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Cutting-Edge Communications

Cutting-Edge CommunicationsWelcome back to Fast Forum!  We pick a hot topic and ask 3 – 6 organizers from across the country to weigh in. Our hope is to draw out new ideas and to encourage new voices to take a stab at the freshest challenges facing our community. This month, Joseph Phelan, one of our editors here at Organizing Upgrade, pulled together a FastForum exploring the intersection of strategic communications and left organizing.

Cutting-Edge CommunicationsMalkia A. Cyril is the Executive Director and founder of the Center for Media Justice. With more than 15 years’ experience as a community organizer, policy advocate, and communications strategist, Malkia has led local and national campaigns for racial and economic justice and is the author of numerous essays and articles on media, marginalization, and movement-building. Malkia is the recipient of the Media Leader award from the Alliance for Community Media, the Emerging Leader award from the Media That Matters Film Festival, and other awards from the Media Justice Fund, Rock the Vote, and others; with appearances in Democracy Now, Hard Knock Radio, Breakdown FM, Free Speech TV, the documentary Outfoxed, the documentary Broadcast Blues, the SF Weekly, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, the New York Times, the Village Voice, and others.

Cutting-Edge CommunicationsKarlos Gauna Schmieder is an organizer and strategist from Albuquerque, New Mexico. Before joining the Center for Media Justice, Karlos worked for nearly a decade as a community and communications organizer with SouthWest Organizing Project (SWOP). As cochair of communications for the 2007 U.S. Social Forum, he coordinated media strategy for this groundbreaking event. He is also a former steering committee member of Grassroots Global Justice, resource ally with Right to the City Alliance and editor of Voces Unidas. Karlos is co-Chair of Progressive Communicators Network’s Leadership Council and co chair of communications working group of the 2010 U.S. Social Forum.

At the Center for Media Justice we believe that the human right to communicate, and therefore to organize and fight for a better future, should belong to everyone.

Unfortunately, in the context of the big money media environment of the U.S. and the dawning of Tea Party politics following the this year’s mid-term elections- the vast majority of voices are shut out of the public debates that shape the daily material conditions of their lives. Center-Left research and communications organizations have staked a color-blind poll in the middle of debates on race and equity, legitimizing a do-nothing approach when it comes to confronting racism in the context of wedge issues.

This has left us with not only a very real need to re-train a new generation of progressive organizers in the art of strategic communications for equity and justice, but also a public debate on race and equity dominated by regressive voices.

To be effective and to win campaigns, professional and embedded movement communicators working on justice issues must be offered new models and trained in strategies to confront and defeat wedge issues and build a powerful public voice.

“Justice Communications” is a new, participatory model for strategic communications innovated by such veteran communicators as Makani Temba-Nixon and Charlotte Ryan, and operationalized by the staff of CMJ.  Justice Communications integrates cultural change into all components of community organizing and movement building to echo a populist, values-based vision to reframe conservative narratives of governance, the economy, and race.

To build this kind of ideological power over the next 5 to 10 years, three critical steps are needed:

1.     Movements for justice need strategic, issue-based convening and relevant strategy tools to determine collective action meta-frames on critical wedge issues across the lines of issue and geography.

2.     Movement organizations must deploy professional and embedded movement communicators and use strategic opportunities to wage framing contests between Individualism and meritocracy vs. collective action and equity frames; Corporatism vs. the role of engaged, popular government and corporate accountability; and racist consumerism and poverty marketing vs. structural and institutional responses to advance racial justice and economic equity.

3.     Funders must invest in the building of movement communications infrastructure.  Our communications infrastructure and systems are woefully inadequate as we enter a communications cataclysm that has left even the most sophisticated communicators and organizers flatfooted and unsure of how to spend our communications collateral.

Our vision is a truly integrated approach to social, narrative, cultural and media change for 21st century media policy solutions, and communications and cultural strategies that ensure movements for justice have a powerful public voice in issues that profoundly affect our daily lives. Through strategic convening, strategic framing battles, and targeted resources- we can build a pipeline of leadership with the reach, skill, and capacity to make long-term impacts that ensure grassroots movements for justice have a powerful public voice.

Cutting-Edge CommunicationsPatrick Reinsborough has been involved in campaigns for peace, the environment, indigenous rights and economic justice for over twenty years.  In 2002 he co-founded the smartMeme Strategy & Training Project (<> ) as a vehicle to explore the intersections of social change strategy, the ecological crisis and the power of narrative. Recently smartMeme has been supporting North American climate justice organizers in developing framing and messaging strategies. He is the co-author of Re:Imagining Change—How to Use Story-based Strategy to Win Campaigns Build Movements and Change the World <> (PM Press 2010). Patrick spends his time fighting for a better world, parenting, playing music for his friends, and wandering through the urban wilds of San Francisco.

As movements around the planet mobilize to counter the effects of climate destabilization on their communities, cultures, and ecosystems, a framing battle of global significance is underway.

In the climate fight, as with so many other struggles, the heart of the framing battle is naming the problem, since how we define the problem determines what solutions are possible. To varying degrees, governments and multinational corporations around the world have acknowledged the crisis and they claim they are working to address it. However, they present the climate crisis through a reductionist lens as merely a problem of too much carbon in the atmosphere while ignoring the underlying issues of justice, equity, and humanity’s relationship with the Earth. This framing allows exploitation of the crisis to justify escalating the very policies and practices that have pushed the planet to the brink. Essentially the world’s richest countries and companies are co-opting environmental rhetoric to put a PR friendly “green” face on the same old politics of unlimited economic growth, resource thefts and corporate exploitation.

Meanwhile the ‘official’ climate movement has been dominated by a loyal opposition of largely northern, policy, and access-oriented NGOs who, although (mostly) well intentioned, have failed to reframe the debate or address the root causes of the crisis. But increasingly as more global movements begin to unite under the banner of climate justice, there is a different story to tell. The terms of the debate are being reframed from seeing the climate crisis as an isolated issue, to understanding the disruption of the climate as merely the most visible symptom of a much larger problem: our global system of growth-addicted, fossil fuel-driven, corporate capitalism that is undermining all the life support systems of the planet.

When this deeper framing of the problem is accepted it becomes clear that we will never re-stabilize the climate without addressing the roots of the problem. This means acknowledging the Global North’s historic responsibility for the problem (“climate debt”) as the first step towards fundamental shifts to our economy, political systems, and cultural assumptions. This is why one of the over-arching and unifying messages coming out of global movements fighting for a just response to the climate crisis is “system change NOT climate change”.

However, as people’s movements around the world ramp up their organizing in the lead up to the next round of United Nations negotiations in Cancun there are a number of dangerous frames––control myths––that must be challenged.

Control Myth #1 Only The Market Can Save Us!

In this case a global carbon market that effectively privatizes the atmosphere, justifies massive land grabs and further commodification of forests, soils, and grasslands. Two hundred years of ideology have bestowed the “invisible hand” of the market with debate-shaping qualities of alleged efficiency, fairness and power. This is a familiar narrative to many of our movements fighting privatization and displacement but we still need better, shared strategies to reframe the myth of the market.

Control Myth #2 Technology Will Save Us!

Hand in hand with the story of the all-powerful market is the obsession with techno-fixes. Techno-fixes masquerade as solutions but just distract us from making the fundamental changes that are needed. The assumption that some benign “experts” will provide new, innovative technology to solve the problem justifies continuing unsustainable policies while removing people’s agency from the frame. More and more climate techno-fixes are being proposed: from overt lies like “clean coal” and “climate ready” genetically engineered crops to terrifyingly disruptive, untested new technologies like synthetic biology and geoengineering.[i] Beware!

Control Myth #3 Climate Is Too Big An Issue: Only Governments Can Save Us!

The debate has been overly focused on global and national policy while social movements and community-based responses are left out of the frame. Many mainstream environmentalists have even argued that any global emission reduction agreement (regardless of how weak or unfair) is better than no deal. Variations of this narrative have been used (particularly by the U.S.) to evade historic responsibility and blame China, India and other developing economies for blocking an international deal. Certainly a global agreement is important, but the reality of the scale of the climate crisis is that we need transformative action in all sectors of society.

Given the wide-ranging implications of the debate, climate is an essential arena for our movements to develop more holistic narratives and shared frames that mutually reinforce efforts across different sectors and struggles. At the heart of this framing battle is the emerging climate justice movement led by frontline impacted communities, indigenous movements and environmental justice organizers.

Climate justice framing is challenging the control myths above (and many more) by refocusing the issue on the core problems of fossil fuel addiction, the ongoing legacy of historic inequities and the need for systemic change. At the center of the evolving narrative is the role of community-based solutions in stewarding a just transition towards a society that is both sustainable and just. As different movements like migrants rights, reproductive justice and organized labor articulate the connections between their struggles and the climate crisis there are many opportunities to experiment with applying and broadening climate justice framing.

With the historic adoption of the Cochabamba People’s Agreement on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth in April there is now a powerful new narrative emerging that unites ecology, justice and social movement action. This platform offers a potent counterpoint to the corporate driven, false solutions of the United Nations process. Most importantly it offers an invitation to organizers everywhere to connect their issues with this multi-faceted struggle to transform our world. In the words of one of the key slogans uniting movements in the lead up to the COP-16 meeting and beyond: “grassroots organizing cools the planet!”

[i] For a good summary of “false solutions” to the climate crisis check out Rising Tide North America’s Hoodwinked in the Hothouse: False Solutions to Climate Change available at Other resources for tracking the rebranding of failed GMO seeds as “climate ready” can be found by following the ongoing work of Food First/Institute for Food and Development Policy and the Organic Consumers Association To learn more about the latest developments in the emerging fields of synthetic biology and geoengineering check out two recent reports by global technology watchdog ETC Group Geopiracy: The Case Against Geoengineering (Oct 2010) and The New Biomassters: Synthetic Biology and the Next Assault on Biodiversity and Livelihoods (Nov 2010) both of which are available at For updates on the ongoing resistance to geoengineering check out the international H.O.M.E. campaign

Cutting-Edge CommunicationsB. Loewe comes out of the Chicago Worker Center movement<> and is currently supporting the National Day Laborer Organizing Network<> in communications to turn the tide from the fear-based backwardness of Arizona policies to a world that recognizes and respects our human rights. B. recently served as a field organizer for the US Social Forum<> on the belief that big crises require big demands that come from movements beyond any one organization.

Opal Tometi is a community organizer in Arizona. She recently earned her Masters in Communication Studies with an emphasis in Rhetoric and Advocacy. She is currently organizing and working on strategic communications with Alto Arizona, PUENTE and other migrant justice groups in Maricopa County.

Organizing is the process of retelling our lives with ourselves scripted as the protagonists instead of objects in an unjust world who’s future is up for grabs. If our inactivity is a result of being told that we don’t deserve better and that there are no possible alternatives to the world we’ve inherited, organizing tells us our personal problems are not ours alone. They are social. There are solutions. And we can be the ones to solve them.

 Simply put, organizers are storytellers. The stories we decide to tell and how we decide to tell them shape our consciousness and shape how we engage in our world. Thus strategic communications is not about the magic bullet phrase we utter nor is it about having the most communication technologies at our disposal. Strategic communications is about asking ourselves: what narratives are powerful enough to pull the wool from people’s eyes and expose that the emperor has no clothes.

For the migrant rights movements, we find ourselves suffering because of the confines of the stories we’ve been telling and that are being told about us. Our recent organizing approach has woven a web that sought to exchange enforcement for legalization via “comprehensive immigration reform.” And now, without legalization, all immigrants are seen as criminals. To undo that fiction and rebuild a powerful proactive path to legalization, we have to reframe the debate. We’ll have to find ways to tell the story of the global economy that links unemployed workers in the US with displaced workers from the global south, the story of the threat to democracy that criminalization plays, and remind ourselves of the story of history’s long arc toward justice. Just as it takes a long look forward to remain optimistic in these troubled times, it takes a long look at history<> to understand and communicate this moment in its proper context.

In Arizona we know too well what compromised messaging and inaccurate storytelling can do, however it has caused us to be more resolute in not only our storytelling, but also our <http://goog_1251661410> truth telling<> in the face of a reality that becomes less real every day. The road ahead is long and arduous, but rather than be embittered, we know that we can be organizers and storytellers, strategic communicators that reveal the truth about the inherent dignity in each of us, the interdependence we share, and laugh along the way<> to winning.

Cutting-Edge CommunicationsDoyle Canning is co-director of smartMeme, a strategy and training center that amplifies the impact of grassroots organizing with the power of narrative. She is co-author of Re:Imagining Change – How to Use Story-based Strategies to Win Campaigns, Build Movements, and Change the World (PM Press, 2010), and has collaborated on framing strategies with groups like Student/Farmworker Alliance, Iraq Veterans Against the War, Indigenous Environmental Network, and SCOPE. Doyle lives in Boston where she practices yoga, walks her dog, and dreams of one day having a garden.

While the first Tea Party convention, with its 600 attendees, was covered extensively on every major network, the US Social Forum, with over 12,000 people, was largely ignored by the establishment media. Of course, there are many structural reasons for this. But we’ve got to be honest with ourselves that when it comes to the shaping the conversation in the mainstream media, we’ve got to step up our game. There is a critical gap in many grassroots organizations between great organizing on the ground, and getting the message out on primetime.

In the big picture, we are losing the Battle of the Story for this historical moment to regressive forces. There are cultural conversations happening now about the role of government, race in the US, the market’s implosion, the ecological crisis, and so much more. And, with a few exceptions, we’re not the ones commenting on talk shows or stealing the headlines on Sunday.

Our movements sorely need more media and communications capacity – and that means money, skilled people, time, and tools. But the heart of the matter is much deeper, and much more difficult. What we really need is a coherent narrative.

Narrative is at the very heart of strategy, and is what truly defines a social movement as a social phenomena. Narrative is the set of frames that define the ways in which we imagine and understand who we are, what we want, and where we’re going. It is the story that we believe in, and that we co-create in a movement building process.

In order to succeed in creating systemic, transformative change, we need to build infrastructure to develop shared narrative strategies, and spaces for forging symbols, memes and messages that can capture the imagination of the people and motivate action. This means taking our story seriously, and bringing strategic rigor, discipline, and creativity to a sustained conversation across sectors.

Luckily, I have no doubt that we’ve got a good story. In fact, we have plenty. Tales of struggle, liberation, resilience and reconciliation are as old as time. Our task now is to unearth these gems and polish our narrative until it shines brighter and sounds better than what’s currently on offer.

Cutting-Edge CommunicationsSangita Nayak is currently serving as Freedom Inc’s communications consultant, a racial justice agency in Madison. Her forte has been in coalescing effective organizing and communications networks. Over the last dozen years, she has organized for working rights at 9to5 National Association of Working Women, for Gulf recovery through the Katrina Information Network (KIN), for corporate influence transparency at the WHO through the Network for Accountability of Tobacco Transnationals, and for refugee access to local services through the Hmong American Women’s Association. She has consulted and facilitated workshops for numerous groups in relation to strategic communications. She has also facilitated several gatherings for the Progressive Communicators Network, and is serving as co-chair on their board.

Grassroots organizing and strategic communications should be resourced in tandem to grow and deepen our work and advance the struggle. If organizing gets people on a movement train, then strategic communications should accelerate and fuel that train for justice.

Communications should help identify and invite more audiences that organizers need to win the battle for the short and long haul. It can also help identify the tracks, or ways of moving, so the organizing has greater impact. In tandem with people-centered organizing, communications assists by amplifying messengers and exposing targets, so that more and more people jump on the movement train.

Today, we face dangerous narratives from the opposition’s communications that seem more like an air assault then a train. One of these messsages is that our communities are destroying themselves. That narrative includes a certain inhumanity about communities, that justifies a denial of services. Rebecca Kleefisch, Wisconsin’s newly elected Lieutenant Governor, captures that attack in her comparison of marriage in gay communities to marrying a dog. We’ve also seen this narrative in how the Hmong community in Wisconsin face a media bias that domestic violence is a cultural norm.

This narrative about our communities asserts that our communities should be changed if not destroyed.  It is fundamentally linked to this nation’s white supremacy and it must be challenged by our growing movement train through thoughtful and well-funded strategic organizing and communications work.

When we offer visionary narratives, we continue to directly expose the communication of white supremacy and Patriarchy. For instance, Freedom Inc. in Madison, WI regularly exposes the racist lies about Hmong and other communities in relation to preventing violence. And after the recent deaths of LGBT teens, we mourned and supported the families of the victims while we challenged the notion that white communities were the only communities suffering.  LGBT communities of color continue to get ignored and silenced–no one mourns our lost. This deeper and liberating narrative all possible when strategic communications is on the train with community organizing.

Though many of the crises our communities endure were not created by us, we must assert our role in creating solutions to our health, economy, and environment–by looking at the age-old practices and remedies in communities of color.  We must drive solutions that respect the wisdom of people across the life span. Our communication and organizing is part of this narrative working to create a healthy society, honor the history of our ancestors, knowledge of our elders, insight of women as well as the dreams of our youth.

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