Join Alan Jenkins on a clear and compelling journey to create effective communication and cultural strategies to change policy and transform culture.

Alan Jenkins is the founder of The Opportunity Agenda and a Professor of Practice at Harvard Law School where he teaches courses on Race and the Law, Communication, and Social Justice.


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Mallika Dutt: Welcome to Leadership Moves, presented by Interconnected. I’m Mallika Dutt. In this episode join Alan Jenkins on a compelling journey to create effective communication and cultural strategies to change policy and transform culture. Alan is currently a professor of practice at Harvard Law School where he teaches courses on racism, the law, communication, and social justice. Exactly the person we need to take us on this communication journey.

Mallika Dutt: Hello and welcome to this deep dive, these four sessions on really grounding ourselves in this approach around culture change narrative strategy and storytelling. We had two amazing sessions yesterday and hopefully we’re going to have two amazing sessions today, well, I know we’re going to have two amazing sessions today. And it is my great pleasure to introduce to you, Alan Jenkins, who will be leading us in a very practical application of some of the things that we explored yesterday around communications, messaging, framing, audience, the lessons learned from his many years as the cofounder and President of the Opportunity Agenda, which has been a leading social justice communication lab here in the United States. Alan is now a Professor of Practice at Harvard Law School and he teaches Race and the Law, Communication, and Social Justice.

So we’re really fortunate to be getting his wisdom and expertise today. What is really exciting for me at least right now with Alan is that two screenplays that he’s written SCOTUS and Wing have both been winning grand prizes, being selected and film festivals, all manner of things are happening with his creativity and what he’s putting out into the world, so Alan congratulations on that.

I’ve known Alan for years, we met I can’t remember in what year, but when he was still at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. And then our paths crossed when we both ended up in the Human Rights Program at the Ford Foundation, I was in India, he was here in the United States, he became the Director of the Human Rights program and regard to intersect in a multiplicity of ways, both then, and as we continued our work around narrative strategy, culture change, and communications, while he was at the Opportunity Agenda and I was leading Breakthrough. Welcome Alan! And I am going to hand this over to you now.

Alan Jenkins: Great, thank you so much, Mallika. Thank you all for being on. I’m really excited to be with you and also humbled by your amazing work. I’ve had the opportunity to work with some of you and some of your organizations before you arrived there in my prior lives at the Opportunity Agenda, or the Ford Foundation, or NAACP Legal Defense Fund, or otherwise. And some of you I’m connecting with for the first time, so I’m really excited to be with you. And as Mallika said I want this to be a practical session, I also know that for some of you it’s late at night and for others it’s very early in the morning and everything in between, so hopefully I can also keep you engaged.

So I did want to start by hearing some of your voices. And I am going to ask you to use the raise hand function. I just want to hear from a few of you succinctly, because we’re going to jump in. What is one of your narrative or broader strategic communications challenges, something that you’re grappling with in your work? So I’m going to ask you to raise a hand and share and we’ll hear from a few of you.

Natalie Aldern: Thanks, so one of our challenges is having non-communications colleagues kind of understand the importance of audience and why defining a target audience that can be a bit smaller really matters.

Alan Jenkins: Yes, thank you, really common and speaks to a broader issue of folks who are communications people, or have drunk the Kool-Aid on communications, and everybody else. And I can say from personal experience lawyers are the worst, trying to get them to communicate to real people in a helpful way.

Let’s hear from a couple more folks – communications or narrative challenge

Susan Kandel: I’m with the Central American Regional Policy Institute and so putting complicated ideas into simple messages, you know, without losing the content.

Alan Jenkins: Yeah thanks for that we’re going to talk about that a bit let’s hear one more.

Cynthia Romero: Hi I’m with the International Budget Partnerships and the biggest challenge is helping people break from the mind to the heart of the work.

Alan Jenkins: Great, alright.

So, you all know, communication matters that’s why you’re here, and you know my own journey which I will not share with you, because we have a lack of time, but the lesson of it, for me, has been that we need good organizing, we need advocacy and lawyering, we need research, and we also need communication and cultural strategies. And when we

leave those out, even our biggest policy victories can be wiped away by lack of support or lack of public understanding.

In my experience, there are four different types of communication, so there, at least for that we tend to use in the social justice world. So the first is branding. Branding tends to get a bad name. We’re not Coke or Pepsi, but branding is important for telling the story of who you are, your movement, your cause, your clients or community. It’s important for power building, for fundraising, for recruiting membership, but it’s just one type of communication.

A second is campaign communication. That tends to be one that a lot of us are engaged in. In democratic settings that’s often the 50% plus one communication. What’s the media or communication strategy to get a law passed, or block a bad nomination, or policy, or what have you, or even to get public audiences to take some action. Tends to be shorter term, sometimes that means 18 months, sometimes, that means you know, a week.

A third kind is crisis communications. So if you’re lucky you haven’t had to deal with crisis communication. But if you’re making a difference in terms of social justice you have to deal with crisis communication. That’s when something happens, almost always bad, that you didn’t expect, that suddenly throws your organization or issue into the public spotlight in a negative light and you need to be able to communicate about that sometimes to stay alive as an organization. Some of you, especially in the US will remember, for example, ACORN the communication, pardon me, the organizing network of organizations. ACORN was thrust into the public discourse in a negative light, in part because of missteps that they made as an organization but in significant part because, in my view they didn’t have an adequate crisis communications strategy. They’re gone, they’re no longer available to us as a resource, those of us who are engaged in organizing. The contrast in the US, and I would say internationally in many places is Planned Parenthood. I’m going to try to speak a little more slowly for the translators, sorry. Planned Parenthood is a contrast that has the most effective, I would say, crisis communications program in the country, maybe in the world when it comes to social justice nonprofits.

But the fourth kind and I would argue for our purposes, the most important category is the long term, moving of hearts and minds. Because when we get those communications right it means that we’re communicating our brand, we understand the values and ideas that we want people to be thinking of when they think of our cause. We are engaging in campaign communications that are effective in the short term, and also in the long term, that are telling the long term story that we want to tell. When a crisis arises, we have the foundation to tell the story of who we are and hopefully it won’t be for the first time. And again, over time, we have the ability to move audiences from where they are to where we want them to be.

This is, if we were together in person, I would do this as a quiz but I will just present it to you. This is just an example of how values, and ideas, and public perception relate to communications, and that connection between, in this instance branding communications, and long term moving of hearts and minds. And apologies this world I suspect is the most resonant for those of you in the United States but others may recognize some of these ideas.

So if I said to most of you, and most audiences in the United States, to think of computer + creative + genius what brand is that associated with? Most of you, I think, are thinking about Apple. And this is a narrower demographic car + safe here in the US, most audiences will say Volvo. But I would bet that almost all of you got the first one, Apple. But why do we know that? Right? Why do so many people respond in the same way? It’s not because there’s any way of quantifying computer creativity or genius, right? Most of us don’t know the safety ratings for a Volvo compared to a Volkswagen. It’s because these are stories that have been told to us over and over and over again, in this instance by giant corporations, and in lots of different ways, right. So the facts matter. So if Apple’s mapping app is terrible, which it is, that erodes their brand, those values, but the values are incredibly important. And what we’re going to see over and over again is that people are invulnerable, pardon me, are invulnerable to facts that don’t fit within a story and a set of values that they can connect to and understand. I’m gonna say it again, and I bet many of you have experienced this. People are invulnerable to facts that don’t fit within a story and a set of values that they can connect to and understand.

So that brings us to this idea of framing. Lots of different definitions of framing out in the world. But this slide references some research that was done by a pair of social scientists, finding that if they described, if they presented two different audiences with facts about crime, same facts, but with one audience they used metaphors and language to frame crime as a virus that was infecting communities, and in the second group they use language that described crime is a beast that was ravaging communities and attacking our neighborhoods. And then they asked those two different audiences for solutions, the virus audience was much more likely to talk about prevention, and treatment and ways of caring for communities, and the beast audience, the audience that got that message was much more likely to talk about law enforcement, and punishment, and retribution, and incarceration all right, not everyone right but significant numbers and in ways that trumped, pardon the expression, that trumped their political ideology, their party affiliation.

And neither of these groups, at the end when they were asked why they made the choice that they made said, “Oh, it’s because you described crime to me as a virus or as a beast.” They said, “It was because of the facts.” Right? The facts were relevant, but we know that the frame was extremely important in terms of what people did with those facts, how they conceptualized them, and what decisions they made.

So, pardon me, for many of you one thing you’re going to need to think about is, on the issues that I work on, or you know, a new campaign that I’m starting, do I need to frame the issue, reframe it, or enhance the frame? What does that mean? So I use the example of the Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust. All of those words are great, but for most audiences they’re going to have no idea what they mean together. Right? You’re going to need, if you were at the Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust, or at least when they were new in their community, they had to create a frame. They had to frame their issue for people so that they would understand what they do and why it was important.

Reframe, this is an example that cognitive linguist George Lakoff uses. Tax relief is something that conservatives in the United States have used to describe tax cuts typically for the wealthy and corporations. Lakoff points out that if you have to relieve someone of something, then it’s an affliction, right. The person who relieves you of taxes is the hero, the person who imposes taxes on you is the villain of the story. And so, if you’re working on trying to get fair taxes, fair taxation in which the wealthy and corporations have to pay their fair share, you’re probably, with a lot of audiences going to have to reframe that question because our default way of thinking about taxes is that it’s an affliction and something that we don’t want to do, and certainly not as part of our patriotic duty.

The last example is predatory lending. This is a phrase that has been used in multiple financial crises. If you’re working on that issue you want to enhance and double down on that frame. People know what predators are, they know who the villains of that story are, and so that works to your advantage.

Next, to this idea of narrative. Lots of different examples of narrative out there. But the definition that I tend to use is a common big story rooted in shared values and familiar themes that influences how people process information and make decisions. Every part of that definition is important, right. This is a big story about society and the way the world works. It’s common, right, we’re all carrying this story around even as we carry around other stories, right. It’s rooted in shared values, not just a value that I hold but a value that I share with my audience. And it influences how people process information and make decisions. Same fact, different story leads different audiences to different conclusions. So these are some examples. I I tell you this is a David and Goliath story, you know who the hero is and who the villain is. Yesterday Bridget talked about Romeo and Juliet and I saw in the chat somebody mentioned the legend of Princess Donaji, hopefully I’m pronouncing that correctly, which is a you know, a parallel to the Romeo and Juliet story, it’s a story that almost all of our cultures are carrying around. Star Wars and Robin Hood also draw on common stories, but they’re in competition with other stories. Think of Robin Hood in particular, this is someone who robs from the rich to give to the poor. We know that in the Robin Hood story he’s the hero, but there’s another competing story where the person who does that is, you know, someone who’s committing a crime, or who is engaging in tax affliction.

Why does it matter? Because we’re all carrying around competing stories rooted in competing values in our heads. The vast majority of us have not just one story about how the world works, but multiple stories. One story is about individual responsibility and punishment, and the idea of us versus them. It’s often rooted in fear. A competing story is about societal responsibilities, shared responsibility, pragmatism and prevention, about elevating fairness, right. We’re carrying around both of those stories and many other stories. Individual responsibility is important, right. I tell my kids all the time that they have to be responsible as individuals. But when we make all of our policy, including social policy, all about individual responsibility, then we have a very unjust and unfair society. And so part of our goal is to lift up those values, and stories, and frames that support the story that we want to tell, and the outcomes that we want over time, right, not just in the moment, but over time.

Here’s another quick example of a story that we often see. The so-called barbarians at the gate, the idea that we have a society – us. And there are people on the other side, outside of our society who are trying to come in, they don’t share our values, they want to destroy us, they’re different, they might be physically different, or they’re just different in values. So think about a popular culture example of that narrative and think about a political example of that narrative. And here they are both together. Right, we saw President Trump use that narrative of barbarians at the gate and why we have to build a wall. And then, some of you know Game of Thrones, which very much use that same metaphor. The point being that we’re all carrying around that story, we can understand it in a deep way, but it is also harmful in the political realm in ways that we need to overcome with our own new stories.

And as Bridget noted yesterday, there are, in popular culture, and this is true in almost every nation that I’ve visited, there are prevailing narratives, that often conveyed through popular culture, that can be very harmful and that we need to be aware of as advocates, so that we can both avoid triggering them and also overcome them. And sometimes there are positive narratives in popular culture that we can tap into and ride, and I think Bridget talked a bit about that as well.

So I wanted to give you an example of the anti-immigrant narrative, and this is true in the United States, but it’s also, I think those of you who are in other nations will recognize some of these elements as well because it’s unfortunately somewhat universal. So we hear anti-immigrant advocates utilizing two pillars, and I’m sharing this with you to give you a sense of how narrative plays out in process in practice.

So, law and order and an overwhelming of scarce resources. Right, we hear these elements over and over again, and they play out in different ways right. Law and order might mean, “What part of illegal don’t you understand?” or quote, “These people are terrorists” or you know they’re engaging in fraud. The overwhelming amount of scarce resources means that in this instance immigrants are flooding into our country, there a lot of water metaphors, overwhelming our schools, our health care. And you hear the anti-immigrant movement use those elements over and over again in lots of different ways, right. Just as Apple Computer has given us, you know hundreds of different advertisements telling us that they are creative and genius, ingenious. And the anti- immigrant movement does the same.

So I’m going to give you a couple of quick examples of this, of how they deliver their message in a way that is different for different audiences. Hopefully you’ll be able to hear this okay.

Video: “I’ve never seen people so upset. I think they’re just they feel betrayed by their government here in Washington, they feel violated by millions of non-Americans who ignored our laws and overrun our schools and hospitals. And they’re just frustrated with the Federal Government, so they don’t trust us to come up with a solution that works or one that we will enforce.”

Alan Jenkins: Okay, so think about how – he’s talking to Fox, right, so he’s got a conservative leaning audience, but lots of centrists, unfortunately watch the Fox News Network, but he brings in all of those elements, right, ignoring our laws, overwhelming our schools, and he makes a dig at government, right, at big, so called big government and so that works for his audience.

Okay, this is a different example, same narrative right but different audience here, this is talking to National Public Radio, which is a more Center left or slightly more progressive audience.

Video: “Barbara Jordan, who headed a commission in the 1990s looked long and hard at this question.” “Texas congresswoman. Go ahead.” “Yes, the first African American elected from the south. Enforce the law, don’t have amnesty, focus on employers in particular… you have to police the border. Bring immigration more in line with public opinion, to a more moderate pace that we can then better incorporate and assimilate immigrants, and take some of the pressure off social services as well. One of her biggest concerns was to take pressure off the bottom end of the labor market where wages have generally declined and we have a real surplus of labor. And we did two years ago, as well, because the unemployment rates for the least educated have remained very high, and their wages over the last 30 years are about 22% less than they used to be.”

Alan Jenkins: Okay, so this is a different audience. He’s Camerota here, who was an anti-immigrant activist uses only the overwhelming of scarce resources, right. He judges that his National Public Radio audience is not going to gravitate towards the law and order piece, so he leans in on overwhelming of scarce resources and he plays to what he knows the values that this audience share when it comes to overwhelming and scarce resources. He invokes Barbara Jordan, African American congresswoman. He talks about pressure on wages, right, that you know, we need to be worrying about our own low wage workers. But he’s still bringing home the same narrative pillar, which is what I want you to be aware of. Different message, but under the same narrative.

And I’m going to share this one with you just because it’ll blow your mind if you haven’t seen it.

Video: “Concerned about American’s huge carbon footprint? Then you should be concerned about immigration. Sound crazy? Immigrants produce four times more carbon emissions in the US, than in their home countries. Left alone immigration will drive a population increase equal to the entire American West in just 30 years. Reducing immigration won’t solve global warming, but it is part of the solution. We’ve got some tough choices to make. Go to to tell us what you’d do. Paid for my Californian’s for population stabilization.”

Alan Jenkins: Yeah, wow. Right? So it’s remarkable, it’s a wacky argument, but think about who their audiences right younger folks, this is a while back so it, you know, but I think it was still millennials at this point, people who care about the environment, who might be left leaning in an abstract sense, right, but who haven’t thought very much about immigration and are maybe susceptible to an anti-immigrant narrative and so, and they get you know this guy, who’s kind of dreamy looking, and you know looks cool. And so, the point here, right, is that same narrative pillar. In this instance overwhelming scarce resources is the environment. There’s not enough clean air to go around. But you know that they’re delivering it in a completely different way for a different audience. Now their message is evil and our messages are good. But I want us to learn from this idea of having a core narrative that is developed in some ways that I’m going to describe to you, and that is a delivered in slightly different ways to different audiences. Always the truth, I’m talking about us now, we always want to be telling the truth, we always want to be communicating something that we believe in. But we need to be thinking, and we need to be thinking about our audiences and what values they have that we share. What way of telling our story is designed to reach them not only to convince the people who already agree with us.

So here’s another more recent kind of pivot. This happens in many countries, the idea of the good immigrant versus the bad immigrant, that they’re these… You know the good immigrants, often from previous generations, people who came “the right way” and then there are these new immigrants who typically tend to be “the other” racially or ethnically or in some other way. And so the narrative here is, “Hey I’m all in favor of those good immigrants who came the right way, but I’m against, you know, I just want to keep out those bad immigrants.” And so part of the message for us is, we need to avoid falling into that trap in our own communications, not reinforcing that idea, which really is an is a rationale for keeping all immigrants out and denying them basic human rights.

Okay, so how do we build a narrative? How does our side, right, our community of people focused on social justice and human rights, build a shared narrative? I’m going to talk through this relatively quickly, but I’m going to stop soon for questions and discussion, and we can get further into it.

But it begins with the ideals that we hold, we as activists and, especially, people who are directly affected by the issue, whether it’s immigration, or criminal justice, or education, or the environment, or other issues. Who’s most directly affected? How do they think and talk about it? How do activists think and talk about it? And those are, of course, are overlapping categories informed by research, right, and sometimes it’s sophisticated research, that I’m going to share with you, but sometimes it’s just talking to people who are persuadable on your issue. Right? So it doesn’t have to be, you don’t have to have, you know $200,000 US, for you know, focus groups and polling in order to begin to understand what’s going to resonate with your target audiences. There are other ways of doing that. It needs to be tried out and vetted and discussed within the movement.

So sometimes things will come up that people are just not going to say, they might work, but you know you hear from your community, “Hey I’m not going to say that.” So you toss that out. Right? And conversely, there might be things that feel off narrative but that are giving real energy to the movement and you’re going to keep them. It requires tools and training and support, right, you have to help people. You know the comment that several of you made actually, about complex ideas and about, you know, advocates, non-communications people often not being fully on board to communicate in a way that real folks can understand. You need tools for that, and you need training and practice. It needs to be implemented and measured, right. Is it working? And then it’s a cycle, because as things change, you need to constantly be adjusting and improving.

Sometimes there’ll be a big moment. In the US, you know September 11, 2001 was a big moment where you had to… if you’re a human rights advocate as Mallika and I were at that time, you’ve got to retool your narrative. We’re in a pandemic now, which is terrible and deadly as it is, also reminds us of some of our important social justice values, that we’re all in it together.

So.. How are we on time? I wanted to give you the idea of a narrative development process that many of us, including some of your organizations engaged in about a decade ago around immigrant human rights in the United States. And this was you know yet another moment in which those issues and communities were under siege, especially in the US South and Southwest.

And so, our process of discussion, and research, and vetting really led us to three kind of pillars. The idea of upholding our nation’s values, here this is the United States, upholding our nation’s values of inclusion and human rights, of common sense, we need to do what actually works for our nation and for families and for all of us. And the idea of moving forward together, right, that we’re stronger together, that immigrants and non- immigrants are all contributing to our economic engine and to our social fabric and that that’s critical to our success as a nation. And that came first from communities and movements and then was something that we tested. And so I’ll give you an example of one of the ways in which we tested it.

Some of you are familiar with dial tests, and so this is a dial test that we did with a number of organizations, including what became Define American but also others, to test out how a particular messages elements would be received by people in the base – who are already supportive of immigrant rights, persuadables – people who were undecided, shifters – people who were especially likely to change their mind, the opposition, right, – people who were against us who we’re not trying to convince, and advocates – those of us who are advocating on behalf of immigrant human rights. Because, as I said, if we wouldn’t say it then there really wasn’t any use in trying to promote this narrative. So this is testing both the message and the elements of the narrative. I want you to watch how the different audiences react.

Audio Ad: “America is a nation of values, founded on an idea that all men and women are created equal. We hold these truths to be self-evident that all people have right, no matter what they look like or where they came from. So how we treat new immigrants reflects our commitment to the values that define us as Americans. We believe that families should stick together that we should look out for each other in that hard work should be rewarded. You see it’s not about what you look like or where you were born that makes you American, it’s how you live your life and what you do that defines you here in this country. That’s why all Americans who love this country very much deserve a commonsense immigration process, one that includes a roadmap for people who aspire to be citizens.”

Alan Jenkins: Okay, so you learn a ton from this kind of research right. On the one hand, you get to see how this message plays but, more importantly, how the different elements play with different audiences. Your goal is not to try to convince the opposition, by definition, you cannot convince them right they’re, you know, they’re your opponents. But will advocates get excited about it? Do people in the community and in the base – is it persuasive to them? And does it persuade the people who are undecided? And you see that that particular message and narrative principles does all of that, but it also allowed us to tweak.

Now again you’re not always going to have access to this kind of research, but sometimes you can band together and do it, in other words, multiple organizations can pull resources and raise resources to do it. And also there are organizations, my former organization, the Opportunity Agenda is just coming out with new research, new opinion research, that’s going to be useful for you all. So you should definitely go to, America’s Voice, specifically on immigration America’s voice and others, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights often produces research, the ACLU. So if your organization doesn’t have the resources to do it think about other methods and there are many that we can talk about.

I saw on the chat someone asked about shifters. So these are people who are identified by pre questions earlier questions as especially on the fence, who could go either way on in this instance, issues of immigrant human rights and pathway to citizenship. The persuadable are people who indicated that they haven’t decided, but they haven’t shown the same level of predilection to change their opinion.

Okay, so I wanted to you give you an example of an advocate actually utilizing these narrative pillars in practice. So this is Christina Jimenez, who many of you know, former President of United We Dream. She called us, she had come through the Opportunity Agenda’s Communications Institute. She reached out to us because she was about to go on Morning Joe, which is kind of a centrist, at least at that time, before, in the pre- Trump days, they were a center right show, to talk about immigration issues. And so I want you to pay attention to how Christina uses the elements of the narrative, of upholding our nation’s values, common sense moving forward together, but she’s not just repeating a phrase she’s making it her own.

Video: And, more than anything, right, these shared values that Maggie is talking about is what brings us all together. It’s not only about Latinas, immigrants, African Americans, Whites, Blacks, I mean we all have the shared values of opportunity, better life, working hard, reach your dream, right, that’s what we believe in.” “What are the critical elements of a successful immigration bill that you would like to see within the bill?” “What United We Dream and immigrant youth across the country that we work with in 25 states are really looking at is a pathway to citizenship. For those of our families, my parents who are undocumented and have been working really hard here paying taxes, contributing, and they just really want to become you know fully integrated.” “How you feel about the notion of people having to go back to their home countries and apply?” “I think we need to think about a policy that is going to be reflective of our values. So fair, something that’s going to work, something that’s going to be effective, something that is going to embrace workers, right, something that’s going to embrace an address economy, right. I mean we need to think about immigration not as an isolated policy.”

Alan Jenkins: I do want you to see how Christina, in Christina’s case she made a choice, which is, “I’m going to own those values and say that these are the values that we aspire to, including worker’s rights.” Right? That was the way in which she incorporated that into her communications. She’s not saying the United States has ever been perfect or that you know, all we need to do is return to, you know, so called American values or US values. What she’s saying is, “We need something that works, that embodies common sense, and that reflects our values.” And by saying, “our”, it’s an important kind of rhetorical device that she’s using to say, “Hey, come on, we all believe in this don’t we?” And that’s going to be an important part, but there are other ways of addressing that, so let me jump out. And much more to say, but I want to make sure we get your voices in

Maria Lopez De Leon: Yes, thank you, thank you, Alan, thank you for all this. It’s very informative and I, you know, and I really grapple with that fact of that we know that a lot of these values that are talked about, you know, are rooted in in racism. And so how effective can you be to raise that and really tell the truth, you know, about what is really foundational in a lot of these narratives that really don’t speak truth, you know, about racism, about slavery, about discrimination and segregation? And I know that it can’t always be a negative message, but you know, how do you really center that and create something new and different out of that?

Alan Jenkins: Yeah so thank you for that question, and there are a number of different ways, and I think, maybe a couple of things embedded in your question right, so one is how do I persuade people who are undecided with shared values without reaffirming negative values for pretending that, you know, my nation, whether it’s United States or another nation, as only engaged in the good and there are a number of ways of doing that. So one we saw, for instance, President Obama when he was running for the first time do, which is the idea of a more perfect Union, that we are striving as a nation. And I’m just going to own that we’re striving as a nation to be a country that upholds human rights in which we’re all in it together, in which we’re welcome and treat everyone fairly. We have not always done that, as a nation, but when we have, we’ve been able to make huge progress in education, in science, in our shared prosperity, as an example of human rights and human dignity for everyone. We need to focus on being that nation, so that allows the without being a rah rah, you know, a patriot, to be able to talk about what we aspire towards,

There’s a second part that I hear in your question, Maria, which is we also need to be able to talk about how we failed as a nation right? Or as a community or a city or whatever we are so a couple things. One is about, you know, audience and goals so sometimes we just got to speak truth to power and our goal is not to persuade our goal is to call out injustice. Sometimes we’re speaking primarily to our base right and we’re trying to you know identify and empower people by pointing out that there is unfair treatment either of us or or of others in our community and sometimes we’re trying to educate people who are persuadable but are unaware or in denial about injustice and often there one important thing is having a vehicle, where you have, a communications vehicle where you have enough time to actually explain your story right. So if I have 11 seconds or 30 like Christina had I’m not going to be able to explain the history of colonialism and imperialism and unfair trade and human rights abuses that are the cause often of people feeling that they need to you know leave their homes and come on an arduous and dangerous journey to a new land. I’ve got 30 seconds and so I’m going to talk about our shared values, but if I’m on talk radio or if I’m speaking to a faith congregation if I have you know even five you know seven minutes I can begin to talk about those things in a way that matters, if I have a cultural you know, maybe I’m lifting up a song like let’s you know, we were listening to, you know, Nina Simone. You like Nina Simone? Let me talk to you about what that story is really about. Right that becomes an entry point, so there are definitely ways to do all of those things and it’s a challenge on us as you know, social justice advocates, to be able to explain to different audiences using different vehicles. You know, both the aspiration and the reality, even when it’s a bitter reality that people might not want to hear, thank you very much for your question. Fajer, I apologize if I’m pronouncing your name incorrectly.

Fajer Saeed Ebrahim: Yeah Fajer, thank you so much for the opportunity yeah so my question is I guess I’ve struggled with this as an immigrant myself and my own communities, but – how do we truly include every immigrant story in our immigrant narrative? How do we rethink crime and change narratives around redemption and accountability that actually expands how we think about home and how we think about America, instead of only heightening gate keeping? What I see more than anything is that once crime gets brought up there is a sort of correcting mentality of ‘Well, actually, those are not immigrants’ and I think that is largely true, however, what if we were to expand on say even those who have created harm – specifically thinking about what the context, the underlying context and circumstances are for crime, to begin with, largely notions of poverty and I mean that’s a whole different conversation but I’m just curious how you’d respond to that.

Alan Jenkins: Yeah, thank you very much for that. So you know one principle is don’t throw allies or parts of our community under the bus, you know, especially that’s you know, a you know rhetorical And you know that’s especially comes up in the context of people who have committed crime or harm and so the first thing is let’s eliminate from our narrative those phrases that do that, like ‘we’re not criminals’, ‘don’t treat us like criminals’, and if we say that, if we’re immigrant rights advocates, and we say that we are throwing under the bus or negating both those people in our immigrant community who have committed a crime or been you know accused or convicted of committing a crime and people who are not immigrants, people who are citizens but who’ve committed a crime or been convicted and are trying to live their lives and experience full human rights.

First is let’s get ready and let’s actually analyze our language and start to get rid of that stuff. Here in the US with the dreamers you off, you know, at first, you often heard ‘oh, they were brought here, but you know, to the United States by their parents, through no fault of their own’, right, that phrase was always added. And that phrase then throws under the bus, if you will, their parents, you know we’re saying ‘Oh, you know you’re great but it’s a good immigrant bad immigrant right’ so that’s one way. Another way is to get in touch with the values that we hold and that we can find in others regarding in your example someone who is an immigrant who has also committed a crime, the values of starting over and redemption that we have in our faith traditions and that we have as a nation, this is, you know, the United States again focusing for a moment, here is a nation of second chances – were people for generations have come to be able to start over and where people who were born here or part of of our Indigenous communities here have recognized that power of starting over and community. So you know that’s going to be harder with somebody’s answers than with others, but we need to be able to embrace and talk about that so first, don’t use unnecessary, don’t unnecessarily pardon unnecessarily use language that is going to harm other communities. And then really work through the values that you want to you know lift up with respect to those who might be most easily marginalized or most vulnerable. Okay we’ll hear from Lydia and then I’m going to jump back in.

Lydia: Thank you all, and this is really been exciting and interesting, so we all have our personal biases, so I’m just wondering as you’re putting out any story only communication you’re framing you’re spinning, how, then, do you draw that balance so how far can you go, so that you can put out your story without getting people feeling that they’ve been misled or informed very and Amanda, yes so speaking the truth, but you asked me, because you have your own agenda, but how far do you veer towards your own biases that you maintain your credibility?

Alan Jenkins: Thank you for that, but yeah so you know again a couple of answers to that one is, as you acknowledge everything we say should be true and everything that we say should be something that we believe, at the values level and we have a narrative where we’re hitting the same themes over and over again, but we should never be delivering messages that are contradictory. I mean it’s it’s unethical, but also to your point, we live in a YouTube you know world where everyone has a camera on them, and if you say something that is completely at odds with what you have said to another audience it’s going to be immediately brought to the first audience’s attention. So you know part of that is I and I’ll give you a practical example but part of that is just your own guidelines, on ‘Okay I’m going to say this,’ I need to check, in my mind, is this really contradictory to something else, something that I believe or to something I’ve said to another audience?

Another strategy is you’re not going to always be the best spokesperson for an idea. Sometimes, you know, for example, when we were engaged in the you know, working with communities at the border in the south there were some messages that were best delivered by faith leaders, there were some messages that were best delivered by you know supportive, law enforcement, which there was at that time. Many messages were best delivered by people who’s lived experience was an issue. So there were things that they might say, and you know remember you’re all working within the same shared narrative. I’m not a particularly spiritual person, so you know you’re not going to hear me talking about my former faith tradition of you know, the Episcopalian faith, because I couldn’t deliver it genuinely, but there are others who can. So, sometimes I’m going to enlist their help to tell our shared narrative through a message that they’re best equipped to deliver. So hopefully that’s helpful.

Okay, so I want to give you some of the specific principles for applying this and then hopefully we’ll have time to jump out and discuss.

First is to be strategic about your audiences. I already referenced this – know who you’re speaking to and have at least a rough sense of where they’re going. We often, as social justice workers will say ‘Oh, we have to reach the general public’ – so something I want you to remember is there is no such thing as the general public for purposes of social justice communications. We don’t have the resources to reach everyone and luckily we don’t have to reach everyone. This is a way of thinking, one way of thinking about your audiences: decision makers right, the people who can give you what you want, and influencers – people who can influence the decision makers. Sometimes your decision makers or your influencers are the community right the folks whose rights are under siege or who are living the experience that requires attention. So those are also audiences who can decide, but you want to be thinking about that.

This center icon, if I were with you in person I’d see if anybody knows who that is. Swing voters! Swing voters, I don’t make them up, I just put them on a slide. Here’s a different way to think about strategic audiences on a scale of one to five. Where ones are your base, those are the people who you are who already agree with you, but who you need to activate we’re not doing everything that you need done or that you need them to do. The fives are your opponents right. Your goal is to stop your opponents from persuading anyone else – but you’re not going to use communications resources to persuade your opponents because they’re your opponents right, so they are, you know you’re a five for them. That might be a very small group or it might be a big group, but understand who they are. Most of your audiences are going to be twos threes and fours, so some of you asked about the difference between shifters and persuadables you know your your shifters might you know actually go back and forth from being you know, a two to a four or even five depending on a particular aspect of your issue or how it’s delivered right, whereas the persuadable often are disengaged they haven’t thought about it. But those are twos threes and fours, so why don’t you take a moment and write down a specific target audience that you’re working with or on that you’re trying to persuade or activate, recognizing that ones through fours are all viable, you know reasonable target audiences as long as you know why you’re trying to reach them. That’s what that’s about.

Okay number two: lead with shared values, you saw that in the Christina clip and and some of the other work. As advocates, we tend to lead with facts and data and policies, so let me talk to you about DACA, or you know comprehensive immigration reform. So, think about you go home for a holiday and you’re talking to your uncle and your uncle says ‘Oh, what are you working on and you say ‘well I’m working on the public charge rule’ and your uncle turns away from you, he doesn’t he doesn’t want to hear it, it’s boring doesn’t understand it. Nine times out of 10, we should not be leading with policies or data.

The next level up is our issue right, so you know I want to talk to you about and we’re going to human rights or education policy or alternatives, you know, criminal justice reform. People know what that means, but they have their own script typically they have their own narrative if I say to you, ‘I want to talk to you about public education’ you’re thinking about your own school or your kids school or the teachers Union that you love or hate or love to hate, you’re not starting on a blank slate. So nine times out of 10 you want to start your message with shared values, values that you share with your audience. It might be community or dignity or opportunity or prosperity if your audiences is in more of a capitalistic mood, so you know you sit down with your uncle and he says

‘Oh, what are you working on’ and you say ‘I’m working on the idea that everyone should have basic economic security to be able to provide for themselves and their family, we don’t have that right now, and one of the threats to that is this new rule called the public charge rule’. Different conversation. You’re not going to convince every uncle out there but you’re pulling them in based on their shared values and based in part on what you know about them. So I wanted to know how we are on time, but to give you a quick example of how this plays out. This Bryan Stevenson, who, many of you know, or have encountered and who now, is you, a known movie star depicted by Michael B Jordan. Let’s take a look at how he’s talking about race and the death penalty.

Bryan Stevenson: In the United States, we are struggling with capital punishment and its implementation. A short quick legal history – in 1972 the United States Supreme Court struck down the death penalty after recognizing that it was being applied in an arbitrary manner. The court in 72 noted that 87% of the people executed for the crime of rape were black men convicted of raping white women. 100% of the people executed in the United States between 1930s and 1972 for the crime of rape were executed for offenses involving victims who were white, even though it was believed that women of color were three times as likely to be the victims of sexual assault

Alan Jenkins: Now Bryan’s a gifted speaker, but in this instance, if you didn’t already agree with Brian that the death penalty is unjust, or at least that it’s racially unjust it’s very unlikely that you are going to be persuaded by this data. Let’s look at a different way that Bryan presented the same data.

Bryan Stevenson: I was giving this lecture in Germany, some lectures in Germany, about the death penalty, it was fascinating because one of the scholars stood up after the presentation and said: ‘It’s deeply troubling to hear what you’re talking about. We don’t have the death penalty in Germany, and of course we can never have the death penalty in Germany.’ The room got very quiet and this woman said ‘There’s no way with our history we can ever engage in the systematic killing of human beings, it would be unconscionable for us, to an intentional deliberate way set about executing people.’

And I thought about that. What would it feel like to be living in a world where the nation state of Germany was executing people, especially if they were disproportionately Jewish. I couldn’t bear it. It would be unconscionable. And yet in this country, in the States of the old South, we execute people. We are 11 times more likely to get the death penalty if the victim is white than if the victim is black, 22 times more likely to get it if the defendant is black and the victim is white. And the various states where there are buried in the ground, the bodies of people who were lynched and yet there is this disconnect.

Alan Jenkins: Okay, so you know, on the one hand, totally unfair comparison. Second clip is, you know, Ted talk, three cameras, makeup, it’s awesome. We can only all hope to be depicted so well. But think about rhetorically what Brian is doing that is so different here. Many things, he’s telling a story. But part of what he’s doing is reminding us of the value of equal justice. So that if your default is well you know ‘you committed a crime, you murdered someone so you know why should I worry about the race of the person you murdered and whether this you know statistical inequality.’ Oh right because of this value of equal justice that is an international global value that I’ve communicated to you, using an example that we can all agree – the Holocaust – was a horrific violation of rights and dignity. Now he’s not saying this is just like the Holocaust right, because that would be not factually accurate and would evoke a negative reaction, but he’s using the metaphor, and using the story of this woman asking a question in Germany. So storytelling and values and then listen, he never names, the value of equal justice, but he makes it very evident to us.

Skip that. Third is telling us the systemic story. So there’s a lot of evidence showing that, if we tell only an individual story, even if it’s positive. Here is you know, an immigrant who emerged from who arrived at our country and immediately learned our language and created a business and it’s highly successful and contributes back. That audiences pardon me well, typically these are persuadable audiences will typically decide ‘Oh well, what we need is to only admit people like that person as immigrants’, they will not necessarily conclude that immigrants are good or that immigration is a good thing. And so, telling a systemic story is important for what are most of our goals in this on this Zoom of systemic change and often policy change.

So here’s one way to tell a systemic story, this is a map that indicates the areas of greatest opportunity was created by the Kirwan institute at Ohio State University where the highest levels of education have good jobs all of that in the greater Boston area. And here’s where Black and Latinx people live in the Boston area, in the areas of lowest opportunity.

So this is one way of reducing the ability of persuadables to blame, to say ‘well you’re just lazy’. That’s not to say, everyone will be convinced, but this is one way of telling a systemic story. But it’s not an exciting story, it’s not a human story and so often, we need to include inherently systemic human stories.

Right, so perhaps it’s what we call an enlightened insider, this is the on the left of your screen, you see, Will Smith portraying the doctor who identified traumatic brain injuries in American football players, or a faith leader, a pastor working on issues of equality for the LGBTQ community. And they’ve had the opportunity to see lots and lots of people from the inside and they’re able to communicate outward that ‘hey, this is a systemic problem of traumatic brain injuries or of discrimination.

Another type of human systemic story is the effective change agent, the person who was directly affected by a problem but who then is taking action to change the larger system? So these are examples Gabby Giffords the former congresswoman who was shot and has become an advocate for gun safety in the United States or Jose Antonio Vargas, who is an undocumented immigrant and a journalist and now an activist. Rosa Parks, whose actions helped to desegregate America and many ways the United States, pardon me, but who was part of systemic change and was herself and activists. So these are just examples of ways of telling an inherently systemic human story.

The fourth is obstacles over outcomes. What does this mean? This is especially important for those of us working on racial justice issues. If I tell a persuadable audience only about the unequal outcome and we hear this a lot with the COVID crisis but here’s an employment example, even in a strong economy, the black unemployment rate is almost twice the rate for whites. That’s true.

But what you know one audience will interpret that as ‘Oh, there must be structural inequality in the employment system.’ And another audience, perhaps a larger audience will simply conclude ‘well they’re not working hard enough, they have a culture, against high levels of employment or yeah well it’s education it’s all about class’. We actually have to explain to them to audiences the systemic reasons why that there are unequal outcomes. In other words here’s the discrimination that exists so that you can contextualize the data that I’m giving you. Think about Bryan Stevenson’s first clip that I showed you. You give me a bunch of data, I might come to any conclusion. We need to actually guide people and so explain the obstacle first than the outcome. Same with the pandemic, explain why people of color are more adversely affected for health reasons and economically and are getting fewer vaccinations, because otherwise most audiences will conclude it’s something about us as people of color.

Emphasize solutions – those of you in the US there’s a reason why Martin Luther King junior’s greatest speech was not called ‘I have a complaint.’ We need to tell people what we’re for because otherwise it’s just debilitating if all we give them are the problem, it overcomes issue fatigue, we need to call upon our ability to solve tough problems as societies and nations, very important.

I’m actually going to skip that because it’s a little complicated. Positive role for government, in many of our societies government is more frequently a source of abuse or oppression, but justice frequently the solutions that were advocating for require a positive role for government, so if all we do is talk about how bad government is, and then we say, ‘Oh, for example, we need alternatives to incarceration that includes social services and governmental support’. But I’ve just told you that the government is terrible.

So how can my solution possibly be a valid one? So we need to be more specific when we criticize government let’s talk about the specific policies, the specific politicians, the specific mindsets that are the problem and let’s provide examples of how other alternatives are possible, let’s look at the alternatives to incarceration, whether in the US, or in other nations that are possible. Let’s look at the preventive services, we can be engaged in let’s look at who should come when I call because a family member is having a mental health emergency, who should be sent – is that police with guns, or is it mental health professionals? So that positive role for government is important and then this is the last point I’ll share with you.

Which is try to avoid myth busting. Our opponents will tell all kinds of falsehoods, at least they often do and our instinct, especially those of us who are lawyers is to repeat those falsehoods and then explain why they are incorrect. But actually there’s a lot of research showing that that just deepens the memory of the falsehood if I you know debunk a myth and I come back to you two weeks later there’s a good chance that what you’re going to remember is the myth and you may never have heard it in the first place.

So I’m going to skip the personal story, I was going to tell you about that and just say don’t be this guy right, I may never have thought that immigrants were to blame for terrorism, but now you’ve told me not to think about that.

Right and, as you know, the George Lakeoff and other linguists have told us, if I tell you don’t think about an elephant, the only thing you’re going to think about is an elephant, so let me jump out and we have a little time for questions and insight so I’m going to ask you to use your raise hand function. Yes, Natalie.

Natalie Aldern: Thanks so much Alan I think one of the things that really struck me was the telling of a systemic story and so you’d also mentioned earlier, you know changing hearts and minds, and so I just kind of wanted to confirm, because we’re moving a little bit quickly, so I was having trouble kind of thinking of the example for myself, that telling this systemic story works on we’re not trying to change a system or a policy but we’re actually trying to maybe change a norm, you know within a community. Can I still make it a systemic story if I’m going for a cultural norm?

Alan Jenkins: Give me a specific example, what if, what are you working on, or what are you thinking about.

Natalie Aldern: I’m thinking of transgender youth living in a rural village. So I could change, I could change a policy at the national level, but the impact that has on their real lives lives, it’s such a far stretch because it’s actually their community members, their households that need to be more accepting of their identity.

Alan Jenkins: So yeah so I mean if it’s kind of at the level of the family and not at the level or not specifically at the level of policy. You know I think there are still some important ways to make it systemic, the reason being otherwise it’s just about your family right, not necessarily about me but, for example, a transgender youth might say ‘I came out or you know I decided to describe to my parents what I was experiencing and they welcomed me’. But I know here’s the pivot right, but I know that that’s not the case for so many of my friends and family in our community who are transgender but who are afraid because they know that they will not be received initially with love and acceptance. So what we all need to do is be able to talk about and understand this and I’m available to you to answer questions.

You know that’s just one example right but it’s how to make an, this is the case with lots of things like maybe you know a person who was formerly incarcerated is able to say ‘you know I got an education, while in prison and now I’m an advocate, I’m an attorney who works on these issues, but I know that I’m not special – I was fortunate to have access to education, while incarcerated to a supportive community and I know that many, many other people could be just as successful if they had that opportunity’. So you’re pivoting, you’re telling your individual story, but then you’re pivoting to the systemic that makes sense.

Natalie Aldern: Yeah thanks for that, thank you great.

Alan Jenkins: Now okay well I’m going to leave you with an example, this is a quick story about myth busting, this is the story, I was going to tell you. When we first moved to our town, we went to, when our older daughter was getting ready to go to the high school, we went to a presentation at the high school and a welcome and the principal spoke and she was great and then the guidance counselor spoke and he was good and then head of security spoke and she said, ‘you know if you believe the rumors you think that our high school was an open air drug market but believe me it’s not an open air drug market, and so, once again, not an open air drug market.’

So at this point my wife and I are in the fetal position ‘oh my God we’re sending our child to an open air drug market right’. We’d never even heard that rumor. And then she debunked it right, she told us all kinds of reasons why it was not an open air drug market. I couldn’t tell you even one of those reasons because I was totally traumatized and it turns out, it was kind of an open air drug market, but the point being don’t be that person who tells someone a myth for the first time and then tries to undo the myth – what’s the solution? Tell the affirmative story. So instead of saying you might believe that immigrants don’t pay taxes, talk about how immigrants are part of us, who are starting businesses and working and paying taxes, including social security taxes that they will never benefit from if they’re undocumented right tell the affirmative story. So I’m going to stop there, and turn it back to Mallika and company. Thank you so much.

Check out my former organization’s website opportunity lots more resources, including a communications tool kit thanks very much.

Mallika Dutt: Thank you so much, Alan. That was incredibly comprehensive and detailed and really helped I think everybody land, a lot of the concepts that we’ve been talking about for the last three sessions now, and so a huge thank you.

Mallika Dutt: This series of Leadership Moves is supported by the BUILD program of the Ford Foundation. Stay connected at

This series is supported by the BUILD program of the Ford Foundation.

“Inter-Connected Theme” composed by Devadas, (c) Mallika Dutt, LLC 2021.

Production team: Mallika Dutt, Devadas Labrecque, Ambika Pressman.