Stephen Covey’s seminal work “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” has been in my library for more than a decade. Its timeless advice has helped me become more successful in reaching my personal goals and in my relationships with other people.
While the seven habits are applicable to anyone, for people doing racial justice work, they can be particularly helpful in our efforts to shape public discourse and build public will for systemic change.
Below I’ve outlined how we can apply Covey’s proven seven habits to transformative storytelling.
Habit 1: Be proactive.
As people of color, one of the biggest challenges we face in organizing for racial justice is the story that’s told about us. Mainstream media narratives routinely marginalize and criminalize communities of color, perpetuating a culture that inherently views us as dangerous elements of society and sanctions harsh punishment and surveillance as necessary to controlling us.
To dismantle structural racism, we must be proactive in reframing these racial narratives.
This requires us to tap into what W.E.B. DuBois described as our “double-conciousness” – the “sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity,” ever feeling our twoness.
By viewing ourselves through the lens of a racist society, we can be more proactive in framing our stories in ways that challenge what they think they already know about our communities. This helps us craft a more persuasive argument for transformative change.
Take the school to prison pipeline, for example. If we’re conscious of how society views Black youth, we know we can’t say Black students are three times more likely than their White peers to be suspended without also making the point that they are punished more often and more harshly for engaging in the same behavior as White students. Otherwise, we’re just feeding into the narrative our audiences already have in their heads that Black kids are bad.
We must tell our stories in ways that are effective at meeting people where they are and taking them where we want them to go. This Washington Post op-ed provides a good example.
Habit 2: Begin with the end in mind.
The key to transformative storytelling is to know why we’re telling the story in the first place. We should be clear about what you are trying to accomplish.
This is usually where racial justice organizers trip up. When thinking about the goals for their campaigns, we tend to focus on the actual communications activities (like generating media coverage or building up a social media presence) rather than on how storytelling can be used to help advance larger movement-building goals.
Shifting culture – changing the way society views people of color – and building public will for structural change will take time. Lots of it. Our communications strategies should start with our long-term vision in mind.
We should start by asking ourselves what change we want to see in the world, then inject the stories that will help move us closer to making that vision a reality.
Habit 3: Put first things first.
Once we’re clear on our goals, we can prioritize the communications activities that will help us achieve them, and ensure we do not waste limited time and resources on activities that won’t.
We should start by listing tactics for each of our goals, and then determine which are most feasible, given our capacity. We should refer to our organizing plan to help us choose which stories we should tell first.
Habit 4: Think win-win.
Movement-building is all about people. The road to successful base-building, partnerships, media placements, fundraising, leadership development, and connections with policymakers is paved with mutually beneficial relationships. When approaching someone with an ask, we should be prepared to explain what’s in it for them.
Thinking win-win is especially important when speaking to journalists. Reporters are desperate for great stories, but they often find themselves with an inbox full of pitches that don’t fit their interests or topics they cover.
When pitching a journalist, it is important we know what types of stories they are looking for before we even pick up the phone or start to draft an email. We should already know whom we’re reaching out to, what they have written, and why our story would be of interest to them and their readers.
We should start by doing some research and identifying the reporters most likely to cover our issues. Then we should schedule an informal meeting with each of them to get an understanding of their needs and to briefly discuss our issue. The goal here is not necessarily to get a story right away, but to figure out how we can start to build a long-term relationship with them by becoming a trusted source. That way, they’ll start to come to us when they need quotes and insights for their articles. See, win-win.
Habit 5: Seek first to understand, then to be understood.
As organizers and activists, we’re always trying to engage people in our issues. We’re always telling them what we want them to do and why they should do it. But the key to successful communication is empathic listening.
listening with intent to understand, both intellectually and emotionally.
When we are able to present our ideas clearly, and in the context of a deep understanding of the needs of our audiences, we significantly increase our credibility with them, and they become more likely to join our cause.
We should start by determining who our target audiences are, what they value, and what problems they face. We should then tailor our messaging so that we’re presenting in a way that moves them.
Habit 6: Synergize.
As movement communications theorist and strategist, Charlotte Ryan, says, “If it takes a whole village to raise a child, it takes a whole movement to raise an issue.” This is so true, especially when shifting narrative on race.
when one plus one equals three; when the whole is greater than the sum of its parts
When we come together with other organizations and synergize, it allows us to open up new possibilities and create something bigger than ourselves. It allows us as one big group to collectively agree to ditch old scripts and write new ones.
Synergy starts with habits 4 and 5 – thinking win-win and seeking first to understand.
Once we have these down, we can pool our desires with those of others and work together to evaluate the problem, understand all of the needs, and come up with a solution that will meet them.
Habit 7: Sharpen the saw.
In the age of social media, it seems like a new platform pops up almost everyday. We constantly have to adapt to new ways of telling our stories. To stay sharp, we should always be looking for opportunities to learn new skills for effectively communicating about our issues.
What habits are you using to tell your story more effectively?
Tell us by leaving a comment below.