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9 min Read
August 13, 2020

Messaging considerations for a movement

Movements signify the commitment of many to work together and create change based on a shared purpose. The outcomes of movements can be incredibly transformative. They can change the way we think, the way we behave, create or strike down laws, advance justice or redress injustice, and so much more.

In the face of several crises and moments of reckoning, more and more nonprofit organizations are beginning to band together in service of movements that benefit the collective sector and the larger world. That shift necessitates critical thinking about messaging. No longer is the individual organization the fulcrum of the story and able to shape it solely on their own terms. Instead, the uniting cause or purpose for the movement is at the center and messaging must accommodate more voices and agendas. 

Approaching movement messaging—the story that unites and is utilized by all those voices and agendas—is complex and multifaceted, but telling the right story can be a gamechanger that inspires allegiance, participation, and large-scale impact. Here’s a guide for writing about “we” rather than “me” in service of movement building. 

An important caveat: this is not a blog post that explains how to build a movement. This blog offers a handful of priorities for developing and sharing communications about a movement. To learn more about movements and some of the thoughtful and radical thinking happening around building and growing them, I suggest reading Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds by adrienne maree brown, Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement by Angela Davis, and How Change Happens: Why Some Social Movements Succeed While Others Don’t by Leslie R. Crutchfield for starters. 

Root your messaging in inclusivity 

In my view, powerful movements are built by many, not by few. That means your nonprofit must collaborate with, include, and seek to understand others in order to create a story that will support a movement. Charlie Brown, CEO of strategic consulting studio Context Partners, says in a Harvard Business Review case study that, “a shared purpose is altogether different from a mission statement… it’s something you discover within a community, not something you impose upon one.” I’d argue that this shared purpose is not something that you discover at all, because you can’t discover what already exists. Community should be at the root of your messaging. That means making sure community members’ voices are centered. Listen and learn, elevating and reflecting back the needs you hear, making them the core of the movement’s messages.

Center leaders with relevant lived experiences

A movement’s leadership should reflect the people who are impacted, burdened, and marginalized by what that movement exists to solve. The messenger is as important as the message. 

June 2020’s Brooklyn Liberation rally and march brought over 15,000 folks out in support of the Black Trans Lives Matter movement. It was organized by several Black transgender-led organizations including The Okra Project, The Marsha P. Johnson Institute, For the Gworls, G.L.I.T.S., and Black Trans Femmes in the Arts as well as several Black transgender activists and speakers. Their identities, lived experiences, and deep understanding of the power of community informed the messages they shared in their speeches, the vision they imagined for the future, and the actions they asked folks to take in support of Black trans lives. 

Frame the story using values

A lot of research has been done, including amazing in-depth work by The Opportunity Agenda, to prove how shared values are an effective “in” to help folks identify with and support a movement. 

The Art and Science of Framing an Issue, a report by Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) and the Movement Advancement Project (MAP), lays out a Heirarchy of Frames to explain how values fit into the story. Deep frames are the big and broad values that are assumed to be widely understood and motivating, like justice, community, success, and opportunity. Issue-defining frames work at the cause or issue level. Examples might include the environment, child care, or immigration. Surface frames get into the specifics about policies and practices regarding an issue frame, such as rainforest degradation or refugee policies. Movement messaging should utilize all three frames in context with one another. When combined, they tell a complete and compelling story.

The fight for marriage equality offers a great example of framing and values at play. When the surface framing about gay rights failed to resonate emotionally, emphasis was placed on the deep frames, love and family and commitment, instead. Pivoting to focus on those broader values first proved tremendously successful in swaying folks who were otherwise unmoved.

As more thinking emerges about which “shared values” are actually products of a white supremacist culture, we encourage you to be radical in your thinking. What does the value of responsibility, for example, assume about different people and the challenges they face? Does responsibility put the onus on the individual when there’s really a systemic issue at play? Are there opportunities for you to reframe who is responsible for what in our society? 

Be precise about the problem, intentional about the solution, and explicit about the action

After leading with shared values, a movement’s messaging must also crisply identify both the problem it exists to solve, the solution it presents, and the ways people can be part of that solution.

Problem

When possible, clearly and consistently attribute accountability to people, institutions, and systems at play when you communicate about what needs to change. Use active words rather than passive ones. Instead of saying “Education doesn’t give students of color what they need to thrive. This has been a historical problem and continues to be one now,” consider an alternative: “The education system is designed to treat students of color unjustly. Policymakers reinforce this injustice by continuing to green-light education laws that benefit white students and harm students of color.” The latter gets beneath the surface and starts to answer the “why” and “who” at play within the problem.

Solution

While it’s important to express what’s failing or going wrong, it is equally important to show a vision for success and a solution worth working toward. I turn to Star Wars Resistance hero Rose Tico for inspiration: “That’s how we’re gonna win. Not fighting what we hate; saving what we love.” Instead of speaking exclusively about ending something harmful or replacing something bad, think about what you actually want to achieve, divorced from and regardless of the negatives at play.

Action

The movement must guide people supporting it to take meaningful action. In my experience, the more specific and clearly-defined the ask, the better your odds it will move people. It might feel like the emotions drawn out through your messaging—outrage, anger, hope, or whatever they may be—will suffice to spark folks to engage in an impactful way. But folks might not know where to turn next, might be intimidated, or might default to what seems easiest or trendiest to do. Imagine, in a hypothetical situation, that you are just learning about reproductive justice. What actions could you take to support the cause? Could you share an infographic about birth control access with your Instagram feed? Could you donate $25 to a specific organization or initiative? Could you call a legislator who’s supporting regressive policy? Maybe you’re offered all these actions to take. Or maybe you’re offered one. But the point is that you are guided towards an engagement that the movement has identified as meaningful, not left confused about the role you have to play.

Elevate the intersections at play

It’s my belief that you can’t extricate one movement from another. Consider how your movement connects to others and how your messaging can express solidarity with them, too. An example of this came when the Parkland survivors led a high-energy push in the movement against gun violence following a high school shooting in which several of their classmates were murdered. David Hogg, a white teenager and one of the faces of the movement, was asked where he perceived missteps in the way the media had covered Parkland activists’ work. His reply: “Not giving Black students a voice.” He utilized his platform to acknowledge racism in media coverage and nodded to the Black voices already embedded in the gun violence conversation who hadn’t received the same spotlight or attention. 

Though it might be instinctual to worry about drawing attention from your nonprofit’s central focus or the complication it adds to your movement’s story, I’d encourage you to think in terms of scarcity and abundance. If you operate as though there’s only room for folks to care about a single issue, and it must be yours, you’re thinking with a scarcity or “not enough” mindset. If you operate as though connecting dots can only benefit everyone, you’re reflecting an abundance mindset. And chances are, if you’re already committed to a movement where several organizations, entities, people, etc. are putting their shared vision and hope for shared success first, you’re already in a frame of mind to more easily imagine the latter. 

Make space for “impossible” re-imaginings 

If nowhere else, the impossible belongs in a movement. Futures we barely dare to imagine belong in a movement. Ways of thinking that exist outside our society’s current structures belong in a movement. 

The surge of ambitious and thoughtful communication about #AbolishthePolice shows how important it is not to count out what seems beyond reach. The key points about what, why, and how have gone mainstream. It’s a movement that’s grown bigger and bolder than what any one person or organization might have been able to gather momentum around; backed by the energy, voices, and actions of many who share in the value of racial justice and see how radical change is critical—and thus attainable. 

Plus, never forget that it took people’s imaginations, their willingness to see the impossible become real, to create the society and systems we have now. I leave you with the words and ideas of adrienne maree brown, an author I referenced at the start of this post for her movement work and thinking captured in Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds, who shares the transformative power of re-imagining: 

“Imagination has people thinking they can go from being poor to a millionaire as part of a shared American dream. Imagination turns Brown bombers into terrorists and white bombers into mentally ill victims. Imagination gives us borders, gives us superiority, gives us race as an indicator of ability. I often feel I am trapped inside someone else’s capability. I often feel I am trapped inside someone else’s imagination, and I must engage my own imagination in order to break free.”

Let’s take the opportunity when looking at how we speak, write, and otherwise communicate about a movement, to release ourselves from the boundaries set by norms and “best practices,” the way we’ve been told to say things, and the pre-set parameters on our visions of the future.