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How many communicators does it take to screw the status quo?

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There is a growing ecosystem of social movement communicators. But we need a whole lot more to screw the status quo.

Social Movement Communications: A Timeline


Q: How many communicators does it take to screw the status quo?
A: 1/2.  If 1/2 of one person faxes out enough press releases, eventually the status quo will be screwed.


Q: How many communicators does it take to screw the status quo?
A: One.  If one person does some magic framing and gets onto MySpace/Facebook/Twitter, sooner or later the status quo will be screwed. 


Q: How many communicators does it take to screw the status quo?
A: One for every organization and alliance. To develop narratives, to lead with values, to get 1000+ Facebook/Twitter/Instagram followers, and to screw the status quo!


Q: How many communicators does it take to screw the status quo?
A: An entire workforce of 21st-century communicators, skilled in the arts of strategic persuasion, imagination and inspiration, with a cornucopia of talents and covering a rainbow of issues – all politically coordinated to together screw the status quo!  

Q: Okay…sounds nice. But ummm…how we gonna pay for that?!

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Climbing the Communications Curve

Okay, so maybe this is just a brief history of my own experience with communications in the sector. And maybe it’s a tad bit oversimplified.

What I can say for certain is that we as a sector have been facing a steep communications learning curve, and we have been climbing it, slowly, but surely for the past 10 years. When I first started out doing communications work in 1999, the only way to learn the trade was through a few beginning-level trainings, through reading Charlotte Ryan and Makani Themba’s excellent books, learning directly from them and from others through the Progressive Communicators Network, and amassing experience through on-the-job-sink-or-swim-trial-and-error.

Unlike organizing, there was no equivalent of a MAPP or CHLOE or Western States Center training program for social justice communicators. Even unlike fundraising, there was no equivalent of a GIFT to train and place communicators in grassroots organizing groups. So instead, I swallowed the anxiety that comes with not knowing what the hell you’re doing, put on my game face, and flew by the seat of my pants — as so many of us have had to do.

Thirteen years later, we still don’t have a MAPP or GIFT for communicators. But I believe we now have the will and the foundational collaborations to build one, or something like it. We also have a recent proliferation of multi-level trainings and leadership programs focused on a variety of aspects of communications. I describe some of these below.  They provide the nuts and bolts to construct the infrastructure we really need if we want to really screw the status quo: a movement communications pipeline that can develop and place an entire workforce of 21st-century communicators.

21st-Century Communicators

OK – 21st-century communicators — what does that actually mean? Sounds like we need to produce some Matrix meets Minority Report anti-heroes — people walking around with press database microchips in their brains and Twitter constantly reloading on their eyeball-implanted internet screens.

Never mind that this might actually happen, what I’m talking about is training people like everyone reading this article in the essence of communications — not as marketing, not as PR, and not as a fragmented skillset — but as a holistic and strategic vocation for justice.

So. Let’s start with holistic. By holistic I mean intersectional, as Malkia Cyril wrote in her OrgUp article “Shifting Culture, Making Change”:

“The idea[s] that an intersectional approach to cultural change…engages art, culture, communications, organizing, research and all forms of knowledge production aren’t new. They draw on traditions and methodologies that have been engaged in every major movement for the last 500 years. And the last week of events has convinced me that the progressive movement is more than ready to align its methodology with a 21st century digital age, where notions of space, time, and collective action, have been altered by the media landscape.”

To me this means that we want to train communicators in a variety of skills to do what communications has always meant to our people: sharing tradition, negotiating worldviews, critiquing norms, challenging power, and imagining new communities. But since we are dealing with an altered media landscape, 21st century communicators need to understand how to do all of these things at an accelerated pace that engages audiences across geographic boundaries.

I also think a 21st-century communicator must be trained to resists “magic bullet” fads. They need to not just know how to frame, to tell a good story, to lead with values, or to use social media — a 21st-century communicator needs to know how to do all of this and more, and in an increasingly integrated fashion.  Otherwise we are limiting ourselves to one specific task in the battlefield of ideas — we are just screwing in light bulbs when we need to screw the status quo.

Let’s continue with strategic. At the Echo convening last October (read more in Shifting Culture, Making Change), participants from 25 organizations agreed that we need to develop communicators who are movement strategists above all else. The progressive left has has no shortage of media producers, social media mavens, bloggers and culture workers. But we do have a shortage of people trained as strategists, people who can effectively frame and channel information to shift current debates. A key step in developing communications strategists is the integration of organizing training and communications training.  As Makani Themba wrote in her OrgUp article “Communicating as if Movement Mattered”:

“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.”

And finally for now — vocation. I think of a vocation is a calling to fulfill a specific role in life. For many of the justice communicators I know, even though we sort of fell into the work, we share a common sense of devotion to exposing abuses of power and enriching the cultural and political influence of organized communities. To train vocational communicators would mean starting from this foundation — starting with political education about communications, power and influence — about cultural hegemony, manufactured consent, and the role of left communications in shifting dominant consensus. It would also mean developing the field so that communications can become a lifelong movement role. The more trained communications strategists we have, the more expertise we have to create sustainable positions that can house a variety of talents from organizers to member leaders to artists to former journalists to yes — even recovering corporate PR heads.

A Movement Communications Pipeline

At the Echo convening last October, participants agreed that we need a movement communications pipeline that can train and place new communications leaders. The upshot of what was described was an ambitious vision of training “taste-makers” and “communications strategists” who could “redefine common sense” from the city to the farm and, if you’ll pardon the expression, from the cradle to the grave.

Essentially, there was a recognition that the right-wing has embedded training programs into nearly every level of educational development and area of knowledge production you can think of. And that we need to begin to do something similar if we hope to fight against this permeating production of false consciousness. The tactics we discussed included multi-year fellowships to train pundits and taste-makers, summer camps like the climate justice sector once had to train and place communicators in internships, seeding justice communications programs in academia, and the creation of movement communications positions that could be shared among organizations.

The good news is, some of these pipeline pieces are already in place. Institutions like the Center for Media Justice, the Praxis Project, smartMeme, and the Progressive Communicators Network have been training and connecting social justice communicators for more than 10 years. Together we have trained thousands of individuals in various sets of critical communications skills. This has laid the foundation for us to even consider practical plans for building a communications system “to scale”.

On the ground, organizing groups and alliances are investing in communications people, teams and even departments.  The Miami Workers Center and Florida New Majority are examples of organizing groups that have prioritized communications to the point that they can offer comms services to allies in addition to galvanizing their own work.  POWER, Vermont Workers Center, Virginia New Majority, and the Labor Community Strategy Center are all examples of organizing groups who have invested in communications roles and have integrated communications into the organizing frameworks and leadership structures of their institutions. The Right to the City Alliance, National Day Laborers Organizing Network, Grassroots Global Justice Alliance, and National Domestic Workers Alliance, along with countless other national networks like National People’s Action and the Indigenous Environmental Network, have all created communications positions and are looking for innovative ways to do peer sharing among these talented communicators.

At the same time, grassroots communications institutions are stepping up their training game. The Center for Media Justice is offering a new set of organizer-communicator trainings under its CULTURESHIFT program. The Praxis Project continues to offer high-level training and TA in racial justice communications and grassroots policy development. smartMeme is expanding its training reach through its basic and advanced training series and through an exploration of new approaches for peer to peer learning. The Progressive Technology Project offers training and TA through its reverb program. RoadMap has developed a hub of communications consultants that can integrate leadership development of communicators with organizational and alliance capacity-building.

Also, organizer training programs like BOLD are integrating communications training into their curriculum. CTWO is persevering and is integrating communications training into their MAPP program. Consultants are also doing more intensive leadership development with organizer-communicators. For example, I personally am focusing my consultant work on mentoring member leaders to become communicators, beginning with a trailblazing project conceived of by Priscilla Gonzalez and Domestic Workers United.

But to connect these efforts we will need to greatly increase our collaboration. One great example of the kind of collaboration we need is already underway. The Praxis Project, the Progressive Technology Project and May First/People link recently launched the People of Color Techie Training Program — “a 12 month program that provides intense, supportive, mentored training for activists of color to become professional-level, politically progressive and movement involved technologists.” Now that’s what I’m talking about. This program could be a great model for a similar and hopefully overlapping program to train professional-level movement communicators.


So. How many communicators do we need to screw the status quo? How many people do we need to target to train and place through this pipeline, and by when? I’d throw out the number 1000. 1000 21st century communicators trained and placed by 2020.

Let me tell you a short story to show you what I’m basing this number on. This spring, the Echo Justice Collaborative launched an experiment with the UNITY alliance, to test what amount and what types of collaboration were necessary to bring racial justice organizing into the forefront of debate around a hot-button issue. The hot-button issue was big bank accountability and the target was the shareholder’s meeting of the notoriously “too big to fail” Bank of America — the nation’s biggest foreclosure and coal profiteer. In April, the mainstream debate on the issue revolved around whether or not big banks could recover their stock prices, while our communities’ debates revolved around whether or not there was anything that could be done to stop wrongful foreclosure, predatory lending, taxpayer bailouts and the day to day nickel and diming of big bank greed.  

By mid-May, at the end of the intensive 3-month experiment, the debate on Bank of America became a debate on “Bank vs. America. This meme, developed by smartMeme and chosen by UNITY organizers, helped cast UNITY racial justice organizers as popular protagonists and BofA as an isolated villain. Social media and mainstream coverage focused on the need to reform the “worst of the worst” big banks, and around the growing “well-organized” movement holding the bank accountable for its dirty record on foreclosure and coal. Perhaps most importantly, the experiment also resulted in developing and centering 6 UNITY leaders as primary spokespeople and integrating communications more deeply into UNITY’s alliance-building process. 

So how many communicators did it take to achieve this? No less than 25. Working closely with as many if not more organizers.  Overall, there were at least 10 communicators working to support UNITY communications for this mobilization. That includes the core Echo team of me, Stephen Boykewich of Prescient Media, and Doyle Canning of smartMeme, along with the rest of the smartMeme staff — Patrick Reinsborough, Bernice Shaw, and Danielle Connor, as well as Lenina Nadal of Right to the City, Rishi Awatramani of Virginia New Majority, Design Action workers Josh Warren-White and crew, and video producer Nolan Morice from Line Break Studios. Additionally, we were able to combine forces with 99 Power’s impressive lineup of communicators including SEIU’s research team, Rainforest Action Network’s media team, and New Bottom Line’s PR consultants. From strategy to coordination to member development to social media to video production, op-ed creation, research and more, all 25 of these communicators contributed unique skills to the coalition team.  

The Bank vs. America Echo-UNITY project was a glimpse at the scale and quality of people power we need to make our stories matter in the public debate. But this was just one moment. To sustain this impact, we’ll need far more than 25 communicators working on one mobilization.

Over the next 5 years, we need to dramatically up the capacity of the grassroots organizing sector to shape public opinion through consistent and persistent waves of communications rebellion. If it took 25 communicators 3 months to shift the debate on a major corporation from the grassroots, it would probably take 50 communicators to sustain this shift and push it further to the left over the course of several years. It might take 100 communicators to then continuously connect bank accountability to related issues of corporate welfare, prison industry financing, and the erosion of workers’ and consumers’ rights. It might take an additional 100 to consistently share alternatives on municipal and cooperative banking, visions of an entirely restructured global financial system with a name to be collectively constructed, and invitations to join an irresistible movement for a new common sense economy. All the while supporting member development and the integration of organizing and communications. That’s 250 communicators to screw the financial status quo. And this is just one area of our work.  

So. This is a call to action to all organizers, communicators, culture workers, and funders. To everyone who wants to screw the status quo at large. We need at least 1000 new communicators trained in 21st century social justice communications. We can do this by 2020. We can all play a part. But honestly, what we need most right now, are visionaries and taste-makers who will dedicate funds to develop this work. It is happening. It is working. It needs investment to grow.  

Any takers?


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