The Counter Narrative Project, or CNP, celebrated its 8th anniversary and first in-person event since 2020 Thursday night.
Founded in 2014, CNP was designed with a mission to shift narratives about Black Gay men and other members of the LGBTQ+ community to change policies and improve lives. Also, CNP strives to focus on narrative change to affect policy change.
Over the past eight years, CNP has met with elected officials to advocate, staged screenings of plays, launched digital publications, produced YouTube shows, advocate for telling stories, and providing information for journalists on how to report on LGBTQ+ topics.
Additionally, they have fought mass incarceration, called out racism in LGBTQ+ organizations, worked to change bad laws, and named buildings after Black LGBTQ+ elders.
Charles Stephens, founder, and executive director of CNP, said he is feeling “really grateful” CNP has been able to be a political and cultural home for the community.
“I feel good because I think we play an important role in the Atlanta community and believe that we have been a continuation of the legacy that so many of the individuals that we admire started,” Stephens said.
Stephens also said he believes CNP is a continuation of the legacy of a few inspirational people such as American author James Baldwin, who helped to raise public awareness of racial and sexual oppression, and Black activist Bayard Rustin, who fought for civil rights, socialism, nonviolence, and gay rights.
“When I think about what it means to be an eight-year-old organization, I think about how we have been able to continue to tell stories, continue to pay tribute to those who came before us, and continue to pave the way forward,” he said.
Like many founders, he hoped to create a platform where one did not exist.
“I thought even then, in 2014, that social change was inseparable from narrative change. I wanted a different story,” he said. “Surely, as a Black gay man I was more than the existing narratives pretending to tell my story. There had to be a better story, but there wasn’t, so I started to try and create it.”
With a passion for storytelling combined with a passion for social justice, Stephens said CNP has been changing the narrative in three ways.
The first, Stephens said, is communities must tell their own narratives.
“We believe communities, particularly marginalized communities, must own their narratives,” he said. “We must be the authors of our own stories, so we create original content to do that to take charge of our narratives and our stories. We produce original content through our digital publication, ‘The Reckoning’ and through the videos we produce through our YouTube channel.”
The second way is through CNP partnering with journalists and media outlets to ensure the reporting is “responsible, respectful, and focuses on the humanity of Black LGBTQ+ individuals.
“We want the humanity manifested in the reporting and it’s not salacious or clickbait,” he said.
Lastly, CNP counters the narrative by working with community members, activists, movement leaders, and other people in the community. CNP participates in workshops and coaching to help people also tell their own stories.
“We find there’s a lot of power in telling their stories. My experience has been when people are able to tell their stories and feel heard, it inspires an incredible sense of agency,” Stephens said.
Eight years ago, Stephens flew back to Atlanta to bury his father and figure out life. During that time, he said he spent a moment to consider what was most meaningful to him and where he could make a true difference.
“I considered the landscape and I considered myself in Atlanta. I considered the world as a public narrative that began to emerge and grow into what we now call the racial reckoning,” he said.
Stephens is also a writer, community organizer, cultural organizer, and so much more. Creating a platform and movement like CNP, Stephens said, has given him a sense of hope.
“I’m lucky that every day of my life, I get to hear the most amazing stories in the world,” he said. “By just being able to hear these amazing stories and being able to help people tell their own stories, it gives me a sense of inspiration and the fuel to be visionary and it gives me a sense of empowerment. I’m grateful and my hope is to continue the work of the people who came before us.”
Also, the celebratory event included food, music, and a scene from the 2011 play “Bootycandy” by Robert O’Hara that creates a “kaleidoscopic” portrayal of growing up gay and Black in the 1980s.
The scene during the event was portrayed by former apprentice of the Atlanta Actor’s Express Theatre Company, Corey Finley.