A Court in Crisis: Messaging on the Supreme Court & the Judiciary

June 2023

As the highest court in the United States, the Supreme Court has final say in interpreting our constitutional rights. People expect the Court to be impartial and to interpret the Constitution based on solid reasoning and respect for precedent. The Court should not be focused on furthering a particular political agenda or in responding to personal favors. In fact, the Court has historically been viewed favorably by the public, or the very least, been viewed as a legitimate institution. In order to function as an independent and effective institution, it is important that people recognize the Court as legitimate. The legitimacy of the Court encourages people to have faith in our government institutions and to work peacefully with them.

However, in recent years, the Supreme Court’s status has come into question.[1] For the first time since the information has been gathered, most Americans do not view the Court as legitimate. Only 7 percent of Americans have a great deal of trust and confidence in the judiciary.[2] As we wait for the Supreme Court’s decisions in several important cases that will impact affirmative action, voting rights, and other significant issues, we advise advocates to consider discussing the Supreme Court’s legitimacy in their communications about these decisions. Below are some tips for incorporating concerns about the Court’s legitimacy as you discuss the Court’s upcoming decisions.

Messaging Advice

1. Lead with Values. The Supreme Court should reflect our shared values in its decisions (e.g., Impartiality, Equal Justice, Due Process, Fairness). It is vital that these values continue to be uplifted despite the individuals who are on the Court. Consider discussing how decisions impact these values and whether the decision deviates or brings us closer to them.

Why Those Values Matter?

  • Reliability:  One of the guiding principles for the Supreme Court is “stare decisis,” which essentially means that the Court and other courts will “adhere to [previous cases] in making their decisions.”[3] People depend on a reliable Court and expect it to respect decisions. Americans should be able to count on the reliability of the Court.
  • Transparency: The Supreme Court is expected to explain the rationale underlying their decisions and opinions openly, with the opportunity for members of the public to hear arguments.
  • Equal Justice: The Court should be advancing equity and access to equal opportunity, not limiting access to it.

2. Describe the importance of the judiciary in advancing social justice. Promoting a fair judiciary is not just about highlighting the recent failures of the conservative Supreme Court majority; it is also about supporting new federal judges who will interpret the Constitution in manner that aligns with our shared values.

  • The legitimacy crisis at the Supreme Court is detrimental to our society, and there is a growing awareness that policymakers should take the necessary steps to address this crisis. Many advocates concerned with social justice have raised these concerns. However, there is also a greater need to transform the judiciary into one that the public can view as legitimate.
  • Advocates should push for the appointment and confirmation of new jurists who have demonstrated a passion for equal justice under law. The appointment of Justice Ketanji Jackson Brown illustrated the hope that a competent and respected jurist can bring to the judiciary. But there are still many judicial vacancies, including several social justice advocates, who are not receiving the same level of enthusiasm.
  • What can sometimes get lost in the discourse about the Supreme Court is the need to continuously feed the pipeline of judges who comprise the trial and federal appellate courts. Several nominees who reflect the values of our Constitution and who have devoted their lives to advancing civil rights and civil liberties have yet to be confirmed as federal judges despite being nominated to the judiciary by President Biden. These nominees are part of the story of how the judiciary has become so out of step with the American public; conservatives have aggressively filled the courts with judges and stalled the nominations of judges community to Equal Justice. Social justice advocates should consider highlighting the stagnation of their confirmation process to a Supreme Court issuing decisions that roll back social justice. One way of responding is filling our court with judges who will respect our constitutional values.

3. Highlight the importance of an independent judiciary. Explain the importance of ethical standards and accountability. When Supreme Court justices deviate from the ethical standards expected of them, they should be held accountable.  The Court should be impartial, and its justices should be guided with concern for all American people rather than corporate elites.

4. Don’t be afraid to identify what’s happening at the Supreme Court as a crisis.

  • For the first time in the history of the Gallup poll, fewer than fifty percent of Americans have a great deal or a fair amount of trust in the judicial branch.
  • The decline in Americans’ faith in its federal judiciary has been swift – a 20 percentage point drop in two years. The court used to routinely have the faith of two-thirds of Americans in Gallup surveys.
  • Because we are in a moment of constitutional crisis, advocates should encourage policymakers to embrace bold and progressive solutions that would restore faith in the judiciary. In addition to filling judicial vacancies and supporting judges who would advance Equal Justice, policymakers should hold judges accountable when they violate ethical standards, consider reforms that might facilitate Supreme Court transformations that restore its democratic qualities, and continuously inform the public about what’s happening at the Supreme Court.

[1] Newport, F. (2021, July 6). Confidence in Supreme Court Sinks to Historic Low. Gallup News. https://news.gallup.com/poll/394103/confidence-supreme-court-sinks-historic-low.aspx (stating that “25% of Americans have confidence in Supreme Court, down from 36% in 2021”)
[2] Newport, F. (2021, July 6). Confidence in Supreme Court Sinks to Historic Low. Gallup News. https://news.gallup.com/poll/394103/confidence-supreme-court-sinks-historic-low.aspx
[3] Cornell Law School Legal Information Institute. (n.d.). Stare Decisis. Cornell Law School Legal Information Institute. Retrieved June 15, 2023, from https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/stare_decisis#:~:text=Stare%20decisis%20means%20%E2%80%9Cto%20stand,with%20the%20previous%20court’s%20decision

Messaging on Affirmative Action

Narrative Principles for Discussing SFFA v. Harvard and SFFA v. University of North Carolina

October/November 2022

Our constitutional values could not be more important as we anticipate the Supreme Court arguments on several important cases this term. This memo offers messaging advice for promoting diversity and equal opportunity in the context of  SFFA v. Harvard and SFFA v. University of North Carolina, constitutional challenges to college affirmative action policies.

In order to foster a diverse student body and overcome obstacles to educational opportunity, Harvard University and the University of North Carolina consider qualified students’ racial or ethnic backgrounds along with academic achievement and other qualities like leadership, socioeconomic status, and athletic or artistic talent. The U.S. Supreme Court will consider whether these policies violate the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which bars racial discrimination by government entities, including public universities. Our hope is that the Supreme Court will ensure that everyone fully enjoys the protections and rights provided in our Constitution by protecting affirmative action. However, it is widely expected that the Supreme Court will ban affirmative action programs in its decision on these cases.

The Court will hear arguments on October 31, 2022. This communications advice is intended to help mobilize supporters of diversity and equal opportunity while persuading undecided audiences. It is based on opinion and media research as well as practical experience from around the country.

Messaging Advice

1. Lead with Values. Undecided audiences respond best when we lead with values they share, rather than dense facts or political rhetoric. In these two affirmative action cases, the most important values are diversity, opportunity, and the national interest. However, other values to consider are equality, inclusivity, and mobility.

  • Expanding Opportunity: It is in everyone’s interest to see that talented students from all backgrounds get a close look and a fair shot and have the chance to overcome obstacles to educational opportunity.
  • The Benefits of Diversity: Learning with (and from) people from different backgrounds and perspectives benefits our students, our communities, our work force, our military, and our country as a whole.
  • Preventing Racial Isolation: It is important that schools are able to build student bodies that foster meaningful diversity that does not isolate any one group.
  • Our National Interest: Fostering educational diversity and greater opportunity is critical to our nation’s future in a global economy and an increasingly interconnected world.

2. Explain that Affirmative Action furthers the National Interest When It Comes to American Demographics. The U.S. Census confirms that American society is becoming more and more diverse with most young people originating from historically underrepresented racial and ethnic groups. These changes mean that Americans must be able to learn and successfully navigate in increasingly diverse environments.

  • Colleges, as institutions that train future leaders and participate in this world, are tasked with the responsibility of ensuring that students learn how to navigate diverse environments. Affirmative action provides colleges with the ability to immerse students in diverse environments, allowing them to best teach students how to successfully work within these environments in the future.

3. Emphasize that the Fourteenth Amendment was Intended to Expand Opportunity – Not Restrict It. It is concerned with protecting equal justice under law and was intended to help African Americans achieve opportunity in the United States.

  • As one of the Reconstruction Amendments, the Fourteenth Amendment’s goal was to “grant […] citizenship and equal civil rights to African Americans and enslaved people who had been emancipated after the American Civil War.”[1] The Fourteenth Amendment was intended to help ensure that newly freed African Americans were able to experience full citizenship and the related rights of citizenship. The Fourteenth Amendment sought to provide African Americans with the opportunities and rights that they had been denied during slavery, but it is now being used to limit their rights. This history is an important reminder of how the Court is deviating from our values of equal justice and opportunity.

4. Discuss the Importance of a Judiciary that Respects Precedent and the Rule of Law. The Court’s approach to these cases, as well as the future direction of the Court, seems bleak given recent changes in its composition. It is nevertheless important to fight to protect the hard-fought, historic gains our country has made in promoting and preserving opportunity while critiquing the Supreme Court’s shortcomings. Advocates should encourage the Supreme Court justices to preserve prior decisions that protected constitutional rights, while seeking remedies to years of undemocratic practices that altered the Court’s composition.

  • It is well known that “public trust and confidence in our government institutions is critical to the function of our democratic republic.”[2] In the judicial system, the principle of precedent, or stare decisis, is the idea that a court respects and defers to decisions before it. This concept is key to preserving legitimacy, trust, and confidence in courts, which are at historic lows. For the sake of democracy, it is important that the Court respects past precedents protecting the use of race in college admissions processes.

For a summary of the litigants and their main arguments, go here.

[1] Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Fourteenth-Amendment

[2] Natalie Anne Knowlton, Trusting the Public’s Perception of Our Justice System, IAALS (Aug. 27 2020), https://iaals.du.edu/blog/trusting-public-s-perception-our-justice-system.

Messaging Guidance for U.S. Supreme Court Decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health

Today, the United States Supreme Court took the dreaded step to overrule Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey with its decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health. The Court has now restricted the right of hundreds of millions of Americans to decide for themselves whether to have an abortion, uprooting decades of precedent and a right upon which hundreds of thousands of Americans have relied.

While today is a tremendous setback and sad day for our country, it is important to remain vigilant in the fight for social justice and bodily autonomy when communicating about Dobbs. While it is tempting to focus only on the sadness of the day, we must stick together and clarify in our communications that we will not stop pushing forward toward justice until full rights are realized for everyone.

We recognize that this opinion not only threatens reproductive freedom for millions, but that the Court’s inconsistent contemplation of whether a right even exists could jeopardize other rights. This may include the rights of people in same-sex relationships and interracial relationships, and the right to use contraceptives. Therefore, it is critical to advance a narrative that recognizes the aspiration of full rights and justice and the inherent values at stake in this decision, including:

  • Dignity;
  • Equal Justice; and
  • Freedom

We recommend bringing a values-focused framework when talking about this issue and focusing on solutions rather than on only the problems or the sadness of the day.

Key Takeaways

Dobbs represents a fundamental threat to reproductive liberty and justice.

Dobbs allows states to take action by banning any and all access to abortion. Less than one hour after the Court announced its decision in Dobbs, the state of Missouri’s attorney general swiftly implemented that state’s abortion ban. More than 25 states will likely take action to eliminate nearly all abortion rights immediately.[1] Even outside of the states considering complete bans, abortion rights may be severely weakened.

The repercussions could mean enhanced discrimination, forcing people without economic means, especially people of color, to travel extensively outside of the state they live in to have an abortion. As a result, the poorest Americans without financial resources to travel will face the brunt of having their reproductive liberty being stripped away.

Communicate that Dobbs will have a detrimental impact on the reproductive freedom, health, and dignity of millions of people across the country – especially low-income women and people of color.

Dobbs opens the door to weaken or eliminate many other fundamental rights.

In addition to how personhood is defined and whether fetuses should have the same rights as people, there are many other implications to the Dobbs ruling. Reproductive justice is not the only right that may be impacted. The Court’s narrow construction of the right to abortion in Dobbs comes from its reliance on Washington v. Glucksberg, in which the Court reconstrues Glucksberg to narrowly evaluate whether a right is protected. It asks whether that specific right is “deeply rooted in this nation’s history and tradition.” This means that instead of asking whether the right to privacy protects a specific right, courts can now ask whether that specific right, e.g. the right to buy contraception, was traditionally protected in the eighteenth century. This is a very narrow approach, which can be contrasted by the Supreme Court’s approach to marriage equality in Obergefell v. Hodges.

  • In Obergefell, the Court recognized a right for same-sex couples to get married and noted that the Glucksberg approach was overly narrow. It said that the proper approach is to ask whether the constitutional right to privacy meant that same-sex partners should be allowed to marry. The Court’s method for interpreting whether a right exists in Dobbs means that many other rights are at risk. This method could result in the erosion of freedoms, from the right to same-sex and interracial marriage, to the right to use contraceptives.

Right-wing activists and lawyers are already planning their assault on a broader set of rights. For example, Jonathan Mitchell, the former Solicitor General of Texas and the architect of Texas’s notorious SB-8 law, which restricts access to abortions, argued in an amicus brief that the logic to overrule Roe could be used to overrule Lawrence v. Texas and Obergefell v. Hodges:

  • “This is not to say that the Court should announce the overruling of Lawrence and Obergefell if it decides to overrule Roe and Casey in this case. But neither should the Court hesitate to write an opinion that leaves those decisions hanging by a thread. Lawrence and Obergefell, while far less hazardous to human life, are as lawless as Roe.”[2]

The Dobbs opinion overruled a watershed precedent, weakening the Court’s legitimacy.

Dobbs overruled Roe v. Wade, which had been the law of the land for nearly 50 years. The principle of stare decisis, that a court respects and gives deference to decisions before it, is crucial in preserving the legitimacy of the Court. At his nomination hearing, Justice Alito himself stated that stare decisis was “a fundamental part of our legal system” despite his blatant disregard for the principle in Dobbs.[3]

Public polling has shown that the Court’s support dropped significantly in the wake of the leaked draft opinion of Dobbs, which greatly resembles the final version.[4]

Emphasize how the Court has significantly undermined its own legitimacy by ignoring its own precedent.

Key Questions

Some people say that this case is only about abortion and people who say otherwise are being alarmist. How should advocates respond to this?

A: It is clear that the Court could be leaving itself room to do additional harm to justice with this ruling. That’s because the approach that the Court adopted in Dobbs is an exceptionally narrow approach to analyze whether people have a right through the Constitution’s protection of substantive due process rights. This restrictive view is contrary to the approach taken in some of the Court’s most important decisions, including cases that protect the rights to same-sex marriage or the right to obtain contraception. This approach to judicial rulemaking could result in the erosion of other fundamental rights that Americans rely on every day. An expansive view of substantive due process, like the one taken in Lawrence and Obergefell, provides the most liberty and freedom for all Americans.

What about the concept of the “living Constitution”?

A: We share certain core values, but the way we express them changes as time passes. And that is what “living constitutionalism” is about — when we interpret the Constitution to include certain rights not explicitly enumerated in the document. The living constitution approach is also the dominant view throughout the world. Following a living constitution approach to Constitutional interpretation is not just popular, but will result in expanding rights and increasing opportunity for all Americans.

In fact, most Americans believe that the living constitution approach is the best way for the Supreme Court to analyze the Constitution[5] because it’s based on the idea that constitutional law grows and changes with the society within it. Sometimes, conservative thinkers acknowledge that it’s not, in fact, such a bad thing, and show how this is contrary to the constitutional conception of our nation. The idea of living constitutionalism allows our nation to continue to be governed by the people who live in it today, rather than the people who lived hundreds of years ago.

How do we stay energized and involved?

A: Despite this decision, the aspiration for justice and the world that we are trying to achieve must stay at the forefront. There are still many ways to protect abortion rights by advocating for legislation and executive orders at the state, local, and federal levels. We know from history as our guide that it takes time – sometimes generations – to achieve justice. And we must continue to put forward aspirational narratives that call for nothing short.

Check out other ways to make a difference here, here, and here.

Crafting Your Message

We recommend that you use VPSA when communicating about this issue. VPSA is a communications structure – Value, Problem, Solution, Action – that guides the creation of values-based messages that motivate audiences to action.

Leading with VALUES creates broad points of agreement and shared goals that will resonate with nearly any audience. Being explicit about the PROBLEM, and how it threatens shared values, creates a sense of urgency and connects individual stories to broader systems and dynamics. Offering a SOLUTION gives audiences a sense of hope and motivation. The best solutions are connected directly to the problem offered and make clear where the responsibility for change lies. Assigning an ACTION gives the audience a concrete next step that they can picture themselves doing and creates a feeling of agency.

Sample VPSA Messages



We should have control over what happens in our own lives. Autonomy means having self-directing freedom over our choices regardless of our race, sex, gender, or class.


The Supreme Court’s Dobbs opinion is an affront to those freedoms. It prevents the autonomy of those with the ability to bear children, especially those from minority, marginalized, and low-income groups. The Court’s opinion permits states to infringe on the right to an abortion and destroys self-determination for those living in more than 25 states. Not only that, but the Dobbs opinion also jeopardizes other basic rights such as interracial marriage and same-sex marriage.


The journey to reaching justice must continue. We have the power to encourage federal and state representatives to act, to influence public opinion and, in turn, to influence the outcome of future elections and the future makeup of the Supreme Court. We can also provide aid to organizations helping poor and marginalized communities access safe abortions.


It is essential to use your voice and get involved to end the Court’s attack on basic human rights. Vote in every election. Talk to your friends and family about the importance of reproductive autonomy and freedom. Push your representatives for legislation and executive orders at the state, local, and federal levels.



Everyone deserves equal opportunity. We must work to break down barriers that prevent equal opportunity based on race, sex, gender, and class.


The Dobbs opinion destroys opportunity for those who can bear children and will hit members of the Black and brown communities hard. Dobbs astronomically increases the financial burden of obtaining an abortion. Low-income people, many of whom are Black and brown women, Black and brown transgender men, and Black and brown non-binary persons, will suffer the brunt of that blow.


In light of Dobbs, we must work to decrease the financial burden of obtaining an abortion for low-income people. States and organizations with resources should support people who now need to travel out-of-state to secure their reproductive rights.


Governments and organizations should provide travel grants and other resources so people from states with limits on abortion rights can afford the costs of travel to obtain an abortion. Individuals with the means can support organizations that do so, and can push their elected representatives to take action.

[1] https://reproductiverights.org/maps/what-if-roe-fell/.

[2] Mitchell’s Texas Right to Life Amicus Brief. https://www.supremecourt.gov/DocketPDF/19/19-1392/185344/20210729162610813_Dobbs%20Amicus%20FINAL%20PDFA.pdf

[3] Stone on Roberts, Alito, and stare decisis | University of Chicago Law School (uchicago.edu)

[4] https://law.marquette.edu/poll/2022/05/25/supreme-court-issues-press-release/

[5] https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/05/11/growing-share-of-americans-say-supreme-court-should-base-its-rulings-on-what-constitution-means-today/

Taking Action & Responding to the Attacks on Honest and Inclusive Education

In Brown v. Board of Education, the United States Supreme Court recognized the strong importance of education in the formation of a civic society:

[Education] is the very foundation of good citizenship. Today it is a principal instrument in awakening the child to cultural values, in preparing him for later professional training, and in helping him to adjust normally to his environment. In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education.

With this statement, the Court foreshadowed some of the strongest arguments for an education that provides an honest accounting of our past, including past injustices. Learning about racism and the triumphs of civil rights activists instills in students the cultural values of freedom, justice, and progress. Learning about racial differences also prepares students for the professional world, where they will encounter and work with people of diverse backgrounds. Perhaps most importantly, learning about racial differences, racism, and historical events prepares students to engage in political and civic life with a deeper understanding of themselves and those around them.

The current attempts to prevent the discussion and examination of our history and the legacy of racial inequality threaten the values named by the Brown court, weakening students’ abilities to succeed professionally and engage politically and civically. This tool provides guidance for responding to the attacks on critical race theory and for building a narrative that advances an honest and inclusive education.

Building a Narrative to Support Honest, Inclusive, and Diverse Education

There are several key points to keep in mind when advocating for an inclusive and honest education:

1. Define what critical race theory is. Many people, including progressives, are hesitant to use the term critical race theory. They worry that conservatives have made it too divisive. However, preliminary research shows that more Americans support critical race theory than oppose it, and that many are simply undecided about it. Research also suggests that when some audiences are told that it is a tool for analyzing and understanding racism, they are more likely to support it. Conservatives have been defining their attacks on honest and inclusive education by focusing on critical race theory, and progressives should respond to these attacks directly.

2. Emphasize the need for education to go further. One of the strengths of this country is its diversity, and today’s schoolchildren will be adults in an increasingly diverse society. Teaching students about diverse perspectives will help them grow into engaged, informed, and empathetic adults. The education system should be doing more to prepare students for this future and to inform them about the lingering effects of racial inequality in this country, so they can address these harms. Rather than respond to attacks on critical race theory by stating that it’s not taught in K-12 schools (which is true), build a narrative for why it and other tools for providing race conscious education should be adopted in all our schools.

3. Appeal to shared values. Research shows that people are more open to different, unfamiliar arguments when these arguments are framed by common values. In fact, appealing to values and beliefs is often more effective than statistics in combatting misinformation.[1] When crafting ways to respond to politicians trying to politicize education, you will need to interrogate the intentions and values that lie behind the myths being spread about CRT and anti-racism education in classrooms. In this memo, we have identified several fundamental American values that are shared by most people across the political spectrum and that are served by teaching CRT and systemic racism in schools.

4. Don’t “myth-bust.” Research shows that myth-busting, or restating a claim just to “debunk” it or explain why it is not true, is ineffective in persuading people to change their minds about a topic. In fact, stating a false fact actually encourages people to misremember the false statement as fact—even days later and if they were repeatedly told the statement was false.[2] So, instead of myth-busting, just affirmatively state the truth. Affirmative statements will always be more powerful and memorable than defensive statements. When you engage in conversation with an opponent of CRT, you may feel like you are fighting an uphill battle, so you should use you best weapon: truthful affirmative statements.

5. Explain how learning about our past leads to progress. An honest and inclusive education will help students learn from our past mistakes as a country, so we can build a better future. While we have come far, we have further to go in order to reach our ideals as a country.

6. Use storytelling. Storytelling is an effective tool for persuasion and as a means of confronting racism and the status quo. “Counterstories,” or the stories of people from groups that have historically been marginalized, can be used to effectively challenge perceptions.[3] Effective, powerful counterstories do the following:

  • Use narrative — everyone loves a good, engaging story!
  • Encourage the listener to see things from the storyteller’s point of view. The listener should be pushed, by the end of the story, to compare their beliefs and their reality to the experiences of the storyteller or the counterstory’s characters.
  • Challenge mindsets, not individuals.
  • Use generalizations and exaggerations to highlight key points.[4]

7. Don’t make parents and teachers who oppose critical race theory into villains. Instead, emphasize how politicians are sowing divisions in our communities. Politicians and outside actors initiated the advocacy against an honest and inclusive education and spread misinformation to parents and community members. They should be the focus of communications on this issue.

8. Use VPSA when communicating about this issue. VPSA is a communications structure – Value, Problem, Solution, Action – that guides the creation of values-based messages that motivate audiences to action.

Leading with VALUES creates broad points of agreement and shared goals that will resonate with nearly any audience. Being explicit about the PROBLEM, and how it threatens shared values, creates a sense of urgency and connects individual stories to broader systems and dynamics. Offering a SOLUTION gives audiences a sense of hope and motivation. The best solutions are connected directly to the problem offered and make clear where the responsibility for change lies. Assigning an ACTION gives the audience a concrete next step that they can picture themselves doing and creates a feeling of agency.

Sample VPSA Messages

Sample Message 1

Value: America was founded on the principle that all people are created equal. As Americans, it is important that fairness and equality are viewed as a central part of the American experience for everyone, and this includes the American legal system.

Problem: In order to uphold one of the founding principles in America, the legal system should be expected to deliver fair and equal results to all people. Decisions within the American legal system, from prosecutorial discretion to sentencing, have racial disparities. These racial disparities create additional divisiveness within the country.

Solution: Schools should embrace a curriculum that acknowledges that we have fallen short but remain committed to making racial progress.

Action: Share your views at events as small as school board meetings, to local or city council meetings, to calling state and federal officials and representatives, to voting in local, state, and federal elections. Make it known that you support equality and fairness in America.

Sample Message 2

Value: American society thrives when we acknowledge and grow from the challenges and conflicts of past generations.

Problem: Unfortunately, many states and school districts have been pushed to ban discussion on certain aspects of our shared history in schools. Topics of slavery, the civil rights movement, and the women’s rights movement are under attack.

Solution: Learning, accepting, and growing from our shared history is important in ensuring we do not repeat the mistakes of our past, and can work to remedy issues in our current era. These efforts to ban discussion in schools are un-American and must be stopped.

Action: You can be a part of protecting our history and preserving the ability of students to learn from it in its entirety, with both the good and the bad. Speak up against disinformation in your community, engage in your local school board meetings, and push back against efforts to muzzle our teachers.

Sample Message 3

Value: America is built on two major values—freedom and liberty. The respect and protection of the fundamental civil rights of all American citizens are core to our values and beliefs as a country. The protection of every American citizen’s right to be free from discrimination allows all Americans to preserve their freedom and liberty; these are two tenets that serve as the foundation of American ideals. Furthermore, in pursuit of freedom, American citizens are also guaranteed a right to free speech and the right to petition the government to address their grievances.

Problem: However, this freedom is at risk when topics and events that actually occurred are prevented from being taught in the classroom. This freedom is further jeopardized for students of color who must weigh the benefits and risks of participating in the classroom. When we have members of society who feel like their voices are not as important, then our entire democracy is at risk.

Solution: Race conscious education provides the language to allow all Americans to be able to speak about issues of race, providing a common foundation for the preservation of the right to free speech. It also provides students of color with the opportunity to “challeng[e] the status quo of racial inequality that has persisted for far too long in this nation…” [5]

Action: Reach out to local decision makers and inform them of the importance of CRT to students’ civil rights. If your state legislature, city council, or local school board are considering a ban on race conscious education, consider making a call, sending an email or letter to your representative describing your support for inclusive and diverse education. Attend school board or city council meetings and speak on the topic directly. Encourage friends, family, and members of the community to do the same. Communicating support—especially in large numbers—for the positive implications of honest and inclusive education for civil rights can help key decision makers understand what is at stake.

Special thanks to those who contributed to the research, analysis, review, and editing of this report, especially the students in I. India Thusi’s Fall 2021 Critical Race Theory seminar at Indiana University Maurer School of Law: Abby Akrong, Ethan Dawson, Erin Deckard, Rebeca Dorantes, Mary Kate Dugan, Lydia Elmer, Erica Fields, Kat Grant, Zoe Kolender, Emily McConville, Celia Meredith, Zoe Morgan, Kelsey Napier, Gabriel Retz, Maddie Satterly, Lainey Sezer, Hadley Smithhisler, Luke Steffe.

[1] Simon Oxxenham, When Evidence Backfires, Big Think (Apr. 15, 2014), https://bigthink.com/articles/when-evidence-backfires/.

[2] ‘See e.g., Ian Skurnik, Carolyn Yoon, Denise C. Park & Norbert Schwarz, How Warnings About False Claims Become Recommendations, 31 J. Consumer Rsch. 713, 718 (2005).

[3] Richard Delgado, Storytelling for Oppositionists and Others, in Critical race theory, supra note 8, at 71–72.

[4] Id. at 79

[5] Janel George, A Lesson On Critical Race Theory, ABA (January 11, 2021), https://www.americanbar.org/groups/crsj/publications/human_rights_magazine_home/civil-rights-reimagining-policing/a-lesson-on-critical-race-theory/.

Six Tips for Responding to White Supremacist Terrorism

This past weekend, communities in Buffalo, and across the nation, were once again horrified and devastated by the ugly face of white supremacist terrorism. As people who work every day to build safe and more equitable communities, our hearts break for the 10 lives which were taken from our world and their loved ones.

White supremacy relies on violence, terrorism, and rationalization to survive. The killing of Black people in Buffalo and the recent shootings at Asian-run businesses in Dallas, remind us that confronting white supremacist violence is urgent. Buffalo, Atlanta, El Paso, Charleston, and countless other cities have seen racist, hate-driven violence strike at the heart of communities of color. Behind all of these attacks is incendiary right-wing rhetoric which too many advertisers, media personalities, politicians, tech companies, and community leaders have chosen to support. Only by working for a more just, equitable, and peaceful future can we hope to foster a safe environment for all communities.

Below are some messaging tips on how to facilitate a meaningful conversation about safety, community, and education in the wake of the white supremacist terrorism in Buffalo.

1. Create Space for the Pain and Trauma that People Are Feeling

May 14th was a traumatic moment for the people in Buffalo and all of us who can picture ourselves in their shoes. It is critical that we set aside space to acknowledge the pain that many people are feeling in the wake of this calculated violence. On Saturday, people just went grocery shopping and, because of white supremacist terrorism, that sense of normalcy was shattered.

Take a moment, and set space for people to grieve and process through this traumatic event. It is important to acknowledge the pain that hate crimes have caused across the country and how communities are still trying to navigate that trauma.

2. Frame the Conversation around Safety for BIPOC Communities

Conversations about safety which follow tragic events frequently include proposals for policy change – like further militarizing police forces – that, actually, create less safety for BIPOC communities. It is because of this that we must keep the vision of true safety for BIPOC communities at the heart of our work. After a white supremacist terrorist shot Asian-Americans in Atlanta, we developed Five Tips for Talking about Anti-Asian Racism and, in that piece, we recommend starting “our communications with a shared vision of what our country should be: a safe, inclusive place of participation and belonging where everyone’s rights are protected and respected, we can frame anything that gets in the way of that as a pressing issue.” In many cases, this includes adopting community-based responses that prioritize safety with community resources rather than relying exclusively on police or punitive measures.

3. The Importance of Supporting Community Based Solutions

The attack on Tops Friendly Markets supermarket in Buffalo, New York, has caused immeasurable harm, exacerbated food insecurity, and created significant trauma. In order to emerge from this act of terrorism stronger than before, we must emphasize investing in community-based organizations, services, and support programs. A number of organizations have compiled resources that you can access here and here. On top of this, support local efforts for recovery and create policies at home which will strengthen the communities in which you live.

4. Have an Honest Conversation about the Impact of White Supremacy in the U.S. and Take Action to Overcome It

We stand at a crossroads. In one direction, stands the history that has been told to us for generations, which ignores the role that white supremacy has played in our country and the violence that has been enacted for the sake of preserving white supremacist power. In the other direction, stands the honest history of the United States, which acknowledges the impact of white supremacy in perpetuating violence against communities of color. As we noted in our messaging memo, Talking About Attacks on Critical Race Theory, it is critical that we “remind audiences that banning education about our racial history, which these bans on ‘critical race theory’ seek to do, undermine our efforts to promote shared values like equal justice, honesty, opportunity, and basic compassion.”

5. Call it What it is – Racism

These white supremacist attacks are racist, not racially motivated nor racially charged. The perpetrators are also racists, not “lone wolves.” They were not only driven by their own hatred, but activated by a host of other racists, supported by racist institutions, and enabled by racist companies and spaces.

6. Use VPSA Messaging to Develop the Shared Vision

Using the Value, Problem, Solution and Action Framework, you can draft your own response to this act of white supremacist terrorism in a way that acknowledges our shared values and helps your audience overcome the fatigue often created by such a significant problem. In this case, we recommend centering Safety, Community, and Inclusivity. Example:

Value: True community safety means that everyone can shop, pray, drive, and engage in everyday activities without the fear of violence.

Problem: Incendiary far-right rhetoric has once again resulted in white supremacist violence.

Solution: As we mourn, communities everywhere can come together to declare zero tolerance for white supremacist hate and channel that declaration into replacing policies which uphold white supremacy with policies which support true safety and equity for all.

Action: Communities across the nation can take action at home to dismantle policies which uphold white supremacy and call on advertisers, donors and political leaders to also reject right wing incendiary rhetoric.

What Now?! Talking About the Supreme Court

How to Talk About the Leak & the Purported SCOTUS Decision to Overturn Roe v. Wade


As you have no doubt heard by now, a draft opinion that would overturn Roe v. Wade and roll back the Constitutional precedent that guarantees a woman’s right to choose has been leaked to the media. Upon initial analysis, if this draft becomes the official majority opinion, it could have alarming impacts well beyond abortion rights.

We must use this moment to pronounce a vision of what full rights look like for all of us, for our children, and for generations to come, while at the same time repudiating this leaked decision. We must uplift the need to protect hard-fought, historic gains in promoting and preserving opportunity, and we must remain both vigilant and strategic in pushing back against legal decisions and legislative policies that undermine these gains.

The Opportunity Agenda believes that this starts with stories, with what we say, and how we say it.



Some Quick, General Tips


1. Remember that this is NOT the SCOTUS decision. It is a draft document – what could be a preview of what a Supreme Court decision might look like.

The draft opinion has no legal effect right now. Women’s, family planning, and abortion clinics are still operating. Don’t spend time discussing this as settled law, because it isn’t and may confuse people who are still struggling to access reproductive care in their communities.

Avoid communicating as though what’s done is done, because it isn’t.


2. If this becomes the Court’s final decision, its impact could extend far beyond the right to access abortions.

The language in the draft opinion suggests that it would pave the way for eliminating a range of rights that most Americans have come to take for granted. It suggests that only those rights from the time of this country’s founding should be protected, thus opening the door for states to criminalize access to contraception, interracial relationships, same-sex marriage and sexual relationships, and parents’ right to educate their children as they see fit. The opinion might even open the door to question the continued relevance of cases like Brown v. Board Education, which held that legalized racial segregation was unconstitutional.

Communicate the potential reach of this draft opinion and its profound consequences, should it be handed down.


3. Pivot to solutions and action.

Despite the anxiety generated by this draft opinion, remember to pivot to solutions. Now is the time to recognize the power of voices coming together. Encourage audiences to take action, whether that’s demanding passage of the Women’s Health Protection Act or the Equal Rights Amendment, demonstrating outside the Supreme Court or at state courts and capitol buildings, or taking to the streets and the voting booth in order to convey and protect our values.

There is much we can do in this moment, and we have a duty to do it right now.


4. Uplift these values

Pragmatism, Common Sense, Innovation, Determination to Do The Right Thing, Shared Responsibility to Fix Flawed Policies, Solidarity, Full Inclusion.



P.S. Click here or here or to find a list of local and state-wide abortion access organizations to support, and here for resources and tools to take action on abortion access as well as an “Adopt-A-Clinic” Program.

Criminal Justice Reform Phrase Guide

Five Tips for Language That Changes Hearts & Minds

Momentum has grown for policymakers to improve the criminal system and adopt strategies that keep all communities safe; prevent harm; and uphold the values of fairness, equal justice, respect, and accountability. But we know that current conversations often perpetuate misconceptions, reinforce stereotypes, and hamper improvement of the system.

This tool includes tips to promote a more equitable and more accurate discourse that is respectful and effective at addressing the harms of the system.

Whether you are a public defender, legislator, community organizer, judge, professor, or communicator, adopting harmful language can impact the discourse and policies that affect people and communities.

Our words matter. The goal of this document is to provide suggestions for effective and appropriate language to move the needle toward transformation. The Opportunity Agenda welcomes your experiences, reactions, ideas, and insights.

1. People, Not Labels

The traditional language of the criminal justice system is often dehumanizing and fosters stigma, stereotypes, and fear. Instead of labels, talk about the people touched by the system; they are members of our community and nation.

For all of the above, depending on how specific the description needs to be, say: People who have been caught up in the criminal justice system.


2. Connect the Harm to Systemic Solutions

Conversations about the criminal system often respond to individual examples, which the media frequently sensationalizes. These accounts contribute to a public culture of fear about crime, and often feature individualized responses rather than systemic reform. To promote a new narrative about what community safety looks like, try to reframe the conversation and remind people that reforming the system is a path toward true community safety. We don’t need to rely on punishment and harshness to keep everyone safe.

When they say: we need more police and criminal laws.

YOU SAY: We need real community safety. That happens when we provide the resources communities need to thrive, particularly those who are suffering from a lack of investment.

When they say: violent crime is skyrocketing.

YOU SAY: Working toward real community safety will always be our priority. We know that most harms happen between people who know each other or who are family and are experiencing stressors. We encourage investment in programs that alleviate the financial and emotional burdens of the moment.

When they say: We need to return to more law and order.

YOU SAY: Safe communities mean that personal security and equal justice co-exist. We are safer when we invest in social welfare programs and community-based anti-violence programs.

When they say: X person committed this violent crime, so criminal justice reform policies should be abandoned.

YOU SAY: We have to be smart about the way we approach something as important as community safety. It makes no sense to throw out carefully considered policies that have helped so many communities based on one instance. If ever there were a time to dig deep for solutions, that time is now.

We are all safer when we look at the system as a whole; when we support people as they reenter their communities; and when we adopt policies that keep people within their social support network. We should examine criminal policies by looking at their effects on the whole system. We should not allow politicians to sensationalize individual instances to promote policies that do more damage than good.

When they say: Calls to defund policing will result in chaos.

YOU SAY: We should welcome any calls to examine a system that is causing people harm. When we take a closer look at how police interact with communities and how we can better approach community safety and prevent harm, we get closer to true community safety – our shared goal.

We can help communities become even safer by investing in programs and policies that allow them to hold individuals accountable for harm while providing alternatives to incarceration.

When they say: We need to punish people for their crimes.

YOU SAY: We know there are many ways to hold people accountable without relying on outdated or dehumanizing forms of punishment. For example, restorative justice programs have proven to provide a process of accountability while allowing people affected by harm to fully participate in the process.

When they say: Our cities will become dangerous if we don’t punish violent offenders.

YOU SAY: We can best keep our cities safe by increasing our investments in education, housing, food, access to recreation and other programs that allow people to thrive.

When they say: We need police to protect us from criminals.

YOU SAY: Whatever our perspective, our shared goals should be community safety and harm prevention. As the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor show us, we need to rethink our approach to preventing harm because police violence also makes communities unsafe. We can do this by looking at effective programs that have managed to prevent harm and support communities without relying on police.

3. Obstacles Before Outcomes

Instead of jumping straight to unequal outcomes, take the time to explain the unfair systems and inequitable treatments that lead to those outcomes. Otherwise, many audiences will inaccurately assume that unequal outcomes happen because some groups are simply more prone to crime.

Black man waves Black Lives Matter flag set against pink-blue gradient.
Photo by Clay Banks

4. Break Stereotypes

Antiquated language about communities and crime tends to perpetuate harmful stereotypes and drive flawed and misdirected policy. Use language that respects communities and acknowledges the disinvestment in neighborhoods and groups that contributes to higher levels of crime and violence.


5. Avoid Unnecessary and Harmful Distinctions

Public opinion research shows that most Americans support reforming the justice system and do not automatically distinguish between violent and nonviolent crimes or drug and other offenses. Avoid making those distinctions unnecessarily; these lines of demarcation can reduce support for broad-based reform of the system.


Respect People’s Voice and Choice

This phrase guide provides helpful tips for talking about issues relating to the criminal system. However, there may be instances when you are talking with communities and individuals whose preferences differ from the advice in this guide. That’s okay. Respect people’s choices and voices. Not everyone in a group is the same. Although the language from this guide builds upon organizing, advocacy, and research arguing that humanizing people most impacted by the criminal system is a step toward making the system fairer, some people might have different language preferences in certain instances. The most important thing to recognize is that people impacted by the criminal system are people, and how we talk about them affects the public discourse, narratives, and policies that impact their everyday life.

Values to uplift in your messaging:

  • Preventing Harm
  • Promoting Community Safety
  • Accountability
  • Rehabilitation
  • Dignity
  • Restoration
  • Equal Justice
  • Due Process
  • Doing what works

Additional criminal justice reform communication resources:

Supporting Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s Historic Nomination

President Biden made history by nominating Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to serve as Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court and people have shared their enthusiastic support across the nation. Nevertheless, Judge Jackson has been subjected to hostile and disrespectful questioning from senators, which reflects how the standards of civility shift when a Black woman is in question. Given these attacks, we must continue to do the hard work of contextualizing this moment concerning what it means for the future of our country. We must continue to highlight the significance of this nomination for the aspirations we have toward breaking down systemic barriers that stand in the way of progress.  We need Supreme Court Justices who reflect the integrity and honor that Judge Jackson has shown throughout her career.

The Opportunity Agenda (TOA) strongly encourages communicators, advocates, and anyone concerned with social justice to uplift the importance of this nomination. Below is communications advice for talking about Judge Jackson’s nomination informed by recent opinion research.

Public Opinion

Despite attempts to tarnish Judge Jackson’s reputation, a Gallup poll found that Judge Jackson enjoys the highest support of any Supreme Court nominee since Chief Justice John Roberts, with 58 percent of people in the United States in favor of her confirmation.[1] An NBC National Poll found she had “the highest net support rating of any Supreme Court nominee since 2005.”[2]

This polling is likely due to her extraordinary background and credentials, along with the advocacy of groups like #SheWillRise and others. Through consistent message engagement, advocates can help promote a media and cultural landscape that is favorable to Judge Jackson while also effectively pivoting toward calling out unwarranted attacks when they arise.

Values-Based Messages

Because our research consistently shows that leading with values is an effective approach to communication, we encourage people to adopt a “VPSA” format in drafting their messages about Judge Jackson. We have described VPSA below and provided sample messages that adopt this format.


  • Leading with VALUES creates broad points of agreement and shared goals that will resonate with nearly any audience.
  • Being explicit about the PROBLEM, and how it threatens shared values, creates a sense of urgency and connects individual stories to broader systems and dynamics.
  • Offering a SOLUTION gives audiences a sense of hope and motivation. The best solutions are connected directly to the problem offered and make clear where the responsibility for change lies.
  • Assigning an ACTION gives the audience a concrete next step that they can picture themselves doing and creates a feeling of agency.

Sample Actions

TOA encourages people to continue their advocacy for Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson by:

  1. Writing newspaper editorials or blogs that connect Judge Jackson’s nomination to their own shared experience.
  2. Posting on social media to celebrate her background and highlight how she reflects our shared values.
  3. Talking with those close to you about the significance of her nomination and likely confirmation to the Supreme Court.

Sample VPSA Messages

Judge Jackson is Committed to Equal Justice Under Law

The words “Equal Justice Under Law” are engraved into the entrance of the U.S. Supreme Court, and Judge Jackson’s historic nomination illustrates that this country is slowly coming closer to this ideal. Judge Jackson is on track to be the first Black woman to serve on the Supreme Court and has led a life of public service through her work as a judge, public defender, and on the U.S. Sentencing Commission.

Yet, some have tried to question her background because of this public service. As a judge and lawyer, she worked to ensure that everyone she served was treated fairly and equally. She was fair, measured, and consistent in reflecting the value of “Equal Justice Under Law,” but opponents are trying to distort her record.

Consequently, it is important to push for Judge Jackson’s speedy confirmation to the Supreme Court given her commitment to equal justice. We must continue to talk about the importance of her nomination. It is historic not only because Judge Jackson is a Black woman, but because she would help to realize a foundational goal of our highest court—Equal Justice Under Law.

Reach out to your local newspaper to submit a Letter to the Editor about why this nomination is so critical for you and your community

Judge Jackson Reflects the Ambitions of Americans

The American identity is inseparable from the ideal of achieving full opportunity, where everyone has a fair chance to reach their full potential. Judge Brown’s story as a public-school graduate from Miami to a current nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court is an example of a classic American success story. James Truslow Adams described this dream as “that dream of a land…with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement…a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.” Judge Jackson worked hard in the face of extraordinary challenges and has achieved an exemplary stature as a jurist and lawyer committed to public service.

For far too long, access to education, advancement in the legal profession, and countless other hurdles have stood in the way of Black women aspiring to someday join the Supreme Court. Nevertheless, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson has worked hard to obtain preeminent qualifications that exemplify what is possible when we expand access to opportunity.

By having Ketanji Brown Jackson as a Supreme Court Justice, the high court will be better positioned to more effectively confront those systemic hurdles that stand in the way of true opportunity and equal justice. The court will be hearing cases that might shift our access to opportunity in this country, and Judge Jackson’s background and experiences will only enrich the perspectives on the court.

In order to share your support for Judge Jackson’s speedy confirmation, tweet at your senator about why you support Judge Jackson’s confirmation to the Supreme Court, or post on social media about what this nomination means to you using #ConfirmJackson.

Talking About Justice and Equity Through Sports

Tips for Advocates Seeking Guidance on How to Add to the Conversation

From Colin Kaepernick taking a knee to Simone Biles speaking candidly on the importance of prioritizing mental health, athletes continue to use their power and platforms as cultural influencers to tip the scales towards justice and equity for all.

The power of political and narrative organizing by athletes and grassroots organizers has forced the hand of professional sports leagues and collegiate associations to, in the least, manage a public relations crisis, and at best, look internally to how their structures replicate social inequity. Furthermore, personal acts of resistance by athletes in the public view have forced the nation into conversations about injustice and liberation.

Here are five principles for advocates who don’t follow sports closely but want to engage in these conversations. Together, we can speak with sports fans who share our values but fail to recognize how systemic injustice plagues American institutions. Once we reach that shared understanding, we can move them to support justice reform in both their communities and favorite sports leagues.

1. Lead with shared values of fairness and community and widen the lens towards systemic equity. Sports fans hate cheaters, love underdogs, understand the value of teamwork, and crave stories about people who overcame long odds to find success — the rags to riches story. When viewed through a racial justice lens, however, sports narratives tend to be grounded in assumptions of meritocracy, relying on a familiar (and false) assumption that we social justice communicators regularly tackle about how everyone starts on an equal playing field. There are two important points to remember when you are facing this framing:

  • Be cautious of how the use of sports themes like “equal playing field” create a competitive framework that implies that one person’s win is another person’s loss. This framing can lead to a false sense of scarcity that expanding economic security or educational opportunity in one community threatens access for another. Abundance messaging counters scarcity mindsets. By starting with an abundance frame, it becomes easier for audiences to see how equitable and inclusive health care or investments in public education can contribute to the common good.
  • Shift the conversation from one of individual opportunity to institutional equity. This narrative shift creates space to tackle how accessibility gaps have grown as youth sports transition into costly, club-based programs or how sports scholarships serve to reinforce racial disparities in higher education.

Required listening: “Special: Sports, Racism and The Myth of Meritocracy,” WBUR (June 26, 2020)

2. Know your audience and avoid “inside baseball” talk. The bleachers are one of the rare places where people with a very broad spectrum of political beliefs come together with the shared identity of being loyal fans of their team. Your goal should never be to reach everyone; however, you need to make sure you use language that is approachable to athletes and fans. Once you see that an emerging issue is developing, it essential that you decide on the frame you want to present that would have the greatest impact with your audience.

If your goal is to reach a demographic subset of sports fans and move them into action:

  • What do you know about their current thinking? Look into public opinion research, social media scans, or their own words.
  • What do you want to change about their thinking in order to inspire action?
  • Who do they listen to?

If you’re trying to leverage a moment in sports to speak to wider audiences:

  • What context does the broader audience need in order to understand what is at stake?
  • What details are needed for audiences to understand how the issue connects back to systemic policy solutions?
  • Do your advocacy goals align with those of grassroots, community-based groups or the athletes themselves who are closest to the problem?

In both cases, especially when speaking to sports fans, avoid jargon, which can leave many people out, and instead craft accessible messages that emphasize human-centered language to invite more people into the conversation. We recommend tailoring messages to specific audiences using the Values, Problem, Solutions and Action framework (VPSA).

Extra credit: complete “Vision, Values and Voice: A Communications Toolkit.”

3. Lean into your advocacy expertise and lived experience to add value to the conversation. Similar to cable news, sports programming has shifted strongly towards point, counter-point programs that thrive on spectacle and personality. In this media environment, analysis often focuses on internal or interpersonal dynamics — players’ faults, divisions among athletes, or tension between players and team owners or league commissioners. What is lacking in this analysis is the acknowledgment of how systemic inequality may manifest in player’s lives and their communities.

In the coverage of Simone Biles’ decision to withdraw from the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, commentators connected her honesty about mental health to Naomi Osaka’s decision to withdraw from the French Open. Some on-screen personalities “didn’t know what to make” of how these athletes’ decisions conflicted with the longstanding culture of toughing it out. Others applauded the shift toward athletes feeling empowered to be honest about their mental health, a struggle many of us share. In both contexts, however, discourse largely focused on the athletes themselves — not on athletic institutions — and how they personally react to pressure and stress.

In contrast, fellow Olympic gymnast Dominique Dawes added deeper context to the history and culture of misogyny and sexual abuse that pervaded many gymnasts’ training long before the pressure of high-profile competitions. Obviously, Dawes is uniquely positioned to pen this perspective, but you don’t need to be an expert sports analyst to add value. By leveraging your expertise in racial equity, economic opportunity, or any related issues, you can connect media moments in sports to larger systemic issues that sports pundits may miss in their analysis.

4. Follow Black athletes and journalists on social media to monitor for biased reporting in the news. You should trust your instincts when what’s on the surface (i.e. in the news or on social media) doesn’t resonate with what you know to be true in your own lived experience. Like organizing, being a good ally requires some level of accountability to those closest to the problem. By following influential athletes and sports journalists you can more effectively engage with them when issues arise to help reframe conversations in the broader context, rather than allowing the dominant narrative to dictate the frame.

We don’t need to tell you that how news media functions often reinforces racism, and the same is true in sports media. More than a decade after it happened, NBA basketball point guard Allen Iverson’s viral “talking about practice” rant was revealed to be a sound bite from a larger statement where he also spoke honestly about his pain over the killing of his best friend, a case that went to trial days before this media moment. Rather than view Iverson with empathy and compassion for the deeply painful experience he was navigating, reporting in the moment focused on the drama between Iverson and his coach, reinforcing biased assumptions about his work ethic and commitment to the team.

Russell Westbrook’s NBA career has been marked by highly visible, heated exchanges with fans. Westbrook plays with a level of passion rarely seen, and his intensity on the court resonates with harmful stereotypes historically assigned to Black masculinity in media portrayals. The verbal assaults, sometimes referred to as “playful bantering” by fans, are rooted in racism that views Black athletes as less-than-human, and NBA franchises have acted decisively to issue lifetime bans against fans who verbally and physically assaulted Westbrook.

Looking at these specific incidents, how both athletes’ experiences were initially reported is emblematic of the racially biased ways Black men can be portrayed in the media. Following Black athletes and reporters on social media can help add context when learning more about unfamiliar narrative territory in sports.

5. Use the public commitments of sports leagues and teams as a jumping-off point for larger conversations about representation and justice. Much like our national and local politics, professional and amateur athletics are at a key inflection point in our work towards creating an equitable, inclusive society. While this is a key moment to leverage the power of professional athletes and leagues in our work for justice, it’s also vital that we validate players’ internal, anti-oppression organizing to reform policies and practices within their own leagues.

Scrutiny of professional league’s diversity, equity, and inclusion practices continues to reveal significant disconnects between demographics of athletes and their coaches, team owners and executive leadership. Most professional leagues have a labor union, often referred to as the players association. Tracking the efforts of both these bodies and their player representatives helps add context to disputes between athletes and owners during collective bargaining negotiations. In 2020, the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) Players Association made gains to increase base salaries, bonuses and secure paid family leave. In the international arena, the United States Women’s Soccer Team (USWNT) legal battle for pay equity continues.

Acts of resistance by athletes are also challenging leagues and teams to make public statements and financial commitments to addressing systemic racism. Analysis of Federal Election Commission (FEC) records on political contributions, however, raise questions of whether publicly stated commitments to racial justice or admissions of wrongdoing serve as little more than public relations window dressing.

As advocates, our expertise in both policy reforms and anti-racism cultural change within institutions uniquely positions us to use the public statements of athletic associations as openings for larger conversations about social justice.

As one example, a recent Supreme Court decision regarding financial compensation for college athletes further complicated the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) reluctance to answer state legislative action that opens the door for amateur athletes to monetize use of their name, image and likeness (NIL). The NCAA has justified its position by arguing that athletes receive a free education. When reframed as yet another example where primarily white coaches and administrators are profiting off the free labor of predominantly Black athletes, the roughly $8 billion collegiate sports industry serves as yet another example of a “plantation economy.”

Required viewing: watch LFG on HBO Max (released June 24, 2021)


Since Colin Kaepernick first took a knee in August 2016, hundreds of athletes have joined his protest of police brutality. His actions sparked a significant increase in both social media discourse and news media articles over a 12-month span preceding and following his protest. As we saw again with Simone Biles, cultural influencers hold tremendous power to propel conversations into our national discourse and create space for other high-profile individuals and the public to speak out.

Working directly with cultural influencers, or engaging in the conversations they spark, creates an opportunity to center the voices of people with direct experience of the issues at hand and convert short-term media moments into long-term narrative shifts and lasting policy changes. Given the upside of jumping into the debate, we shouldn’t sit on the sidelines.

Talking About the Attacks on Critical Race Theory

Narrative Principles for Promoting Truth in Education & How to Tell the Story about our Country

Our nation has been forced to reckon with its history of racial oppression, particularly after the tragic and senseless circumstances surrounding the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmed Arbery, and many others.  Millions have protested in the streets, on a global scale, to demand the elimination of racially biased policing and the respect for Black lives. Corporations, school districts, nonprofits, institutions of faith, and others have declared their commitment to recognizing that “Black Lives Matter.”

In the wake of what has been considered by many a national racial reckoning, there has been opposition against efforts to educate the public, including our children in schools, about this country’s legacy of racial inequality. The most prominent of this opposition includes efforts to ban and demonize “critical race theory,” a legal theory that emerged in the 1980s by scholars in legal academic literature. Simply put, critical race theory is a theory about the law that recognizes that racism has been a core feature of American history. As a theory, it is primarily discussed within legal scholarship. However, conservatives have labeled any approach to education that recognizes this nation’s history as “critical race theory,” distorting its definition and concurrently distracting the public from efforts to undermine inclusive participation in our democracy through limits on voting and other aspects of civic participation (e.g., undermining the U.S. Census and efforts to consider racial factors in redistricting), as well as the promotion of false narratives about the so-called, “fairness and accuracy of” the 2020 election.

This memorandum provides recommendations for addressing the attacks on critical race theory and the misinformation being promoted around it. As is the case in the majority of our recommendations, The Opportunity Agenda believes that social justice communicators must tell an affirmative and aspirational story about the importance of education that reflects our diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds, which includes aspects of our history that are tough or challenging to discuss, but nonetheless important to touch on with honesty about our country’s legacy of racial injustice. This advice is informed by our past experience and research on communicating effectively about racial and social justice.

General Advice

1. Acknowledge that most audience don’t know what critical race theory is. Critical race theory was developed by legal scholars in the late 1970s and 1980s, and it examines how the law reproduces racism. While critical race theory includes a diverse array of perspectives, some of its core tenets include (1) an acknowledgement that race is a socially-constructed phenomenon rather than a biological fact; and (2) racism is a core feature that permeates American legal and social structures rather than an aberration. As a legal theory, it is most commonly debated within legal and academic circles, and most audiences are not very familiar with its principles. Nevertheless, critical race theory has become a symbol for conservatives, and this body of legal theory is being redefined through divisive rhetoric. Those who decry critical race theory are particularly concerned about education on our nation’s factual history of colonialism, slavery, and racial segregation. The concern is less about “critical race theory” per se than a truthful retelling of history that acknowledges this country’s shortcomings, or, as some put it, greatest sins.

We advise that communicators briefly explain what critical race theory is (e.g., critical race theory is a legal theory that recognizes that racism has been a core feature of American history, which has shaped American laws and society) but spend most of your time emphasizing the need for a truthful recounting of our history in order for us to get to racial healing. The Opportunity Agenda agrees with the basic reminder that in order to heal, one must first diagnose and discuss the malady.

2. Focus on how the refusal to tell the full truth about our history undermines our shared values. It’s important to find ways to engage on a level that can connect with audiences who are unfamiliar with critical race theory, and a great way to do this is to focus on values. While most audiences are probably unfamiliar with the history and content of critical race theory, they are generally familiar with our country’s legacy of slavery and racial inequality. They know that slavery existed and that there was a reconstruction, and a continuing Civil Rights Movement that began by contesting Jim Crow laws. Most Americans know that these events occurred.

Remind audiences that banning education about our racial history, which these bans on “critical race theory” seek to do, undermine our efforts to promote shared values like equal justice, honesty, opportunity, and basic compassion. For example, remind people of the kind of country we want to be and draw on how our best ideals mean that we be truthful about our past. We have come a long way, and we can only continue to move forward by confronting our past shortcomings. Discuss how these attacks undermine these shared values and others including: Free Speech, Education, Fairness, and Opportunity.

3. Tell an affirmative story about the importance of inclusive education that allows us to confront our history as a nation. Explaining the details of how K-12 schools don’t teach “critical race theory” is not as powerful as affirmatively stating what type of education we should be striving for and what our opponents are really trying to do: eliminate a truthful recounting of history, which is necessary for us to finally overcome our country’s legacy of racial inequity. Remember that engaging the opposition arguments and myth busting on critical race theory also serves to feed into the conversation that opponents have started and are shaping. Talk about our goals instead: we should aim for an education system that is inclusive, reflects diverse perspectives, and facilitates an equitable future. Spending too much time “myth busting” or telling audiences that schools don’t teach critical race theory, only repeats the phrase and strengthens it in audiences’ minds.

4. Connect the attacks on critical race theory to the attacks on racial and social justice more broadly. Right now, there is a coordinated effort to undermine this country’s democracy as conservatives launch a cultural war on critical race theory, among other imagined “woke” threats. These provide a useful distraction from the current unprecedented threat to democracy. Racial and social justice advocates should connect the attacks on critical race theory to the attacks on participation in our democracy and on how they amount to attempts to concentrate power in voting blocks that are white while limiting the power of new citizens or people of color. They are attempts to undermine social justice and progress, and they share a collective goal to uproot democracy. The cultural attacks on “critical race theory” are a distraction from the social and political attacks on our democracy. Be explicit about this.

5. Discuss the importance of the values of Honesty, Truth, and Free Speech. As the population of children in this country becomes increasingly diverse, efforts to ban a full and truthful accounting of our country’s history ensures that children will not learn about their peoples’ own histories. Efforts to equip children to thrive in a diverse society will be undermined if these bans persist. Attempts to ban racially inclusive education also violate the free speech rights of educators who want to talk about the truth; they encourage a dishonest accounting of our nation’s history; and they promote disinformation and dishonesty. We can’t work together if we can’t even be honest about where we’ve been. We must ensure that the history that is taught celebrates ethnic diversity and acknowledges that slavery was a part of this country’s legacy so we can learn from the past rather than hide from it.

6. Pivot to solutions and action. The early reporting on this issue was lackluster to the extent that it reflects a lack of knowledge about critical race theory and general confusion about how to respond to the attacks. There has been little focus on the solutions for this issue or the path forward.  It is therefore important to discuss the constitutional values that are threatened by these attacks (Free Speech and First Amendment protections) and how they are inconsistent with our Constitution and the spirit and values of our democracy.  Advocates should provide ways for ensuring that education becomes inclusive and emphasize that despite the rhetoric about critical race theory, we still have a way to go to make education more inclusive. Promote your solutions for providing an education that promotes an equitable society.

Values to Lead With

1. Honesty and Truth: In order for this country to achieve racial healing, we must be honest about what has ailed our nation and how far we have come, and how far we still have to go.  Being truthful about where we have been as a country can be challenging, but it is also rewarding if we consider how far we have come. While we still have a long way to go, discussing this history provides guidance on how we can continue to make progress toward racial justice.

2. Inclusivity: Equal justice is a founding principle for this country, and it requires that we strive to create an inclusive environment where everyone can learn about their and other cultures and histories at school.

3. Education: Our schools should be places where young people learn the skills to thrive in our increasingly diverse society. They should learn about each other’s culture and should leave schools equipped to thrive with these teachings so that we can ensure that our modern society is forward-thinking and learns from the past.

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