Talking About the Supreme Court

Narrative Principles for Discussing Supreme Court Cases

As the Supreme Court prepares to issue its final decisions of the term, it is vital that we remember the values which underly the essential liberties we strive for. Although our hope is that the Court will ensure that everyone can fully enjoy the protections and rights provided by the Constitution, there are a number of cases pending that could set us back on this aspiration. This includes challenges regarding the extent to which local governments can take steps to prevent organizations from discriminating against LGBTQ couples who want to foster children; whether states can constitutionally restrict voting; and whether the healthcare protections in the Affordable Care Act remain constitutional, among other important cases.

The Opportunity Agenda strongly believes that it is important to uplift the need to protect the hard-fought gains our country has made in promoting and preserving opportunity, while also acknowledging that these hard-fought gains are, in many respects, still incomplete. It is on this premise that we prepare ourselves to critically analyze Supreme Court decisions that might undermine the very progress that has been achieved.

We encourage communicators, advocates, and anyone concerned with social justice to uplift the important point that Supreme Court justices must preserve prior decisions that protect and advance constitutional rights. Below are some suggestions for how to do this, informed by recent opinion research for talking about the Supreme Court as it gets ready to issue these end-of-term decisions.

General Advice

  1. Focus on what Supreme Court decisions mean to our shared values. Most audiences are not at all familiar with – or even focused on – the outcomes of Supreme Court cases and their impressions will be shaped by headlines and topline rhetoric. It’s important to find ways to engage at that level. A great way to do this is to focus on values, such as reminding people of the kind of country we want to be and drawing on our best ideals. Consider what the decision suggests for the celebration or undermining of those values. Values: Justice, Freedom, Dignity, Fairness, Opportunity, Democracy, Family.
  2. Don’t focus on what a decision is not. Discuss what it is. Explaining the legal details of what the case does not mean is less powerful than affirmatively stating what it does mean. Spending too much time “myth busting” or telling audiences that the ruling does not outlaw abortion, for instance, only repeats the phrase and strengthens it in audiences’ minds. Remember that “myth busting” doesn’t result in audiences remembering your point – it instead results in the further penetration of the points that opponents make.
  3. Pivot to solutions and action. While reporters covering the case may want “just the facts,” there are many opportunities to remind audiences of the solutions that the case highlights, and what they can do to make those solutions happen. Progressive and base audiences will be fired up to do something to celebrate or express anger or discontent, so make sure to provide a concrete action. Sympathetic audiences need to be primed to feel as though their efforts matter, and that they can be both despairing of this moment in history, while at the same time remembering that our country’s core principles and history are to slowly make progress even through challenging times. Undecided audiences need to hear the positive alternatives that are possible. Values: Pragmatism, Common Sense, Innovation, Determination to Do the Right Thing, Our Shared Responsibility to Fix Flawed Policies, Solidarity.

Specific Advice for the Pending Decisions

1. LGTBQ Justice and So-Called Religious Freedom

Fulton v. City of Philadelphia

The Supreme Court will be deciding whether the City of Philadelphia improperly terminated its relationship with a Catholic charity that refused to screen same-sex couples as foster parents. The City of Philadelphia refused to work with this charity because of its discriminatory screening practices. Now, the charity is arguing that this termination violated its right to freedom of religion. This case presents a conflict of rights in which the City of Philadelphia is concerned with same-sex couples’ right to be free from discrimination, and the charity is claiming that it has a right to religious freedom in its discriminatory decision not to work with same-sex couples.

Recent public opinion research is helpful in assessing how to respond to this case and the others that are before the Court this term. A recent study polled a nationally representative sample of 2,158 American adults about their views on upcoming Supreme Court decisions[1] The SCOTUS Study asked respondents whether they believed that requiring foster agencies to place children with same-sex couples violated the foster agencies’ right to religious freedom, and 52.2% of the public stated that it does violate these agencies’ right to religious freedom.

Table 1[2]

This finding suggests communicators and advocates should emphasize the government’s role in preventing discrimination and in ensuring that everyone is able to build a family with dignity. Emphasizing the government’s role in preventing discrimination and the importance of protecting everyone’s right to family and equal justice – including the rights of potential LGBTQ foster couples and their prospective foster children – will be critical. Moreover, communicators and social justice leaders should connect the outcome in the case to our shared values by describing how the outcome in this case might undermine or bolster local governments’ abilities to prevent discrimination.

Values to Uplift When Discussing This Case: Family, Equal Justice, Human Rights, Community, Empathy.

2. Affordable Care Act

California v. Texas

Following its 2012 decision upholding the Affordable Care Act, the Supreme Court will again be deciding upon a challenge to its constitutionality. The Court will decide on two main issues: (1) whether the individual mandate is constitutional; and (2) if the individual mandate is unconstitutional, whether it is nevertheless severable from the Affordable Care Act, allowing this Act to remain in force even if the individual mandate provision is no longer part of it. While it is possible that the Court will not decide upon the substance of the case and will instead find the parties who brought the case to not have standing, it is important to plan for the decision, nonetheless.

The SCOTUS Study found that 55.8% of respondents believed that the individual mandate is unconstitutional. This finding suggests that there is additional work needed to explain how the mandate broadens access to healthcare and is critical to a better-functioning healthcare system.

Table 2[3]

Nevertheless, most respondents (53.3%) stated that even if the individual mandate is unconstitutional, it should not affect the rest of the law.

Table 3[4]

If the Court strikes down the mandate and thereby strikes down Obamacare, it will be important to emphasize how the Supreme Court’s choice was excessive and that millions of Americans will be left uninsured by it.

Remind audiences of our responsibilities to our fellow human beings. Access to healthcare is incredibly important and should be uplifted as a value, and after enduring the COVID-19 pandemic, audiences may be more open to these messages than ever before. As we are starting to see glimmers of hope regarding the progression of the COVID-19 pandemic, it remains important to protect everyone’s access to healthcare.

Values to Uplift When Discussing This Case: Human Rights, Community, Health, Empathy, Compassion, Looking Out for One Another.

3. Voting Rights

Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee I

Following Donald Trump’s false claims about the 2020 election, his followers have initiated a massive effort to both continue the drumbeat promoting fraud and suppress voter turnout in many states. For example, Arizona passed a law that (1) prohibits people from getting assistance from others to drop off their ballots on their behalf, and (2) requires that provisional ballots be automatically discarded when a voter votes in the wrong precinct. According to the SCOTUS Study, voters are evenly split on how the Court should resolve these two issues.

Table 4[5]

Table 5[6]

The widespread, “big lies” about the 2020 election present unprecedented challenges to our democracy and warrant bold action. The response to the Supreme Court’s decision in this case should emphasize the Court’s role in ensuring that every citizen is able to exercise their right to vote. The Court’s decision may include a ruling about the appropriate standard for challenging voter suppression efforts, which may or may not make it more difficult to contest these threats to our democracy.

Values to Uplift When Discussing This Case: Democracy, Equal Justice, Human Rights, Community, Fairness.

4. Criminal Justice

Terry v. United States

Taharick Terry was convicted for possessing just 4 grams of crack cocaine, the equivalent weight of around four paper clips. He was sentenced to more than 15 years in prison because of a law that produced a 100:1 sentencing disparity for crack cocaine as compared to powder cocaine. This disparity contributed to gross racial inequities in sentencing by targeting the form of cocaine – crack cocaine – that is more prevalent in Black and brown, and lower-income, communities for grossly higher sentences than its powder form.

In 2010, President Obama and Congress reduced the disparity to 18:1 in the Fair Sentencing Act. In 2018, Congress passed the First Step Act, which allowed sentencing reforms to apply retroactively to people already sentenced in prison because of draconian sentencing laws. This case addresses whether offenses like Terry’s fit within the provisions that allow for less serious offenses to be re-sentenced. The decision in this case could have a broad impact on efforts to address some of the harms of excessive and racially biased sentencing laws.

Values to Uplift When Discussing This Case: Equal Justice, Fairness, Human Rights, Community, Family, Due Process.


As a general matter, it is important to communicate carefully, as the first read of any decision can sometimes mislead communicators into saying something they come to later regret, or to say something that isn’t quite the message that is important to uplift. It is therefore especially important to carefully review the Court’s holding(s) in each case and consult those who are working directly on interpreting and commenting about them. Sometimes it may be beneficial to narrowly construct any comments on a decision when formulating your response. Don’t comment until you’ve seen the facts and the lead party’s statement, as well as consulted with those most closely connected to the story that social justice leaders are recommending. Remember, the first statement you make will be the most powerful. Regardless of the outcome, it is beneficial to emphasize how values represent our vision for the aspirations we have for our country, and the importance of what the Supreme Court means to those values.

[1] Stephen Jessee, Neil Malhotra, & Maya Sen, “What Do The American People Think About the 2021 Supreme Court Cases? Results from SCOTUSPoll, a collaboration between researchers at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, the Stanford Graduate School of Business, and the University of Texas” (April 22, 2021),

[2] Id. at 3.

[3] Id. at 4.

[4] Id. at 5.

[5] Id. at 6.

[6] Id. at 7.

Five Strategies for Talking About Anti-Asian Racism

The past year has seen a marked increase in anti-Asian attacks across the country. And while words alone cannot address, heal, or prevent the damage that these cause, shaping and promoting narratives about equity, justice, dignity and respect does shift attitudes and culture over time. In that spirit, we offer five strategies for talking about anti-Asian hate, knowing that these are not sufficient alone, but are a place to start when tackling the long-term narrative shift work that helps to create a more just and equitable world.

This memo was written with consultation and guidance from Gregory Cendana, president and co-founder of Can’t Stop! Won’t Stop! Consulting, and AJ Titong, partner and consultant at [re]imagine collective.

1. Paint a vision that your audience wants to support and engage with: where anti-Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) racism has no place.

While audiences are accustomed to hearing about the harms of racism and, more recently, are becoming aware of the different and ongoing impacts of anti-Asian racism, they are less likely to be familiar with a positive anti-racism vision, rooted in shared values, that they can embrace. If we start 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.

We inherently understand that violence is the opposite of safety, bigotry violates our human rights, microaggressions make true feelings of belonging impossible, and political entities trying to divide us by race are an ongoing barrier to a national community where everyone can participate equally with justice, which should be a shared goal. Drawing those lines explicitly gives audiences some glimmer of hope and can help set them up for long-term participation in a range of solutions.

We need to frame barriers to this vision of becoming an anti-racist society as problems we must all solve. Doing this ties anti-Asian racism to the larger struggle, solidifying the lines of allyship and creating ways to link to Black, Latinx, Pacific Islander, and Native voices without directly comparing or ranking experiences or scapegoating.


A beautiful thing about this country is its multiracial character. But right now, we’ve got diversity with a lot of segregation and inequity. I want to see a truly inclusive society. I think we will always struggle as a country toward that—no postracial society is possible or desirable—but every generation can make progress toward that goal.[1]

– Rinku Sen, Race Forward, to NBC News

We have spoken out before, and we speak out now to express our solidarity and support, even as we seek to build and sustain a campus community where everyone feels welcome, respected and safe. We also must stand and work together with all who believe in and are committed to a peaceful, equitable world where justice is pursued.[2]

– Chancellor Carol Christ, University of California, Berkeley

2. Move to the Problem. Opening conversations with a shared vision gives audiences a destination. Walking them there is the next challenge. We must have the hard conversations about why and how anti-Asian racism exists, how it differs from other forms, and the particular harms it causes. This is where the advice becomes maybe the most complicated, and the need for balance is clear.

Acknowledge intersectionality—that people experience racism differently based on the multiple identities they hold. Experiencing poverty, misogyny and racism, for instance, poses its own set of challenges and it’s important that we’re clear about that with audiences. Any of these oppressions stand in the way of the country we want to build, but the solutions to them are different.

Be aware, and careful not to further, the “model minority” myth – the notion that many Asian Americans work harder or are somehow better than other racial groups. It’s more powerful and effective to focus on the values we all share – as we all want to be able to provide for our families, see our children get a good education, and to be treated with dignity and respect.

Acknowledge diversity within the larger Asian American community. While people of Asian descent account for a smaller percentage of the population than other racial groups, they are the fastest growing, are not a monolith, and are arguably among the most diverse communities in terms of countries of origin, religion, immigration or refugee status, and culture. They consist of approximately 50 ethnic groups speaking over 100 languages. What Asian Americans share is that the U.S. is home, and they deserve to be treated with dignity and respect and included in the larger fabric of this county. However, that means different things to different groups. For example, while some immigrated here, others are refugees who were fleeing violence in their home countries, which can be markedly different experiences. It’s important to acknowledge such distinctions in history and experience. Similarly, Asian Americans experience things differently based on where they live in the country. It’s crucial to pull this out in our messaging and highlight the diverse practices, philosophies, and experiences that comprise the Asian American identity, while always pointing back to the shared values and the shared desire and right to be treated with dignity and respect.

But be careful and strategic in how you draw distinctions. It is critical to avoid further othering of Asian and Asian American communities, and to instead bring all forms of racism and oppression into focus for what it is: anti-people.

  • One way to do this is to start communications with the bigger shared vision of a society where racism has no place, and to declare that this is something the vast majority of us want in this country. Then remind audiences that to achieve it, we have to eradicate all forms of racism, including the specific kinds Asian and Asian American communities face here, the different ways they experience it, and the different solutions required.
  • Another way is to include other identities in descriptions: mothers, workers, students, neighbors etc. to underscore the many facets of ourselves.

Strategically bring people to solutions and action. While many white people in the U.S. have signaled a newfound readiness to talk about racism and oppression, and BIPOC communities have been having those conversations for generations, it can still be a challenge for many audiences to understand how we can work to dismantle racist systems and prevent individual actions that perpetrate these systems. A starting point is to center on solutions that are specific to your audience and explain how and why they work. What does good allyship look like? How will this policy change people’s lives? How can people check their own behaviors? How are those directly impacted and most marginalized informing your actions and the organizations of causes you are supporting


Too often, racist policies at home and abroad pigeonhole Asian women, immigrant women, and poor women into unprotected, low-wage jobs — including as massage workers in spas even in the midst of a global pandemic — where they are subject to racist and sexist abuse on a daily basis, whether from their customers, employers or police. Violence against Asian American women— regardless of their country of origin or citizenship status — is not new. Racist narratives have exotified, fetishized and hypersexualized Asian women. As Georgia state Rep. Bee Nguyen said, Asian women constantly experience brutality at the “intersection of gender-based violence, misogyny and xenophobia.”

The core element of discrimination and bias, whether based on race, gender, nationality, or other characteristics, is the dehumanization and “othering” of people. This assumes all individuals within these categories are the same and are all of less value than those making these judgments. Many times, multiple forms of “othering” converge to target the most vulnerable intersections of these identities. The dehumanization of these women was personified when the killer justified the murders as the result him just having a bad day.[3]

– The Racial Equity Anchor Collaborative

As sociologists, we have studied racism and its consequences for over a century. Our studies have taught us to recognize myriad forms of racism and its intersection with other forms of oppression. It is clear that the historic and contemporary discrimination and violence against Asians in America are deeply rooted in anti-Asian racism. Yet, anti-Asian racism is too frequently rendered invisible. We have heard from our Asian and Asian American colleagues, students, and community members about the virulent racism they experience daily. We stand in solidarity with the Asian and Asian American community.[4]

– The American Sociological Association

3. Consider Audience and Goals. People in the U.S. are coming to conversations about anti-Asian racism from a range of viewpoints and experiences. Some may have only read about specific incidents and yet not understand the broader problem. Others may consider themselves allies in the fight to dismantle systemic racism, but don’t know what specifically to do about recent anti-Asian hate crimes. And some have first-person experiences, and may have trouble seeing what, if anything, could make things better. If the purpose of our messages is to move any of these groups to action, it’s important to choose the vocabulary, stories, metaphors and spokespeople that work for each specific audience. While we want to draw on the same vision and values in order to promote a common narrative of inclusiveness, belonging, safety, and community, we’ll likely promote it slightly differently. In other words, there is no such thing as general public when identifying our audience.

4. Know the counter narrative and do not reinforce it. Some anti-Asian themes consistently emerge in the media, pop culture, and other conversations. While we probably feel like these are quite familiar, they aren’t to all audiences. Though we need to understand where themes like “the model minority” or racist references to COVID-19 developed, we don’t need to spend too much time repeating these problematic phrases or mindsets, which just gives them more airtime. Instead, we should consider how to condemn the thinking behind false narratives, such as the need to divide communities of color against each other and disrupt allyship, the need for othering people, particularly based on heritage, the need to divide people into “deserving” and “undeserving.” By finding ways to consistently counter these harmful ideas, we can change the conversation.

5. Listen to and center the voices of Asian and Asian American communities. As social justice advocates, we should be accustomed to centering the voices of those who are most affected by any issue. It should go without saying that when talking about anti-Asian racism, Asian American community members should lead the strategies on how to counter it. We must also ensure we are engaging those across the diaspora including but not limited to Brown and Black Asians, South Asians and Southeast Asians.

This means taking cues from Asian and Asian American leaders on things like preferred language and strategy. For instance, a common strategy to elevate victims of racist violence is to “say their name,” but not only does this misalign with some Asian cultural practices and traditional grieving, this approach appropriates from a movement meant to honor Black women and Black trans women.

Centering the voices of Asian Americans does not mean that they are the only people responsible for talking about this. Nor does it mean that it’s the only thing they’re responsible for talking about. When it comes to racial justice, none of us will progress as far as we need to without solid allyship and deeper understandings of each other. In fact, we know that an approach that has worked for one movement may not work for another for many reasons including history, community cultures, and power dynamics. Deep listening and sincere allyship mean understanding how and when we can all play the most effective role in the larger struggle, whether it be leadership, support, marching together, or spotlighting each other’s efforts.

Moving Forward: Three Ideas for Talking About the Moment

As we process, discuss, and continue to respond to the January 6th attack on our democracy and what it means for the days leading up to the Inauguration and beyond, The Opportunity Agenda offers a few messaging ideas for the immediate moment that also advance a long-term vision for justice.

Together, we must put forth a strong and unified message that names the hypocrisy and violence that white supremacists perpetuated at our nation’s Capitol on Jan. 6. We must call for those who inspired and carried out this insurrection to be held to account, and we must uplift the aspirations and vision we are striving for our democracy to be. Our communities and our country’s ideals depend on it.

1. Lay out a long-term vision, framed with values. In crafting your message, uplift the values that serve us in the current moment while also strengthening our long-term narrative. For instance:

Voice: Our Democracy depends on ensuring that all our voices are heard, and votes counted. The history made in Georgia in the runoff election on Jan. 5, with BIPOC organizers and voters leading the way with their organizing prowess, voices, and votes, cannot be overstated, and we must continue to celebrate this #BlackJoy and #JoyToThePolls as progress for our democracy – it is a defining moment for what our country aspires to be. The values of Voice, Community, and Inclusion ruled the day in Georgia and in the nation with record voter turnout – particularly Black, Latinx and APIA voters — and with the historic election of Rev. Warnock to the U.S. Senate. It is progress that we should continue to celebrate and uplift loudly despite everything else we are witnessing and facing.

Safety: We must ensure the true safety of everyone, whether they are working a job during the pandemic, peacefully protesting, or experiencing an encounter with law enforcement. We can use the jarring memory of the January 6th actions at the U.S. Capitol as a stark reminder that we must commit to doing all that is in our power to promote true Safety for all. This means resoundingly rejecting white supremacy’s grasp on our society, our police departments, the White House, and all who enable it. We will not stand for a system that is complicit with the violence promulgated against Black protesters, while at the same time is easy going on white vigilantes who run roughshod on federal spaces.

Dignity: Because we are humans first, and all people deserve to live in peace and dignity. We must remind people that our new future is built upon everyone having a voice, all of us coming together as a community to solve shared problems, keeping each other safe, and helping each other live with Dignity. We cannot go back to business as usual because that is what led to this crisis. We must take bold action to make this country a true, inclusive democracy where we stand with and for each other and where our elected officials and public servants respect our rights, no matter who we are.

2. Emphasize moving forward. Many of the events of the past year have reminded us of some of the country’s worst instincts and darkest history. But we have a moment now to underscore with audiences the message that we can move toward a better version of this nation if we come together to address our shared challenges and go beyond. Emphasize your long-term vision and paint a vivid picture of that future as well as the clear actions we need to take to achieve it. Remind people that to move forward, we have to come together in our diverse experiences, ideas, and strengths to build an economy, society, and country that truly embraces and embodies justice and opportunity. This means fighting for transformational changes, not accepting incremental or piecemeal solutions that leave people out and put us on a sluggish path toward our vision. We have a moment, and we must seize it.

3. Build messages that move your long-term narrative. The events at the Capitol and the actions of this administration, both recent and over the past four years, represent much of what is wrong with our country. But remember to choose your examples carefully to build your story for moving forward. For instance, the hypocrisy of law enforcement’s response to the white nationalist attack on the Capitol compared to their stealthy and violent strong handling of Black Lives Matter protesters over the summer makes a powerful argument for those who are advocating to Defund the Police in favor of building community resources for achieving true safety. Also, those focusing on Democracy work may choose to highlight the president’s attacks on voice and vote that culminated in January 6th’s violence. Spending too much time describing or explaining all the many dimensions of a specific event will likely keep audiences in that experience rather than looking forward – so remember to keep a simple framework for talking about the Values, Problems, Solutions and Actions we are trying to share.

More resources:

Democracy Rising Social Media Toolkit

Speaking Out About January 6,” Frameworks Institute

Our Democracy’s Ideals Depend on Our Actions Today,” The Opportunity Agenda

Reflecting on 2020, Going Beyond in 2021,” The Opportunity Agenda

Telling a Story About Families and Opportunity

Increasing support for Paid Family and Medical Leave policies among key audiences

Updated September 2020

This memo lays out a foundation for communicating about the importance of paid family and medical leave policies for all types and shapes of families. It is based on both qualitative and quantitative research completed in 2019, with additional research from May 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic, and builds on a range of additional communications best practices garnered from both research and the experience of communications experts and family support advocates from across the country.

The COVID-19 pandemic has added clarity and urgency to our nation’s critical need for comprehensive and equitable paid family and medical leave legislation. The Paid Leave for All movement has been galvanized, and we have before us a window to achieve effective, long-term change. We must use our messaging to seize this moment, to learn from the tragic experiences we have gone through as a nation, and to pass legislation that will ensure paid family and medical leave for all.

It is our hope that the guidance and research presented here help to bolster an already robust field of advocates and activists working on behalf of paid family and medical leave policies—from taking the time to care for a new baby, to looking after a loved one who is sick—so that they might tell a unified story about leave that conveys the urgency of passing long-term federal paid leave legislation that supports all families.

The Power of Narrative

A narrative is a Big Story, rooted in shared values and themes, that influences how people process information and make decisions. Overarching organizing stories help us make sense of the social and political world. Through narratives, seemingly unconnected events are organized into a whole and given meaning. Repetition and time are key to the narrative process.

Narratives play an important role in not only shaping our understanding of the world but also establishing and affirming our relationship to one another, institutions, and society. As such, narratives often reflect particular sets of cultural values that, in turn, establish social norms, systems, and structures. While many narratives can play an important social function, dominant narratives often reflect the interests and values of those in positions of power.

To shift, counter, and replace dominant narratives, it’s crucial that movement organizers work together to identify common messaging elements for amplifying. In this way, we can begin to undermine harmful narratives and replace them with stories that promote opportunity and equity, among other important values.

It’s also crucial that narratives and related messaging are rooted in research. In this case, we collaborated with Lake Research Partners, who conducted six focus groups in May 2019 and a national online survey in October 2019. Research methodology can be found at the end of this memo.

Building a Narrative

Experience and research suggest that successful narratives share a few common elements. They should:

  • Lead with shared values
  • Describe problems, but also point audiences toward clear solutions
  • Be informed by public opinion research, media analysis, communications practice, and collective experience
  • Adapt to key audiences, spokespeople, sub-issues, and circumstances
  • Support a coherent “drumbeat” of stories, messages, and events—both short and long term

Elements of a Paid Family and Medical Leave Narrative

Vision: A country that values families of all types and puts in place the support programs they need to survive and thrive. This means, for instance, making sure everyone can be with their loved ones in times of family need and still earn an income—no exceptions. A country where everyone, no matter what they look like or where they come from, can contribute to our economy and society and still be there for their families and attend to their own health and wellness.

Heroes: Families of all kinds who shouldn’t have to risk their financial stability to be there for each other. Innovative programs like paid family and medical leave policies that support this. It’s important to center families in this discussion, and individual stories can be a powerful way to put a human face on the issue. We should do this by always connecting individual stories to the broader systemic solution to paint a picture of exactly how paid family and medical leave would change that particular story and our shared story.

If we spend too much time focused on individuals, there is a danger that audiences either only relate to that individual problem or imagine the solutions to it (“Doesn’t she have a neighbor who can help?”) or judge the individual circumstance (“He should have a better job.”). By showing that this issue affects many people and by consistently drawing a line to the systemic solution, which is a central hero to the story, we can make sure that we keep audience’s focus on our shared responsibility to make this happen.

Villains: Certain lawmakers and corporate lobbyists who say they support paid leave but promote plans that exclude the vast majority of caregivers and often guarantee neither pay nor leave while weakening key safety net programs families need. Their proposals force those who would be eligible to choose between their present needs and the future economic stability of their families.

Note that for long-term narrative purposes, it is not necessarily helpful to indicate that people are immutable or naturally “bad.” It’s also true that, although drawing clear lines between what we are proposing vs. the opposition’s plans and motivations is crucial, many persuadable audiences see too much of this as partisan bickering. It’s a careful balance in ensuring that we have drawn distinctions while also giving persuadables a “side” that they’re interested in taking instead of dismissing all arguments as just politics.

Implication/Moral: When families of all kinds have the support they need through a range of programs like paid family and medical leave, they have the opportunity to thrive, which improves the overall health and sustainability of our economy and society. Denying people leave puts families at risk and forces people to choose between being there for their families and providing for their families.

Values: Family, opportunity, financial security, equity, fairness.

Familiar Themes/Metaphors: Health metaphors, linking physical health to economic health. Lack of paid family and medical leave is “breaking families’ backs and banks.”

Building a Message

To introduce people to a new way of thinking about an issue like paid family and medical leave, it’s important to carefully consider the structure of our messages—particularly how they begin. People think in shortcuts and once we’ve activated a familiar shortcut, they are likely to process all future information through the lens of that shortcut. If we start with vision and values and fit the importance of the programs we want into that framework, many audiences will find themselves more open to the rest of our points. To this end, we suggest you build messages using the following structure:

Values, Problem, Solution, Action

Values. Starting with shared values helps audiences to “hear” our messages more effectively than using dry facts or emotional rhetoric.

  • One of the values we hold dear is being there for our families. Family comes first.
  • In these trying times, we all want to protect the health and lives of our families, friends, and neighbors.[1]
  • Paid family and medical leave allows families to be there for the important first moments in the lives of their children and the last moments in the lives of their loved ones, or when a pandemic requires isolation and caution.[2]
  • When a family member is sick or a loved one needs help, we will do whatever is needed to ensure they get the care they need.
  • Everyone should enjoy full and equal opportunity.
  • The key to full and fair opportunity is the ability to work while maintaining a safe and healthy life for one’s children and family
  • No matter what we look like, where we come from, or what kind of families we live in, most of us agree that we are all trying to provide for our families. Time is a precious resource.[3]

Problem. Frame problems as a threat to our vision and values. Underscore our connections to one another and why this problem matters to everyone.

Why are paid sick days and paid leave so important during the COVID-19 crisis and beyond? Because families can’t afford to lose even a few days of pay, which means people go to work sick.[4]

Not only do people face barriers to accessing health care, but also many of those who have access can’t afford to take unpaid time from work to have the space to take care of themselves and their families.

Women, people of color, and people in hourly, lower-wage jobs are in a worse position because they are more likely to have care responsibilities but less likely to have paid leave.[5]

Right now, people are paying the cost through lost wages or even lost jobs because we don’t have a national paid family and medical leave program.

Working people and families in the United States lose nearly $22.5 billion annually in lost wages because they can’t access paid family and medical leave.

Lower-income people are less likely than higher-income people to have paid family and medical leave. Just 4% of lower-wage workers have access to paid family leave, compared to 31% of the highest wage workers. The majority of us don’t have even $1,000 to cover a medical emergency.

Employers are not required to provide even unpaid leave to care for an unmarried same-sex partner.

Problem Themes

  • No one should keep you from a spouse battling cancer, a parent nearing their final days, or a child who needs care during a pandemic.
  • No one should have to choose between a paycheck and being there for their family.[6]
  • No one should have to choose between their life and their livelihood.
  • The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us how vulnerable people are when everything depends on where you work.[7]
  • Right now, people are scared of losing their jobs or being forced to work sick in big box retail stores, grocery stores, and other essential businesses. That’s wrong.[8]
  • With childcare facilities and schools closed, parents and caregivers are doing their best to be good employees, good teachers, and good parents.[9]
  • Those with the fewest resources are the hardest hit and can’t get the benefits they need.
  • For most Americans, taking time from work is something they simply can’t afford.
  • People are forced to choose between caring for sick family members and earning the salary needed to support their families
  • You should not have to risk losing your job or paycheck because you are providing care.

Solution. In our efforts to point out problems, we often spend less time promoting solutions. This can result in crisis fatigue among key audiences. Positive solutions leave people with choices, ideas, and motivation.

What is the commonsense approach to the problem you have outlined? Find ways to frame the solution as both the most commonsensical and the most in line with our values.

Assign responsibility—who can enact this solution? It’s particularly important to outline government’s role in this solution: to administer and enforce the solution but not pay directly for it.

  • The coronavirus has shown us what people have long argued: Paid sick days and paid family and medical leave protections should have been in place nationally years ago.[10]
  • The sudden, swift, and severe nature of the COVID-19 crisis has shown how desperately we need to guarantee comprehensive paid sick days and paid family and medical leave to every working person in this country during this emergency and lay the groundwork for permanent protections.[11]
  • We need a law that guarantees all workers can be with their loved ones AND earn a living—no exceptions; no matter where we work; and regardless of whether we are white, Black, or brown.
  • We are strongest when we all have a fair chance to achieve our full potential, contributing fully to our economy and society.
  • Families need updated workplace standards to help meet their caregiving responsibilities.
  • We must join together with people from all walks of life to fight for our future, in the same way we won better wages.
  • We can create a program that works for all of us, no matter where we work, not just for the lucky few.
  • We need to share those costs, so we can all thrive.
  • We can promote health equity and reduce struggles for families by improving the health and well-being of all Americans.[12]

Descriptions of the Solution:

The federal policy we’re organizing for is an inclusive, effective program for family and medical leave that would pool small contributions from employers and employees to provide up to 12 weeks of paid leave to bond with a new child, deal with a serious personal or family illness, or handle needs that arise from a military deployment. The length of leave pales in comparison to what’s offered by many companies and virtually all industrialized countries. Although basic, it is also bold and transformative and would be the first new social insurance program in the United States since the New Deal.[13]

We are also organizing to expand emergency paid leave options for those dealing with COVID-19. Congress enacted 2 weeks paid sick leave for those needing to be tested, quarantine, or recover or care for someone with the virus and 12 weeks of emergency paid leave for those caring for a child whose school or childcare is closed due to the pandemic. We need the law to cover everyone—it excludes up to 106 million workers—and to extend use of emergency paid leave to the many people who need more than 2 weeks to recover from, or care for someone suffering from, the virus.[14]

Enacting paid family and medical leave in the United States will begin to value caregiving and reverse centuries of inequity based on forced and devalued care provided by women and people of color. Paid leave will make it possible for people—regardless of gender—to cherish the first months of a child’s life and enrich the last months of a beloved parent’s life; to heal and thrive from their own injury or illness; and to spur the recovery or ease the suffering of a loved one. No more having to abandon a preemie in the NICU; no more chemo on your lunch break; no more teenagers quitting school to take a job at McDonald’s because a parent got fired for having leukemia. Meaningful paid leave in the United States will be a vital part of eradicating poverty and boosting family stability. And it will make businesses more robust by reducing turnover and increasing consumer solvency.[15]

Paid leave plans have been in operation in four states and passed in five more. They guarantee workers paid time for the full range of care purposes. Each one builds on the ones before—mostly with bipartisan support—to create inclusive, effective programs. They have adequate and progressive wage replacement so that those who earn the least get most or all of their wages during leave. They ensure those workers are able to return to their same or a similar job after their leave. And they have an inclusive definition of family.[16]

Action. While the solution points out the overarching policy or program request, the action is an audience-specific way to spur action. In this case, point people toward the decisionmakers who need to act to pass the FAMILY Act, as well as those who influence them.

Highest Rated VPSA Messages from Online Survey:

No matter what we look like, where we come from, or what kind of families we live in, most of us believe that we are all trying to provide for our families. But today, certain politicians and their lobbyists hurt everyone by failing to pass a national paid family and medical leave program. We need to join together with people from all walks of life to fight for our future, just like we won better wages, safer workplaces, and civil rights in our past. By joining together, we can create a program that works for all of us, no matter where we work, not just the lucky few.

Time is a precious resource, and for most Americans taking time off is something they simply can’t afford. As of 2019, only 19% of people had access to paid leave through their employer. Often, those with the fewest resources are the hardest hit and can’t get the benefits associated with family leave, including the ability to nurture newborn or adopted children or to take care of their own serious illness or injury. This is particularly true for low-income families and people of color. Black and Latino people are twice as likely to report needing leave but not being able to take it. A universal paid family and medical leave program would promote health equity and reduce struggles for families by improving the health and well-being for all Americans, regardless of income and race.

One of the values we hold dear is being there for our family. No one should keep you from a spouse battling cancer, a parent nearing their final days, or a new baby needing attention. You should not have to risk losing your job or paycheck because you are providing care. Too many Americans can’t make ends meet and can’t afford to take time off to care for themselves or their family. That’s why we need a program that guarantees you can be with your loved ones and still earn a living while you do it.

When a family member is sick or a loved one needs help, we will do whatever is needed to ensure they get the care they need. However, too many people in this country can’t miss a paycheck in order to care for themselves or their families without the risk of economic hardship or even financial ruin. Taking care of the people you love shouldn’t force you to choose between working to support your family and losing pay and benefits when you take time to care for them. That’s why we need a law that guarantees all workers can be with their loved ones AND earn a living—no exceptions.

Family comes first, but today too many people are forced to part with their babies, parents, or spouses when they need care. Our nation should be a place where everyone enjoys full and equal opportunity, no matter where they work and whether they are white, Black, or brown. We are strongest when we all have a fair chance to achieve our full potential, contributing fully to our economy and society. When everyone has paid time to care for themselves or their families in times of need, the benefits flow to individuals, communities, and our nation as a whole.

Overview of Research

The following is a summary of the research conducted by Lake Research Partners, who conducted six focus groups in May 2019 and a national online survey in October 2019. This summary reports the research findings and describes audience reactions. Therefore, the messaging and points included below should be viewed as a report of the findings and not necessarily recommendations, which are covered above.

Audience Considerations

In any communications strategy, knowing the audience you are hoping to influence is crucial. Each message should be tailored to that specific audience’s needs. A narrative can span several audiences, with different language and points using the same general themes. A flexible narrative will be able to inspire messages to motivate our base, expand our constituency, bring along persuadables, and neutralize the opposition’s effect on all of these groups. We do not need to spend time and resources trying to change the mind of the opposition—or even fighting with them. Instead, we should focus on how to address any influence they have over the audiences of the middle and draw distinctions between our approach and motivations and theirs, giving persuadable audiences a side they want to join.

The research divided participants into three audience segmentations and defined them as follows:


  • Strongly favor a nationwide program to guarantee access to up to 12 weeks per year of PAID family and medical leave to care for a new child joining their household through birth, adoption, or foster care; an aging or seriously ill family member; or their own serious health condition.
  • Believe it is very important for America to establish a nationwide program to guarantee access to up to 12 weeks per year of PAID family and medical leave.
  • Strongly favor a proposal that includes an option for all types of people to take paid leave—ranging from new mothers to someone supporting a family member who is deployed.

Characteristics of the Base

  • 22% of adults
  • Are likely to be very concerned that low-income, Black, and Hispanic people are less likely to have paid leave.
  • About three-quarters agree that people, including low-income people and people of color, face barriers to accessing health care and can’t afford to take time from work and that the burden is on people and families.
  • More likely to be women and Democrats.


  • Oppose a nationwide program to guarantee access to up to 12 weeks per year of PAID family and medical leave to care for a new child joining their household through birth, adoption, or foster care; an aging or seriously ill family member; or their own serious health condition before messaging.
  • Oppose a nationwide paid family and medical leave program after messaging.

Characteristics of the Opposition

  • 10% of adults
  • Are most acutely concerned about abuse, trusting the government to run it, waste, and the impact on small business.
  • Believe we can’t afford a program, it is too hard on small business, and it is each person’s responsibility to take care of their own family—the government should stay out of it.
  • More likely to be men, older than age 65, white, and Republican.

Persuadables are defined as anyone who is not a part of the Base or the Opposition.

Characteristics of Persuadables

  • 67% of adults
  • Are generally favorable toward a paid family and medical leave program.
  • More closely reflect demographics of the general public.[17]

Key Findings: Support for Paid Family and Medical Leave Policies

  • By a three-to-one margin, people side with an argument that the United States should ensure all employers nationwide adopt a paid family and medical leave program that is available to everyone (65%) over an argument that would maintain the status quo by letting employers choose whether to provide their employees paid leave (22%).
  • Across every demographic and attitudinal subgroup, people side with the idea that the United States should ensure all employers adopt a universal paid family and medical leave program.
  • Only the Opposition sides with employers deciding.
  • Women, those under 30 and in their 40s, African Americans, those with a disability connection, Democrats, and the Base have the widest margins in favor of a national program.
  • Three-quarters favor and 6 in 10 strongly favor a nationwide program to guarantee access to up to 12 weeks per year of PAID family and medical leave to care for a new child joining their household through birth, adoption, or foster care; an aging or seriously ill family member; or their own serious health condition.

Audience Considerations

  • Across subgroups, two-thirds or more favor a national program.
  • The strongest favorability comes from women, those in their 30s, African Americans, Latinx people, parents, those living with an aging relative, those who have a disability or an immediate family member or close friend with a disability, and Democrats.
  • Three-quarters believe it is important for America to establish a nationwide program to guarantee access to up to 12 weeks of paid leave. Information about FMLA does not impact views.
  • By wide margins across every demographic and attitudinal subgroup, people think it is important to establish a nationwide program.
  • Those who are most likely to think it is important are people in their 30s, African Americans, Latinx people, parents, those who have a disability or an immediate family member or close friend with a disability, and Democrats.

Key Findings: Types of Leave and for Whom

  • At least half of people strongly favor eligibility for certain scenarios, including for a personal or family need due to a serious illness or injury, for new mothers, or to care for veterans. The best-testing are someone with a personal illness, condition, or injury; new mothers; and someone with an immediate family member with a serious illness, condition, or injury.
  • Although about two-thirds favor eligibility to care for service members, new fathers, or new foster parents or to support a family member who is deployed, fewer than half strongly favor these scenarios.
  • People are open to the idea that godparents, chosen family, friends who are like family, or other relatives should be included in the paid family leave program.

Audience Considerations

  • Younger people, parents, and those who are living with an aging family member are the most likely to agree.
  • Only people older than age 50 and the Opposition disagree.
  • Participants’ definition of “family” was broad and expansive, becoming situational in some minds by bringing in the “auntie” or other non-nuclear family under the umbrella of covered paid leave situations, but most believed at a minimum that the core family—parent, child, sibling, grandparent—would be covered.

Key Findings—Favorability of Aspects of a National Program

People favor all aspects of a national paid family and medical leave program, with few who oppose. The most favorable are as follows:

  • Eligibility for all, including low-income employees, hourly employees, and contractors
  • Covering all families, including LGBTQ families
  • Eligibility for people who work at businesses of all sizes

In a second tier are including part-time employees, a requirement that people earn income from employment during the year prior to needing leave, pro-rated rates for part-time employees, and funding the program through a small payroll tax.

Key Findings—Role of Government

  • By a 33-point margin, people side with an argument that government should have an active role to ensure people can care for themselves and their families without experiencing financial harm (59%) rather than each person is responsible for their own family and government should stay out (26%).
  • Only the Opposition thinks the government should stay out.
  • When framed as “to ensure people can care for themselves and their families without experiencing financial harm,” Republicans side with the active role argument (49%) over government staying out (35%) by 13 points.
  • Persuadables side with the active role argument (59%) over government staying out (23%) by a 36-point margin.
  • Similarly, by a 30-point margin, people side with an argument that government should have an active role to guarantee a basic standard of living for families (58%) rather than each person is responsible for their own family and government should stay out (28%).
  • Only Republicans and the Opposition think the government should stay out.
  • Republican women split between the two arguments, and younger Republicans side by wide margins with the government playing an active role. It is Republican men and older Republicans who are driving the sentiment that government should stay out.
  • Persuadables side with the active role argument (54%) over government staying out (27%) by a two-to-one margin.

Key Findings—Small Business

  • While small business is a vulnerability, we can contest this. By 20 points, people agree that a national program would take the burden off small business (53%) rather than an argument that says leave is too hard on small businesses (33%).
  • Republicans split and the Opposition sides with this being a burden on small business.
  • Persuadables side with the taking the burden off small business argument (49%) over government staying out (33%) by a 16-point margin.
  • Although participants across groups were supportive of 12 weeks paid leave, they also shared reservations around a small business’s ability to operate while offering such leave. Concerns about the employer’s ability to afford paying two workers at the same time also were echoed by the small business owners.

Key Findings—Doubts about a National Program

  • The idea that we cannot afford a national program is the strongest opposition frame (34%). People still side with the idea of pooling contributions to afford it (49%) but by just a 14-point margin.
  • Republicans and the Opposition side with not being able to afford it.
  • Persuadables side with the pooling contributions argument (46%) over the can’t afford it argument (34%) by a 12-point margin.
  • Participants were more likely to believe “a national program would ensure standards of living for people and greater economic security for us all” rather than “this sounds like a great idea, but we just can’t afford it.”
  • Doubts about a national program are low overall and driven by Republicans and the Opposition.
  • About a third are very concerned that people will abuse a national program and that small businesses can’t operate with their employees taking off for weeks or months.
  • In a second tier of concerns are this being a national big government tax and program, people paying in who won’t use it, it being too hard to fairly administer, and distrust in government.
  • The only concern that people push back on is that the program will be wasteful.
  • Persuadable voters resemble the Base more than the Opposition. The strongest doubts among Persuadables are that small businesses can’t operate if their employees can take time off for weeks or months (33% very concerned) and people will abuse the program (31% very concerned).


Online Dial Survey

Lake Research Partners designed and administered this dial survey that was conducted online from October 17th–29th, 2019. The base and the oversamples were in the field those dates, and the advocates sample was in the field until November 14. The survey reached a total of 1,000 adults with oversamples of 100 African Americans, 150 Latinx, 150 Asian American/Pacific Islanders, 150 Native Americans, and 100 Advocates. The sample was drawn from an online panel of listed adults, and the advocate sample was drawn from a client list.

The base sample was weighted slightly by gender, region, age, race, race by gender, party identification, and educational attainment. The African American oversample was weighted by gender, region, age, and educational attainment. The Latinx oversample was weighted by gender, region, party identification, and educational attainment. The Asian American/Pacific Islander oversample and the Native American oversample were weighted by gender, region, age, party identification, and educational attainment. The oversamples were weighted down into the base to reflect their actual proportion of the population of adults nationwide.

The margin of error for the total sample is ±3.1%. The margin of error for the oversamples is ±9.8%.

Focus Groups

Lake Research Partners conducted six in-person focus groups in May 2019 broken down as follows:

Participants were recruited to reflect a mix of age, marital status, educational attainment, employment status, party identification, parental status, and caregiver status. Those who were strongly opposed to a program that allows people 12 weeks per year of paid family and medical leave that working families can use when they need to care for a new baby or adopted child, when they need to care for a seriously ill family member, or when they have an illness were not invited to participate in the focus groups.

[1] Lake Research Partners and Chesapeake Beach Consulting: Findings from a National Survey on Paid Family and Medical Leave, June 2020.

[2] Ibid.

[3]Lake Research Partners Paid Family and Medical Leave: Findings based on Focus Groups and a National Survey. November 2019.

[4] Lake Research Partners and Chesapeake Beach Consulting: Findings from a National Survey on Paid Family and Medical Leave, June 2020.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Lake Research Partners Paid Family and Medical Leave: Findings based on Focus Groups and a National Survey. November 2019.

[7] Lake Research Partners and Chesapeake Beach Consulting: Findings from a National Survey on Paid Family and Medical Leave, June 2020.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Lake Research Partners and Chesapeake Beach Consulting: Findings from a National Survey on Paid Family and Medical Leave, June 2020.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Lake Research Partners Paid Family and Medical Leave: Findings based on Focus Groups and a National Survey. November 2019.

[13] Ellen Bravo, Strategic Advisor, Family Values @ Work and the Paid Leave for All campaign.

[14] Ellen Bravo, Strategic Advisor, Family Values @ Work and the Paid Leave for All campaign.

[17] Lake Research Partners Paid Family and Medical Leave: Findings based on Focus Groups and a National Survey. November 2019.

5 Tips for Talking About the American Dream and Promise Act of 2019 (H.R. 6)

On March 12, 2019, Representatives Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-CA), Nydia Velázquez (D-NY), and Yvette Clarke (D-NY) introduced the American Dream and Promise Act of 2019, H.R. 6. The bill combines longstanding efforts to provide a roadmap to U.S. citizenship for undocumented youth, people who have or are eligible for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), people who had or were eligible for temporary protected status (TPS), or people with deferred enforced departure (DED).

Messaging Recommendations

Consider these points when talking about the bill with persuadable audiences:

1. Link the bill to a long-term vision. This is the first of many critical steps we must take to fix our immigration policies. It ends harm to several immediately vulnerable groups, but we need to place it in the context of our longer-term immigration goals: a reasonable and orderly process for all aspiring citizens in service of our collective American dream of a diverse nation that embraces newcomers and new ideas. Also part of this long-term vision is abandoning policies that separate families, divide communities, and encourage racial profiling. Point out that this bill rightly rejects those approaches in favor of an affirmative solution to one aspect of the immigration system.

Sample language: Our immigration laws should serve us and our communities by providing a reasonable and orderly process for aspiring citizens who want to fully participate and contribute. But our current lawsand current administrationmake that impossible and instead regularly threaten people with deportation, racial profiling, hateful and divisive rhetoric, and the militarization of their communities. Those threats are not in line with our values and only move us away from the kind of country we should be: one that welcomes and embraces immigrants and the diversity they bring us; that understands and encourages their important contributions to our culture, society, and economy; and that rejects any policy that divides communities and excludes people. The Dream and Promise Act is an important step toward realizing this vision of a better country. Please call and tell Congress that we need to pass it now.

2. Underscore the values this bill upholds. By rejecting the racism and discrimination that the current administration has promoted and encouraged, this bill redirects us toward our core values: dignity, respect, diversity, and inclusion. Emphasize that Dreamers, and TPS and DED recipients, share those values and have been living in and contributing to communities for, in many cases, decades. Call on audiences to reject policies that hurt anyone but particularly those that needlessly disrupt the lives of people who are just short of being technically American only because our outdated laws stand in their way.

Sample language: We make gains together as a country when we welcome immigrants, ensure that everyone is treated with dignity and respect, and embrace the diversity that immigrants bring as they contribute new perspectives toward our problem solving. Immigration makes us stronger, while policies that aim to divide us only make us weaker. The Dream and Promise Act recognizes the contributions of Dreamers, and TPS and DED recipients, and is a first step toward providing a pathway to citizenship for all immigrants. Call your representatives and urge their support for this critical bill.

Sample language: We are stronger when we work together and when we learn from each other’s experiences. When people from different backgrounds join together we all benefit from the diversity of those perspectives. It helps us find new ways to deal with old challenges. But we are not taking full advantage of this source of strength. Immigration is a core part of the American experience, but we’re not taking advantage of this source of strength. Instead, we’re seeing policies that threaten community members with deportation due to a combination of our neglected and outdated immigration laws and an administration bent on decreasing immigration any way it can, including separating families. The American Dream and Promise Act is one step toward righting some of the wrongs our immigration laws and this administration have inflicted. Urge your members of Congress to support it.

3. Use values to specifically reject calls for more enforcement. Emphasize that this bill rejects trading harms to one community for harms to another. Outline in real-world terms the ways that current enforcement policies harm people, families, and communities. Describe specifically what deportation means: that people will lose their families, communities, and livelihoods and find themselves in a country they may not know at all and/or certainly have limited ties to and puts them in danger.

Sample language: We all want to live in communities where we feel safe and protected. But our immigration laws, and the current administration, make this impossible for millions of our immigrant neighbors, including Dreamers and recipients of TPS and DED. It is well past time to reject policies that further inflict pain on these vulnerable communities. These are people who have already experienced the separation of parents from their American-born children through deportation, have faced legislation that encourages racial profiling and local police cooperation with ICE, and have lived with uncertainty for years because they have no clear pathway to citizenship. They deserve real solutions, as do their communities, families, and employers. Tell Congress to pass the American Dream and Promise Act today.

4. Stress the urgency of this bill for all of us. Dreamers and TPS and DED recipients don’t need or deserve the added disruption to their lives that the termination of these policies has caused. We need a remedy now. Point out the connections that Dreamers and TPS and DED recipients have established in their communities to show how those disruptions affect us all.

Sample language: The administration has proven again and again its appetite for stripping protections away from immigrants, including Dreamers and TPS and DED recipients. Soon all will be at risk of deportation, disrupting their lives and the lives of their families, friends, and communities, as well as that of their employers, customers, and clients.

5. Highlight public opinion. Remind audiences that the majority of Americans want to protect the Dreamers and believe that immigration is core to our identity and important to our economy. Voters also agree that diversity is an important value and that we should treat everyone with dignity and respect.

Sample language: People in this country understand the important role that immigration plays in our core identity and our economy. There is strong support for Dreamers, while most reject the administration’s obsession with the border wall and the militarization of that region. We want real solutions that uphold our values and move us forward together. The Dream and Promise Bill is a step toward that vision.

Building a Strategic Message

One formula for building an effective message is Value, Problem, Solution, Action. Using this structure, we lead with the shared values that are at stake, outline why the problem we’re spotlighting is a threat to those values, point toward a solution, and ask our audience to take a concrete action.

Lead with values and vision. Most communicators agree: people don’t change their minds based on facts alone, but rather based on how those facts are framed to fit their emotions and values. Shared values help audiences “hear” messages more effectively than do dry facts or emotional rhetoric.

  • We are strongest when we embrace the diversity of our nationthis means welcoming and embracing immigrants and treating everyone with dignity and respect.

Introduce the problem. Frame problems as a threat to your vision and values. This is the place to pull out stories and statistics that are likely to resonate with the target audience.

  • Our current immigration laws, and the current administration, are an active threat to this vision. By stripping away protections and threatening the deportation of Dreamers and recipients of TPS and DED, the administration is needlessly injecting chaos and uncertainty into their lives. This is disruptive and cruelto these new Americans as well as to their families and communities.

Pivot quickly to solutions. Positive solutions leave people with choices, ideas, and motivation. Assign responsibility—who can enact this solution?

  • We need immigration policies that provide a reasonable and fair process for becoming citizens and protect people from the disruption and fear they face when they are just trying to go about their daily lives.

Assign an action. Try to give people something concrete that they can picture themselves doing, like making a phone call or sending an email.

  • Call your member of Congress today and tell them to support the American Dream and Promise Act.

Message Examples

 The Dream and Promise Act will make a positive difference in the lives of millions of people.  MoveOn members, supporters in the Congress and others nationwide are sending a clear message that we believe this must be a country that welcomes and celebrates immigrants—not one that demonizes them.

Reggie Hubbard, Congressional Liaison and DC strategist, MoveOn

The Dream and Promise Act would provide permanent relief and a path to citizenship for the millions of immigrants Trump has targeted. It is an important step toward securing justice for all of the immigrant families who live and work in our communities. We recognize that the road ahead is long, but we won’t rest until we have secured permanent protections for all immigrant families, starting with passage of this bill in the House.

Angel Padilla, Policy Director, Indivisible Project

We are building a world where immigrant communities, people of color and all marginalized communities are able to live with dignity and free from fear.

Jonathan Jayes-Green, Co-Founder and Director, UndocuBlack Network

The Dream and Promise Act of 2019 creates a path to permanent status in the United States for DACA, DED, and TPS holders, and through its introduction, Congress is working to uphold the universal human rights to life, safety, and family unity. Under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, ‘Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person,’ and ‘family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.’ The House’s Dream and Promise Act of 2019 promises to bring our nation’s laws into closer alignment with that vision.

Unitarian Universalist Service Committee

The Dream and Promise Act provides a clear, attainable pathway to U.S. citizenship. For Dreamers, people with DACA, TPS, or DED, and others eligible for such statuses who may not have applied, the United States is their home—and, in many cases, has been for decades. We are integral members of our communities and have a future here. By providing permanent protections and a pathway to citizenship for these communities, this legislation recognizes that we are Americans in all but ‘paper’ and deserve to live our lives with security and stability in the place we call home.

The bill does not trade granting protections to some communities for funding harm to others. This is a critical point. This bill does not trade protections for immigrant youth and people with TPS or DED for further militarization of our border communities or expanded immigration policing of our communities or detention of immigrants—a tradeoff that would only inflict more pain on our communities and result in more deportations. It also does not make any changes to existing channels of immigration in exchange for protections.

The Dream and Promise Act shows that our communities will fight together, not against each other. By providing protections for immigrant youth and people with TPS or DED, we are making it clear that our communities cannot be pitted against each other in Trump’s policy games. We are not pawns in some game. And together, we will raise our voices and win the protections we deserve.

Diana Pliego, Policy Associate, National Immigration Law Center, and DACA recipient

It’s time for our immigration laws to catch up with reality. This proposal, the Dream & Promise Act, is an affirmative step towards formally recognizing immigrants as the Americans they already are. This s a major shift in the debate. We are going on offense.

There is an urgency to this legislation because Trump has terminated DACA and is ending TPS and DED. The immigrants Trump has targeted are those with families, businesses, careers, and car notes who are playing by the rules and contributing to their communities. Rather than see them as assets to the country, Trump is targeting them because he feels being as anti-immigration and as anti-immigrant as possible is an asset to his 2020 campaign.

The vast majority of voters, including many who supported Trump, simply do not understand why the President wants to take millions of immigrants who are integrated into American society and make them undocumented and deportable. It makes no sense to ‘undocument’ those who are currently documented and to target the most-vetted immigrants in America—those who have had to come forward periodically to re-apply for DACA or TPS or what have you.

Frank Sharry, Executive Director, America’s Voice

Ten Lessons for Talking About Race, Racism, and Racial Justice

Updated July 2020

As we strive to improve conversations about race, racism, and racial justice in this country, the environment in which we’re speaking seems to be constantly shifting, which shows that these conversations are more important than ever. We’ve put together some advice on finding entry points based on research, experience, and the input of partners from around the country. This is by no means a complete list, but it is a starting point for moving these discussions forward.

Please note that while there are many reasons to communicate with various audiences about racial justice issues, this memo focuses on messaging with the primary goal of persuading them toward action. There are many times when people need to communicate their anger, frustration, and pain to the world and to speak truth to power. Doing so may not always be persuasive, but that obviously doesn’t make it any less important. Since we’re considering persuasion a priority goal in this memo, please consider the following advice through that lens.

1. Lead with Shared Values: Justice, Opportunity, Community, Equity

Starting with values that matter to your audience can help people to “hear” your messages more effectively than dry facts or emotional rhetoric would. Encouraging people to think about shared values encourages aspirational, hopeful thinking. When possible, this can be a better place to start when entering tough conversations than a place of fear or anxiety.

Sample Language:

Sample 1: To work for all of us, the people responsible for our justice system have to be resolute in their commitment to equal treatment and investigations based on evidence, not stereotypes or bias. But too often, police departments use racial profiling, which singles people out because of their race or accent, instead of evidence of wrongdoing. That’s against our national values, it endangers our young people, and it reduces public safety. We need to ensure that law enforcement officials are held to the constitutional standards we value as Americans—protecting public safety and the rights of all.

Sample 2: We’re a better country when we make sure everyone has a chance to meet their full potential. We say we’re a country founded on the ideals of opportunity and equality and we have a real responsibility to live up to those values. Discrimination based on race is contrary to our values and we need to do everything in our power to end it.

2. Use Values as a Bridge, Not a Bypass.

Opening conversations with shared values helps to emphasize society’s role in affording a fair chance to everyone. But starting conversations here does not mean avoiding discussions of race. We suggest bridging from shared values to the roles of racial equity and inclusion in fulfilling those values for all. Doing so can move audiences into a frame of mind that is more solution-oriented and less mired in skepticism about the continued existence of discrimination or our ability to do anything about it.

Sample Language:

It’s in our nation’s interest to ensure that everyone enjoys full and equal opportunity. But that’s not happening in our educational system today, where children of color face overcrowded classrooms, uncertified teachers, and excessive discipline far more often than their white peers. If we don’t attend to those inequalities while improving education for all children, we will never become the nation that we aspire to be.


A beautiful thing about this country is its multiracial character. But right now, we’ve got diversity with a lot of segregation and inequity. I want to see a truly inclusive society. I think we will always struggle as a country toward that—no post-racial society is possible or desirable—but every generation can make progress toward that goal. – Rinku Sen, Race Forward, to NBC News[1]

3. Know the Counter Narratives.

Some themes consistently emerge in conversations about race, particularly from those who do not want to talk about unequal opportunity or the existence of racism. While we all probably feel like we know these narratives inside out, it’s still important to examine them and particularly to watch how they evolve and change. The point in doing this is not to argue against each theme point by point, but to understand what stories are happening in people’s heads when we try to start a productive conversation. A few common themes include:

  • The idea that racism is “largely” over or dying out over time.
  • People of color are obsessed with race.
  • Alleging discrimination is itself racist and divisive.
  • Claiming discrimination is “playing the race card,” opportunistic, hypocritical demagoguery.
  • Civil rights are a crutch for those who lack merit or drive.
  • If we can address class inequality, racial inequity will take care of itself.
  • Racism will always be with us, so it’s a waste of time to talk about it.

4. Talk About the Systemic Obstacles to Equal Opportunity and Equal Justice.

Too often our culture views social problems through an individual lens – what did a person do to “deserve” his or her specific condition or circumstance? But we know that history, policies, culture and many other factors beyond individual choices have gotten us to where we are today.

When we’re hoping to show the existence of discrimination or racism by pointing out racially unequal conditions, it’s particularly important to tell a full story that links cause (history) and effect (outcome). Without this important link, some audiences can walk away believing that our health care, criminal justice or educational systems work fine and therefore differing outcomes exist because BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and/or People of Color) are doing something wrong.


“The widely-discussed phenomenon of ‘driving while black’ illustrates the potential abuse of discretion by law enforcement. A two-year study of 13,566 officer-initiated traffic stops in a Midwestern city revealed that minority drivers were stopped at a higher rate than whites and were also searched for contraband at a higher rate than their white counterparts. Yet, officers were no more likely to find contraband on minority motorists than white motorists.” – The Sentencing Project publication, “Reducing Racial Disparity in the Criminal Justice System: A Manual for Policymakers”[2]

“Native Americans and Alaska Natives are often unable to vote because there are no polling places anywhere near them. Some communities, such as the Duck Valley Reservation in Nevada and the Goshute Reservation in Utah, are located more than 100 miles from the nearest polling place.” – Julian Brave NoiseCat, Native Issues Fellow at the Huffington Post[3]

5. Be Rigorously Solution-Oriented and Forward-Looking.

After laying the groundwork for how the problem has developed, it’s key to move quickly to solutions. Some people who understand that unequal opportunity exists may also believe that nothing can be done about it, leading to “compassion fatigue” and inaction. Wherever possible, link a description of the problem to a clear, positive solution and action, and point out who is responsible for taking that action.

Sample Language:

Sample 1: Asian Americans often face particularly steep obstacles to needed health care because of language and cultural barriers, as well as limited insurance coverage. Our Legislature can knock down these barriers by putting policies in place that train health professionals, provide English language learning programs, and organize community health centers.

Sample 2: The Department of Justice, Congress, local and state legislatures, and prosecutors’ offices should ensure that there is fairness in the prosecutorial decision-making process by requiring routine implicit bias training for prosecutors; routine review of data metrics to expose and address racial inequity; and the incorporation of racial impact review in performance review for individual prosecutors. DOJ should issue guidance to prosecutors on reducing the impact of implicit bias in prosecution.[4]


“Organizing to achieve public policy change is one major aspect of our larger mission to create freedom and justice for all Black people. Our aim is to equip young people with a clear set of public policy goals to organize towards and win in their local communities.” –BYP 100, “Agenda to Keep Us Safe,” website[5]

6. Consider Audience and Goals.

In any communications persuasion strategy, we should recognize that different audiences need different messages and different resources. In engaging on topics around race, racism, and racial justice, this is particularly important. We all know that people throughout the country are in very different places when it comes to their understanding of racial justice issues and their willingness to talk about them. While white people in particular need anti-racism resources and messaging that brings them into conversations about racism, there exists uncertainty or inexperience in other groups when it comes to talking about, for instance, anti-Black racism, stereotypes around indigenous communities, or anti-immigrant sentiments that are highly racialized. In strategizing about audience, the goal should be to both energize the base and persuade the undecided. A few questions to consider:

Who are you hoping to influence? Narrowing down your target audience helps to refine your strategy.
What do you want them to do? Determine the appropriate action for your audience and strategy. Sometimes you may have direct access to decision makers and are working to change their minds. Other times you may have access to other people who influence the decision makers.
What do you know about their current thinking? From public opinion research, social media scans, their own words, etc.
What do you want to change about that? Consider the change in thinking that needs to happen to cause action.
Who do they listen to? Identify the media they consume and the people who are likely to influence their thinking. This may be an opportunity to reach out to allies to serve as spokespeople if they might carry more weight with certain audiences.

7. Be Explicit About the Intertwined Relationship Between Racism and Economic Opportunity and the Reverberating Consequences.

Many audiences prefer to think that socio-economic factors stand on their own and that if, say, the education system were more equitable, or job opportunities more plentiful, then we would see equal opportunity for everyone. Racism perpetuates poverty among BIPOC and leads these communities to be stratified into living in neighborhoods that lack the resources of white peers with similar incomes. That said, we need to be clear that racism causes more and different problems than poverty, low-resourced neighborhoods or challenged educational systems do and that fixing those things is not enough. They are interrelated, to be sure, but study after study, as well as so many people’s lived experiences, show that even after adjusting for socio-economic factors, racial inequity persists.


Black boys raised in America, even in the wealthiest families and living in some of the most well-to-do neighborhoods, still earn less in adulthood than white boys with similar backgrounds, according to a new study that traced the lives of millions of children.

White boys who grow up rich are likely to remain that way. Black boys raised at the top, however, are more likely to become poor than to stay wealthy in their own adult households.

Even when children grow up next to each other with parents who earn similar incomes, black boys fare worse than white boys in 99 percent of America. And the gaps only worsen in the kind of neighborhoods that promise low poverty and good schools.[6]

8. Describe How Racial Bias and Discrimination Hold Us All Back.

In addition to showing how discrimination and unequal opportunity harm people of color, it’s important to explain how systemic biases affect all of us and prevent us from achieving our full potential as a country. We can never truly become a land of opportunity while we allow racial inequity to persist. And ensuring equal opportunity for all is in our shared economic and societal interest. In fact, eight in ten Americans believe that society functions better when all groups have an equal chance in life.[7]

Research also shows that people are more likely to acknowledge that discrimination against other groups is a problem – and more likely to want to do something about it – if they themselves have experienced it. Most people have at some point felt on the “outside” or that they were unfairly excluded from something, and six in ten report that they’ve experienced discrimination based on race, ethnicity, economic status, gender, sexual orientation, religious beliefs or accent.[8] Reminding people of this feeling can help them think about what racism and oppression really mean for others as well as themselves.

Sample Language:

Virtually all of us have been part of a family with kids, some of us are single parents, and many of us will face disabilities as we age. Many of those circumstances lead to being treated differently – maybe in finding housing, looking for a job, getting an education. We need strong laws that knock down arbitrary and subtle barriers to equal access that any of us might face.


“Discrimination isn’t just an insult to our most basic notions of fairness. It also costs us money, because those who are discriminated against are unable to make the best use of their talents. This not only hurts them, it hurts us all, as some of our best and brightest players are, in essence, sidelined, unable to make their full contributions to our economy.” – David Futrelle, Economic Reporter in Time Magazine[9]

“Racial inclusion and income inequality are key factors driving regional economic growth, and are positively associated with growth in employment, output, productivity, and per capita income, according to an analysis of 118 metropolitan regions. … Regions that became more equitable in the 1990s—with reductions in racial segregation, income disparities, or concentrated poverty—experienced greater economic growth as measured by increased per capita income.” – PolicyLink publication, “All-In Nation”[10]

9. Listen to and Center the Voices of BIPOC.

As social justice advocates, we should be accustomed to centering the voices of those who are most affected by any issue. It should go without saying that when talking about racism, that BIPOC should lead the strategies about how to counter it and dismantle white supremacy. This means:

  • Taking cues from anti-racist BIPOC leaders on things like preferred language and strategy;
  • Reducing erasure and unpaid labor by giving credit and/or compensation to BIPOC who have sparked movements, coined terms, tested and spread language and so on; and
  • Being vigilant in ensuring that those who have power in our movement share that power with BIPOC, particularly those whose voices have been marginalized and those who experience multiple barriers due biases that affect them intersectionally on many levels.

Centering anti-racist BIPOC voices does not mean expecting members of each group to relive their particular oppression by describing it — or examples of it — for the benefit of the larger movement.

It also does not mean expecting only BIPOC to speak out about racism and oppression. There is room for many voices and a role for different people with different audiences to do the work of changing the narrative about race in this country.

10. Embrace and Communicate Our Racial and Ethnic Diversity while Decentering Whiteness as a Lens and Central Frame.

Underscore that different people and communities encounter differing types of stereotypes and discrimination based on diverse and intersectional identities. This may mean, for example, explaining the sovereign status of tribal nations, the unique challenges posed by treaty violations, and the specific solutions that are needed. At the same time, we need to place whiteness in the context it deserves: as a part of the larger whole and not the center of it. Too often even well-meaning language assume white as the “norm,” which implies that anyone else is an “other.”

Sample Language:

The United States purports to revere the ideals of equality and opportunity. But we’ve never lived up to these ideals, and some of us face more barriers than others in achieving this because of who we are, what we look like or where we come from. We have to recognize this and move toward the ideal that we should all be able to live up to our own potential, whether we are new to this country, or living in disadvantaged neighborhoods, on reservations that are facing economic challenges, or in abandoned factory towns.


“We affirm our commitment to stand against environmental racism and to support Indigenous sovereignty. Across the United States, Black and Brown communities are subject to higher rates of asthma and other diseases resulting from pollution and malnutrition; as demonstrated recently not only at Standing Rock but also through the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. Our neighborhoods are more likely to have landfills, toxic factories, fracking, and other forms of environmental violence inflicted on them. We will not let this continue.” – Million Hoodies, blog[11]

“At best, white people have been taught not to mention that people of colour are ‘different’ in case it offends us. They truly believe that the experiences of their life as a result of their skin colour can and should be universal. I just can’t engage with the bewilderment and the defensiveness as they try to grapple with the fact that not everyone experiences the world in the way that they do.

They’ve never had to think about what it means, in power terms, to be white, so any time they’re vaguely reminded of this fact, they interpret it as an affront. Their eyes glaze over in boredom or widen in indignation. Their mouths start twitching as they get defensive. Their throats open up as they try to interrupt, itching to talk over you but not to really listen, because they need to let you know that you’ve got it wrong.” – Reni Eddo-Lodge, author[12]

“The internment was a dark chapter of American history, in which 120,000 people, including me and my family, lost our homes, our livelihoods, and our freedoms because we happened to look like the people who bombed Pearl Harbor. … ‘National security’ must never again be permitted to justify wholesale denial of constitutional rights and protections. If it is freedom and our way of life that we fight for, our first obligation is to ensure that our own government adheres to those principles. Without that, we are no better than our enemies. … The very same arguments echo today, on the assumption that a handful of presumed radical elements within the Muslim community necessitates draconian measures against the whole, all in the name of national security.” – George Takei, actor, in the Washington Post[13]

Applying the Lessons

VPSA: Value, Problem, Solution, Action

One useful approach to tying these lessons together is to structure communications around Value, Problem, Solution, and Action, meaning that each message contains these four key components: Values (why the audience should care, and how they will connect the issue to themselves), Problem (framed as a threat to the shared values we have just invoked), Solution (stating what you’re for), and Action (a concrete ask of the audience, to ensure engagement and movement).



To work for all of us, our justice system depends on equal treatment and investigations based on evidence, not stereotypes or bias.


But many communities continue to experience racial profiling, where members are singled out only because of what they look like. In one Maryland study, 17.5% of motorists speeding on a parkway were African-American, and 74.7% were white, yet over 70% of the drivers whom police stopped and searched were black, and at least one trooper searched only African American. Officers were no more likely to find contraband on black motorists than white motorists. These practices erode community trust in police and make the goal of true community safety more difficult to achieve.


We need shared data on police interactions with the public that show who police are stopping, arresting and why. These kinds of data encourage transparency and trust and help police strategize on how to improve their work. They also help communities get a clear picture of police interactions in the community.


Urge your local police department to join police from around the country and participate in these important shared databases.



We’re a better country when we make sure everyone has a chance to meet his, her, or their potential. We say we’re a country founded on the ideals of opportunity and equality and we have a real responsibility to live up to those values. Racism is a particular affront to our values and we need to do everything in our power to end it.


Yet we know that racism persists, and that its effects can be devastating. For instance, African American pregnant women are two to three times more likely to experience premature birth and three times more likely to give birth to a low birth weight infant. This disparity persists even after controlling for factors, such as low income, low education, and alcohol and tobacco use. To explain these persistent differences, researchers now say that it’s likely the chronic stress of racism that negatively affects the body’s hormonal levels and increases the likelihood of premature birth and low birth weights.


We all have a responsibility to examine the causes and effects of racism in our country. We have to educate ourselves and learn how to talk about them with those around us. While we’ve made some important progress in decreasing discrimination and racism, we can’t pretend we’ve moved beyond it completely.


Join a racial justice campaign near you.



We believe in treating everybody fairly, regardless of what they look like or where their ancestors came from.


But what we believe consciously and what we feel and do unconsciously can be two very different things and despite our best attempts to rid ourselves of prejudices and stereotypes, we all have them – it just depends how conscious they are. All of us today know people of different races and ethnicities. And we usually treat each other respectfully and joke around together at work. But for most of us – Americans of all colors – the subtle or not so subtle attitudes of our parents or grandparents, who grew up in a different time, are still with us, even if we consciously reject them.


Personally, I look forward to the day when we can all see past color—all of us, white and black, brown and Asian. To do that, we all have to be aware of what’s going on in our own heads right now. And how that collective bias has shaped our history and where we are now.


But we’re just not there yet. Let’s make it a priority to get there. [14]


[2] The Sentencing Project. Reducing Racial Disparity in the Criminal Justice System: A Manual for Policymakers, 2008

[7] The Opportunity Agenda/Langer Associates. The Opportunity Survey, 2014.

[8] Ibid.

[12] Reni Eddo-Lodge: Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, The Guardian (May 31, 2017)

[13] George Takei: They interned my family. Don’t let them do it to Muslims Washington Post (November 18, 2016).

[14] Modified from messages tested in Speaking to the Public about Unconscious Prejudice: Meta-issues on Race and Ethnicity. Drew Westen, Ph.D. March 2014

Talking About COVID-19: Value, Problem, Solution, Action

As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps America, the systemic injustices in our country are being revealed for what they are: from race-class disparity to immigrant injustice and the carceral state. These injustices have existed for a long time and activists, advocates, and creatives have been working to eradicate them for just as long. Yet today, we find ourselves at a unique and critical moment to step up our advocacy for the communities and individuals most vulnerable – communities of color, immigrant communities, incarcerated communities, and low-income communities.

At this pivotal moment, we must work together – in community – to center and uplift the voices of these disproportionately affected populations. This starts by being conscious about our language and messaging. We recommend using a VPSA (Value, Problem, Solution, Action) format when talking about the coronavirus and its response, and centering your language around inclusion, empowerment, and justice.

  • Value: When it comes to addressing COVID-19, we are all only as safe as those members of our community who are most at risk. We are all in this together, and therefore must make sure our messaging around this virus and its containment avoids racist, xenophobic, and biased thinking. We must remember to uphold the value of unity at this time. Through unity – in community – we can overcome what lies ahead.
  • Problem: While the coronavirus does not discriminate against race, ethnicity, nationality, or socio-economic status, stigma and misinformation do. Racist, xenophobic, and unscientific language and messaging – rooted in fear and misinformation – has been circulating during this outbreak, both among the public and within the Trump administration. If left unchecked, this will create a culture of fear and discrimination that hinders efforts to stop the virus and efforts to help communities most at risk.
  • Solution: As social justice leaders and communicators, it is our job to calmly and directly push back against the fear and stigma surrounding COVID-19 with powerful language of inclusion, unity, empowerment, and justice. This will help us be allies to communities of color, immigrant communities, low-income communities, and incarcerated communities, who are likely to be disproportionately affected by this pandemic and the narrative surrounding it.
  • Action: We must continuously call out messaging based in fear and misinformation for the racist, xenophobic, and implicitly biased language that it is – particularly when coming from the Trump administration and the media. We must work together in collaborative conversation to make sure that communities and populations most at risk are receiving the attention and services that they deserve, and that they are not being stigmatized when those services are provided. We must also remember to always use language that is based in justice and equity. The solutions for getting through this pandemic lie in unity and community. We must uplift these values together and remind others to do the same.

Talking About Covid-19: A Call for Racial, Economic, and Health Equity

Justice Reform & Human Rights in a Time of Crisis: Releasing People from Detention

During these times of crisis and uncertainty, it is critical to pull together as a community to ensure that we are all protected against the global threat of COVID-19. Our collective survival demands nothing less.

The COVID-19 pandemic exposes the systemic inequities in this country’s incarceration and detention policies. This crisis presents a stark moment to address a health and safety threat to all of us, as well as to strive for justice and address systemic inequities directly. For example, a patchwork approach to bail policies and pretrial detention means that too many people are detained without having been convicted of anything, leaving far too many people unjustly serving while also facing what are de facto death sentences due to prison conditions and the spread of the COVID-19 virus. Because there have been an increasing number of infections within the confined spaces of many jails, prisons, and detention centers, it is more important than ever to continue advocacy for justice reform and the release of people who have not had due process. Below are important values to uplift to ensure that your communications are rooted in shared values.

Our Shared Values

Highlight these shared values to illustrate the importance of releasing people from detention facilities during the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • Human Rights and Dignity. We must protect the human rights of everyone, including people who are currently detained or incarcerated. Our commitment to human rights and respect for the dignity of human life depends on immediate action. Failing to prevent avoidable death during this pandemic would threaten our commitment to basic human rights and respect for human dignity.
  • Our Identity. How we respond to this crisis will define our identity for generations to come. Ensuring that we respect the dignity of people who have been detained in our bloated detention system is critical to our legacy. We must be able to reflect on our collective response to this crisis and be able to say that we did the right thing, leaving no one behind.
  • Shared Responsibility/Community. We should come together as a community to protect the most vulnerable among us. Many people who are detained or incarcerated are especially vulnerable to COVID-19, and we have a responsibility to provide them with a safe environment and protect them. We need to band together as a community and develop a plan to quickly remove vulnerable populations from detention.
  • Community Safety. The COVID-19 pandemic makes clear that the use of detention and incarceration for social problems threatens actual public safety and public health as the virus spreads within the carceral system. Reducing incarceration and releasing people from detention facilities across the country would help us achieve true community safety by protecting the health and safety of everyone in our communities, including individuals who are detained.

Sample VPSA Message

In order to deliver a consistent, well-framed message, we recommend structuring messages in terms of Value, Problem, Solution, Action. In particular, leading with shared values instead of dry facts or hot rhetoric helps launch a conversation and provides a foundation to transition into more complex messages.

Value: The COVID-19 pandemic is a clarion call for communities everywhere to come together. We are all in this together because we are all only as safe as those members of our community who are most at risk.

Problem: People throughout this country are detained in crowded detention centers, jails, and prisons. These systems of detention and incarceration are unsafe, unsanitary, and unable to provide an environment of safe, physical distancing during this global health crisis.

Solution: Government officials should begin to rapidly release vulnerable people from our bloated and crowded detention facilities so that they can practice physical distancing and, at the same time, be able to experience due process — particularly those who have not stood trial but are still detained.

Action: Please call/email/Tweet/Facebook message your local politicians to demand that they release the most vulnerable people from prisons, jails and detention facilities.

Talking About Imprisoned Children at the Border

There is much to say about the horror of watching our government imprison and mistreat children. Responding to the outrage with solutions that will move audiences beyond feeling dismayed, disgusted and helpless is very difficult. But it’s crucial in pushing officials to not only end these practices, but also to move us toward productive and real fixes to our outdated and inhumane immigration policies.

The Opportunity Agenda suggests building messages using a Value, Problem, Solution, Action (VPSA) construction. Leading with values can help audiences see past rhetoric and centers the conversation on what really matters instead of disagreeing over the interpretation of news media coverage, politics, policy or the history of immigration laws. Then move to define the problem as a violation of those values and pivot quickly to solutions, both short- and longer-term. Finally, give your audiences a concrete action(s) so that they can see themselves move on the issue in some form right away.

VPSA Language Examples

Value: This is about our national identity, and what we aspire to be as a country. We should strive to be a compassionate and humane nation that respects the value of family and the dignity of migrants, particularly children. We claim a set of ideals that we’ve never lived up to, but we owe it to ourselves and future generations to do everything we can to achieve them now.

In our nation’s treatment of children and families seeking asylum, we are making critical choices about who we are as a nation. This is a historic moment where WE can help shape our own legacy and the type of nation we leave for future generations.

Define American

This is not a perplexing scientific puzzle. This is a moral disaster. There has to be some way to communicate, in unequivocal terms, that we are inflicting punishments on innocent children that will have lifelong consequences.

Dr. Jack Shonkoff, Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University

Problem: This administration’s anti-immigrant and racist policies and actions are setting us back morally and ethically. It should go without saying that we should not treat children, or anyone, this way, and yet the administration continues to defend its practice and argue for more funds to support it. Throwing money at brutal and inhumane conditions under the guise of “making our country great again” is not only not the answer, it is wholly unacceptable. This assault on our values harms not just the families and children at the border, but all of us watching what our country is condoning. This is a systemic problem that requires action from all of us.

In my time as a border patrol agent, I’ve developed a unique perspective on twenty years of border policies. I resigned from the border patrol due to corruption, and a lack of ethics and morality. What we’re seeing today is the result of an agency allowed to run with no oversight whatsoever. Years of walls, more agents, guns, planes, detention camps and trillions of dollars has done nothing to make our border communities safer. Using law enforcement to address a humanitarian need has never worked and never will. The Border Patrol needs to be held accountable, border communities have the right to have a voice in how they are governed.

Jenn Budd, former border patrol agent

CBP, along with ICE, have a culture of impunity and we are witnessing the consequences in the stories being told by children who are being abused. Cruelty at the micro level of individual officers treating individual detainees abusively is reflective of the cruelty that starts at the top, in the White House and at DHS and CBP HQ. Let’s be clear, the revelations follow a consistent and disturbing theme that has more to do with dehumanizing cruelty than it does with a lack of resources or overcrowded conditions.

Douglas Rivlin, America’s Voice

Solution: The government must release these children immediately. And in addition to the range of crucial short-term fixes to the outrageous imprisonment of children, we need long-term solutions to the outdated immigration and asylum policies that allowed this situation to happen in the first place.

Border policies should focus on genuine threats and recognize that migration, in and of itself, is not a threat, nor should it be a crime. Migration is the human experience of seeking life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Facilitating the humane and orderly movement of people across the border increases public safety.

Andrea Guerrero, Alliance San Diego

Communities along the U.S.- Mexico border are vibrant, warm and welcoming. However, because of the current enforcement-only policies, at least seven children have died in recent months either while in U.S. Custody or after being detained. Meanwhile migrant families are crammed in dangerously overcrowded cells for days at a time, sometimes in soiled clothes and without access to adequate hygiene. This is unacceptable. A New Border Vision calls for an appropriate humanitarian response to current human needs. A non-law enforcement approach must include sufficient, trained personnel who can provide adequate and efficient medical assistance, resources and support, and welcome residents and newcomers alike to our region.

Cynthia Pompa, ACLU Border Rights Center

Immigration detention is not the answer: not for asylum seekers, or for anyone else. It’s a punitive system where lives are in jeopardy. Instead of overcrowding and expanding the deadly system, people need to be released now. Congress must cut funding for detention in FY20, reject the administration’s supplemental request for detention funding and put an end to Trump’s massive expansion of immigration detention now.

Silky Shah, Detention Watch Network

Action: The urgency for action is now. We must mobilize, call our representatives, and vote. We need to bring along the final persuadable skeptics who have resisted the idea that this administration is dangerously anti-immigrant.

Full VPSA Example

As a company that helps children become their best selves—curious, creative, caring, and confident—we want kids to understand the importance of having moral courage. Moral courage means standing up for what we believe is right, honest, and ethical—even when it is hard.

Our company’s core belief, stated each month in Highlights magazine, is that “Children are the world’s most important people.” This is a belief about ALL children.

With this core belief in our minds and hearts, we denounce the practice of separating immigrant children from their families and urge our government to cease this activity, which is unconscionable and causes irreparable damage to young lives.

This is not a political statement about immigration policy. This is a statement about human decency, plain and simple. This is a plea for recognition that these are not simply the children of strangers for whom others are accountable. This is an appeal to elevate the inalienable right of all children to feel safe and to have the opportunity to become their best selves.

We invite you—regardless of your political leanings—to join us in speaking out against family separation and to call for more human treatment of immigrant children currently being held in detention facilities. Write, call, or email your government representatives.

Let our children draw strength and inspiration from our collective display of moral courage. They are watching.

Highlights Magazine

Additional Messaging Suggestions

1. Stay out of the legal and political weeds. It’s important to underscore that the lengthy and inhumane detention of children, often separated from their families, is not only morally indefensible, but also illegal. That said, a too-involved description of the laws that should be protecting migrants, asylum seekers, and all children will only give the impression that the situation is legally complex and therefore difficult to fix. Provide a brief and straightforward explanation of the law or policy in question:

Roughly one year ago, the administration’s family separation policy supposedly came to an end, following an executive order and subsequent court order banning the practice. The court’s decision, however, applied only to some parents traveling with children. It therefore did not prevent the U.S. government from continuing to separate children from other adult relatives and caregivers, including aunts, uncles, and older siblings.

Unitarian Universalist Service Committee

We believe our nation and its leaders have both the moral and legal responsibility on behalf of those who seek safety in our land. The U.S. has an international legal obligation to do so by virtue of having acceded to the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees and, therefore, must implement those duties in good faith. It also has an obligation to do so under its own domestic law, and executive orders should not attempt to set aside these legal responsibilities.

Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) with ELCA ecumenical and inter-religious partners

Then move quickly to the solution including what needs to happen, and who needs to do it:

Detention of children and adults alike is not the answer. Rather than building up the infrastructure of a system that is riddled with abuse where lives are in jeopardy, Members of Congress should be calling for the closure of detention centers across the country and advocating for people to be released.

Silky Shah, Detention Watch Network

2. Avoid implying that the detention of children and separation of families is a new, or recent, phenomenon or something “we just don’t do.” Talk about who we should be without repeating historical (and current) myths about adherence to ideals. It’s important to remember that there are many instances in our country’s history during which our government separated children from their families, and imprisoned people unjustly.

What I saw today is simply not who, we, as a country should be. This is cruel and inhumane treatment and we cannot allow it to continue on our watch.

Representative Pramila Jayapal, (D) Washington

Instead, use history to show how backwards and shameful our obsession with detention and incarceration is, and what it’s led us to do or accept in the past.

Fort Sill is a site steeped in layers upon layers of historical trauma. Over 700 Japanese Americans were detained there during WWII, and one man, a Japanese immigrant and father of 11, was shot and killed while suffering a nervous breakdown and trying to escape. Before that, Fort Sill was a prisoner of war camp for members of the Chiricahua Apache tribe who were forcibly relocated there from the Southwest. It also housed a boarding school where Native American children were separated from their families and subjected to cultural genocide. Fort Sill has always been a violent place — and it is time for that violence to end. “Never Again” is right now. It’s happening all around us, every day. We must be vigilant in showing up and demanding that sites like Fort Sill be shut down. No one showed up for Japanese American families like mine in 1942, but we can and we must show up for immigrant children and families today.

Tom Ikeda, Densho

Forcibly yanking children from their parents is of a piece with some of the darkest moments of American history: the internment of Japanese Americans; the forcible separation of American Indian children into special boarding schools; slavery.

Ashley Fetters, The Atlantic

3. Link the separation of families at the border to the separation of families that raids and deportation cause. Paint a broader picture of the intended effects of the administration’s anti-immigrant and inhumane policies and rhetoric.

The Trump administration has been making changes both small and drastic to U.S. immigration policies. While Trump’s cruel policies at the border and his ramping up of deportations and ICE raids have garnered the most attention and outrage, his other efforts to transform legal immigration have been no less radical. As administration officials and conservative commentators have said, deportations alone may not halt the demographic changes taking place in the country — so the administration is aggressively reshaping the legal immigration system.

American Friends Service Committee

4. Keeping families together is not enough. While insisting ICE and Border Patrol not take children from their families is important, we need to insist that the alternative of locking up families together is also not acceptable. In fact, we should question if any detention at all is acceptable.

I should note that there is a big distinction between having access to a caring, supportive adult in a home setting versus a detention facility. While a parent may technically be present in family detention centers, the conditions of confinement and a parent’s limited power to parent their children all have adverse impacts not just on the child, but on the parent-child relationship. In fact, studies on family detention have shown that both parents and children frequently view staff as the ones who have control in these settings, sometimes even in disciplining children. It is important for children to feel safe, and children primarily look to their parents to provide them protection so that they feel safe. Yet, in detention settings, children actually watch their parents lose power. They see the way that their parents are humiliated either through direct insults or by being refused simple requests—like access to drinking water or to use the restroom. Often, children lose respect for their parents, feel resentment and anger towards them, and ultimately lose their sense of security.

Wendy Cervantes, First Focus on the Family

Talking Impeachment: Protecting our Democratic Values

After weeks of testimony and debate in both the House Intelligence and Judiciary Committees, last night the House of Representatives took two historic votes on articles of impeachment, making President Trump the third president in U.S. history to be impeached. The full House bitterly debated the two articles, which address abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, and were approved largely along party lines.

Next, as required by the Constitution, the U.S. Senate will soon begin its trial to determine whether to convict the president of the high crimes and misdemeanors outlined in the articles of impeachment passed by the House. Whether or not the Senate decides to convict the President, this moment in history calls for social justice advocates to weigh in on the importance of interrogating the values of this president and his administration.

The following four tips should be kept in mind when communicating about these monumental votes:

1. Keep the messaging goal in mind: center the importance of our Constitution and democracy, and highlight the threats this administration poses to both.

Provide examples of the principles at stake, such as the importance of the balance of power and the suggestion laid out by the Constitution that everyone[1] in our country is represented by the House of Representatives, which has a duty to ensure that no presidential action should impede fairness and accountability by a government that is formed by and for the people.

2. Stick to the news: the president has now been impeached.

The actions taken by this president over the last three years have amounted to one afront to our values after another. But now the focus is on the narrowly made case for impeachment, which has just been affirmed by the House of Representatives. The votes have been cast, and it’s time to share why these actions are important to support, and why President Trump should be held to account.

3. Don’t get sidetracked by distractions.

This administration – and the debate in Congress – has thrown us many, many egregious and angering distractions that are tempting to address. Stay the course and use this moment to underscore that we must never concede the democratic principles laid out in the Constitution, as hard won and as imperfect as they may be. This is particularly true when it comes to a demagogue who is trying any means necessary to use the power of his office to advance his own political gain.

4. Pivot to the power of action – use VPSA to make your points and quickly call for action.

There is now a new level of urgency for action as the House of Representatives has validated that President Trump should be held to account. Here is a sample VPSA to use to further the conversation and move quickly to call on audiences to take action:

V – Value: Our country’s democratic principles underscoring the importance of government fairness and accountability for and by the people are among those that the march for justice has shown must be secure and accessible to everyone. This is enshrined in our Constitution and our government is organized so that it has the mechanisms needed to adhere to these principles.

P – Problem: President Trump has demonstrated over and over again that he is unfit to uphold these principles. The leader of the free world – our president – has just been impeached as a result of this inability and lack of fitness.

S – Solution: According our Constitution, the U.S. Senate now must hold the president to account for his actions and determine whether to convict him, which could result in his removal from office. It is essential that our elected officials take their oath to serve as impartial witnesses seriously and consider every option for ensuring that President Trump be held accountable for his actions and that our country’s democratic principles – and security – are protected.

A – Action: We must push senators to heed the call of the Constitution and take their responsibility seriously, not politically. They must focus on the promise of our democratic principles and serve their duty by taking the necessary steps following the House’s historic votes and hold this president to account.

[1] Everyone, with the exception of the people who reside in the District of Columbia, who still do not have representation in Congress.

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