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Makani Themba: Communications as If Movement Mattered

[Click here to read Karlos Gauna Schmieder's Response to Makani]

I had a conversation a few years back with an organizer from the organization formerly known as ACORN. Just a few days before, the 2005 living wage ballot measure in Albuquerque had lost by less than two percent of the vote. The organizer was expressing her frustration that funders were "getting caught up" in resourcing communications strategies to mobilize mainstream audiences in response to the fact that the Albuquerque campaign was the first effort where opposition put money into media, testing a message that framed living wage as anti choice and impinging on workplace freedom. The media, in her analysis, was effective with the opposition but the coalition’s base of supporters was solid and the actual majority. They would have won, she believed, if they had resources for a few more organizers to get their folk to the polls.

The data proved her right. A few more organizers increasing the turnout in the coalition’s base communities would have likely given them the few hundred votes they needed to win that round – even with the opposition’s media and money. And although the ordinance was passed the next year by city council vote, the conclusion drawn by many in social change philanthropy was to throw even more money into communications efforts that target the “mainstream” – meaning white middle class voters.

This story illustrates many of the tensions organizers navigate when it comes to dealing with communications in our justice work – badly informed practice, zero sum models that falsely pit organizing against communications, top down approaches that reinforce white power and marginalize communities of color, the list goes on. It starts with the false premise that change can only happen when the mainstream, aka “the majority,” agrees to it; therefore, strategic communications efforts need to focus on getting white voters to see their “interest “in aligning with “progressive values”.

How Main Is Mainstream Anyway?

History teaches us that change is often made when an organized segment of those most affected, leading in solidarity with allies, disrupt business as usual. From civil disobedience and sit-ins of the last century to #Occupy today, “fringe” strategies (approaches that are led by a disruptive minority) force changes in the status quo – even against the will of the mainstream. Not that having mainstream support wouldn’t be cool. It would certainly make things a lot easier. However, it’s not the only way (or even the usual way) change occurs.

Yet, resources are poured into traditional communications approaches designed to persuade demographic segments that are not a strategic priority for most organizing networks. And their messaging often promotes values that are not supportive or even consistent with change goals. These initiatives get away with these contradictions because they are resourced in ways that do not create any accountability to the networks they are supposed to be supporting. In fact, they operate from an “expert” paradigm where communications is a prescription handed out by a technician, not a participatory process that builds message and strategy from the collective wisdom. And the irony is that even the toughest organizers have put up with this madness because we either concerned about alienating funders or we are unsure about how to take these practices on. Sometimes, it’s a little of both.

It is important to say that it isn’t that purveyors of these more traditional initiatives are intentionally trying to thwart social movement. On the contrary, they are building apps based on two deeply embedded beliefs: 1) a mass movement must engage the active participation and leadership of the white middle class if it is to be successful; and 2) this broad demographic of the “middle” is mostly comprised of reasonable creatures that will do the “right” thing if approached in just the right way. It doesn’t seem to matter how little data there is to back this up. It’s just so much more comforting to believe that change can happen without any fundamental shift in power relations starring people who look and/or sound pretty much like them.

Bottomline: big ticket “strategic” communications is often isolated from organizing work and lacks grounding in the political context where real work goes on. It tends to reinforce current power relations by emphasizing whites who vote consistently as a primary audience and undermines efforts to expand participation and voice in traditionally marginalized communities. This is why a cadre of progressive communications strategists, organizing networks and others are working to develop an alternative model we’re calling Justice Communications. Justice communications seeks to turn this old paradigm on its head by creating venues for participatory message and strategy development designed to support overall change goals – not just communications goals. Even the framework itself is a product of collaboration and discussion that, as a result, has surfaced five core assumptions:

We are all communicators. We must end the false dichotomy that separates so called communicators from other kinds of change work. Everyone communicates and every interaction with others – be it canvassing or Facebook – is a form of communications that we must honor and take into account as we work together. That is not to say that there aren’t various kinds of experience and expertise as there is with any discipline and expertise and experience should be honored. However, we must also recognize that some of the best communications strategy is being developed by comrades who do not formally identify themselves as communications strategists. We need to judge expertise by the content knowledge, experience and results.

Knowledge production comes from the ground-up. The idea of the expert who can dictate what should be said is so last decade. Effective change communications requires listening and learning that builds from the day to day reality of change work as well as our highest vision and aspirations. There’s a myth about the Right that their master strategists sit in a room and come up with messaging from on high and then get everyone to adopt it in lockstep. The truth is that even right wing masters like Frank Luntz have always based their work on deep listening. The messages are good not because everyone on their side says them. They’re good because they are crafted using what they hear from the base and shaped by their deep knowledge of their constituents. Most of the polling data and survey information that goes for progressive communications intelligence is drawn from demographics that are not only not our base, we spend money listening to folk who barely agree with us. There’s usually a significant segment that even disagrees with us because the logic here is that we should prioritize these demographic groups because of their power and privilege whether they’re ever likely to support us. Not that it’s a bad idea to know what others think about your ideas but so few resources are invested in building a strong base of active, informed likely allies. This will require listening to different segments and different listening tools as many of the folk we need to listen to and build with are hard to find using traditional research. This makes community based participatory research even more critical to developing relevant messages that reach our folk.

Although we all have the right to communicate, historic patterns of privilege, injustice and marginalization means that we have inequitable access to the tools and resources necessary to fully exercise this right. Bottomline: no change communications strategy is complete without investments in communications and organizing infrastructure that address these inequities.

Relatedly, justice communications seeks to shift existing power relations so that communications work helps to reduce not exacerbate injustice and privilege. This is more than ‘speaking truth to power.’ (Although given some trends in communications toward the Kumbaya message, speaking truth to power would be a step up but I digress .) This will require us to go beyond efforts to persuade as if this was simply a process of education to building power that compels change. It means shifting embedded notions about expertise and leadership – not reinforcing them – so that who gets to speak is as important as what is said.

Race, gender, class analysis needs to be in the frame from the beginning. The venerable organizer known as Mother Jones once described her job as “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.” Sadly, traditional strategic communications work (often led not coincidentally by people of privilege themselves) seem to be firmly committed to doing this the other way around. Our issues are silenced, our leaders marginalized from the mic in order to avoid anything that might cause discomfort among what is deemed as the priority audience of middle class whites. You’re not even supposed to utter the word “poor” or even “working class” out loud in many cases. Justice communications requires us to work toward the long term goal of transforming language, thought and action so that more people understand the systemic roots of the issues we confront. It also requires that we look at identity and alliance more strategically to better understand the various niches and sub demographics beyond race and class. The idea here is to look at people as more than an age, gender and race cohort but as potential networks with shared experiences and interests (i.e., diversity training, spiritual beliefs, Peace Corps alumni) that make them more likely allies. And we speak to these interests and connections in ways that help people become informed actors in their liberation, not temporary bedfellows reacting to bland, banal soundbites.

Justice Communications in Action

In spite of what the “experts” say, all over the country and around the world, organizers are finding success with this more integrated approach. Here are just three recent examples:

Vermont Workers Center’s successful campaign for healthcare as a human right built its messaging through careful attention to constituent education and commitment to their political frame – even in the face of prevailing “wisdom” among traditional communications “experts” that human rights frames don’t work. It took a lot of effort to lay the groundwork for the widespread public support they eventually garnered, but taking the time to build a majority based on their higher vision (not the lowest common denominator for political expediency) helped open up space for more progressive possibilities.

When anti choice billboards targeting Black communities started cropping up all over the country, SisterSong (a national network of organizations working to advance reproductive justice through human rights) sprung into action. Building on framing that came straight from their base, SisterSong knew that the central issue was whether Black women could be trusted to make good choices about their bodies and their families. They launched the Trust Black Women (TBW) campaign to effectively confront race and gender stereotyping that depicted Black women as irresponsible and devoid of morality. These negative images helped to create an environment that shaped reproductive policy in negative, draconian ways. TBW put the root issues of power and control upfront and sparked a different discussion about choice that put Black women at the center of the narrative in a new way.

Who would have ever thought that there would be a national conversation about capitalism? But we are having one as a result of dramatic action taken by a core group of essentially less than 5,000 people nationwide. #Occupy took the national stage committing a number of critical “don’ts” in the traditional communicators bible. They didn’t have a main spokesperson. Messaging bubbled up from the bottom. They demonstrated democracy in all its messiness and, for more than two months, held the national attention doing what was basically an old school sit in. Yes, there are criticisms about how it could have been done better, more effectively and been more diverse. However, #Occupy remains a potent example of how an issue can quickly go from being off limits to center stage when smart organizing is supported by smart communications.

Better Together

How we communicate and how we build base and power are inextricably linked. Efforts to separate communications out into some separate process of persuasion disconnected from organizing strategy is just as problematic as organizing without any integrated communications strategy. In order to get to transformation, we need both aspects of work operating synergistically – and that’s just for starters.

There is a lot of talk about scale and transformation these days. Sometimes it feels like another way of saying ‘bigger than people of color’ and ‘change without all that organizing stuff.’ Yet transformation at the level of mass scale requires deep shifts in how we as a society understand and make meaning of the events and the world around us, how we see each other and how we govern and live together. There are no shortcuts. As the legendary organizer Fred Ross, Sr. once said, “Shortcuts lead to detours, which lead to dead ends.” Traditional communications efforts have been largely a detour from change work and a drain of resources to boot. It’s time to end the false dichotomy of organizing and communications and embrace the reality that so many organizers already live: that effective communication – justice communications – should be a collaborative, participatory effort in the service of our movement goals and vision. Communications, even good communications, is not the transformation itself. It takes more time to do work this way and collaboration can be messy but, given the current crisis, we need do to what it takes to get it right.



Karlos Gauna Schmieder Responds to Makani

Sun Tzu once said: "A victorious army first obtains the conditions for victory, then seeks to do battle. A defeated army," he said, "first seeks battle, then seeks the conditions for victory." (I don't think I have to tell you which side of the equation we often are on...)

Organizers and movements must understand that transformative storytelling, art and culture from those pushed to the margins of public debate – strategic communications – is key to obtaining the social and political conditions for victory, and an essential element of a healthy progressive communications ecosystem.

This is particularly meaningful as we live amidst a profound cultural and ecological turning point.

An almost perfect storm of climate change, a transition of power in the global economy, an unprecedented demographic shift in a young, growing democracy, and a new political landscape shaped by the election of America's first post baby boomer and African American president. This transition is taking place across all sectors - public, private and nonprofit."

During this time, we have to offer folks a choice. A choice between crisis (and fear and scarcity) and transformation (and hope and change).

And as we transition from an industrial economy to a service and knowledge and information based economy – a world in which our narrative power and cultural currency is as important as our consumer power – we need to revisit the strategic questions we ask ourselves to communicate and navigate justice, opportunity and human rights in this new digital world.

And we have to always remember that their brand is crisis...and our brand is change.

So what is currently referred to as simply an "economic crisis" in the dominant narrative is really a complete Cultural, Political, Technological, Ecological Transition and Transformation. As a result, people across the political spectrum are asking how we govern ourselves, how are we organizing our communities, what is the role of government/what is the role corporations in our lives, etc.?

And it is in this moment of transformation and opportunity – this leadership, generational, and demographic transition in which new political formations and social movements are emerging on the cutting edge of democratic participation – that we as a movement for racial and social justice, economic equity and human rights need to consider deep cultural and strategic changes to keep up with the times.

Each time humans reach a point like this, there are two key types of responses: we either fear or embrace the change.

I say we need to embrace a cultural change at a level that's up to the task of our times.

We need a complete cultural shift in the way we resource and deploy our communications and cultural work at multiple levels – at the research level, at the intermediary level (we need to build strategic communications effectiveness across sector, race, class, geography, etc.) and on the ground (we need dedicated communications organizers at the grassroots to work with...)

This transformation/change presents a unique opportunity to integrate collaborative, creative, and strategic storytelling and communications for community organizing as core movement building strategies for political, cultural, and social change. It simultaneously offers a key opening to define the media justice policy and framework needed to produce structural change and media platforms that support the narrative change we seek. So what we're talking about is both narrative and structural media policy change.

Often we only ask ourselves: What is possible to win given the current political and cultural terrain? Together with this project and through our work, we want to begin to answer the question, "How can we transform the current political and cultural terrain through cross-sector framing, coordinated storytelling, new forms of journalism, and collaborative media policy campaigns that create the conditions for systemic and narrative changes that increase racial justice, economic equity, and human rights and dignity for all communities.

To put it simply, we must to lay claim to civil society, and fight for space in all the places where knowledge is produced and cultured.

At the USSF 2010 we resolved the following:

"As organizers, communicators, cultural workers, artists, media makers, and technologists we believe the right to communicate, and therefore the power to transform society, must belong to everyone.

We call for full and equal access, rights, and power to create and use all forms of media, communications, and technology to democratize the production and distribution of information, culture, and knowledge- and to use these as tools in the furtherance of our own collectively determined liberation."


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Makani Themba

Makani Themba is executive director of The Praxis Project, an organization helping communities use media and policy advocacy to advance social justice.  Makani has done trainings and workshops worldwide and published numerous books and articles on race, media, policy advocacy and public health. and is author of “Making Policy, Making Change’ and co-author of “Talking the Walk: Communications Guide for Racial Justice.” Her latest book (under The Praxis Project) is “Fair Game: Racial Justice Communications in the Obama Era.’

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