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Echoing Justice Communications Strategies for Community Organizing in the 21st Century Stories Of Success And Innovation Echoing Justice is an action research project of the Echo Justice Communications Collaborative—a multi-year initiative to incubate, innovate, and implement movement building communications strategies that strengthen racial justice alliances and their impact. The Echoing Justice report team includes staff of the Center for Media Justice (CMJ), the Praxis Project, smartMeme, the Movement Strategy Center (MSC), Community Media Workshop, and UNITY Alliance. Lead writer: Julie Quiroz, Movement Strategy Center Lead researcher: Jen Soriano, Lionswrite Consulting Report editing and production: Karlos Schmieder, Center for Media Justice Design: Micah Bazant, micahbazant.com Resources for this report were provided by the Surdna Foundation, the Akonadi Foundation and the Frances Fund.


Table Of Contents 1

How Movement Communications Works: Stories Of Success And Innovation

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Healthcare is a Human Right: Confronting the Immigration Wedge in Vermont

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From Fear to Freedom: How Local Collaboration Changed the Story on Arizona’s SB1070

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From Stereotypes to Swindlers: Going Beyond Sound Bites to Re-Frame Public Housing Debate in Miami

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Our Voices in Our Hands: Participatory Communications and the Indian Guest Worker Fight for Labor Protections in New Orleans

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Building Progressive Majorities for Internet Policy, Niche by Niche

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Bibliography


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Julie Quiroz The grassroots organizing sector has no shortage of creative and strategic capacity. It is this strategic creativity that has led to so many organizing and communications successes, even with little to no resources. There is a growing body of evidence on what works in communications to support our movements. The stories in this section are meant to show some recent examples of

what works in movement communications. They are representative of many more stories of movement communications success happening at the local, regional, national, and international levels that demonstrate that there is communications innovation happening that is worth investing in and growing.

Healthcare is a Human Right: Confronting the Immigration Wedge in Vermont Be prepared for divide and rule tactics. —James Haslam, Vermont Workers Center Problem: Making the Seemingly Impossible Inevitable. Advocates and media believed universal healthcare in Vermont was a political impossibility. Organizers had not yet built a large and conscious base of support capable of winning universal healthcare. Movement Communications Approach: When you start with health, stories open up hope for racial justice. Organizers gathered and shared personal healthcare stories across race and class lines to build a large base of support and deepen members’ and allies’ commitment to a racial justice frame and a human rights message. Impact: This is the first of many. Vermont became the first state in the U.S. to pass universal healthcare. In the state of Vermont—where the population is 95% white—organizers for universal healthcare didn’t wait for voters to be divided by racially charged fears about immigration. In

the fight to win 100% publicly funded healthcare for everyone in the state, Vermont Workers’ Center (VWC) planned ahead to win healthcare for that was truly for everyone. Despite traditional approaches to communications that recommend avoiding explicit mentions of race in order to unify middle class white majorities, organizers at the VWC decided to confront the potential immigration wedge

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HOW MOVEMENT COMMUNICATIONS WORKS: STORIES OF SUCCESS AND INNOVATION


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Long before their bill was up for vote in the state legislature, the Vermont Workers’ Center took decisive steps to cultivate a racial justice consciousness and constituency into its campaign. The result was an unprecedented victory—not only over a healthcare system that had failed for years to serve the people of Vermont, but also over the assumption that to win hearts and minds in a majority white state, organizers must avoid talking about race. “Be prepared to counter divide and rule tactics,” advises the VWC Director James Haslam. Unlike healthcare reform efforts at the national level, the VWC campaign understood what people like Keith Rushing of the Advancement Project have long asserted: that “race and racism gets tied up in any effort to assist low-income Americans—such as the 47 million uninsured [nationally] who are disproportionately Black and Brown.”1

Racing the Frame Years before they entered the policy arena, VWC conducted a grassroots survey of nearly 1,500 people gathering information about their experiences and concerns with the state healthcare system. In response to the question “Do you think healthcare is a human right?” a whopping 99 percent of respondents answered “yes,” emboldening VWC to push forward with the powerful framing of healthcare as a basic human right. Despite this shared belief, VWC knew that winning 100 percent publicly funded healthcare in a majority white state meant that their members, and then their allies, would need to see their health and well-being as linked to the health and well being of the 5 percent of the state made up by people of color. Employing this framing concept of “linked fate,” led organizers to engage their members in an 1. 

Keith Rushing, Advancement Project, November 2009

extensive political education process to understand and eventually challenge racial stereotypes about Latino immigration. VWC collaborated with the Bay Area-based Catalyst Project, holding a series of anti-racism workshops for more than 170 members and supporters all over the state. These daylong trainings included role play exercises in which participants acted out tough organizing scenarios, such as the potentially divisive issue of covering undocumented immigrants in a universal healthcare system. This training underscored VWC’s core message that healthcare is a human right, regardless of immigration status.

The VWC campaign understood what people like Keith Rushing of the Advancement Project have long asserted: that “race and racism gets tied up in any effort to assist low-income Americans— such as the 47 million uninsured [nationally] who are disproportionately Black and Brown.”2

2.  Keith Rushing, Advancement Project, November 2009

The Unlikely Alliance VWC deepened the framing process by building intentional relationships with immigrant communities in Vermont who, like immigrants everywhere, faced harsh policies and racial animosity. VWC joined Migrant Justice, the only migrant farm worker-driven organization in Vermont fighting for the rights of the nearly 2,000 migrant workers who sustain the state’s dairy industry. “Our organizing began with talking together about problems in the community,” explains

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head on, boldly asserting that “healthcare is a human right” means it is a right for “everyone, everywhere.”


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Rather than allow the limits of political imagination to define their framing strategy and organizing goals, the Vermont Workers’ Center chose to re-frame what “politically possible” meant.

Making Vision Outweighs Differences Vermont Workers’ Center organizers recognized early that to ensure a universal healthcare bill that would be truly universal, they needed to hold the line on who benefits and who pays. In fact, early on in their healthcare work, Vermont Workers’ Center had tried to engage in a policy advocacy coalition until, says VWC’s James Haslam, “little by little we saw our core principles get watered down.” VWC had been working hard to commit the coalition to healthcare as a human right, public financed, and decoupled from employment. “In the end the coalition went to the lowest common denominator,” says Haslam. VWC decided to pull out of the coalition and focus on organizing. “Incremental solutions weren’t good enough,” says Haslam, “From our discussions with our members we knew that healthcare was a real crisis in people’s lives.”

Racial Justice and Human Rights are Politically Possible Organizers report that at the time, no one believed VWC’s vision of 100% publicly funded healthcare was politically possible. Rather than allow the limits of political imagination to define their framing strategy and organizing goals, the Vermont Workers’ Center chose to re-frame what “politically possible” meant. Building on their human rights frame, VWC organized “healthcare is a human right” hearings around the state. Unlike many public hearings, VWC didn’t invite legislators. Instead, they focused on the exchange of stories as a framing strategy, inviting survey respondents with compelling stories to testify. The sharing of strategic stories across the lines of race and class helped members and allies internalize a racial justice frame and human rights message. The hearings were covered by public access television, which disseminated stories to an even broader audience.

The sharing of strategic stories across the lines of race and class helped members and allies internalize a racial justice frame and human rights message.

“We didn’t even have a video camera then,” recalls Haslam, “But we saw how useful it was and finally started doing our own videos with interviews and clips from the hearings.” VWC used the videos on the web and in social media, as well as in presentations, house parties, and classrooms, which became a powerful component of their organizing. After more than two years of grassroots organizing, VWC had succeeded in building a statewide network of organizing committees, even in the traditionally more conservative rural areas of the state.

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Natalia Fajardo, organizer with Migrant Justice, “Access to healthcare was a priority that our community expressed.” For the farm workers, access to healthcare meant securing two things: universal healthcare and access to driver’s licenses. Taking part in the healthcare campaign became a key part of the farm worker strategy. By building an unlikely alliance to achieve a shared goal, VWC expanded the base for universal healthcare in Vermont.


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With a strong place-based strategy, VWC shifted gears to begin focusing on policymakers’ accountability. Haslam adds, “We wanted to make it hard for legislators to defend the status quo. We wanted to build a case against the healthcare system, to put it on trial.” Even as they moved toward the policy arena, VWC stayed grounded in people’s stories. “Healthcare gets really bogged down in the details,” observes Haslam. When allies urged them to use policy talking points in their communications, they stayed focused on the stories of crisis people were experiencing.

What happened, instead, made history. It was what VWC had been preparing for. First, VWC released a bold statement to the press, vowing to move forward with a bill that would include all residents: When we say healthcare is a human right, we mean for everybody who lives and works in Vermont regardless of legal status. We will not tolerate racial profiling and accept the unjust immigration and foreign policies of the federal government. We can do better than that. Then VWC called on their members and allies to show up for a May 1 rally. Migrant Justice was one of the groups that mobilized, urging their members to attend.

The Impossible Became Inevitable In 2009, VWC decided to breath life into a single payer bill that was languishing in the Vermont legislature. Fueled by the momentum of their human rights hearings, VWC planned a huge rally in the capitol to deliver thousands of postcards that read: “Universal healthcare isn’t just politically possible, it’s politically inescapable.” By Spring 2011, as the bill was on the verge of passing, with only days left before the vote, opponents introduced an amendment to exclude undocumented immigrants from coverage. Democrats and Republicans piled on, passing the amendment and threatening to derail universal healthcare in Vermont. “It was a mix of racism and political tactics,” observes Natalia Fajardo, “The lead sponsor was motivated by fear of the other and he used fear to scare others, even supporters, by saying ‘this is the only way to pass this bill.’”

When the day came, thousands of community members converged and spoke out, including Javier Franco, a Mexican farm worker who suffers a chronic lung condition that could have been prevented if he had had access to healthcare. This rally sent a powerful message to the state legislators and attracted national media coverage, from Fox News to the National Journal. The mainstream story portrayed “outraged immigrant advocates” putting the amendment’s supporters on the defensive.

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“Healthcare gets really bogged down in the details,” observes Haslam. When allies urged them to use policy talking points in their communications, “we stayed focused on the crisis people were experiencing.”


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Not only did they stand up—they won. The exclusionary amendment was dropped and the rights and dignity of all people, regardless of immigration status, was affirmed. Five years later, using an aspirational frame that echoed a long-term vision, an organizing strategy that cultivated a commitment to the common good, and communications tactics that explicitly confronted the immigration wedge, VWC transformed an issue many considered politically impossible into a victory that was politically inevitable. On May 26, 2011, Vermont passed Act 48, the first and only universal, single payer healthcare law in the country.

Si, Se Puede “The victory in Vermont was extraordinary,” observes communications strategist Doyle Canning of CSS who provided early guidance to VWC, “It’s extraordinary not only for the changes it will bring to the lives of all Vermont residents, but because it opened a public conversation on the political possibilities of universal healthcare that enriched rather than neglected or inflamed the public debate on race.” It proved that organizing with a strong human rights frame can withstand an inflammatory debate steeped in racial stereotypes about immigration, and win a major policy victory. Today, VWC’s continued support on MJ’s food justice work and their campaign for immigrant drivers licenses, is positioning them to win future policy victories that might otherwise disintegrate in the face of anti-immigrant messaging. While James Haslam beams with pride over this success, he remains troubled by how it has been understood outside Vermont. “Even in the progressive left media, it’s been the governor and a doctor that have been lifted up as heroes,” laments Haslam, “not the thousands and thousands of grassroots Vermonters who drove the effort.” According to Haslam, even the left media fell for an individualistic, top-down telling of the story. In this, Haslam sees a broader challenge for movement communications: “We need to be able to claim the victories of people power and movement building.” Despite the narrow framing of this victory in media outlets, the multiracial leaders that effectively defeated the immigration wedge on healthcare in Vermont stand out as the real heroes.

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“We had done a lot of work with our members in preparation for this,” says Kate Kanelstein, an organizer with VWC, “but you never know how it will really play out. We were amazed at how strongly our people stood up.”


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Big [beltway] organizations started coming in, getting their communications machine going. We had struggles with their message which was, ‘There’s fear everywhere and we need help’…We wanted to portray resistance on the ground.   —Carlos Garcia, Puente Problem: We interrupt this message Facing searing anti-Latino stereotypes and armed with almost no communications capacity or resources, local organizers needed to address the “show me your papers” attack while maintaining strategic focus and momentum. Movement Communications Approach: Network driven strategies Building on the strength of their on-going

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From Fear to Freedom: How Local Collaboration Changed the Story on Arizona’s SB1070 organizing, local organizers reached out through local-to-local networks to create a hub of organizing, communications, and cultural collaboration. Impact: Turning the tide Media coverage of SB 1070 shifted to focus on the demand for human rights, rather than fear in the community or policy reforms constrained by Washington politics. Communications reinforced powerful local organizing, galvanized large numbers of people, and helped defeat additional anti-immigrant bills. In January 2010, In the midst of a vitriolic and divisive national debate on comprehensive immigration reform, tens of thousands of people marched against the brutal and discriminatory

Photo by Diane Ovalle


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At the heart of the organizing response was Puente, a small migrant rights organization that had partnered with the National Day Labor Organizing Network (NDLON) to launch a campaign to bring Arpaio to justice and challenge the laws that empowered him.    Arpaio’s actions had fueled widespread outrage in Maricopa County’s Latino and indigenous communities. He had become a lightning rod, galvanizing a movement demanding human rights and an end to federal policies allowing police—like Arpaio—to enforce immigration laws, including the package of policies like 287(g) and its successor known as Secure Communities.  

In the context of the searing antiLatino stereotypes that marked the national debate on immigration, local organizers were forced to pivot to somehow address this new attack without losing their larger strategic focus and momentum.

Just a month after the Arpaio marches, a sweeping new anti-immigrant law (SB 1070) was introduced in the Arizona legislature. Following the trend in both state and federal immigration enforcement policies, SB 1070 essentially legalized racial profiling, allowing police to stop anyone they think might “look” undocumented. It also made it a crime to be caught without immigration papers or to provide transportation to undocumented immigrants.

In the context of the searing anti-Latino stereotypes that marked the national debate on immigration, local organizers were forced to pivot to somehow address this new attack without losing their larger strategic focus and momentum. “A lot of SB 1070 had been attempted before,” explains Carlos Garcia, director of Puente, referring to a recent slew of anti-immigrant legislation including the 2002 English-Only law and the 2006 law barring undocumented immigrant students from qualifying for in-state tuition.   “What was new about SB 1070 was not having a Democratic governor there to veto it,” says Garcia, “We didn’t have legislative experience. We were unprepared to fight in the legislature.” In fact, few believed the legislation would get very far. “We didn’t think it would be that big a deal,” recalls Garcia. But as SB 1070 began passing through committees, and as comprehensive immigration reform died out in Washington, the bill began to grab local attention and national headlines.   With a potentially devastating impact on Arizona’s immigrant communities and the possibility of further anti-immigrant legislation in Arizona and across the country, the bill demanded urgent attention. At the same time, organizers needed to find a way to respond, not just react. “We needed to respond to SB 1070 and also hold our focus on the fight against Arpaio and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) ACCESS programs,” explains B. Loewe, Communications Director for the NDLON, which was deeply engaged in Arizona immigrant organizing.  

Mixed Messages Organizers faced not only the challenge of fighting SB 1070, but also the challenge of shaping a narrative that would build community power and lead to larger change. “Some

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tactics of Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Over the past decade, Arpaio has become known for his inhumane approaches and losing accreditation at his county jails multiple times.  However in 2007 and 2008, new state laws and federal programs gave the Sheriff new powers that accelerated the harassment of Latinos in Maricopa County to new levels.


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— Carlos Garcia, Director of Puente

larger organizations talk about SB 1070 in terms of the constitution and due process,” says Karlos Guana Schmieder of Center for Media Justice, “It’s often a high-level wonky conversation that didn’t connect to real people and power building on the ground.” Garcia agrees. “Big organizations started coming in, getting their communications machine going. We had struggles with their message which was, ‘There’s fear everywhere and we need help.’” Though concerned that such messages would result in lost momentum and weakened demands, Puente and others recognized that with little communications capacity, local organizers would need help to achieve their goals. “This was a moment when our communications need was at its greatest,” asserts Garcia, “but, here in Phoenix there was not one immigrant organization with a paid communications person.”

A Call For Help Rather than rely on the usual suspects from the D.C. beltway or a national PR firm, as was the case in the fight for comprehensive immigration reform, Garcia and B. sent out an email through grassroots networks across the country, calling on friends in other local communities to roll up their sleeves and come to Arizona. Organizers all across the country got the email and passed it on, helping to spark a “summer of human rights” that included direct action, organizing, and an unprecedented communications justice collaboration. The effort came together quickly, thanks to years of efforts to build stronger

working relationships and communications through cross-sectoral efforts such as UNITY (formerly the Inter-Alliance Dialogue).

A House Full of Organizers and Communicators Staying at a house near the Puente office, communications organizers came from Grassroots Global Justice Alliance, Jobs with Justice, Miami Workers Center, and Right to the City to help organize a broad-based action on May 29th. Cultural workers also came, answering a call from artist Ernesto Yerena via the AltoArizona.com website that collected 200+ poster contributions. “We had a coalition meeting each week,” says Garcia, “where we would figure out strategy and messages. Then we’d meet with the grassroots communications people who had come in from other places.”  Together they created core frames and messages, gathered press lists, pitched stories to mainstream press, and developed social media infrastructure. Yerena and others galvanized cultural workers in Arizona and across the country to deeply penetrate public consciousness with powerful images and messages. The National Domestic Workers Alliance worked with local groups to sponsor a Mothers’ Day march to underscore the problems facing immigrant women workers. Progressive Communicators Network played a key role in coordinating a national telebriefing of reporters and forming bilingual public relations teams that worked in all the major regions of country.

Networked Communication Works Without help from a national PR firm, the collaboration achieved remarkable results. For the May 29 march, the communications team helped shift media coverage from an insider’s policy debate to a street-level story about human rights. In the words of Jen Soriano, who at the time was working with the Grassroots Global Justice Alliance, “Changing the view of the marchers was key, transforming ‘those people’ to one big ‘us.’”

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“This was a moment when our communications need was at its greatest but, here in Phoenix there was not one immigrant organization with a paid communications person.”


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Photo by Diane Ovalle

Held just one month after the signing of SB1070, the May 29 protest was a crucial opportunity to galvanize a new debate about immigration in Arizona, a feat Puente could not have achieved alone. In just four weeks, outrage and organizing against the bill and copycat bills in several states had spread far and wide. A whopping 100,000 people showed up to the march, receiving not only widespread media coverage, but a very different kind of coverage.   “We built on the messages that were coming out spontaneously on the ground,” recalls Soriano, “We looked at what people were writing on signs and posters and put them into a larger story of who made up the march.” With the help of the communications team, messages like “Legalize Arizona” jumped from the street to national consciousness, helping more and more people to empathize with the human rights and racial justice struggle represented by SB 1070. Cultural workers put images and slogans on t-shirts and posters, then sat at folding tables and put them on websites, making sure to get people’s contact information—and commitment to action—in exchange for the art.

Breaking the Media Glass Ceiling The combination of community organizing and communications broke what Soriano calls “the media glass ceiling;” generating stories in the New York Times, the Associated Press, CNN, and, more than 450 mainstream radio stations nationwide, as well as ethnic media including

“There were more than 250 media outlets at the march representing Spanish, English, and local to international news,” says Soriano, “Our tracking of post-march coverage showed that the march generated almost 3,000 stories on the internet alone, and that the majority of stories included at least one quote from organizers and immigrants suffering the impacts of SB 1070. This was a significant turnaround from the coverage before the march, when the media talked about SB 1070 almost exclusively as a policy story.”   The organizing and communications also spawned a massive economic boycott of the state. “We defended human rights and racial justice and made those the interests of business,” observes B. Loewe. The boycott brought businesses into the fight, including 60 CEOs who wrote a letter to the state senate in opposition to further anti-immigrant bills that were in the works the following year. 

We Achieved Our Communications Goals “We succeeded in our communications goals,” asserts B. Loewe. Through a network driven communications strategy, Puente and its allies expanded the local base for immigrant rights by the thousands, gained hundreds of local and national news stories, and elevated the voices of those most impacted by SB 1070. The long-standing campaign against Sheriff Arpaio and Secure Communities also celebrated victory in December 2011 when the Department of Justice’s investigation found that the sheriff’s department “engages in racial profiling of Latinos; unlawfully stops, detains, and arrests Latinos.” The DOJ report also implicated policies like Secure Communities that create the conditions for a sheriff Arpaio, noting “a

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more than 70 Spanish-language outlets. Radio coverage alone reached more than 700,000 listeners in Arizona—results that many believed were impossible without the intervention of a national public relations firm.


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As the struggles continue in Arizona, the combination of network-driven organizing and communications has helped increase the power of the immigrant voice and shifted the debate from policy reform to human rights. Most of SB 1070s provisions have been enjoined in federal court, the author of the bill lost his seat in a recall, and widespread public outcry helped defeat a second wave of anti-immigrant bills in the Arizona legislature. National observers who once viewed Arizona as an impenetrable conservative stronghold, now consider it a swing state, citing the newly energized opposition to SB 1070.

“The value of communications has become more clear,” Garcia concludes, pointing to the irony that despite their success there is still no on the ground communications capacity in the local immigrant rights organizations.

Lessons for the Future Looking back, Garcia believes there are many lessons to be learned. “We need to understand how our work connects with other movements,” advises Garcia, pointing to early immigrant rights flyers that read, We are not criminals. “When we connected with people working against prisons we realized that messages of our campaign may have cut against the interests of others.” Garcia says he’s also learned the importance of social media both externally and for Puente’s own base of supporters. “Art also played a huge role,” he maintains, “empowering people, giving them a fighting attitude, and getting them to come out.”

 “The value of communications has become more clear,” he concludes, pointing to the irony that despite their success there is still no on the ground communications capacity in the local immigrant rights organizations. Other than one grant for a six-month communications position, Puente did not receive any support for their communications work.  Most importantly, asserts Garcia, “We need to do better at digging down and presenting our core issues better. The fact is that any ICE/ police access or collaboration leads to racial profiling and mistreatment of our community. It was good that we let the rest of the country know how racist Arizona is,” continues Garcia, “but people didn’t understand that this was happening in their city, and that federal enforcement policies are going to make us all Arizona.”   While lessons abound, one of the greatest lessons was that local communities can effectively empower the connective tissue of local-to-local networks to amplify the public voice of those facing even the most brutal political attack— and win.

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chronic culture of disregard for basic legal and constitutional obligations” in a department that views immigrants and Latinos as criminals.


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In politics, framing is sometimes reduced to a question of language…Instead of attempting to change the meaning of terms favored by our opponents, research teaches us that we need to reframe the underlying concepts… [that’s why] messaging should always be part of a broader strategy for change that includes careful consideration of goals, spokespersons, audience, and context…In order to deconstruct the framing of an issue, you have to dig beneath the surface. —Makani Themba, Fair Game, 2010 Problem: Shaping meaning beyond sound bites In a campaign to save public housing, organizers struggled against the “common sense” created by corporate owned media, right wing think tanks, and mainstream culture that welcomes

gentrification and displacement of people of color as solutions to poverty. Movement Communications Approach: Shifting the frame, leading with communications Organizers built a large and powerful community-based coalition that caught the eye of an investigative reporter. Rather than seeking coverage for their campaign, organizers pointed the reporter to the larger story of greed and corruption that would allow public housing to be valued as a part of a brighter vision for the city. Impact: Eyes on the prize A Pulitzer-prize winning series in the Miami Herald transformed the policy debate in Miami and opened the door for the demands coming from communities of color.

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From Stereotypes to Swindlers: Going Beyond Sound Bites to Re-Frame Public Housing Debate in Miami


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As Gihan Perrera, director of Miami Workers Center, explains, organizers must contend with the “‘common sense’ created by corporate owned mainstream media, right wing think tanks, and mainstream culture… Within this ‘common sense’ framework gentrification and displacement are welcomed as a natural solution to poverty.”

“House of Lies” avoided the easy trap of individual, episodic stories and instead exposed an extraordinary pattern of systemic greed and corruption within city housing agencies. It revealed out of control developers and city leaders hijacking the future of the city. It challenged powerful racial stereotypes, offering stories that highlighted the voices of Black and Latino public housing residents and that exposed a hidden transcript of hope and hard work. Through a smart communications strategy that peeled back the layers of history and context on the issue of public housing, the usually dominant, pro-corporate narrative of redevelopment as a common good was transformed. How organizers did it is a lesson in going beyond sound bites to tell this bigger story. 3.  “House of Lies” by Debbie Cenziper, a seven part series published in the Miami Herald beginning on July 23, 2006.

Saving Homes The “House of Lies” series was truly the result of years of effective organizing to save and replace public housing. For more than five years before the “House of Lies” series hit print, Miami Worker’s Center (MWC) and their partner Low Income Families Fighting Together (LIFFT) worked together to engage in an intense campaign to save the public housing of many of its members. The campaign was aptly called “home.” In 2001, housing organizers had used powerful direct action tactics to save one major public housing complex. LIFFT members traveled by bus to Washington, D.C., shutting down the office of Housing and Urban Development and winning a promise from the undersecretary of HUD to not tear the complex down. Two years later, when another complex, the Scott-Carver Homes, was torn down, residents once again joined together through LIFFT, demanding one-to-one replacement housing for the 1,100 people who had been displaced. For years LIFFT fought hard, knowing that the housing battle was an issue of survival for the families being displaced, and a broader issue of intentional policies, such as HUD’s HOPE VI, that turn public responsibilities over to profit-driven ventures.

Contending with “Common Sense” Despite the campaign’s successes, its momentum began to stall. Beyond those close to the campaign, most Miami residents saw public housing as blight and viewed any alternative as an improvement. As Gihan Perrera, then director of MWC, explains, organizers must contend with the “‘common sense’ created by corporate owned mainstream media, right wing think tanks, and mainstream culture…Within this ‘common sense’ framework gentrification and displacement are welcomed as a natural solution to poverty.”4 4.  Displacing the Dream: A Report on Bay Area News Coverage of Development and Gentrification. Youth Media Council, undated.

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In 2006, low-income housing organizers in Miami scored a game-changing boost from the Miami Herald newspaper. The Herald ran a seven-part series called “House of Lies”3 that dramatically reshaped the public conversation about housing and land use in Miami. The series was a direct result of the smart communications strategy in the Miami Workers Center’s campaign to win replacement housing for residents displaced by redevelopment.


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Racial stereotypes also fueled this “common sense” agenda. As Perera observes, the mid1990s “attacks on welfare were explicitly racial and structural—explicitly racialized against black women in particular and explicitly structural and multi-issued in the sense that they were against Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC)—but the impact was on every public institution that there was.”5 When MWC began its public housing work in the late 1990s, says Perera, “We were in the direct aftermath and continued impact of attacks on poor black people that came out of welfare reform.” Powerful racial stereotypes of public housing tenants as deadbeats and criminals numbed observers to the human tragedy of working poor families facing displacement. With this cushion of racism working in their favor, developers and government agencies pushing displacement and gentrification were able to position themselves as forward-thinking leaders, casting the defense of public housing as just that: defensive. In a complex campaign with the red tape of housing contracts, land acquisition, construction, and more, even those inside the effort struggled to maintain a larger vision. “We had become mired in bureaucratic process,” recalls Joseph Phelan, former communications director for MWC.

5.  Interview with Gihan Perera, Critical Issues Forum, Vol. 3, Marking Progress: Movement Toward Racial Justice,  July 2010 Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity

The story caught the eye of an investigative reporter from the Miami Herald who was impressed with the depth and breadth of the coalition. After several conversations with Miami Workers Center, the reporter came to MWC and asked, “What should I cover?”

“What Should I Cover?” In the midst of the campaign, Hurricane Wilma hit on October 25, 2005, causing more than $10 billion in damages to south Florida and devastating low-income neighborhoods already suffering substandard housing and infrastructure. MWC responded immediately, providing residents with emergency support in the storm’s aftermath, as well as calling on their many allies to create an emergency relief fund. The coalition stirred up responses from the mayor and the county, while the size of the coalition, its bold demands, and its connection to powerful organizing and direct action, helped it gain useful media coverage. That’s when the break came. The story caught the eye of an investigative reporter from the Miami Herald who was impressed with the depth and breadth of the coalition. After several conversations with MWC, the reporter came to MWC and asked, “What should I cover?”

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“We recognized that we were painting ourselves into a corner, while the opposition was painting themselves as the future and progress,” explains Gihan Perera. Guided by what they had learned in an assessment of their communications, “We started a real process of trying to figure out our communications strategy on our own, which transformed our view of our organizing. We understood that we were organizing within a particular political context, but also within a geography, ethnicity, and so forth, and that our frame had to be bigger.”


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After months of painstaking investigation and research, the reporter told that story. The resulting series, “House of Lies,” presented heaps of damning evidence on the Miami-Dade Housing Agency, which had committed to put more than $87 million toward 72 developments for the poor, including apartments, houses and complexes for the elderly. “House of Lies” concluded that “for over 5 years the Miami-Dade Housing Agency squandered millions of dollars on failed projects, pet programs and insider deals even as thousands of families languished in rotting and unsafe homes. Aided by the agency’s longtime director, a cadre of developers raked in millions of dollars for homes that were never built.” Just as important, “House of Lies” lifted up and amplified the stories of LIFFT members. The series told story after story of public housing residents like Ozie Porter, an African American woman who had saved $5,000 earning $10.44 an hour as a cafeteria cook and was searching, unsuccessfully, for a home she could purchase with her savings. Each story brought the campaign closer to victory, while building the power of the organization. Thinking strategically about the relationship between communications and organizing, Communications Organizer Joseph Phelan says, “It was the combined impact of our ground strategy and our media strategy that put our issues front and center in the mainstream debate over the future of Miami.” Detailing patterns of outrageous profits at the expense of both poor Miamians and the entire Miami region, “House of Lies” reached a huge audience and went on to win the Pulitzer Prize.

Victory in Communications and Organizing In 2007, with public attention elevated by “House of Lies,” LIFFT and the Miami Workers Center launched the Find Our People campaign. Organizers took over the last standing building in the Scott-Carver complex and erected a huge board where Scott-Carver residents “lost” by HUD could sign in and reconnect to the struggle. That year, after a decade of fighting, LIFFT finally celebrated victory, winning an agreement from the city to make public housing available for all the displaced residents. 177 would move back on site, and others were able go into subsidized housing being built in the neighborhood. This remarkable victory came at a time when the national battle to preserve public housing had been all but lost. MWC waged a long campaign grounded in communications tactics that confronted stereotypes of black and brown public housing residents, exposed patterns of institutional racism and profit-mongering, and transformed episodic stories of individual displacement into a public debate on housing, rich with history and context. In the process they pivoted the debate from displacement as a public good to displacement as a public problem driven by institutional greed and corruption. Those shifts built long-term power for housing residents and organizers alike, and are the metrics by which the Miami Workers Center and LIFFT gauge their success, as opposed to more traditional standards like organizational hits in coverage. “In the whole series I think MWC is mentioned twice,” observes Phelan proudly, “Communications needs to understand where power resides and what you’re trying to do. A quote in the paper is not an accomplishment. Going beyond sound bites to win homes, expose lies, and tell a new public story, that’s the real victory.”

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MWC’s answer was not the relief fund or even the LIFFT campaign. Their answer was “Scott Carver,” the public housing complex they were fighting to preserve. “We wanted her to tell a different story of public housing,” recalls Phelan, “to tell the story of the greed and corruption around it.”


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Social justice organizing—the layering of relationships and networks around a shared vision of a more just world—is inseparable from the act of communicating. At heart, organizing is about communication. Organizers foster dialogs through which people come to a shared vision, a shared strategy, and a shared plan for executing that strategy. Dialogs establish networks that can gather resources, set priorities, resolve differences, and draw lessons. A group’s communications strategy defines the many ways that an organization connects, that is, communicates with important members, allies, broader publics and even target institutions—anyone needed to achieve its vision.

at the center of the organizing and strategic framing process. Impact: Integrated organizing and communications approach leads to victories Workers gained recognition as survivors of human trafficking, as well as concrete victories, including: work authorization; the right to bring their families to the United States; and the introduction of new guest worker rights legislation in the U.S. Congress. In 2006, Aby Raju came upon an ad in a

—Charlotte Ryan: Participatory Communications for Social Change (2007) We were scared to organize publicly. We didn’t know the rules here in the U.S. The campaign organizers met with us—not just once. There were lots of meetings where they helped us with our questions and educated us on organizing and our rights in this country. That is when we decided to do public campaigns. — Aby Raju, National Guestworker Alliance co-founder and former guest worker from India Problem: “These stories were far from escapist… they are strategies for living” As guest workers from India rose up against exploitation and barbaric conditions, they needed a strong internal infrastructure to take on a giant corporation and the policies supporting it, as well as a strategy for having their stories heard and understood. Movement Communications Approach: We begin by listening Listening to workers’ stories became the centerpiece of the campaign, placing guest workers

Bombay newspaper. The ad was for a company recruiting skilled workers to come fill jobs in the United States. The jobs, the ad said, would lead to permanent U.S. immigration status. After attending an orientation meeting, Raju decided to seize the opportunity, paying $20,000 for what he believed was the investment of a lifetime. A year later, Raju was living in a Texas work camp for a company called Signal International. The camp had high walls and armed security guards to keep workers inside and working. As wave after wave of “recruits” arrived, each

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Our Voices in Our Hands: Participatory Communications and the Indian Guest Worker Fight for Labor Protections in New Orleans


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When some workers began to organize and ask questions, the company, which also had camps in Mississippi, called Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). According to deposition testimony in a federal lawsuit, ICE advised Signal International on procedures for illegal private deportations of workers. Signal management rounded up the most vocal workers and “put them in a room to deport them—doing it in front of everyone in the camp to scare others to keep your mouth shut,” Raju recalls. In reaction to the deplorable conditions, harass-

Listening turned out to be crucial to every aspect of the campaign, and was key to placing guest workers at the center of the process of strategic framing.

ment, and intimidation, one of the workers slit his wrists. It was an act of complete desperation and despair. “This was the wake-up for everyone,” recounts Raju, “That’s when we really started organizing and we contacted the Guestworker Alliance.”

Collaboration Begins With Listening When communications strategist Stephen Boykewich entered a room overflowing with hundreds of Indian guest workers, he didn’t yet know he was embarking on the biggest campaign of his life. The meeting had been convened by the National Guestworker Alliance (originally formed as the Alliance of Guestworkers), a project of the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice. The New

Orleans Workers’ Center was founded after Hurricane Katrina, when thousands of guest workers were brought to the United States and subjected to forced labor. “This was one of the first efforts to organize H-2B guest workers in the U.S.,” explains Boykewich, “We set out to do that with a three-pronged organizing, legal, and media strategy. We were taking on an international labor trafficking chain of recruiters and a major corporation.” Faced with such scale, Boykewich started small. “I did nothing but listen,” he recalls. “I started out as the least active person in the room.” Listening turned out to be crucial to every aspect of the campaign, and was key to placing guest workers at the center of the process of strategic framing. While the lead organizer and legal director facilitated, Boykewich took notes and recorded hours and hours of discussion. After each meeting, he sat down with the other staff and reflected on what they heard and how it would shape the resulting strategy. He recollects: Internally, we needed to build trust with the workers for them to be able to take on the incredible risks that lay ahead. We needed to understand the stories and identify strong storytellers. For the media, we needed to weave individual stories together into a collective story that journalists would not distort, and that would help us win. For the court battle, we needed to build the case around a legally rigorous and compelling story. The stories informed everything we did. Boykewich worked to develop relationships with worker leaders, including Raju, who were co-strategists in the communications work. Boykewich says, “Whether we were preparing for interviews, developing testimonies, or thinking about visuals for an action, it was a collaborative process. At every step, workers like Raju were making their own decisions—how they wanted to tell their stories publically, what their

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would discover deplorable living and working conditions, and a trail of lies destroying any hope of permanent U.S. residency.


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fight was about, and how they wanted their audience to understand them.”

We Made the Story By Walking “I remember the meeting when one of us said ‘We need to march to D.C.!’” says Aby Raju. The workers had reached out to the Indian embassy, and the Indian consulate did come to visit the company; however the consul showed no support for the workers. Raju recalls, “They didn’t want to talk to us, only the employer. We were all really sad about that.” Raju explains, “We asked the lawyers and organizers how we could do a march to D.C. They helped us do everything, like getting permits from the police. They helped us with different opinions. They would say ‘If you do it this way, this will happen. If you do it that way, this will happen.’ Then we all made decisions together.” In March 2008, 100 guest workers set out to march from Mississippi to the White House, seeking changes in U.S. guest worker policies, demanding that workers be allowed to remain in the U.S. while the Department of Justice was investigating their case, and pressing for Congressional hearings on abuses of the H-2B guest worker program. The workers traveled through cities and towns, calling attention to their cause. Even when workers faced video surveillance by ICE, they pressed onward. Campaign organizers, including Boykewich

“Instead of trying to get a lot of coverage for our initial events,” recounts Boykewich, “we targeted a small number of journalists who would be open to this experience, and then carefully crafted the experience for them.” This approach was not just tactical, but deeply cognizant of the way the story was likely to be heard. “It’s easy to stop listening when you have no context for understanding,” explains Boykewich, “this was a reality that American audiences had not seen before: Gulf Coast Indian guest workers singing and chanting in the streets, talking about slavery.” By recognizing this challenge and going through an intentional process of imagining what people were likely to think, the campaign was able to make good decisions about how to have their story received. Boykewich admits that this approach “initially led to a small number of TV and print pieces, but the ones that came out were what we wanted. We shifted from measuring the number of hits to cultivating strong relationships with individual journalists.” On the march, the communications team also leveraged coverage from one locality to another. Boykewich explains, “We took TV reports from one place and fed them to the next set of journalists, linking them to the best coverage we’d already had.” Through this snowball approach, coverage of the march grew exponentially as the workers made their way across the country. Their story also crossed the ocean. Working closely with allies in India, the National Guestworker Alliance brought the same movement building approach in communications to their work with South Asian media such as The Times of India, The Hindu, Hindustan Times,

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“Instead of trying to get a lot of coverage for our initial events,” recounts Boykewich, “we targeted a small number of journalists who would be open to this experience, and then carefully crafted the experience for them.”

heading communications, amplified the march “day by day, hour by hour, feeding the national and international press.” However, the communications strategy for the march was not based on the more traditional approach of maximizing coverage at all costs.


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The Victory of Our Voices The campaign achieved remarkable success. By making strategic communications a collective process that placed guest workers in the drivers’ seat, workers won recognition as survivors of human trafficking, as well as concrete victories including work authorization and the right to bring their families to the United States. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued Signal International, the company that trafficked the workers, and Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) introduced legislation called The Power Act as a way to help end the

exploitation of guest workers. Through the participatory communications process, the campaign elevated a narrative of empowered guest workers fighting a structural problem that resulted from bad economic and political decisions, rather than as victims of one bad company. The National Guestworker Alliance also shifted who the media went to as “experts.” “The leaders’ level of recognition was exceptional in this campaign,” reports Boykewich. Workers spoke to the media, testified in Congress, and received a standing ovation at the Jobs with Justice conference. Leaders in the campaign also received media calls for their analysis, background, and familiarity on other stories. “They were seen as heroes,” says Boykewich, “as protagonists and experts, not victims.” This shift in relations of power and the building of the collective power of workers were not only goals of the organizing work but also of the communications strategy. Speaking on the phone while his new baby sleeps, Aby Raju reflects on the campaign, “We found out this was not just one case. We are in a different county, but we have similarities with issues of others in this country. We need to keep going to help all the people getting exploited. United we can make it.”

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and New Delhi TV. “Workers from each region told stories to their regional media to maximize the impact,” Boykewich said. He adds, “It paid off with an unprecedented debate in the Indian Parliament over guest worker protections, action against the labor recruiter at the Indian end of the trafficking chain, and pressure on the U.S. State Department to intervene.”


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“As racial justice advocates, we should remember that in a room of ten people there are likely to be three already on our side, three who are “down with the opposition,” and four who could go either way. Instead of wasting time and resources concentrating on the three people least likely to be convinced, our task must be much more focused: pull together those who are down with racial justice, then begin the work of chipping away at the middle.” —Fair Game, 2010

Impact: No merger, less problems All sectors of society participated in the campaign that successfully blocked one of the largest mergers in corporate history. In 2001, telecom giant AT&T (the nation’s second largest wireless carrier) announced its $39 billion bid to takeover the smaller cell phone company T-Mobile. National civil rights organizations initially praised the merger. Citing positions heard in earlier media debates on regulating the Internet, they claimed the merger would bring jobs to communities of color. Some unions joined the applause, asserting that because labor standards at AT&T were better than at T-Mobile, a merger would increase the numbers of unionized telecommunications workers. Following the merger announcement, media coverage was overwhelmingly supportive, with civil rights and union voices leading the way. The history of such mergers and their consistent failure to produce the outcomes lauded by these groups; the research foretelling price hikes and severely reduced service quality; and the challenges posed by the potential merger to competition in an already deregulated media environment were left out of the story.

Problem: Policy not just for telcos and nerds When the proposed merger of two giant telecommunications corporations created an important organizing battle and opportunity, organizers were constrained by the technocratic framing and inaccessible advocacy that plagued Internet policy discussion. Movement Communications Approach: Culture is a cure Using a strategic, creative, cultural, and hyper-local communications and organizing strategy, organizers connected the proposed merger to social justice movements and the needs of local audiences.

The Media Action Grassroots Network A growing local-to-local network of community and cultural groups decided to partner with public interest allies in D.C. to fight back, taking the powerful official story of civil rights organizations, unions, and the telecommunications industry head on. The Media Action Grassroots Network (MAG-Net), a network of 135 organizations and a project of the Center for Media Justice (CMJ), claimed the Internet had a purpose beyond the market, and the merger would place AT&T beyond the reach of

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Building Progressive Majorities for Internet Policy, Niche by Niche


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Connecting the Issues Local audiences were confused. This was nothing new. Polling on Internet policy has shown that highly technical industry terms prevented everyday people’s comprehensive understanding of policy issues. Further content analysis demonstrated that the vast majority of stories related to the Internet were found in trade publications or the business sections of newspapers, creating the perception that discussions related to Internet and technology were not meant for

everyday people—but nothing could be further from the truth. As CMJ National Organizer Steven Renderos explains, “Our initial actions were hard. Our social justice allies didn’t see the merger as connected to their front-line issues, and Internet and cell phone users of color were motivated by the promise of jobs.” Instead of dismay at the clear failure of news coverage to expand the understanding of audiences, MAG-Net organizers turned audience ambivalence into outrage over potential price hikes. They revealed the proposed merger as an industry attempt to bypass Internet regulations and increase profits on the backs of the fastest growing population of mobile users— communities of color. Through MAG-Net, organizers joined with a broad range of partners to target aspirational and defensive frames on jobs, poverty, and racial impacts towards widening concentric circles of audiences.

Niche Audience Targeting

finally: Audiences concerned with corporate regulation and public interest media rules. THIRD: Social justice allies with a statewide base

second: Local members of national civil rights groups, messaging to counter

FIRST: Local Internet and cell phone users within the organizations leading the Media Action Grassroots Network

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regulation, with disproportionate harm to historically marginalized communities—communities of color and the poor—the most vulnerable populations of Internet and cell phone users. The resulting communications, cultural, and organizing strategy demonstrated that the often de-prioritized, technocratic issue of Internet policy can become both popular and progressive, when connected to social justice movements and the needs of local audiences.


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When MAG-Net began its work against the merger, says Steven Renderos, National Organizer at CMJ, “we knew we couldn’t come into this saying something wonky like ‘stop consolidation.’” Instead MAG-Net shifted

the debate through a campaign that deeply engaged individuals and organizations in poor communities of color. He continues, “We needed to build a connection to communities, to focus on the impact of the merger on people’s day to day lived experiences.” “We knew that we needed to talk about media policy in our own words,” asserts Renderos. Applying the hard-learned lessons from the earlier fight for Internet freedom was key. “When we were working on ‘net neutrality’,” he recalls, “the debate was totally shaped through a ‘neutrality’ lens which made it difficult to speak about marginalized communities.”

“When we were working on ‘net neutrality’,” Steven Renderos recalls, “the debate was totally shaped through a ‘neutrality’ lens which made it difficult to speak about marginalized communities.”

MAG-Net began by gathering facts on the merger’s impact in poor and people of color communities. They found, for example, that 15.9 million T-Mobile customers of color were expected to see a price increase for their mobile phone service if the merger was approved, and that 46 percent of blacks and 51 percent of Latinos access the Internet via mobile phones, versus 38 percent of the general population. Research by the National Hispanic Media Coalition (NHMC) found that T-Mobile had one of the largest work forces of color and that Latinos chose T-Mobile as a provider specifically for their affordable plans.

According to NHMC, “We’re looking at the number of people who are employed currently at T-Mobile, 48 percent of which we know are employees of color; and then the fact that, if the merger went through, as many as 20,000 people would potentially receive pink slips.” Translating these facts into messages, MAG-Net boldly asserted that the merger was a “real jobs and democracy killer.” MAG-Net distributed non-jargon fact sheets to MAG-Net member organizations all around the country, making sure that everyday people could understand the issue and bring their own experience and voice to the campaign. MAGNet specifically reached out to young people with a new song and video called “Mo’ Mergers Mo’ Problems” (based on Notorious B.I.G’s “Mo’ Money Mo’ Problems”), that proved extremely effective for local groups’ outreach and spread widely on YouTube. MAG-Net member organizations held popular education sessions where community members talked about the values and strengths in their communities and how technology and cell phones could either reinforce or undermine them. They reached out to organizations they didn’t already know, working in areas such as immigrant rights and housing. Given the chance

The resulting communications, cultural, and organizing strategy demonstrated that the often de-prioritized, technocratic issue of Internet policy can become both popular and progressive, when connected to social justice movements and the needs of local audiences. Translating these facts into messages, MAG-Net boldly asserted that the merger was a “real jobs and democracy killer.

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A Cultural Strategy


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to look at the merger through the lens of their own community history, people in low-income communities of color came out ready to fight. According to Amalia Deloney of the Center for Media Justice “community members now understood the message of MAG-Net: ‘It’s 100 percent clear that this merger is a job-killer. This is a massive horizontal merger, and that’s the kind that always costs jobs.” MAG-Net found ways to elevate community voices through blogs and “radio roundups” where they would set up clusters of interviews with local leaders on numerous radio stations in a concentrated period of time. They also organized congressional visits in district offices, where community members could speak face to face with elected officials.

The Internet in Our Hands Through its hyper-local network process, explains Renderos, “the issue took on a more localized identity.” In Minnesota, for example, the Secretary of State was invited to a discussion following one of the popular education sessions. As grassroots leaders talked about corporations harming communities, the Secretary of State began to make

the connection to his past work in rural areas, fighting for small farmers against agribusiness. The lived experience of MAG-Net members resonated deeply with his own lived experience, transforming him into a key ally. Ultimately, MAG-Net’s deeply local strategy paid off. People from all around the country signed on to its official comments to the Federal Communications Commission. On August 31, 2011, the Department of Justice filed an antitrust lawsuit against the merger using language directly from comments filed by MAG-Net and CMJ. In November, the FCC called for a review of the merger, signaling to everyone that the deal was off.

Resources www.mag-net.org/content/att-and-t-mobilemerger-bad-deal-communities-color-and-poor www.mag-net.org/node/962 MAG-Net letter to FCC and DOJ www.scribd.com/doc/56195088/ ATT-T-Mobile-Merger-Opposition-Letter


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Displacing the Dream: A Report on Bay Area News Coverage of Development and Gentrification. Youth Media Council, 2005. “House of Lies” by Debbie Cenziper, a seven part series published in the Miami Herald beginning on July 23, 2006. Interview with Gihan Perera, Critical Issues Forum, Vol. 3, Marking Progress: Movement Toward Racial Justice, July 2010 Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity. Keith Rushing, Advancement Project, November 2009.

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