S05 E05: Winning the Narrative
Vanessa: Welcome to “Pod for the Cause,” the official podcast of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and the Leadership Conference Education Fund, where we expand the conversation on the critical civil and human rights issues of our day. I’m your host, Vanessa Gonzalez, coming to you from beautiful Washington, D.C. And like we start off every show, we’ve got the Pod Squad. I have an amazing crew with me today that will discuss pop culture, social justice, and everything in between. So some of these amazing folks are Miss Ellen Buchman, president at The Opportunity Agenda. Hey, Ellen.
Ellen: Hey, great to be here.
Vanessa: Awesome, my predecessor.
Ellen: Oh, please.
Vanessa: You set me up nice and neat. And then we have Dr. Jiggy Geronimo, a progressive research and messaging expert. Hey, Dr. Jiggy.
Dr. Jiggy: Hi.
Vanessa: Can I call you Dr. Jiggy?
Dr. Jiggy: Of course, you can.
Vanessa: Okay. And later in this episode, we will be joined by Tyler Lewis, who is director of messaging and project management at Third Sector. Let’s set the stage a little bit. We’re gonna be talking about narratives, messaging, and frame. So, what really does that look like? How do we build them? And how do we use them to advance civil rights? In our last episode on race and immigration, which if you have not listened to, you should listen to, the Pod Squad got into the topic of how narrative change can cause cultural shifts and impact policy outcomes. So we’re not just talking to hear ourselves talk, we’re talking and making narratives for policy change. So, today, we’re gonna dive straight into that with the experts.
The way we talk about things really matters. We all have grown up hearing words matter, and it is very, very true. We can change how people view and perceive our message based on the language we use, the structure of the story we tell, what or who we include or exclude, and what or who we really intentionally leave out. So, the study of this language, messaging, framing, and interpretation is called narrative research. So let’s talk a little bit about some of the examples of how impactful the narrative can be on our lives. So, I was trying to think about one this morning when I think about narrative, and I think we have them all throughout culture, right, and just in our day-to-day lives, whether or not we know it impacts us. But the example that came to mind was smoking. I think a lot of us grew up thinking smoking was cool, thinking Joe Camel. We saw the ads where, like, the beautiful supermodels were smoking. Y’all remember this?
Ellen: Oh, yeah.
Dr. Jiggy: Yeah.
Vanessa: And I remember just being like, “Oh, man.” And then it kind of got amped up a little bit when you saw the cigarette with those long skinny holders, remember that? Like, that was fancy smoking. And I remember thinking, “I need to smoke, like, this is cool. This is what women do.” And I did end up smoking in college, right? To be fair, I think a lot of people smoke in college and do other things. I no longer smoke or do any of those other things. But what I do think about is, at one point, smoking became not okay. We started to learn like, “No, you will die.” We started to feel like these tobacco companies weren’t in it. For us, it was really clear it was just about making money. Then we even started talking about the people who were harvesting the tobacco, and all of the health issues that they were going through. And it felt like that was a huge arc from being super cool, fancy smokers to, all of the sudden, “Oh, my god. I’m gonna die.” And I remember even to this day when I go into the doctor’s office, she’s like, “Have you ever smoked?” And I always kind of shamefully say, “Yeah, in college.” Right? And so it’s just this interesting vibe of it used to feel so cool, and now I feel ashamed. But I just want to lift that up as a really, I think widely known and felt narrative change, right? Am I right? Am I totally off on this?
Ellen: You’re 100% right. Absolutely.
Dr. Jiggy: Hundred percent right.
Vanessa: Okay. Great. That makes me feel better.
Ellen: Yeah. I mean, just on that, and it’s a great example, and you kind of set it, Vanessa. I’m sure Jiggy has a lot to say about this, too. It’s an example of something that I will just say we, using an I statement, but we, as you indicated, we’re surrounded by. And it was a frame that went from popularity to one of shame, and a frame that took on a lot of meaning. Everything from how does smoking impact health, to how do the facts matter around that, to what we do at The Opportunity Agenda, which is, you know, the values that the shaming actually had on people when they stopped smoking or themselves participated in that shaming in some way, shape, or form. So I think it’s a great example.
Dr. Jiggy: I think the important thing too to point out about that example is the things that you highlight about the narrative shift were the things about how it made people feel, right?
Dr. Jiggy: So, it used to feel cool, and then it started feeling shameful. And that’s a really important thing to think about with narrative is how are we making people feel, and how are we changing those feelings? Because as humans, we’re very driven by emotion.
Vanessa: Yeah. And I will tell you when I see someone on a hot, muggy, D.C. day having a cigarette outside, I’m just like, “Oh, why? How? How can you do that?” Okay, great. So, I’m glad I have some type of sense of what we’re talking about today.
Vanessa: That’s always good for the host. So, let’s talk a little bit more deeply about narrative. So, Ellen, in your podcast, and report, “Shifting the Narrative,” you talk about how narrative has shifted in key issue areas. So can you give us another example of one of the shifts and the impact it had on public opinion and policy?
Ellen: Let me back up for a quick sec just to make sure that we’re all dealing with the same understanding of terms here. So, at The Opportunity Agenda, and we are a social justice communication lab, opportunityagenda.org, we conducted a case study body of research to determine, quite frankly, the answer to your question, what are the things that contribute to, using your example, in smoking, and we took a look at six different case studies similarly, to the shift, right? And we concluded some fairly basic things as we were just talking about. Real quick the case studies that we looked at, and these are all downloadable on our website, and for those of you podcasters, you can listen to some interviews that go deeply into the assessment they’re in. But we looked at, “Narrative Shift and the Death Penalty,” “Narrative Shift: From The War on Poverty to “Ending Welfare as We Know It,” and that’s in quotes, narrative shift on the “Documentary Film and The “Blackfish” Effect,” and that was a film that captured how…
Ellen: Exactly. How the SeaWorld story impacted people’s viewpoint of, I’m just going to use the word, imprisoning animals, right? So we took a look at that. We took a look at sexual violence, and the narrative shifts around the Me Too movement. We took a look at gun politics, not gun rights, but “Gun Politics and Narrative Shift.” And finally, we took a look at “Narrative Shift and the Campaign to End Racial Profiling.” And in all of these instances, Vanessa, we found that a series of tipping points contributed to public sentiment, which later, in most cases, contributed to policy shift. But before I get into answering your question specifically, I’ll say, because it’s really important, and you already noted it, that in each of these instances, we noted that surrounding the conversation about each of these incredibly important topics was and still is culture. And I’m sure you’re familiar with the saying that culture will eat any strategy for breakfast. It’s kind of like a fish in water swimming around, not realizing that it’s in water, but knowing that it’s gonna swim because it’s in water. So, narrative is very similar, right? Narrative is the big story or stories that surround us when we’re contemplating our viewpoints on these topics, right? It’s the story, and at The Opportunity Agenda, that we walk around with that sets our context for what we believe in, and in some cases, actually conflicts with other stories, right, that we walk around with.
So let me give you the answer to your question. In the case of the death penalty, over the span of about 50 years, and this is a really important point, narrative shift can be a long-term proposition. Like, your example, it doesn’t happen overnight. It’s not a campaign where point and shoot messaging…sorry, I apologize for the analogy, where messaging with short-term goals in mind, I’ll just put it that way, succeeds. It’s a long-term proposition that takes into consideration a number of things that the culture surrounding it contributes to. So, on the death penalty, in that timeframe, we saw, through our analysis, public opinion shift from a majority of support for capital punishment, to acknowledgment, and this is an important value, and Jiggy uplifted the importance of feelings and values with your smoking example, that people viewed the system finally as though it were treating people unfairly.
And that is because of, I would say, the advocates, the grassroots organizers, the litigators, and the communicators working together on a strategy, to where we are now, which is that, in that timeframe, the support for capital punishment in some states has actually plummeted to well below that threshold 50%. It’s pretty amazing. And all of that is to say… and there are a lot of contributing factors to that particular example which we can get into. You know, in our view, at The Opportunity Agenda, the tipping points got sort of knitted together through what were then and now, long-term and short-term strategies used by people who are nimble, right? I mean, sometimes we’re not, I’m just gonna own it. Sometimes I want my strategy and I want to just be what it is.
Vanessa: It’s gonna work. It’s gonna work.
Ellen: It’s gonna work. It’s kind of like the definition of insanity. Why do we keep doing it, if it doesn’t, right? But these folks, in this example, demonstratively were nimble. And I’m going to point to people like EJI, the Equal Justice Initiative, and Bryan Stevenson’s amazing work in Alabama, and the work that he did to really get folks to understand in that example with that amazing 60 Minutes interview, and I should have the date right in front of me, but I don’t, all those years ago, you know, this is an unfair system. And he used the media to portray that, right? So used the system that he and his team had to be able to portray that and get folks to understand that they didn’t feel that it was right because it wasn’t fair as that value that he was really trying to poke a bit.
Vanessa: Yeah. That’s been some excellent work. Decades in the making. For folks that don’t know Bryan Stevenson, he has an amazing book. It’s also a movie and the EJI Institute is fantastic. So, thank you so much for that, Ellen. I think it also points, right, this can actually save lives.
Vanessa: How we talk about this narrative, how we build it up. I love the analogy of the fish in water, and I will steal that. So, thank you.
Vanessa: And so I wanna talk to Dr. Jiggy about her work. In your work, you’re not only helping us, and I say us by folks who are like pro-democracy, pro-voting, you’re helping folks to, not only build a powerful narrative, but you’re making sure that organizers, advocates, organizations, you know, elected officials, also, I think, understand what environment we’re swimming in. So, can you tell us a little bit about, not only how do you build that powerful narrative but right now when you ask people questions, it feels very doom and gloom. So how do you also keep that balance in the perspective of, like, “Hey, you all may feel like you can’t see anything in the water, but the rest of the world is, like, beautiful and clear waters.”
Dr. Jiggy: In terms of how we build a powerful narrative, building off already what Ellen said, I think one of the key pieces of that is having the narrative be values-based. So it has to be rooted in the values that people hold near and dear to their hearts. Because the values that we hold are part of what defines our identity, and so much of how we think about the world we view through how we feel about ourselves, right? And, again, it goes back to the power of emotion that I said, and the example you gave about smoking, which is that it made you feel cool, and then it made you feel shameful. And that really points to the power of emotions in the way that we make decisions, the way that we think about the world emotions are. Some of our most basic brain structures and how emotional the stimuli around us are, actually impact our memory. So we have a better memory of emotional stimuli. And importantly, actually, positive emotional content is remembered better than negative emotional content.
Dr. Jiggy: Yeah. So, this explains why you’re going to remember your wedding or your birthday party, but you very quickly forget how bad that relationship was as the time goes on.
Vanessa: That explains so much.
Dr. Jiggy: Yeah. We are programmed to kind of forget bad and remember the good. So when we have emotional stimuli, especially positive emotional stimuli, it really facilitates our memory. So, when we think about a powerful narrative, it has to evoke emotions in order for it to stick. The other part of a powerful narrative is that idea of it sticking, right? So, it has to be repeated over, and over, and over, and over, and over again, in order for it to actually breakthrough. Think about how many things we consume every day in our lives, especially in the digital world, because that number of stimuli that we see on a daily basis is enormous. And so the only way that things actually stick is if they are repeated over and over and over.
Dr. Jiggy: The part about repetition is important because it also means that our message has to be good enough to be repeated. We can’t just will our message to be repeated, we need the message, the narrative to be compelling enough that people actually want to repeat it. And there’s a neural mechanism here as well for the repetition. So something you learn in sort of neuroscience 101 is the idea of Hebbian plasticity, which is the idea that neurons that fire together wire together, which basically means that when you activate the same neural pathways over and over, those connections get strengthened. What we see in the brain, there’s something called the illusory truth effect, which is basically the really simple idea that information that is repeated over and over and over is believed by your brain to be true. And so because those connections have been strengthened, your brain is able to process repeated and more familiar information more easily. And that ease of processing leads your brain to believe that it is more true. When we repeat the same thing over and over and over, it makes our brain process it easier, and it is more likely to be remembered, and it is more likely to be believed to be true.
Vanessa: This is amazing because, of course, I didn’t take my neuroscience-ology class.
Ellen: That’s why you have Dr. Jiggy.
Vanessa: Yes. That’s why we have Dr. Jiggy. So right now I think is a pivotal moment for our country. I feel like I say that every year. For this year, though, we’re gonna have big elections, we’re coming out of the previous administration, which was creating a very powerful narrative about how bad our country is for some people, about how bad other people are. And it seems very dark and gloomy, but it seems something that has really spoken truth to a lot of folks, and so it just keeps growing. So how do we push back with some positivity, and actually, let’s be real, some truth?
Ellen: I totally hear you on that, and every day, I stumble into the same sort of quandary that you’re mentioning and appreciate you bringing it up a lot, Vanessa. I mean, we’re surrounded by really terrible hardship. It’s almost impossible to forget that. But one of the things that this brings up for me is something that we, and I heard this implicitly in what Jiggy said, try to remind folks that we really need to establish our own frame and our own aspirational story, and not constantly be trying to seek out, as we say at The Opportunity Agenda, how we myth-bust our opponent’s story. And Jiggy’s got, I’m sure, I’m really interested in hearing you, Dr. Jiggy, explain why our brains tempt us to do this, but we know from our research that when we myth-bust, and that just means, “No, you’re wrong. Here’s why I’m right,” kind of thing, and present the facts that are to us implicit and make them explicit. Our research shows that people actually remember the story of our opponent that we’re trying to bust more than they tend to remember what we’re trying to replace it with. Which is why, for us, we’re constantly really working hard to work with social justice innovators, and leaders, no matter what the topic, to come up with their own story, their own aspiration, their own frame.
So, in the example that I gave you before, everyone should be able to live and understand that their life matters. Everyone should be able to be treated fairly by our justice system no matter who they are, or what the color of their skin is. Everyone should be able to achieve prosperity and get opportunity. These are value statements that I’m just using as examples that we use actually all the time when we’re thinking about the justice system in particular. And then we talk about, okay, paint that picture and actually use examples through the stories and the experiences of those who themselves have been impacted by these stories. As the saying goes, “Those who are closest to the pain tend to have the best solutions, tend to understand the pain and what can replace it with, with their own aspiration.”
And so really work hard to do that, because that will give audiences… and work hard to figure out who you’re talking to as well. There’s no such thing as a general public, but I won’t get into that. The attention that is different, that Jiggy already talked about, toward that positive story. This is a big, big lesson learned that over and over again in the case studies that I shared before, we were constantly reminded of, and there are a number of examples of that. So that is my quick answer to your question, how do we replace the hardship? It’s really concentrate on what your aspirational frame is, and then ask people to lean into it, tell that story, reach for it, and provide solutions that are grounded in those values.
Vanessa: I love it. So put the people most impacted, as we always say, as the messengers, lift up their stories, let’s really talk about the realness. Dr. Jiggy, to that point, and again, we’d love to hear your responses and your reactions to Ellen as well, but it feels like we try, and it almost feels like there’s this unification if we think about white patriarchy.
Ellen: Sing it, sister.
Vanessa: Male superiority, right? It feels like, I hear you, right? I’m thinking about an immigrant mother, right, who has come on her journey here, right, to make a better life for her family. And she is being honest, she’s laying it all out there painfully, right? She’s telling her story. But oftentimes, as we know, the majority of elected officials are white males, don’t identify with that story and they may not feel any sense of solidarity with her. They feel a sense of solidarity in protecting the supremacy, right, that they live in. That just got really deep and dark. I’m sorry.
Dr. Jiggy: It’s real.
Vanessa: Yeah. So, Dr. Jiggy, how do we push and break through for those people, right? Because to Ellen’s point, we have to know who we’re talking to you, but we also want to lift and center stories. So, what do we do?
Dr. Jiggy: We do have to name the villain. So, just as important as having an aspirational value and vision, we have to speak the truth about what’s going on. We have to name the villain, we have to shine a light on what they’re doing. I think the important thing to remember though, is that we have to couple that doom and gloom reality with the hope and agency that people feel like they actually have the ability to make a change. So as my friend, Anat Shenker-Osorio, often says, “No one wants to buy a ticket to the Titanic.” Right? People want to know that change is possible. So part of that is how much we talk about us versus them. So we have to talk about them because that is the reality of what’s going on. But we have to talk about ourselves and our vision, and our stories twice as much, especially in this moment when people are tired and burned out. We’ve been in a pandemic for almost two years.
Vanessa: Of course.
Dr. Jiggy: This is a universal shared feeling. This is where people are at, and we have to acknowledge that reality because otherwise, it feels tone-deaf.
Vanessa: I appreciate that, right? We don’t want to be Pollyanna walking in thinking, “Hey, y’all, it’s gonna be great. We’re gonna get along.” We definitely know we don’t. And I think there is a very real desire to have a shared humanity, right? And share those stories in the hope that it will make it better. I think when you start to inject toxicity, as we saw in the last presidential election, I think when the other side so clearly owns the frame of, this is what those people have done to you and it’s your turn to take it back, it just feels that, again, to Ellen’s point about, you know, the little fish swimming in that water of culture. It feels really hard.
Ellen: Yeah, it is really hard. Nothing about what we’re describing, as Jiggy said, you know, doesn’t take redundancy, and repetitiveness, and commitment to these changes that I think people actually have to build muscle mass around. I’ll just name it. I mean, I have my own examples that I point to of when I built muscle mass around the short-term messaging and organizing campaigns without consideration for how those efforts were undermining, in some instances, the long-term story that I was trying to tell. I’ll give you an example. And I’m not sitting here throwing anyone under the bus. If anything, I think we all learned together from this perfect example of the storm that we were in. So when President Obama was about to announce the executive order that would create DACA, and I know you got into this a little bit in your last episode, but it really provoked all of us to try and come up with short-term messaging. And we were asked for help, the White House asked us for help, right? You probably remember. We were like, “Sure, sign us up, we want to get this one over the finish line.” Right? And that’s the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, DACA program that we now know.
At that time, Vanessa, the messages that we came up with were targeting legislators, right? Mainly Republicans, people that we wanted to bring along with us, for all the reasons you know, you’re an expert on how to do this, right? And some of those messages were things like, “Through no fault of their own, they’re here so we should make their lives as focused and as full of prosperity as possible.” Now, in hindsight, that terminology, “Through no fault of their own,” what was it doing? It was throwing their parents under the bus. And I don’t want to say that because of this we’re dealing with the criminalization of people who are undocumented. But I do think it contributed to that, and certainly contributed to the sentiment that those folks are somehow criminals in our society.
And so thinking about the connection, and building the muscle mass, is the point that I’m trying to make, around what it takes to not only create that story, but to Jiggy’s great point, “Look, guys, we got to be real about this, we got to create the story, and we got to be grounded with who the villain is when we do that.” We need to be connecting the two. It’s not enough to do that without making that connection. And that’s another lesson that we learned, we need to know and analyze the counter-narrative, including who the villains are in it, and what they’re trying to get over with so that we can really poke holes in it and bring up the values that we know from our experiences people care deeply about and will connect with us around, if that makes sense.
Vanessa: That’s an excellent point. Jiggy, your input here is going to be really phenomenal on how we change our perspective on this because I will be someone who deals with legislative fights at the federal level, who tries to be supportive at the state level. But oftentimes, it’s like, “Okay, man. Like, that’s not really the end goal, but we got to get this baby win.” And if I got to change something to get the little win in to get the bigger goal, I don’t like it, but fine, fine, fine, I’ll do it. But then I think what we see happen is then people are like, “Oh, wait, wait, wait. So, you weren’t really wedded to that value?” You really need to be squishy on that value. Right? And then we’ll go out and message and say, “No, this is what we want.” And it’s like, “But did you? Because you kind of gave a little bit.” Right? And it’s that compromise versus where our value is, like, really solid.
So, Jiggy, you talked specifically about, like, we have to lead with our values. I hear your voice and I hear Tyler’s voice in my head all the time, lead with your values, tell people what you stand for. But in a world where we are looking at how we have to give and get, and I think when we think about the Biden administration, in particular, they are really in this hard place. And unfortunately, a couple of members are holding very important legislation hostage, for reasons I don’t know. You all can think about it. How do we lead with our values when we’ve had to kind of shirk back from them a little bit?
Dr. Jiggy: I struggle with it because, right, we want the biggest best thing, because we believe in our values fundamentally, but we also have to cope with reality and what’s possible. And I think the way to message that is important because you don’t want your audience, like you said, to feel like you’re abandoning them, or that actually, you’re a liar and you say you believe in this thing, but you’re willing to give it away. So, I think we have to paint the picture of how each of these steps forward gets us toward a value without kind of celebrating it as the end. So one thing that we say a lot is that we’re working to realize the promise of American democracy, right? Which is accepting that we don’t have a democracy now, really, nor have we ever if we think about the fact that this country was built specifically to exclude black and brown people. And so this is an aspirational vision value that we’re trying to achieve. And so we’re working towards that, and I think that’s the way to talk about values while also understanding and dealing with the reality, which is we’re trying to get to a place, and this is part of our roadmap to get there, but it’s not the destination.
Vanessa: And we want you with us on that roadmap.
Dr. Jiggy: …on this journey. Exactly.
Vanessa: Yeah. On this journey.
Ellen: Yeah. I mean, I hear you, and I totally agree. And, like, Jiggy’s framing is spot on, and I’ll just name one of those senators. When Senator Sinema thinks that her people matter more than the power she has because of the pharmaceutical industry, you know that threshold presentation of values will have been successful. And I see evidence of the slow process and progress toward that end. Look, I got to be aspirational, and ambitious, and optimistic, or I wouldn’t be in this work, Vanessa.
Vanessa: For sure. Yeah.
Dr. Jiggy: So, I got to believe, and that goes back to the point Jiggy just made, it’s the journey, not the destination, right? And so the more we can be reminded and look for those tipping points, and actually wire ourselves to be looking for them, and to do another thing that we constantly are trying to reinforce, which is, identify and dismantle the assumptions that that Senator is counting on, right? Because, frankly, it’s up to us to pick them out, and to say, “You know what, here’s why that’s not fair.” Or, “Here’s why that power is not the power that matters, this is.” Right? As I said, you know, the power of people, of all people. So that’s what I’m talking about here. And it doesn’t, when you do that, mean that you’re, like, acting as though there’s noise in the other room that you’re ignoring. Instead, you’re combining that noise with your point, with your message, and with your story, as you lean into telling it.
Vanessa: Oh, I love that. That is a tactic we don’t use. I think we just live with assumptions, right? We know they have them, and so we’re like, “All right, well, that’s not gonna work because they think this about people.” That really calls into my mind the abortion narrative. And particularly, I’ve spoken about it in the past, abortion narrative when it comes to the Latino community, and how forever it was perceived that, one, that we are all Catholic, we are not all Catholic, and that we are all against abortion. It just didn’t matter.
Ellen: Aren’t y’all from Mexico too?
Vanessa: We’re all from Mexico as well. My family actually is, so, hey, I just have to joke a little with you. I just had a little joke. But it’s, like, you know, one of those things and you actually did the research and talk to the community, it was like…
Ellen: It’s a lot more complicated than that.
Vanessa: Yeah, that is not true. And to blanket it and just assume the community is off of the table for talking to you…
Ellen: It does a disservice to our arguments, and to the story, and to the inclusivity that our movements are so beautifully trying to remind society that they represent and are, right? If we as advocates, or leaders, or, whatever, fill in the blank what we do, don’t consider that. And so I’m glad you brought that up because, again, no population is monolithic, and as my friend Tyler Lewis used to remind me, it’s really important, and to your point, that we understand, you know, what is at the heart of the values of those individuals so that we can, not only interrogate them, but understand them and uplift them so that we can bring people along with us.
Vanessa: Just talk to people. Ask them how they feel about it.
Ellen: Just talk to people. Absolutely.
Vanessa: Jiggy, is narrative alone enough to make changes in policy and public opinion?
Dr. Jiggy: Good question. I would say no, my take is no. It’s a very important ingredient. I think we can’t win without a good narrative, but we need a lot more than that. I mean, nothing is one without organizing as well. There’s also value in sort of inside strategy. It’s all-important. And so when we campaign, we need all these pieces and we need all these pieces to work together. I often find that campaigns are siloed. The comms people are over here doing one thing, the organizing folks are in the field doing another thing, and the folks are talking to legislators saying something completely different. And so, we’ve to bring all those pieces together.
Vanessa: Ellen, what do you think? What else do we need?
Ellen: Oh, totally. Dr. Jiggy said it. I mean, we need to be, not only communicating and listening to those whose stories matter the most, and, not but, we also need to be communicating, and listening, and interrogating our own impressions of those stories and those strategies that we are creating. And that’s something that a lot of times, because of how frickin’ worn down we all are, I mean, really, that’s real, we don’t enable ourselves adequate spaces, places to do that, right? And so that’s a lesson. And then the other thing, too, is that analysis, I think is held by so many. One thing that I try really hard to remember, you know, if we can simply work to redefine who the experts are, no offense, Dr. Jiggy, you’re a doctor so that means you’re automatically an expert, you already were though, right? You already were. This is my point, you have your own story to tell, many stories to tell, and that makes you an expert in the content of those stories, right? And so I think, frankly, the more we can remember that, I think the more success we will have because, again, it’s about our audiences. And those folks also have stories to tell. It’s the big story. It’s the narrative in their head that we’re trying to shift. And we need to make sure that we can reach them and treat them as being the experts of their own stories.
Vanessa: I’ve learned so much today. I’ve learned so many things we’re not doing right too.
Ellen: I’m not trying to shame you, gal.
Dr. Jiggy: We can do better.
Vanessa: Now I’m shamed again. So, as we do in every episode of “Pod for the Cause,” to that point, we all would not be in this line of work if we did not have some optimism.
Ellen: No, you’re right. Absolutely.
Vanessa: And if we were not like, “We can do better. Humans should survive.” But I want to ask the question, I’m going to go first with you, Dr. Jiggy, in these dark times, what gives you hope?
Dr. Jiggy: People, you all, working with folks across the country. I know the forces we’re up against seem huge, it seems like a constant battle. But when you actually talk to people, we do have the same values, and there are more of us. It’s all just about coming together and doing what needs to be done to keep fighting.
Vanessa: Love it. Ellen, what gives you hope?
Ellen: I would say what she said. And when I let myself think about the changes that in my little life I’ve seen for the good, whether the examples that I’ve given you on the death penalty or now as a person who’s married to my partner of 26 years, because I can be, and at a time in my life I was that person that didn’t think the institution of marriage was something I wanted anything to do with. I’m just raising this up to say, I should think about those examples more, and remember that these changes are possible when I do. And then combine that with the people, as Jiggy said. Like, think about the people who are younger than the three of us and everything that they are doing, whether it’s in the streets, or whether it’s to communicate with the world about what is right, and I’m thinking about climate justice when I say this to you, I’m blown away. I’m blown away. So those are the two things that I want to knit together and tell you why I think the changes will come, they will come.
Vanessa: I love that. I love that.
Dr. Jiggy: What about you, Vanessa? What gives you hope?
Vanessa: Oh, you know what? So, this is always canned response, but it’s really it is true, and is you. You know, I’ve talked about my daughter on this podcast before and I have a little nine-year-old who’s politically active.
Ellen: Wait, she’s nine now?
Vanessa: She is nine now.
Ellen: Shut up.
Vanessa: Yeah. And she started…
Ellen: She’s going on 13.
Vanessa: I mean, like, 25. But she and her buddy didn’t like the way some stuff was going at school and they started a petition. And she showed me the petition. Now, they got sidetracked by actual nine-year-old things, but she is, March when she talks about things…it’s November and so she said that they’re learning in school about the real meaning of Thanksgiving, and what it really happened, and…
Dr. Jiggy: Oh, that’s amazing.
Vanessa: …the tribal land her school sits on. And I told her, I was like, “I never had these discussions growing up.”
Dr. Jiggy: Yeah.
Ellen: Exactly. That’s the thing.
Dr. Jiggy: My little niece calls me once a week to read me a book. And last week she called, she’s six years old, and she called and read me a book about MLK that she was reading.
Vanessa: It’s amazing.
Dr. Jiggy: And she’s six.
Vanessa: It’s just gonna be part of how they think and grow, and that’s how it is.
Ellen: That’s right. It’s how it is. I mean, the fact that so many young people today think that being bigoted against queer people is just something that is like, “What the wha-…” I mean, let’s celebrate that. That is progress, and that’s a long, long-term progress, right? And so congratulations, Mama Bear.
Vanessa: Thank you. My little [inaudible 00:35:34]
Ellen: It doesn’t surprise me that she wrote a petition. The apple don’t fall far from tree.
Vanessa: I do tell her, “Go to medical school. Go do something else.”
Dr. Jiggy: I love it.
Vanessa: But I want to say thank you, thank you, thank you to both of you, Dr. Jiggy Geronimo, the wonderful, Ellen Buchman, my predecessor. So, thank you so much for this time, for your knowledge, for your inspiration. This has been so good.
Ellen: Well, thank you.
Dr. Jiggy: Thank you, Vanessa.
Ellen: And hats off to you for allowing for this space. It’s so important.
Vanessa: And now I am thrilled to have a special conversation with Tyler Lewis, director of messaging and project management at Third Sector, also, my former colleague, one of my favorite colleagues, don’t tell everybody. So, Tyler, I learned a ton from you, honestly, about narrative building and narrative crafting, and all of the mistakes that we tend to make in trying to really get our point across, but with passion. And I think sometimes when people such as yourself need to control the narrative for advocates, sometimes it can feel like you’re trying to put a lid on us. So, can you talk a little bit about why that’s important? Why do you got to put a lid on me, Tyler?
Tyler: Sure. So, first of all, thanks for having me. And I’m excited to talk about this with you and with the listeners. I think the thing that I think people sometimes forget is that you want to be telling a story, you want to be crafting a narrative that the advocates can feel ownership of. So you never want to be forcing people into something that doesn’t feel natural, doesn’t feel real and true to what we’re trying to do. The reality is that the way that human beings understand the world is through story. Before we had the written language, even before we had the alphabet, we had stories, right? And those stories consist of metaphors that tell us and help us understand what’s going on in our world. So, David and Goliath is a sort of archetypal story of the small guy versus the big guy, right? And when you hear that story, everyone knows what it means even if you don’t remember all the specifics of the story. And the same is true in narrative crafting when you’re working in political fights. You want to sort of tell a story about the world that you were trying to build for your movements, and you want to tap into some of those archetypal stories, right? That’s why this sort of narrative of, you know, Main Street versus Wall Street really works because that’s the David and Goliath story, right?
Vanessa: Oh, got you.
Tyler: Wall Street is a big, big player and Main Street is really small, or perceived to be, right? It takes something really complicated like our economic system, and boils it down to something really simple. And what you want is that simplicity, because what you want is people to engage at the level that they can understand. We don’t have time to turn everyone into policy advocates, we need people to sort of be engaged at the level that they’re engaged and feel meaningfully connected to the movement. And story is the best way to do that.
Vanessa: I really do appreciate that. And I think particularly for those of us from communities of color, we know stories since we were little kids. I can think of stories, often scary stories within Mexican culture, but they stuck with me right? I mean, those stories.
Vanessa: And I knew that it meant not to get too far away from my parents, right? Like, come back, right, or else La Llorona or someone scary was gonna come and grab me. I want to hone in on a little bit about what you said about there has to be some form of simplicity, right? The big guy versus the little guy, you want to root for the little guy. But one of the issues I think that gets lost in that might be some of this nuance. Now, I’m going to pose this to you and say, recognizing, I think progressives always are trying to get people to be policy experts, or they want to have people remember the specific talking point and the nuance when it’s in this situation, and that a lot of times that’s not effective. So, how do you balance that?
Tyler: Yeah. A lot of it is really understanding who we’re talking to, and what we want them to do. One of the big mistakes that progressives make all the time is in thinking that the purpose of our communications is to remind people how smart we are, when really our job is to help people understand how us being smart gets them the things they need in their life. So me now understanding voting policy or me understanding education policy is going to make your child’s school better, is going to make sure that your polling place doesn’t move. And so part of what we have to think through is there are times for education and there’s times to sort of let people understand a lot of complicated, confusing information. But when it’s time to mobilize, we need something very simple, and we need something that really gets connects emotionally to people. People do not make rational decisions. People make emotional decisions, particularly in political discourse.
Vanessa: Have you seen that shifting over time? Like, what has been your experience? You have a long and successful history in this work, and I think particularly looking at your body of work in civil rights, and it feels almost like we’re coming back on the other end, right? It felt like we had this great triumph, people were finally understanding civil rights, and then you have all these really basic arguments against it. And then you had the Trump election, of course, and now it continues to swing. Can you tell us a little bit about some of the shifts that you’ve seen and maybe predicted a little bit of the future? Are we going to be back at zero again?
Tyler: Oh, those are really tough questions. I mean, one example of something that I think worked really well in the civil rights space was, really, an effort that we did a couple of years ago around the U.S. Department of Education. For a lot of people, people think of the U.S. Department of Education, if they think of it at all, as the federal agency that makes sure that school districts get money, right? So, they think of it as like a bank, in some ways. And that’s really the extent to which they know what it does. But there’s a whole section, and really, the whole department is engaged in protecting the civil rights of every child that goes to a school in the United States. And that’s both K-12 and higher ed, right? They have a responsibility for protecting your civil rights. So if you’re discriminated against because you are an Indian woman, or you’re discriminated against because you are a child with disability, or you’re learning English as a second language, all those identities are protected under federal law.
Under the previous administration, the Secretary of Education was a woman named Besty DeVos, who people may or may not remember. When she came in, she was sort of renowned for being really wealthy, and being a voucher proponent. And those were the two things that people said about her. And for a lot of people, that was enough, right? Like, another rich person coming in to government who doesn’t know what they’re doing. And that was true. But from our perspective as civil rights advocates, you know, what we knew of her was a real hostility to civil rights enforcement. So her in charge of the largest institution, protecting children’s civil rights in education, was really scary. And so we embarked on a real project to sort of make sure people understood that the Department of Education had a civil rights enforcement function, and that this particular person running that department put those protections in jeopardy.
And so it wasn’t really about explaining Title IX, it wasn’t really about explaining disparate impact, it was about saying, “Regardless of who your child is and how they identify, they have rights under the federal government. They have a right to an education and they have a right to that education being protected from any sort of mischief.” And so, if they were being discriminated against, they had recourse. And under that administration, that was less true, because they were undoing a lot of those protections systematically and consistently over the course of that administration. And so we spent a lot of time just hammering the department every time it did something, or proposed to do something, or hinted it was going to do something, such that now there are more people in the country who understand the role that the department plays in civil rights enforcement they didn’t know before.
Vanessa: I love it. And I think that having seen that from the outside as well, you all were able to really kind of set the table. And so she obviously did not help herself either. I remember finding out she’d never been involved in a public school system. So, how is this woman going to be running public schools, right? But you’d already set the table and so that was just, like, another punch.
Tyler: Because it became such a prominent part of the way that people sort of looked at her and looked at the work she was doing, when she would go before Congress, they would ask her civil rights questions, right? So, it wasn’t just that they were asking her questions about vouchers or asking her about who she donated to, or any of that stuff, but they were asking her, “Hey, are you going to enforce the laws that protect students with disabilities? Are you going to protect trans kids’ rights? Are you going to protect the rights of kids not be discriminated against because they are learning English?” Any of those things were things that really weren’t questions that were asked of previous Secretaries of Education, partly because we hadn’t really thought about the Department in that way prior, but also because she was a uniquely dangerous figure, because she was hostile to everybody. It wasn’t just black kids, it wasn’t just…she was hostile to everything. She fundamentally didn’t believe that the federal government should be protecting civil rights for any child. And that’s particularly dangerous. And so we had to make sure people knew that.
Vanessa: She should have just walked up there and said, “No, no, no, no, no, no, no.”
Tyler: I mean, she kind of did.
Vanessa: “I’m not gonna help anybody.” I mean, she kind of did. You’re right. She kind of did.
Tyler: I mean, she kind of did.
Vanessa: Thankfully, she is gone.
Tyler: Yes, she’s gone.
Vanessa: She’s gone. So let’s talk a little bit about this. We’re talking about minds and how you can, you know, really bring that emotion into the fight. And I think as someone who relies on the emotion to move the fight, right? And working with communications folks and messaging folks like yourselves, I think we often are like, “Okay, I have to reset, what is the end goal here? Is the end goal to change policy now? Is the end goal to change policy in four years?” Like, what is the end goal? Can you talk a little bit about what is that relationship, right, between changing minds and changing policy?
Tyler: It’s sort of a little bit of a push-pull for the whole time. Ideally, you want to be thinking about your ultimate goal. Our ultimate goal is a more just society, right? Like, that’s what civil rights folks are pushing for. And there are any number of sort of plateaus and sort of benchmarks we can hit along the way. And narrative shift is really about creating sort of discursive space for that change to happen. It is very difficult to have a real change in immigration policy that is good immigration policy change, if we’re talking about the people at the center of that as illegal. Because now we’re talking about whether or not people have broken a law versus whether or not a system is actually making it possible for people to come to the United States in any meaningful way.
And that’s a really important shift to make moving from illegal to undocumented, like, coincided with, and was part of the reason that immigration reform grew in support over the last 15 years, because we were changing the kind of conversation we wanted to have about immigration. So if you’re having the right kind of conversation with the right kind of people at the right volume and tenor, you can also see shifts in people’s perspective on the issue, and then hopefully, they change their perspective on the kind of policy change you want to have. And how long that takes really depends a lot to a great degree on just how big you’re going to go. Like, the immigrant rights fight over the last 15 years was massive. It was well funded, a lot of groups were engaged, a lot of communities were engaged, it was probably one of the three, or four, or five biggest stories consistently over the last decade. And that was because the movement made it so.
Vanessa: On the flip side, we know changing language and using the word undocumented, right? And we see that also more in popular culture, which is fantastic, and I love it. But I guess it does harden the other side even more so, right?
Vanessa: And do we feel like it lessens numbers on their side? Or does it create an opening for people to say, “See, see, I told you. These liberals, blah, blah, blah, blah?”
Tyler: The thing about your opposition is that they’re always going to be bad. There isn’t anything we can do, and what we say that is going to make people who are fundamentally opposed to us change from being fundamentally opposed. It’s not about our words, it’s about what we believe. They don’t agree with what we believe in. So one of the mistakes that progressives make all the time is in thinking that we’re going to shift people who are starkly opposed to us. That there is some magic place where we’re going to get 100% agreement on our thing. In truth, what we want is we want our base super, super engaged, and we want to be moving people in the middle. And these are people who are conflicted, right? They’re people who hold conflicting ideas in their head at the same time. So, they are people who fundamentally think that we should have a more fair immigration system, but might actually be really freaked out that there are more brown people in their community. And those two things exist together. We always say you want to dial up their good stuff, and dial down their bad stuff, and move them into our camp. The truth of the matter is that the more success that we get, the more virulent our opposition is going to get.
Vanessa: For sure.
Tyler: And there isn’t really anything we can do about that.
Vanessa: It gets really brutal sometimes and it’s low blows a lot, right? You’re like, “Wow. Okay.”
Tyler: Well, in civil rights, it’s existential. And we can turn, to take it back to the narrative for a second, the people who are opposed to civil rights have a very particular story of the United States in mind. It is a story of individual effort, and discovery, and exceptionalism. And all of those things were not true. This land existed before Europeans came, there were people living on it, right? So nothing was discovered. We didn’t sort of, like, explore, we stole, and we plundered, and we destroyed, and we slaughtered the people who were here. But that’s a story they believe. And so much of what civil rights advocacy is, is telling a fuller, more deeper, more real, more honest story about the country we have been, the country we can be. And for some people, that is an existential threat to who they believe we’re supposed to be. And so they get angry. They’re not gonna stop that because they fundamentally believe that United States is something other than what we believe it is.
Vanessa: Well, and they also came up in a system that continuously told them they were right.
Vanessa: Even coming up on Thanksgiving holiday, there’s a very clear story. I was watching “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving” the other day, and I thought, “Oh, I can’t watch this anymore. The whole thing is wrong.”
Tyler: Yeah. Like, America tells a very powerful, but very inaccurate story. And it exports our story all over the world, right? Like, the cultural hegemony of the United States is massive. And we’re doing, like, the little bit of work we’re trying to do to sort of shift that story, to tell a different, fuller story.
Vanessa: So, we’re talking about all of this, and we’re talking about how people really get into this emotionally on both sides, right? And how you can just put your foot down. Let’s talk a little bit about Race-Class Narrative. Can you first give the actual definition for what it is or as close as you can, what it actually is? And then what do people pretend to know what it is?
Tyler: First, we should give credit to Demos and Anat, and a number of really great researchers and organizations that really spent years and tons of money sort of developing the Race-Class Narrative. It’s really their work. But essentially, the goal of the Race-Class Narrative is to find a way to talk about race and class that is a more powerfully persuasive narrative than either the opposition narrative, right? Which is sort of racist and classist. Or, the preferred narrative of progressives, which is a race-neutral message. This idea that the only way to win, like, five more people in Wisconsin, or Ohio, or Indiana is to never ever say the R-word, or say black or brown, or whatever. What the Race-Class Narrative essentially proved was that neither of those things is true. That we can actually talk explicitly about race and class together, and actually move people to our side, both to our policy positions and to being more honest and direct about exactly what’s going on in our country.
And ultimately, what it is about is sort of understanding fundamentally, one, we all have a race, right? Like, oftentimes in racial discourse, we are setting black and white in opposition to each other, so such that Black has features and White doesn’t. And what that does for white people is it makes them feel like they’re left out. In most, they move to the world, they don’t think about their race, because whiteness is invisible. But by making it visible in the same way that black is visible, and putting it together, you can actually sort of move people. So you can say that, like, all of us, whether we’re white, black, brown, or Asian, deserve to live the life of our dreams so that everybody is included in that. And that enables people to see themself in the future that we aspire for the country.
Vanessa: So, when we saw the white working-class say that they felt really ignored during the Obama administration, is that what we’re talking about?
Tyler: So, first, I would say, and this is me speaking solely as myself. The Democrats haven’t done anything for people, from working people for 50 years, and are largely uninterested in doing so, for lots of reasons. A lot of what people are thinking about when they’re thinking about the way in which Democrats have failed white working-class people is that so much of the discourse around race and class puts people of color and white people in opposition to one another. And so when we talk about doing things for black, and brown, and Asian people, or are we intimate that we’re going to do things for Black, Brown and Asian people in a way that makes white people think that they’re not getting something, or that something’s being taken away from them. When in truth, a truly equitable distribution of resources recognizes that everybody deserves to get what they need, but there are some people who are situated differently, right? So there are white folks in Appalachia who need more than middle-class white people in Virginia. And there are black people who need more than white people in Virginia based on any number of factors.
So, it makes people feel like there is a pie with a limited number of slices. Like, we have a large pizza, and we only have 12 slices. And if you give black people three slices, then what are we doing with the other nine slices? Part of it is you have to get people out of this sort of zero-sum mentality. But to answer your question specifically about the Obama administration, there has not been any meaningful movement on the progressive side until very, very recently, to really look at income inequality, to look at the stagnating wages. Like, any economist will tell you that wages have plateaued since 1980. And so what that means is, like, rich people have been making more and more money every year, and the average working person, regardless of their race, their wage is largely the same, in terms of actual spending power.
The money I spent 1980 is about the same amount of money that I’m spending now, despite the fact that it’s been 40 years. And people are working harder, they’re working longer hours, they’re taking less vacation, they’re getting less sick time, all these things are true, and yet their wages don’t go up too. So, you look at those bar graphs that show that, like, CEO pay goes up, and everyone else’s pay either plateaus or goes down. And so what you have is, like, real justifiable anger. What Democrats often do is they sort of pay lip service to that kind of stuff, to get those folks to vote for them, or to hope they’re gonna vote for them and then they don’t really do anything. There wasn’t a lot of meaningful economic policy coming out of the Obama administration. They’ve made measurable, meaningful difference in most people’s lives in a sustained way. Like, there were little things, like, obviously, passing health care was a huge deal.
Vanessa: ACA was huge.
Tyler: Huge deal, but people are still making less money than their grandparents were making in the ’50s and ’60s.
Vanessa: Thank you for all of this. This is great for the larger context of what narrative has to work in, right? Like, Ellen mentioned, it’s like the fish in the ocean, right? If you’ve been swimming in toxicity, that’s all you know.
Vanessa: How do you rectify these two lanes of thought? So, one is, “I am a black-brown person, the world, the country has been set up to cater to white people. I am tired of this, and so I’m going to speak about my community. I will no longer beg or feel the need to include a white talking point, if you will, because my community and my argument should be enough.” Versus, “Hey, white people are suffering too, and we know that for a fact. We know that people in the white community are suffering across this country as well, and we need to loop them in as well.” Right? So, there’s this weird kind of dichotomy about how you get that across.
Tyler: So, there’s both a narrative dimension to that and an organizing dimension, right? So like on the board organizing side, it is not necessarily the case that advancing anti-racist policy is necessarily bad for poor white people. Because the same policies that keep black people disenfranchised are policies that keep white working-class people disenfranchised. Generally speaking, there are obviously differences. This is the language of King in the later part of his life, and this is sort of the Fred Hampton example, right? That there is greater things linking folks at the bottom of the economic food chain than divided them. And that’s the scariest thing to the power structure. It’s like what happens when poor white people realize that they have more in common with black people than they do with rich white people? And true anti-racist work on the ground does that work.
And so, what happens a lot in sort of the national narrative is to suggest that folks who are very strident and very clear about wanting America to deal with its racist bona fides are necessarily anti-white, or are uninterested in the plight of white people and poor white people. And that’s not really the case. A lot of white and black folks who work on the ground in lots of communities together in ways that deal with anti-racist thought and organizing. On the narrative side, I would say that a lot of this is sort of what I was saying before about the zero-sum. Like, we have to sort of create language and stories that make everyone feel that we can collectively do better. We can do something to address race that also addresses the class problems we have in our country, because the roots are the same.
Vanessa: Yeah, you’re right. It’s that whole, when we finally come together, we can be so much more powerful and actually get stuff done, get stuff that we need for our families done.
Vanessa: In our last episode, our repeat friend, Abraham Paulos from BaJI, brought up a really good struggle. A lot of narratives have activists of color convincing those in power of their humanity, particularly in immigration, right? We talked a little bit about whose fault it was that dreamers were here, right? And we always try to put the valedictorian upfront, or images of those amazing kids graduating in their high school gowns in the fields. It’s like we are human. When should narrative shapers play ball on the other side, right? Like, I’m not going to convince you of my humanity. I am a human, I’m standing in front of you, right? And when does entertaining a conversation actually counteract the movement and the power behind the movement?
Tyler: It’s the central question of organizing in our country. The root of a lot of sort of political organizing in the United States comes out of the civil rights movement. And that movement, in our current parlance, was a respectability politics movement. It was really important, at that time, to see kids and parents in their Sunday best being attacked by fire hoses and dogs, because the implicit was like, these are people like you. And that was a deliberate strategy. There was a reason why Rosa Parks, over Claudette Colvin. Those were strategic choices. What I think is happening now is a real reckoning with the limits of that as the efficacy of that as a strategy. Because what we’re seeing is that we’re not getting as far as we should be with that strategy. Like, we are constantly code-switching, we are constantly achieving and getting degrees, and doing all the things you’re supposed to do, being right, and being respectable, and showing up and all of those things that we’re doing, and we’re still seeing what we’re seeing, right?
You’re still seeing people getting shot by cops, and by vigilantes, and you’re still seeing people being forced to work in the fields for long hours, and you’re still seeing, like, home healthcare workers, who are women of color not being paid a living wage. Like, all these things are still happening, no matter how respectable we are. And so rightfully so, my generation and generations under mine have called into question the real advocacy of respectability politics. I would say the biggest problem I think we have is that we are not building big enough movements in the right ways at the right time. And it’s hard to sustain them. I think the more that the political system sort of falls apart, because it’s not really working…
Tyler: When you have one side that is just basically like, “We’re not gonna do anything until we’re in power,” everything you want to do is bad, is off the table. And that means, like, all of our strategies don’t work because all of our strategies are predicated. There’s an implicit assumption that our political system is going to work.
Vanessa: Right. There is this trust in a system that has proven itself untrustworthy for centuries, really.
Tyler: What we’re seeing now is like a real, this is not necessarily new, because there were definitely folks, the Dixiecrats, for most for the early 20th century did this as well. But there are people who are just fundamentally opposed to any progress in this country. And so they’re gonna shut things down. What’s, I think, a little bit different and more unique is that before it was a minority of the Democratic Party that was doing that in early 20th century. Now, it’s pretty much every Republican at the federal level, and increasingly more and more and more of them at the state level. And so that means that half of the ruling class is just like, we just sitting here collecting a check and not doing anything unless it’s what we want to do.
Vanessa: That’s real. And it’s about some of the fundamental structures, right, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.
Vanessa: What happened? Like, they are blatantly against these democracy pillars, and nothing is going to happen unless people really get it together on the other side, right, and highlight some of these pieces. I really do appreciate that. I really appreciate your commentary on respectability politics because I think that has definitely been a shift in the narrative, particularly in the women’s space, right? And women being able to own their sexuality, and I can curse, and I can say things, and I can feel that power. I know I came up and did not feel that way, whatsoever. It was more like if I acted more male, then I could gain more power, right? It wasn’t [inaudible 01:00:52] myself. Now I’m all over the place, but then that’s how I came up. And it’s fascinating because even my daughter will tell me, “Why has your voice changed?” And I’m like, “What are you talking about?” She’s like, “You don’t talk to me the same way you talk to them.” And I’m like, oh, because I’m so ingrained in code-switching, I don’t even know when I’m doing it. I’m probably doing it right now. This probably isn’t really my real voice.
Tyler: Oh, yeah. I mean, like, if you’re a person of color or you’re a woman, especially if you’re a woman of color, we’re trained very, very early on. For us, it was, comb your hair before we go into the store, don’t act up in the store, or don’t embarrass me in the store. All of those things, right, that were about the white gaze, right? Like, why people will see us and your behavior reflects on everybody else who looks like you. And that’s a psychic burden. Like, I used to often tell people when I’m not working, I really disengage a lot from the dominant culture, because I just need the time to relax and just be away from it so that when I have to jump back into it, I can be… and I’m pretty much the same person regardless, people who know me know that. But you still, as a black person, particularly a man, I’m 6 foot 5, I have dreadlocks. And so when I show up in spaces, when you could show up in spaces, you know, there was a reaction before I said a word. And I was always conscious of that. And it’s a constant negotiation that every person of color, every woman makes at every moment of their life, particularly when they’re in mixed company. Like, how do I show up?
Vanessa: That is fascinating. Because as we talk about narrative and these changing narratives, right, part of it is the messenger of the narrative. And as you called out, right, in the ’60s, it was very deliberate about who was going to be arrested. What were they going to be looking like when they are arrested, right? And I think we’ve seen that repeated particularly with an increase in social media mass culture, right, and how much we’re just consuming it constantly. And so it’s going to be fascinating when I no longer do this work, because I’m living somewhere on a beach, like…
Tyler: I know. I’ll come to that beach.
Vanessa: …how this civil rights movement. Yes. Like, how this civil rights movement will look. And I hope it looks different.
Tyler: I think it already is. I mean, I think what you’re seeing in a lot of the protest movements over the last 15, 20 years is a much more oppositional, in some ways, it pulls more from the tradition of radical black organizing like that, which comes out of sort of the Garvey movement, and the Black Power movement. The tactics really still come a lot from traditional civil rights, but a lot of the posture, there’s that really powerful moment in Malcolm X, which is happening in real life, right, was that moment in New York, where Malcolm X signals to all the black men who were standing out in the street to stand at attention and turn in… And that kind of power, like, his ability to sort of move like that many men was terrifying to the country. But that was intentional, right? Like, it was a show of force of power, this idea that black people aren’t victims, that we actually have tremendous amounts of power. And we’re actually going to wield that power. And you see more of that, the strength of that in the new movements, I think, than you do the relative respectability politics that come out of the sort of traditional civil rights movement. And that’s not a value judgment. I think people are making choices to pull from a different tradition because I think they see the relative limits on respectability politics.
Vanessa: For sure. And I think what gets lost in some of those movements, right, you think about the “Black Panthers” fed more children in their own neighborhoods than the government was helping out. Like, it is this sense of let the people living in the community tell their narrative and decide what strands they want to pick up. But don’t forget the whole story behind it.
Tyler: Right. Exactly. And that’s really the core of that sort of movement, right? Was that, like, yes, we’re also demonstrating that we have power, but we’re using that power to actually build our communities ourselves. And that’s really important. And you see that in a lot of the organizing, particularly organizing in the move for Black lives, which is about restoring decision-making power and solution making to community. Let communities decide how to deal with crime and violence. Let communities decide what to do with mental health. Like, those are all things that we can decide collectively as a community how to address and not have, you know, so the state come in and criminalize those behaviors.
Vanessa: Exactly. Tyler Lewis, I could talk to you all day. I think I have spent hours speaking to you about this stuff. I love it. I don’t always agree with you, but I’m gonna say, like, 95% of the time I do. One of the things we always ask all of our guests, the final question, is what gives you hope?
Tyler: Generations coming behind mine. I’m 42. I’m kind of that weird generation between millennial and Gen X. In lots of ways, I think I consider myself a Gen Xer. But the generations after mine, I think they are bolder, I think they’re more uncompromising in ways that I think are empowering, not limiting. And I think that they are thinking more holistically and across difference in ways that I think are really challenging our entire country to think differently about, like, how do we do better, not just for black people, not just for poor people, but for all people. And that gives me hope. Those folks are tenacious, and creative, and dynamic. The biggest mistake I think we’re making as a country is not listening to them more.
Vanessa: Oof, 100%. And if you are an old head like you and I, your generation, Tyler, I think we all need to just be hoping open doors and then get out of the way. Like, that’s the goal, right?
Tyler: Absolutely. Yeah.
Vanessa: So then when we’re on that beach together relaxing, we have people who are so much better at this than we were.
Tyler: Absolutely. That’s exactly what we want. Yes.
Vanessa: Once again, thank you so much for the wonderful and amazing Mr. Tyler Lewis, may everything you predicted come true. Let’s all listen to everything you said. And once again, on behalf of the entire crew and team here, thank you all so much for listening to “Pod for the Cause.” Thank you for listening to “Pod for the Cause,” the official podcast of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and the Leadership Conference Education Fund. For more information, please visit civilrights.org. And to connect with us, hit us up on Instagram and Twitter @podforthecause. And also, you can now text us. Text, Civil Rights, yep, that’s two words, Civil Rights, to 40649 to keep up with our latest updates. Be sure to subscribe to our show on your favorite podcast app and leave a five-star review. Until next time, I’m Vanessa Gonzalez. Thanks for listening to “Pod for the Cause.”