Skip to main content

Language matters: Spreading power in social change work

From canned corporate, lawmaker and nonprofit equity statements, to policies and top-down organizational efforts that attempt to improve equity without changing internal power structures, the language of neoliberalism is prevalent throughout the social justice field.

Neoliberalism broadly refers to the hyper-privatization of our lives. As Dean Spade points out in his book, Normal Life: Administrative Violence, Critical Trans Politics, and the Limits of Law, neoliberalism points to capitalism and privatization of social problems as the primary way for social change and accountability to occur. Not only does this not allow for the historical context of how our current social systems of power came to be, the privatization of social services and a deliberate disinvestment in community care structures make it difficult to engage with change outside of the dominant political and social systems. Specifically, the language of neoliberalism flips the language of resistance towards a tool for oppressive social and political agendas. 

Many nonprofits, philanthropic funds and progressive groups have fallen into the trap of using neoliberal frameworks and language in their mission and value statements, campaigns and media materials. Plugging in “diversity and inclusion pledges” does little to change the status quo. It must be accompanied with the prioritization of cross-issue solidarity and mutual aid efforts focused on consent and empowerment. While their intention may be genuinely rooted in making the world safer and more equitable, the lack of introspection and focus on the privatization and individualization of services and community work have created a re-routed hierarchy of power, one driven by individual big donors with single-issue missions. 

Advocacy work has become increasingly professionalized in the last forty years, resulting in a decrease in community-led grassroots support and advocacy work; and a disconnect between the nonprofit industrial complex “funding network” and the very people they claim to be advocating for in their work. The expansion of white-led, high-capacity nonprofit organizations in the late 20th century kickstarted this professionalization and privatization of advocacy work, locking grassroots organizations, often led by Black and queer people, out of many resource flows. 

While people should be compensated for dedicating their time and talent to advocacy work, the social justice space must actively work to not replicate organizational structures where a disproportionate number of white, cisgender, heterosexual and able-bodied people with access to intergenerational wealth are the only ones who can be “professional activists.”

Language plays a critical element in the professionalization of advocacy spheres. Progressive communications efforts must continuously work to ensure that progressive buzzwords such as “intersectionality” and “diversity” are not their deepest engagement with social justice issues. Change is not and has never been invested in self-affirmation. Instead, we must rely on grassroots coalition efforts and community-care goals to center and shape our messaging, narratives and change-making efforts. Authenticity is the only way to gain and maintain trust while building coalitions between grassroots and community organizing efforts and larger national organizations. 

By building advocacy spheres that center and support the leadership of  those most affected  by systems of unequal power, including but not limited to misogyny, racism, ableism, transphobia, homophobia, classism and xenophobia, progressive movements can work to build coalition with one another. These social change movements must be built on mutual aid, community empowerment and constant introspection. Some organizations that exemplify this are the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth (CFSY) and the Sylvia Rivera Law Project (SRLP). CFSY actively works to ensure that their internal work structures are equity-focused. Specifically, they prioritize leadership from those directly impacted by the juvenile justice system. The Sylvia Rivera Law Project prioritizes specific community interventions and empowerment initiatives. For example, SRLP works to build a non-hierarchical organization that kindles leadership growth for transgender, intersex and gender non-conforming people of color with low-incomes, as well as provide support to local mutual aid efforts for other liberation movements. 

As communicators, we can work on decolonizing advocacy language by rejecting deficit-based language and canned equity statements. We can ensure that we are constantly seeking out new information and narratives, and make sure the language and words we use are not just so we can be “seen as doing good.”

For example, what if, instead of “adding multicultural” elements to our work as communicators, our organizing, campaigns and language centered those who experience the most impact ? Our friends at the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC) actively work  to not only lift up, but center people with past convictions by clearing the path for their voices and priorities to drive every aspect of the work. Other organizations can lean into this method of narrative building, allowing for deeper, richer and more nuanced analysis and calls-to-action. 

Rather than always responding just to the struggles that are getting immediate media and political attention, I envision a world of “queering” social change campaigns and communication strategies. I see a world of possibilities where mutual aid spreads accountability and power, where those most impacted by the outcomes of advocacy campaigns set their own goals, and where metrics of success are measured by looking at impact rather than intent. 


This entry was posted on Tuesday, February 22, 2022 at 12:53 pm and is filed under Brand identity and strategy, Coalition, connection and network building, Ethical and visual storytelling and 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.