When I first started in racial justice communications six years ago, I was working for an established national civil rights organization. Prior to joining that organization I had owned and operated a successful online company for five years that catered to a niche market, and I was excited to learn from my new boss – a 25-year vet in the field – how to apply the public relations and marketing strategies I had learned in business to racial justice organizing and advocacy.
My boss was an amazing strategist, but she had a laser-like focus on media. During the two years I worked for her, the vast majority of my time and energy went into writing press releases, schmoozing reporters and spinning our stories into angles they would cover, and then hoping and praying for a press hit. Coverage, to her, was the Holy Grail.
I had problems with this approach. My job (at least as I interpreted it) was to build the capacity of grassroots communities of color to use communications more effectively as a tool for advancing structural change. In the small business world I had come from, marketing and communications are used as strategies to drive the bottom line. It doesn’t matter how many media hits you get or how many people see your ad if it doesn’t move them closer to buying your product or service.
I couldn’t understand why the same principles didn’t apply to racial justice organizing. The groups I was working with were trying to affect big changes in their communities. Some were just coming together around an issue for the first time, and others had been organizing for a while, but they all had a bottom line – systemic change. And, whether they were trying to build their base, raise money, develop new leaders, or shift public opinion, they all had concrete objectives toward driving it. Sure, a media hit here and there could certainly help with meeting these objectives, but the way I saw it, coverage in and of itself was never the goal.
However, every time I went to my boss with an idea that wasn’t solely intended to attract media attention, I was shot down.
Changing the Way We Think About Racial Justice Communications
The thing is my boss wasn’t the only person who viewed communications in terms of publicity. Many of the organizers I worked with saw it in the same way. I would only hear from them when they were making a big announcement and wanted to draw media attention. They’d provide a list of tactics they wanted me to execute, and send me on my merry way with no discussion of goals, messaging, or any other basic strategic questions.
I realized there’s a problem. Somehow a line has been drawn between organizing and communications, and many racial justice organizers simply don’t see communications as a core part of their larger strategy for advancing change.
This wasn’t always the case. The leaders of the Black Freedom Movements of the 20th century, for example, thoroughly understood that real change would require a fundamental shift in cultural attitudes toward race and racism – particularly among people in their own communities. For them, storytelling was a fundamental part of organizing.
The Black Panthers arguably did it best. Preying upon the nation’s worst fears about the growing Black Power movement, they used the imagery of young Black people with afros tucked beneath black berets, wearing black leather and carrying big black guns, to exploit media’s insatiable appetite for sensationalism and use it as a device to reach oppressed communities beyond the boundaries of Oakland, California.
Through the newspaper and pamphlets they published, their speeches and carefully orchestrated rallies, their posters and buttons, their political education courses, and their translations of the revolutionary philosophies of people like Malcolm X, Mao Tse-Tung, and Frantz Fanon into language that was accessible to the hood, the Black Panthers ignited a culture of revolution that touched young Black people in urban centers across the nation.
Communications was a core part of their organizing strategy. There was no line. The creation of a collective subjectivity – a shared way of life and system of meaning – was crucial to the Panther’s long-term goals of influencing Black America’s consciousness about race and self, creating autonomous and self-sufficient institutions, and resisting White supremacy.
Transformative Storytelling: A New Approach to Communicating for Racial Justice
Previous generations of freedom fighters understood that organizing and communications are synergistic and, as such, must be done in ways that support transformative change.
Dismantling structural racism requires communities of color to uproot racial narratives that have been so deeply ingrained over the last four centuries that they make up the very fabric of our nation. To do this, racial justice organizers must be more intentional about the story they tell, about who they’re telling it to, and about what they want people to do once they hear it.
Instead of spending limited time and resources on reaching short-term vanity metrics (like the amount of media attention an action gets or the number of times a Facebook post is shared) that do little by themselves to advance real change, organizers of color should invest in strategies that drive their bottom line. Transformative storytelling is one such approach.
Transformative storytelling is the strategic use of narrative to expand consciousness by transforming people’s fundamental understanding of the world and the role they play in it.
The method is grounded in four core principles:
- Narrative is radical. People gain their basic understanding of the world through stories. Narrative has the power to create new cultural meanings, expand political and social imagination, and build public will for real and lasting change.
- Transformative change requires a fundamental shift in cultural attitudes about race and racism. Therefore, storytelling must be a core component of any racial justice organizing strategy.
- Telling our story is an act of resistance. White supremacy thrives on mainstream narratives that ignore and/or deny the lived experiences of people of color. When Black and Brown communities speak their truths unapologetically, they directly challenge the status quo.
- The personal is political, and stories help draw the connection. Collective storytelling gives people of color the ability to weave their personal stories into a deeper, more nuanced narrative of their shared experiences and to shift the focus of public discourse from individual injustice to broader systemic inequity.
Through transformative storytelling, we can disrupt harmful racial narratives and inject new ones that reflect the true lived experiences of their communities. We can create a new culture that honors the inherent dignity and humanity of all people, and foster a more racially just society.
But first we must erase the false boundary between communications and organizing.
How are you telling your story in a way that creates transformative change?
Tell us by posting a comment below.