July 30, 2014 | Category: Blog, Story Guide | Author:

Big picture, small picture — Alan Jenkins of the Opportunity Agenda

Today’s guest blog post is by Alan Jenkins, co-founder and executive director of The Opportunity Agenda, the mission of which is to build the public will to expand opportunity in America. Read the organization’s communications toolkit for social-justice advocates, Vision, Values and Voice. Here, Alan responds to a question about how to manage short-term and long-term goals in their communications.

Research and experience suggest that social-justice advocates are most effective when they strike a balance between the short- and long-term in their communications, or storytelling.

One way to ensure this balance is to align short-term messages and the long-term vision or “story” we have of a more just future. Often, in the heat of a campaign, it’s tempting to use short-term messages that can actually undercut the long-term story that organizers want to project. In California, for instance, one campaign argued that undocumented immigrants should have health-care access, otherwise immigrant nannies might, say, get tuberculosis and infect the kids they take care of. That message moved some people in the short-term; but it also ran counter to the overarching message that immigrants are part of us and prompted audiences to see a “them” to be feared or marginalized. Realizing the damage they could be doing to their longer-term goals, advocates shifted to talking about how immigrants are integral parts of our communities—as neighbors, workers and co-workers. They then emphasized the need to remove the barriers that immigrants face—such as access to health care—so that everyone can participate and contribute to a thriving California. The short-term goal, in this case access to health care, was framed as one step toward this bigger vision, not as a quick fix to a threat that immigrants were posing to the community. When messages strengthen audience’s understanding of and support for the long-term vision, it is easier to bring them along with each short-term campaign.

Those of us closest to a cause can get caught up in focusing on the immediate wins we need to move forward. And this focus is crucial. However, most of our audiences, particularly new and persuadable ones, need context and vision. They need to connect our current win to a bigger story. And we must help them do that.