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ComNet, the South, and us: Three things we can learn from southern organizers

2020 is officially (and thankfully) behind us, but the work that last year left us remains. Beyond the persistent uncertainty of COVID-19 and the shift towards action to address systemic racism, as we began the new year, we still had two items left in the 2020 electoral season: Georgia’s U.S. Senate runoff elections. And despite the horrific scenes on Jan. 6, we cannot understate or forget to recognize the historic results of those runoff elections and the patriotic service to democracy that Georgia voters, organizers – many from Black and Brown communities – poll workers, advocacy organizations, and (especially) Stacey Abrams displayed.

Before the nonstop news draws our and the nation’s focus away from the South, we (communicators and advocates) must use this moment to consider the region, its complex history and the overlooked narrative in a broader context.

Before I go further, a quick, related question: What do you think of when I say the (deep) South?

Is it confederate flags and monuments? How about Southern stereotypes of hillbillies, overalls, undereducation and broken English?

Or maybe it’s a more deep-rooted, visceral thought like Jim Crow laws, lynchings, the Daughters of the Confederacy and their looming shadow on textbooks, or the echoes of the infamous Alabama Governor, George Wallace, who proclaimed, “...Segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever,” to raucous applause. Of course, we can’t forget the many images and clips of horrendous violence against courageous civil rights protestors putting their lives on the line for an idea that America can and should uphold its promises to all – but especially Black and Indigenous communities.

As a native southerner, I wouldn’t blame you for considering any or all of the above. Still, as we move forward in our nation’s renewed focus on racial and economic equity, we – particularly communicators and advocates – must look to the South for more than the same narratives we’ve received over and over again. Beneath those very real images is the complex history of a region that holds models for success that today’s leaders can repurpose to advance justice.

If you’re looking for examples of how or where to start, refer to last year’s examples from ComNet V, which centered many of its keynotes and breakout sessions on our collective racial justice fight around those in the South. The sessions are available on YouTube, and these emergent themes can help you with your messaging.

1. Say it plain. That’s an old saying I grew up hearing (and still hear) all too often when my message gets lost in fluff and lofty language. 2020 uncovered a glaring gap for communicators and advocates across the board: Many communities – particularly Black, Indigenous, and persons of color (BIPOC) – did not feel authentically included in our messaging or advocacy. 

The start of the new year offers a chance to reset, refocus and restate. The latter is especially crucial this year. As many of us look to reiterate our intentions, we have the opportunity to be more intentional and thoughtfully reintroduce our message and core commitments to the communities we’re hoping to serve. 

Consider checking out the ComNet breakout sessions or one of my favorites, Equity Panel: A Southern Perspective

2. Find your inner southern hospitality. This is more than a folksy hello or an afternoon invite for sweet tea. This is an intentional effort to acknowledge and prioritize the person ahead of your issues or agenda. It also makes space for empathy and shared understanding on a meaningful level. We can all agree that showing up for others in a real way will be the task throughout this pandemic and beyond. So next time you’re prepping an e-blast or social posts, ask yourself if your audience feels seen or represented in your content. 

Consider checking out the recorded breakout session, Civic Engagement and Voting: A Southern Perspective. 

3. Tell or retell a familiar story from an untold perspective. 2020 revealed a shameful truth. Many are blocked from or just not invited to platforms to share their lived experiences. Moreover, massive efforts that led to big change become shortened recounts and soundbites that present a misleading linear path to justice. Well, we can change that. Growing up in New Orleans, I often sat listening to retold stories from elders. Though I pleaded with them that they’d already told this story, they would insist that they hadn’t told it with a necessary detail or from a valuable perspective, assuring something new and useful. As communicators and advocates, we can do that, too. Often, we’re looking for the needle in the haystack (a new striking story) when the hay will work just as well.

Consider checking out, How organizers closed an Atlanta jail or Freedom or Death! A Slave Rebellion and the Power of Storytelling.

While there will be uncertainty and angst over current obstacles this year, there’s also ample opportunity for communicators and mission-driven organizations to reset, rethink and reintroduce the shared values and inclusive visions that initially gained the trust of communities they hope to serve. Let’s not miss this chance. 

This entry was posted on Wednesday, January 13, 2021 at 13:50 pm and is filed under Frame, narrative and message development. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.