Let’s talk about the secret every good consultant knows is true. This might scare a few of our colleagues: we’re not the experts! OK, I hope you’re still there for this non-expert opinion, hang in there, you’ll get your expert card back in a second.
Working on progressive issues as a communications firm, and with communities that are often facing generations of systemic barriers from oppressive policy, discrimination, and injustice around the very issues that determine our health, access to good-paying work, and social mobility often feels like needing to be an expert on all the causes we’re most passionate about at once. But, at RALLY we’d call B.S. on that.
We know the answers are often already in the room, and we understand our role as outsiders. We also know that equity efforts are most successful when those closest to the issue are engaged. We lean on the issue area expertise of the communities we advocate with to inform the strategic communications guidance we bring to our movements.
To underscore the point, we like the way one of the youths we met during our partnership with The California Endowment Youth Awards team put it, “Nothing about us, without us.” It’s a guiding change principle , “For Us, By us,” that shows up in our work over and over again — It acknowledges that (a) communities know how to solve the problems they face and (b) our job is to provide our strategic communications guidance (that is where we ARE experts) and then frankly…get our non-expert selves out of the way.
Through helping our clients build equity movements, we’ve learned a few lessons along the way:
1. Us, our, them and everyone in between.
We’re often asked to help our clients develop messaging, the language we use to talk about our issues. In our work, we’ve learned just how important it is to develop messaging in collaboration with clients, not just for clients. It means many iterations and exposing the sausage making process which can be uncomfortable and bring up nuances about how language might land in a community. And sometimes the nuances are simple:
“Crenshaw deserves economic development and investment, it’s been neglected for too long,”
The above message is NOT the same as:
“Our community deserves economic development, we’ve faced disinvestment for too long.”
What’s the difference? The second message centers community voices, “Our” and “We.” It centers the voices who should be speaking for their cause and illustrates their agency as advocates, rather than as weary victims. In the process of ensuring the work we create for communities is by the community, we craft sharper, more genuine messaging that drives campaigns forward.
2. This is not a clinical process — you have to be connected to the work.
RALLY has worked with the STAND-LA, (Stand. Together. Against. Neighborhood. (oil)-Drilling) Los Angeles) Coalition to protect communities impacted by toxic neighborhood oil drilling in Los Angeles for the last four years. Over the course of the campaign, urgent moments have come up where there has been a need to move communities to action.
Initial messaging went something like this:
“Los Angeles communities are rising up to fight toxic oil drilling that is poisoning our neighborhoods. Join the movement to protect our community.”
On its face the message is clear, succinct, and communicates urgency. But negates the fact that the community had been fighting toxic oil drilling in their neighborhoods for a generation. The next version of the messaging was as follows:
“With the brave leadership of communities like ours, we’ve made progress in the fight to end toxic oil drilling that is poisoning our neighborhoods. Join the movement to protect our community.”
Here you see it’s important to acknowledge the work that has already been done and is being built upon. Being culturally attuned in this way served as a bigger motivator in the neighborhoods we wanted to move to action.
3. Stronger because we’re together in this
There is a perceived tension between long-term changes (intersectionality narratives, cultural shifts) and short-term changes (accessibility, resources). There is an unreasonable and unhelpful pressure to choose which route is best: changing hearts and minds or opening doors today. It’s why we build so many of our engagements to include a capacity building component that powers communities to carry on this work from a communications perspective long after our formal engagements end. We do this for an important philosophical and practical reason: we believe that to win long-term we must build the army for justice.
Remember this: it’s our job to unearth solutions when it comes to moving our issues forward — The communities we advocate with already know the answers.