d like to see. As the film begins a nationwide tour this year, Kornbluth and EPIC President Devon Gray spoke with Spotlight about how it came together and what it hopes to accomplish. The transcript of that conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Why don’t we start with some background on why this film was made and what you were trying to accomplish?

Gray: When we launched as an organization as founded by former Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs, I think our initial theory of change, which I think was pretty quickly validated, was that it was going to be really challenging to advance anti-poverty legislation without changing the underlying terms of the debate. I think the status quo is evidence enough of this. California has, despite the fifth largest economy, best public universities, most innovative tech companies, and all the political capital that we could ask for, the highest rate of poverty of any state when you take into account cost of living. So, there’s obviously a disconnect here between the resources that we have at our disposal to be able to solve the challenges and the political willingness to do so.

And our theory, which I think, again, was validated quite quickly after we launched in February of last year, was that the stories that we tell ourselves about why poverty exists and why it exists for certain people and not others, were really going to be hamstringing us. We saw the clear examples of these bad narratives that we’re talking about—the idea that people are poor because of individual failings, that they choose to be poor, they’re lazy, they can’t be trusted with money, they’re addicted to drugs, etc.—play out in terms of the way that it impacts policy decisions. In a really, really stark example, a policy decision was made last year to not renew the expanded Child Tax Credit, which had contributed to cutting child poverty in half more or less overnight and was maybe the greatest anti-poverty success story since the Great Society.

And yet, when it came up for renewable, despite all of the metrics showing that it was undeniably successful, Senate Republicans and Joe Manchin killed it, right? And Joe Manchin killed it because he said, well, we can’t give people money because they’ll use it on drugs and alcohol. So, we see a very clear example of the bad narratives leading to disastrous policy outcomes. And now we saw in the year after that, the single largest one-year increase in poverty in American history, and 3 million kids living in poverty today, who wouldn’t have been, had this expanded Child Tax Credit remained in place. So, it’s been quite clear to us that if we want to change policies in California—again, where we have all the cards in our hand that we could ask for—we had to change the story.

And to do that, we engaged in a really multifaceted approach towards narrative change and as we wanted to figure out what the right story was to tell, we went on the road. We went throughout the state talking to folks in communities, to truly ask folks what their ideas were for solving poverty and then what their stories were that we could sort of elevate to cut against the bad narratives that are so entrenched collectively in our society. And throughout the first year, we went to about half-dozen different communities up and down California. And Jake joined us to film them really with the idea that we would create short-form videos of the stories that we heard to try to use that to counteract the existing narratives.

But I think we realized quite quickly that there was a through line between all the conversations that we were having, and it made sense to try to weave them together into a single 50-minute film, which is Poverty and Power. And the film captures half a dozen folks in different communities and their stories in an effort to give the audience the experiences of people who are very relatable and who I think really do counteract the unchallenged assumptions about what it means to be poor in America and poor in California.

Jake, would you like to add to that?

Kornbluth: I have a related trajectory for how the story came together that I think adds to it a little bit from my perspective. I had co-founded an organization called Inequality Media with Robert Reich that had been working in short-form storytelling around widening economic inequality for a number of years. And over that time, I had developed a pet peeve or frustration, which is that the policy change community wasn’t talking to the narrative change community in any kind of aligned way, and that really seemed like an opportunity for EPIC. The theory of change that Devon laid out was that they were putting the two things together in one org and to see if we could push something forward together.

As Devon said, we were set out to make some short videos that were social media videos. And what’s important about those is that they reach different audiences than a feature documentary does—they reach people sort of where they are as they’re moving about their day on their phones and the policy change community largely doesn’t watch them. The decision makers ones that are in Sacramento, they’re more likely to watch a 50-minute video in a way that they don’t watch the short films. So, what we saw at EPIC was a real attempt to blend these two things, and an opportunity to try to reach all these audiences at once. It’s incredibly ambitious. The film itself was organic in the way it came together. And I think all of us who were there at these meetings had this feeling of, man, I wish people could be here to see these folks telling their stories in their own words. It’s powerful. It’s moving, and you feel like the truth is coming out in these rooms and you just wish it could get out in some way.

And when we put them all together, collectively, you really see the interconnection of a whole bunch of issues from housing to immigration to access to benefits. You see the way all these things aren’t siloed issues, but are, for the folks who are experiencing them, really like one problem.

So, as a filmmaker, Jake, what are some of the best practices that you use in approaching these kinds of topics? We’ve all seen attempts at doing this that don’t really work. What do you have in the back of your mind in terms of general guidelines when approaching this sort of work?

Kornbluth: Part of what played in my head was the ethos of the organization that I was working with, and Michael Tubbs has said that talent is equally distributed, but access is not. So really, what we see is that they told their stories better than any of us could make them up. Every human has dignity, and their stories have value and as a filmmaker, if you come with respect and an ear towards listening, people’s stories are just wonderful and inspiring. And they’re not all about the pain and suffering—there’s joy, there’s humanity, there’s fight, there’s rage. I wish I had something more profound, but it’s just about human beings being their full, three-dimensional selves versus pressed under glass and being reduced to two dimensions. People who have seen it, even though it is about poverty and people’s experience of poverty, leave the film incredibly inspired and uplifted. And it’s sort of interesting that so few films about poverty do that.

And Devon, from EPIC’s perspective, talk a little bit about how you set up these sessions to have a good cross section of the community there.

Gray: A lot of work went into each of the events that we’ve done. We visited 20 counties throughout California, so we’ve seen a lot of different regions—urban, suburban, rural, coastal, inland, etc. And basically, the way that we go about it is we partner with an organization, usually a direct service organization on the ground that is going to have much more insight and access to members of the community than we ever could hope to do. And most importantly, they have trust in the community. And I think that when we have conversations like these where folks have to be given the space to be quite vulnerable, partnering with an entity that’s trusted and established in the community is paramount to us.

We recruit around 20 to 30 folks to, to join us. We compensate people for their time. They each get a hundred bucks just for showing up, no participation requirements or anything like that. And then, we get folks into a circle and really just ask some pretty open-ended questions. Like, what does government get wrong about poverty? How does poverty manifest in your community? Are there misconceptions about what it’s like to live in your community? What can government do better to help you and your neighbors? And from there, we just gradually stop talking and let people take over. And the conversation flows really organically.

We just sit back and learn and obviously try to ask follow-up questions to improve our own understanding. But really, the conversations aren’t terribly prescriptive. If we’re partnering with an organization that engages with certain members of the community versus others, obviously we’ll try to tailor the conversation to people being able to share what they are experts on in their own lives. But generally speaking, the conversations are very open-ended, people could take them where they want and certainly there are through lines in the things that people want to discuss.

Everywhere across California, people are feeling the effects of the housing crisis. But in certain communities, there are really unique challenges. We were in the rural north of California, in places that are not just rural, but where there often aren’t paved roads and digital access is significantly curtailed. So having conversations on what service delivery looks like is quite different in different places in the state. So, we go in with a really open mind, but really just try to convene folks, get ’em in a circle, compensate them, feed them, provide childcare and really just let people tell their own stories.

And after these sessions, how to you try to incorporate participants into the larger EPIC movement?

The follow-up for us is really important. Otherwise, I think we would feel like it was quite extractive that we’re just taking people’s stories and playing with them. We’ve had a few instances where we’ve come back to the same communities and the same partners, which has been great, but we also make sure that we’re communicating with folks about the steps that we’re taking to take their stories and translate them into concrete policy action. So, we put together like a, a big report after the first year that captured all the takeaways and sort of translated them into the bills that we were going to be advancing the following year.

We’re doing that the same with the second year of our tour as well, but we’ve also just recently created a pledge that we want people to sign up for which essentially asks folks to continue their engagement with the organization, whether it be hosting events in their own community, testifying at the Capitol for legislation that’s relevant to things that they spoke about or even just being community leaders in their own right moving forward. But the follow up is really important for us.

And Jake, what are the plans in terms of screening showings for the film?

Kornbluth: Well, it’s pretty exciting and interesting the way the film is being picked up. We had a premiere in LA that was a celebration for all the folks who were in the film and you could feel the release of the folks feeling like their voices were being heard and that their stories were getting out. Going forward, there’s a plan to tour colleges and there is some outreach going on to faith-based institutions to share it at churches across the state. And there’s a lot of affiliated and related organizations that are interested in screening the film in terms of furthering their activist work. We’re also offering a screening guide that allows for guided questions for different topics. We’re looking to have a robust screening schedule in 2024.

And Devon, is there a particular plan to get this in front of legislators and potential policymakers at the state level?

Gray: Definitely. I think it’s really important and it would be great to do a Sacramento screening with legislators. But to the point that Jake was making, it’s really exciting that this is taking on its own life outside of California as well. There’s just been so much interest from different corners of the country.


Devon Gray is the president of End Poverty in California (EPIC). 



Jacob Kornbluth is an Emmy-award-winning filmmaker.

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