Flipping the script on change communications

October 25, 2018

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For those who attended the 2018 Communications Network Conference in San Francisco last week, the event was symbolic of values turned into action. That’s because the conference was originally planned to be held at the St. Francis, but hotel and restaurant workers took part in one of the largest labor protests of the year to fight for fairer wages and benefits. With conference goers and sponsors making clear indications that they had no plans to cross picket lines, the conference organizers developed and executed a Plan B with an alternate location and venues for sessions, discussions and keynotes.

The fact is that these choices on whether to lead with equity or uphold the status quo happen all the time, some slow-moving and imperceptible and some moving swiftly and landing with the force of a jackhammer.

I was invited to facilitate a dialogue at this year’s ComNet on the topic of multicultural communications. During the discussion I found that many participants were seeking a better definition of multicultural communications, and an understanding of how to best deploy it. As a field that is relatively underutilized in the nonprofit and funder world, I believe this is great opportunity to build upon practices long deployed by government and corporate sectors, as well as expand our definition, and design multicultural communications in a way that works for the social change sector.

With so much under-representation of people of color among the nonprofit and philanthropic sector (particularly among leadership), it can be easy for multicultural communications to be off the radar for one simple reason: Multicultural communications doesn’t work in service of white folks. In fact, it can exist entirely without white people. It is created for, and often by, people of color. Multicultural communications doesn’t assume that there is anything “wrong” with the under-engaged audience in question. Rather than trying to inform and educate people in the same ways that organizations always have, multicultural communications caters to audiences, and addresses barriers that have been put in place to prevent their active participation in democracy. And, because multicultural communications relies on the expertise and lived experiences of those within diverse cultures, it automatically demands contributions from diverse staff members or contractors.

This line of thinking was made all the more clear during a keynote interview with actor, artist and writer Lena Waithe, who had so many gems of insights and wisdom on the intersections of people, culture, economy, art and pop culture, that she needs to publish a book of quotes, Dalai Lama-style. You can listen to the full keynote on NPR’s 1A. Here are just a few highlights, with takeaways for multicultural communicators:

“What makes us other also makes us dope.” –Value difference and diversity, rather than seeing it as an obstacle. That means recognizing the talents and lived experiences of your staff, and seeing the opportunities and benefits of engaging with more diverse communities.

“I don’t care about the system, I care about the people the system affects.” — I’ve seen an emphasis on system change as a trend in health equity and climate justice discussions and I get it—by reframing out of personal responsibility, it relieves pressures on individuals to be the sole actors in progressive change, and instead puts the onus on larger entities to change their policies and actions. But a shift toward this frame can’t be done without acknowledging that there is a loss to communities of color when individuals and standard-bearers of excellence in their communities are robbed of their heroism. And, some communities have completely lost faith in corrupt systems that have failed them, so is talking about further system change revelatory? Or a mismatched key to a door long closed to people?

“Just because something isn’t fun to look at, doesn’t mean it isn’t valid.” The t-shirt that Lena Waithe was wearing depicted the Menace II Society cheeseburger scene, of a crack addict begging for money and sexual favors of a drug dealer. It is harsh and horrible to witness. But there are people who have experienced this, and this does exist in the world. According to Waithe, “If you only show the good parts of a group of people, you are doing them a disservice.” Multicultural communications isn’t about wallpapering over people’s experiences, and putting people of color in the exact same roles that white people taken over the years, a la the Benetton ad. We need to be honest with ourselves and be able to recognize and lift up stories that aren’t always pleasant. But, we also need to be able to anticipate the level of appetite and tolerance for discussing trauma among the audiences we’re working with, especially when these are their stories, and adapt content according to their experiences.

“All black people are bilingual.” For people constantly confronting white supremacy and who have been indoctrinated that a change in speech, dress, and behavior will earn them the respect they deserve, code switching comes as second nature. The same goes for people who grew up with immigrant parents, or people who hold multilingual, gender non-conforming or other traditionally marginalized layers, identities and experiences. This ability to communicate across differences is an asset in service of multicultural communications, and particularly valuable as consultants, as we’re able to imagine multiple perspectives, and find cultural resonance with a number of different audiences.

As a breathless audience gave Lena Waithe a standing ovation, the irony was not lost on me when Waithe adroitly noted that minstrel-dom still exists, just in a different form. Black and brown bodies, creativity, artistry and skills have a longstanding history of being an entertainment commodity in this country.

For the ComNet 18 attendees, who mostly came from the foundation and philanthropic world, changing the trajectory of one’s work and mission to lead with equity will mean the hard work of listening, changing programs and policies and diversifying staff. As we are forging forward and maneuvering power shifts among the social change sector, it will be important to put diverse staff into the role of creator, rather than simply a new vessel for the same solutions.

For more guidance on multicultural communications, please check out this tip sheet.

Sian Wu