Spitfire Strategies

Decolonizing Narratives and Communicating Justice: Spitfire at ComNet19

Mike Carter-Conneen

By Mike Carter-Conneen


At the Communications Network Annual Conference in Austin, Texas, Spitfire Strategies was proud to host a breakout session called “Decolonizing Narratives: Authentic Messaging, Ceding Control and Reckoning with Reality.”

The panel, moderated by Spitfire Director Nima Shirazi, explored the blind spots of communication professionals, the problematic choices we can make in our strategy building and messaging, and how we often tokenize and dramatize our messengers rather than treat them as authentic spokespeople.

The panel – featuring Shanelle Matthews of Radical Communicators Network, Joseph Phelan of ReFrame and Jennifer Dillon of the National Domestic Workers Alliance – encouraged a standing-room-only gathering of ComNet19 attendees to decentralize whiteness and colonialism in their narrative work.

“Sometimes, listening is what is needed most of all. [This means] listening to others, not only just sharing, but taking a step back, recognizing the immense power and privilege we have in the work that we do,” Shirazi shared in his opening remarks.

With many uses of the word “narrative” by communication professionals, Shirazi offered a simple definition to establish a common understanding at the breakout session.

“Narrative is a collection or system of related stories, articulated and entrenched over time to represent a central idea or belief,” he said.

He explained that narratives help us make sense of the world – who we trust, who we hate, what seems possible, what seems impossible. He added that dominant narratives become our common sense and our default understanding of different issues, whether they are true or not.

Citing examples, he referenced dominant narratives that are universally accepted but not universally true: “work hard and you will succeed,” “the United States is a beacon of freedom and democracy for all” and “more cops mean safer communities.”

“They’re dominant for a reason,” Shirazi said. “They are created and reinforced by those already in power.”

Within the communications field, Matthews argued that we each have the power to challenge problematic narratives and that what we choose to oppose or support defines us.

She pointed to the public relations agency Ogilvy, which according to the Wall Street Journal and other outlets, landed a $12 million contract in the summer of 2019 with the Trump administration’s U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

“They were actively promoting the diversity and inclusion of government hiring of border patrol agents…during what can be considered one of the most inhumane projects in the U.S.,” Matthews said.

In the same timeframe, Matthews noted how Ogilvy’s competitor, Edelman, secured GEO Group as a client. As reported by the New York Times, GEO Group is “a private prisons company with contracts from the Trump administration to run immigrant detention centers” and facing backlash from its employees, Edelman later declined the work.

“These are people who are profiting off of inhumane behavior toward migrants and people of color in this country. They are representatives of the field we work in,” Matthews said. “Though it’s a spectrum – I think a lot of us would say we wouldn’t do that [CPB or GEO Group work] – in many ways, we are complicit with oppressive behavior toward marginalized people.”

Phelan argued that communication professionals often fail to identify spokespeople who reflect their audiences’ identities, races and experiences.

He added that it is not enough to focus on who is a valid spokesperson; we must also determine who is a valid strategist, suggesting more women of color should lead in this role.

“Oftentimes, the narrative strategists look like me,” he said. “[As a result] we are going to get very particular results most of the time.”

If we want to talk about communications for social good, we need to be talking about communications for power, Phelan added.

“Narratives are used to uphold or upend power,” Phelan said, categorizing power as economic, political and social. “These forms of power don’t function independently of each other. They actually function in a web.”

Courtesy: Joseph Phelan, ReFrame

Matthews added that, if your communication is truly values-forward, then you must start your communication planning by conducting a narrative power analysis. She said such analysis can help you to understand the story you are trying to change, identify the underlying assumptions that allow that story to operate as truth, and find the points of intervention where you can challenge, change or insert a new story.

Courtesy: Shanelle Matthews, Radical Communicators Network

To complete a narrative power analysis, Matthews detailed a framework of questions to ask: How is the conflict being framed? What are the conditions responsible for the problem? Who are the key characters in the story? What assumptions are being made?

“People on the margins know that what is normal and accepted is narrowly defined,” Matthews said. “So a narrative power analysis asks us to expand the dimensions of what is normal and accepted or to upend the dominant frames and values and replace them with something that is more inclusive and more radical.”

As an example, Matthews offered her analysis of anti-welfare strategies in the 1980s and 1990s, using a racist “welfare queens” cartoon to illustrate her point. This racist caricature was popularized by Ronald Reagan’s 1976 presidential campaign, despite the fact that most Americans benefiting from poverty reduction programs are white, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

“These campaigns intersect at gender, race and class, and predominantly impact poor women of color. At their worst, they coerce poor women of color from having children and to give up the children they already have,” she said. “The myth of black women as one-dimensional, sexual beings led to the 1996 welfare reform law.”

Dillon, communications director at the National Domestic Workers Alliance, agreed that the women her organization serves are often portrayed in most narratives as simplistic characters – villains or victims of their employers – or they are invisible. This makes them seem unreal and it disempowers them.

Courtesy: Jennifer Dillon, National Domestic Workers Alliance

In reality, Dillon explained, domestic workers provide important care for our children, seniors and people with disabilities. They face unique challenges. They are mostly women. They work for multiple employers and earn low incomes with few benefits, often with no contracts. And this work is mainly unseen because it happens in the privacy of their employers’ homes.

“It’s a sector we all touch in some way and it is a bedrock of our economy. And yet the women who do this very important work are often undervalued in our society because of dominant narratives,” Dillon said. “Let’s turn them into heroes.”

To do this, she said communicators should lead with three-dimensional, human-centric stories of dignity and resilience. Let people control their own stories and honor their authenticity, showing not only what they do but who they are. And finally, Dillon recommends investing in these authentic spokespeople by offering training and support.

“We all have the capacity to reimagine. We have the power to change, even if those changes are incremental,” she said.

Courtesy: Jennifer Dillon, National Domestic Workers Alliance

Matthews emphasized the importance of relationship-building when developing strategies and identifying spokespeople.

“We move at the speed of trust. If we jump to strategies that are not based on trust, it will hurt us in the long run,” Matthews said. “We need to get as close to the oppression as possible.”

Shirazi also cautioned that the work of decolonizing and dismantling dangerous narratives is not new. It’s only new to those who haven’t already discovered and been doing it. He emphasized that progressive communicators must recognize the deep experience of people already doing this decolonization work because not acknowledging them can also be “extractive, exploitative and destructive.”

Ultimately, he argued this work is really about power.

“There is a lot of power at ComNet, in the organizations we work for,” Shirazi said. “And as communicators, and as we’re doing this work, we really need to reckon with who has the power, and whose stories are being centered and who is being silenced.”

From left to right: Joseph Phelan, ReFrame; Jennifer Dillon, National Domestic Workers Alliance; Nima Shirazi, Spitfire Strategies; Shanelle Matthews, Radical Communicators Network, at ComNet19.

“This has been a tremendous eye opener. It shows us how to pull the aspects of communications skills, from the message, to the audience. It forced us to identify our strengths and our weaknesses in an effort to become more strategic in how we prepare our messages and communicate them.”

- Training Participant

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