No Greater Time to Be Conscious of Our Words!

January 3, 2018

I'm so happy that you've come to visit my blog. Over the next several months, I'll be publishing regular feature stories that highlight best practices for community development practitioners!  For my first blog post, I just wanted to say a few things about why this kind of blog is important and timely. 


Just last month, the Congress published a new tax bill that will have major implications for the organizations we steward (especially nonprofits) and ultimately for the people we serve.  After months of newspaper articles that clearly outlined how this bill would merely make the rich even richer and the poor, even poorer, it passed without very much fanfare.  No public outcry.  No major opposition - despite many of us advocating as best we could to defeat it. 


For all of the "facts" we were able to produce, it seemed to have had little effect in building the will of the people across this nation to reject the legislation. And worse, the facts seemed to have actually backfired!  Perhaps when average people see their tax bills explode, we may see more support for better policies but for now, many people now question whether facts have the ability to help us change the current trajectory that the nation seems to be on.


Well, here is my take:


Not ALL facts are the same! Facts can be persuasive but they need to be framed well – in a way that avoids triggering unproductive cultural narratives and taps other, more productive narratives that have the power to shift people into systems-thinking. Often advocates do not take into account how those facts are framed and they utilize "facts" as if they are objective and benign. But how those "facts" are framed is important because they carry a mother-load of connective tissue to cultural narratives. Change the framing construction of those "facts" and you'll see variations in how people respond to them!


It is not simply that facts backfire when they are inconsistent with our belief system. The way those facts are framed and the way that those facts are made to connect (or not) with broadly shared cultural narratives – makes all the difference. When those “facts” are written in ways that play into how we (as Americans) have come to understand the world, they tend to backfire in ways that are really predictable.


In housing in particular, when you say that low-income people are spending too much for housing and you give the “fact” of exactly how much that is, it consistently triggers a backfire about individual responsibility, about how the poor make “poor” financial decisions and focuses attention at the level of the individual, rather than on systems. I often reframe this “fact” from a systems/structural point of view (wages and housing costs) and universalize the problem (all of us, regardless of our incomes, are facing tougher times when it comes to housing). The result pushes the conversation to one that focuses on systems, speaks to this as a shared public concern and underscores that resolving it can have universal benefits. This reframing makes the conversation much more difficult to backfire in the traditional ways that we’ve come to expect when we lift up “facts” about housing cost burdens for poor people. 


So the gist is, there is no greater and more important time to be conscious of how we are talking about our work.  And no greater time to be reframing the conversation on housing and community development in ways that work for us, rather than against us. 


Thank you for reading the blog post today!  More to come!


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