The primary aim of this study is to further the in-depth research conducted on this subject and its relation to overall character portrayal and audience impact. It is well documented and researched that media has the capability to wield profound power in altering public perceptions and opinion. These perceptions and opinions, in turn, can lead to policies and actions that can have potentially significant social implications. With the advent of the digital age and the Internet, the role of mass media has become especially important and influential. In light of this fact, identifying and evaluating the media’s portrayal of social issues may be more valuable than ever before. The following analysis incorporates results from similar literature as it relates to this report’s findings.
Even when there is an oversample of television episodes displaying characteristics of lower income lifestyles, television programs do not include these storylines in a meaningful manner:
In a similar study, Conrad-Perez et al. found that only 22% of their sample episodes referred to homelessness or housing insecurity in some way and that, of this already small percentage of representation, a character experiencing homelessness did not contribute a single line of dialogue in one of every three episodes in which they appeared. This furthers the Power of POP report’s inability to identify significant character dependence on social services or any other major indicators of financial instability. With nearly 70% of low-income adults reporting “a great deal” of concern about hunger and homelessness, this is an egregious void in storytelling.
More unsettling, this study uncovered a prevailing depiction of houseless characters as outsiders to the social world of the shows that include them—only gaining contact with members of the main cast through unexpected encounters. Therein, people experiencing houselessness in popular television programs are more frequently “seen” or “spoken for” rather than “heard from.” These incomplete portrayals only further marginalize the houseless in reality.
Societal hierarchy has bearing on the amount of representation devoted to each income range:
Depictions of characters represented within this study illuminated the class divide in who receives quality screen time. We can expect circumstances of low-wage existence, like falling behind on bills or not having adequate housing or food, to be completely absent from a protagonist’s experience. The majority of the episodes in this study reveal a dependence on depicting lifestyles of upper-middle to higher income workers such as police commissioners, pharmaceutical scientists, police investigators, surgeons, and aerospace engineers. This is a capitalist approach of depicting those who do well under a free market economy as aspirational and, therefore, worthy of the most screen time. Lower income consumers further the dominance of this reasoning when they fall into the allure of what could be set in front of them. As noted in their 2016 study,
Likewise, if the poor connect with the non-poor—outside of the workspace or social networks—they do so mainly through representations—circulating on television, online, on billboards, etc. Of course, their interest in the reality of the affluent, like the Kardashian family, is significantly higher than the prosperous class’ interest in the social reality (sic) shows about the dispossessed—such as Here Comes Honey Boo, The Wire, or Shameless. The inequality in media access aside, representations play a pivotal role in our construction and understanding of class matters.
What, then, could be gained by depicting class distinctions in ways that help the audience to better articulate the growing wealth divide? How could a structural lens help viewers deconstruct narratives about their own struggles with financial barriers?
Current depictions of class perpetuate the status quo rather than propose an alternative because those behind the depictions benefit from this system:
Class is about the unequal distribution of wealth and income—stratification—just as it is about the acquisition of prestige and cultural capital. It is ordered hierarchically. The norm in capitalist societies is defined by wealth and prestige, which positions those who lack either one or both at the “bottom” and subjects them to discrimination, stigmatization, and all forms of violence—real, symbolic, and otherwise. The “Other” of class is not only economically and politically excluded, but also socially excluded and silenced just as surely as its Black, female, disabled, or queer counterparts with which it often overlaps.
Bearing this framework in mind, it is of small wonder that poor characters are underrepresented on screen because their middle-class showmakers and writers are often unqualified to portray poverty. The experience and worldview of the poor are never fully intelligible to outsiders; Jones insists: “pauperism … resists representation.” In other words, the economic subaltern cannot speak. Those who speak on behalf of lower income individuals without having shared the lifestyle run the risk of misrepresenting or othering low-income subjects.
It is for these reasons and those featured throughout this study that we recommend adding writers who have had prolonged experience with poverty into the writers’ room, giving them the opportunity to spearhead stories of their own. This would enrich the television-scape with nuanced portrayals of low-income characters in established shows while also offering us stories centered on these characters from their iteration. By adding these multifaceted portrayals to media, the audience will gain additional opportunities to interrogate their misconceptions about how financial strife affects the most marginalized, in addition to an understanding of structural inequality.
The connection that audiences maintain through frequent viewership creates space for narrative shift:
Parasocial relationships are affective bonds audiences foster with media characters and celebrities that last beyond episodic exposure. These relationships mirror real-life social relationships, but are unique in that they lack reciprocity. Much like real-life social relationships, individuals are more likely to report parasocial relationships with characters they perceive to be similar to themselves. Even as early as kindergarten, people become attuned to parasocial relationships between themselves and their favorite characters—namely, those for whom they develop feelings of comfort, safety, trust, and relation in shared real-world circumstances.
At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, face-to-face socialization became heavily restricted, leading to an uptick in the intensity of parasocial closeness for those who experienced a decrease in their face-to-face social engagement. Within one study conducted during this period, even participants with strong ties to their close friends experienced significant growth in their parasocial relationships, suggesting that favorite media personae complemented rather than compensated social relationships.
Hence, the importance of parasocial relationships that audience members sustain with their favorite television characters not only has a bearing in their social lives but also in the impact of changing audience perspectives. For instance, one study conducted in 2020 found that participants who developed an affinity for gay characters in Six Feet Under significantly improved their attitudes toward white gay men after viewing the series over 5 weeks.
In a joint report on frequent television viewers of the 2018–2019 season by Define American and the Norman Lear Center, regular viewers of Superstore who felt a level of friendship with the character of Mateo were more likely to support an increase in immigrants coming to the United States. This association was particularly pronounced among those who had little to no real-life contact with immigrants. Displaying an attachment to regular immigrant characters can compensate for the absence of real-life contact with immigrants. This could reduce support for restrictive immigration policies across the board.
White resentment toward the progress of BIPOC communities is rooted in racism directly tied to perceived racial status in a changing population:
Studies have shown that white resentment toward BIPOC communities gained significant growth after the election of Barack Obama as president and the perceived change in racial hierarchy. In fact, one study found that white people withdraw support for welfare programs—which disproportionately aid white people—when they perceive these programs to primarily benefit people from marginalized backgrounds. Hence, showrunners hoping to influence this particular audience would have had a vested interest in low income characters being portrayed on television, as we found in our sample of the 2017–2018 TV season, remaining majority white for ongoing seasons of television. This may indeed answer why we did not find significant representation of BIPOC families of limited financial means in our study.
23 Happer, C., & Philo, G. (2013). The role of the media in the construction of public belief and social change. Journal of Social and Political Psychology, 1(1), 321-336.
24 Conrad-Pérez, D., Chattoo, C. B., Coskuntuncel, A., & Young, L. (2021). Voiceless Victims and Charity Saviors: How US Entertainment TV Portrays Homelessness and Housing Insecurity in a Time of Crisis. International Journal of Communication, 15, 22.
25 Lemke, S. (2016) The Nation: American Exceptionalism in Our Time. In: Inequality, Poverty and Precarity in Contemporary American Culture. Palgrave Macmillan, New York.
26 Lemke, S. (2016) The Nation: American Exceptionalism in Our Time. In: Inequality, Poverty and Precarity in Contemporary American Culture. Palgrave Macmillan, New York.
27 Jones, G. (2009). Hungers: The Problem of Poverty in U.S. Literature, 1840–1945.
28 Bond, B. J. (2021). The development and influence of parasocial relationships with television characters: A longitudinal experimental test of prejudice reduction through parasocial contact. Communication Research, 48(4), 573-593.
29 Brunick, K. L., Putnam, M. M., McGarry, L. E., Richards, M. N., & Calvert, S. L. (2016). Children’s future parasocial relationships with media characters: The age of intelligent characters. Journal of Children and Media, 10(2), 181-190.
30 Bond, B. J. (2021). Social and parasocial relationships during COVID-19 social distancing. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 02654075211019129.
31 Bond, B. J. (2021). The development and influence of parasocial relationships with television characters: A longitudinal experimental test of prejudice reduction through parasocial contact. Communication Research, 48(4), 573-593.
If you are creating messages about economic justice issues in your advocacy work…
Know that many of your audiences are viewing incomplete and unbalanced portrayals of people with low incomes. And there are almost no portrayals of people experiencing poverty. The narratives available to audiences reveal few solutions to economic instability or poverty. At the same time, audiences are seeing that most people’s basic needs are being met with a few scattered examples of true need. It is therefore important to start communications about economic justice with some context and big-picture thinking. Without doing so, we risk our solutions seeming unnecessary or even just strange.
Fill in the gaps by providing a larger vision of what the world could look like if we had real solutions in place. Show how that world would better align with your audience’s core values. They are not seeing much of this type of expansive thinking in current TV, so we can step in and provide this big picture thinking, embracing themes like abundance, community, shared responsibility, and opportunity for all.
Frame the problem systemically. It is important to link personal stories to widespread problems, point to the systemic cause, and then move to the systemic solution. Fictional portrayals of any issue are almost always going to focus on an individual character. Watching those portrayals, as well as typical media coverage, can lead audiences to a very individualistic mindset that assumes if the problem is with the individual, so is the solution. By expanding audience’s understanding of the problem and linking a character’s challenge to the many other people experiencing that challenge, we can move them to understand the systemic solutions better.
Center solutions. None of the shows we sampled portrayed systemic solutions, such as how safety net programs can alleviate economic instability, how unions protect workers, or how paid family and medical leave make it possible for families to provide for their children. Leveraging storylines can help to spotlight problems, but economic justice communicators will need to bring the solutions to the table. When solutions are left out, audiences are likely to fall into the trap of thinking that poverty, income disparities, and other barriers to economic justice are inevitable.
If you want to leverage popular television to highlight economic justice issues…
Use storylines and characters to make a point. While they are few and far between—so much so that many did not show up in our sample—some portrayals of economic injustice and solutions to it do exist. Later seasons of Superstore focused on issues such as paid family and medical leave, healthcare expenses, and labor organizing, for instance. Talking about these issues through the lens of popular TV offers an opportunity to showcase solutions in a more interesting and unexpected way than fact sheets or tweets about legislation can.
It’s also true that centering popular characters’ experiences can help build an emotional understanding and connection to your issue. Research has shown that we develop parasocial relationships with characters we regularly watch on television, identifying them (in our brains) as friends of sorts. So, talking to some audiences about the economic experiences of Amy from Superstore, for instance, could help them see those experiences in a new light and likely with more empathy. As with any individual storytelling, however, doing this needs to be balanced with other kinds of stories that broaden the focus so that audiences aren’t just focused on that individual’s plight, strengths, and weaknesses.
Highlight shows that showcase themes like community care, abundance, and even joy, in addition to those that provide portrayals of economic injustice. While more recent releases such as Netflix’s Maid and Squid Game provide some of the low-income character representation we would like to see more of, audience appreciation for Ted Lasso—a show equally about rich people and being a person who cares for others—shows that audiences are primed for more representation of community care. By building upon the abundance narrative over scarcity, creators can build worlds that show how communities support their own with love, care, and joy, bringing this positive energy into their advocacy for a better life for everyone. ABC’s upcoming television show Abbott Elementary appears to be a potential example of what the integration of community care, Black joy, and advocacy for better financial support can look like on television.
Monitor shows that offer opportunities to spark conversation about income inequality or instability. To keep up with opportunities to leverage relevant plotlines, formally select a few shows that appeal to your target audience and follow them. Watching whole episodes is not even necessary as there are many recaps available online on sites such as Vulture, EW online, and ShowSnob.
Choose your timing carefully. On the one hand, things move quickly online and issues come in and out of focus at a rapid pace. It is typically a good idea to respond within a 48-hour window for simple social media engagement and within a week for more detailed media pieces. On the other hand, social media engagement with television content spikes significantly at certain points within a show’s schedule. For series that consistently engage in narratives about poverty and economic instability, look for opportunities such as premieres and finales. Significant episodes and major award shows also draw significant audiences. Use these moments to live tweet, host a Twitter chat, or host an online watch party.
If you want to influence portrayals of income instability and poverty…
Give positive reinforcement for good portrayals. This could be as simple as encouraging fans to thank show writers and networks for an authentic character or storyline via social media. Or, you could create an award to the networks or individuals using their platforms to tell compelling stories about people with low incomes or that promote a social justice narrative. Positive reinforcement is a good place to start to both encourage good storytelling and lay the foundation for relationships with creators.
Create your own hashtags or memes to draw attention to representations. For example, #StarringJohnCho memes went viral as people photoshopped John Cho into famous movie posters that starred white male actors, creatively criticizing the lack of diversity in Hollywood. The #OscarsSoWhite hashtag was started by April Reign to raise the same issue and sparked a national debate that resulted in changes in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Engage progressive fandoms. Find the online communities of popular shows where fans are already gathering to talk about them. Create toolkits or messaging guides around a particular series to spark fan engagement.
Encourage networks to engage with and hire people who have experienced economic instability. We need more stories centered on low-income characters written by people who have lived through poverty for prolonged periods. This is particularly true for houseless representation and should be a component for any creative work related to this issue, whether it is a television program or advocacy campaign. Directly affected writers can bring their lived experiences to light in a way that helps us move from a voyeuristic, socially distanced interaction to one of better relatability and nuanced understanding. After all, if the producers and writers of Modern Family and Maid can bring their personal issues into scriptwriting, why can the same not become true for character portrayals unseen in other recent television shows?
Build relationships with script writers, producers, and show runners. Introduce script writers, producers, and show runners to stories that not only are personal and compelling but also are diverse and affirmative and more fully depict the experience of people living in economic instability. Note that to be effective, this strategy may require more significant long-term investments in both time and resources.
If you want to add positive portrayals to the mix…
Rewrite shows or plots to show how they could tell a fuller story of economic insecurity and what we can all do about it. You can use social media to spread your ideas about what popular TV could look like in this regard. To do this, put yourself in the shoes of a Hollywood writer who wanted to ethically depict characters experiencing poverty and imagine what they would come up with. You can also engage in a “what if?” exercise online, inviting your audience to help fill in how a show could depict the low-income experience more realistically and compassionately. Or suggest a whole new TV show that would accurately show the causes and solutions to poverty.
Partner with artists and creatives to tell new stories about economic instability and poverty. Artists should be included in strategic conversations early because their perspectives often lead to out-of-the-box innovations. Just like graphic designers, researchers, or anyone else with a specialized skillset you wouldn’t ask to work for free, keep in mind that artists should also be paid. Consider budgeting ahead of time to be able to include their talents.
Produce your own content. Creating your own content is now more accessible than ever. Creatives with limited resources are making use of content-sharing platforms like YouTube, TikTok, and SoundCloud and crowdsourcing sites like Kickstarter to launch independent projects and tell otherwise untold stories. Videos, web series, and podcasts are within reach, although we recommend partnering with a creative that is skilled at storytelling in your chosen format to maximize the impact.
If you want to help audiences become educated consumers of entertainment and other media…
Organize watch parties and discussion groups. Assemble around helpful, harmful, and nuanced portrayals.
Provide guides. Develop study guides and curricula that help support young people to become more educated consumers of entertainment and other media.
Make your organization a resource. Offer cultural critiques of select shows on a regular basis. Pitch yourself as a resource to media who cover pop culture and are interested in how portrayals interact with real-life experiences.
This code book is designed to assist in the process of coding and analyzing television shows for the portrayal of character income and lifestyle parallels. The media content analysis will analyze the content of 105 television episodes randomly sampled from 53 popular television series. Our content analysis will focus on the frequency of inclusion and trends in the representation of characters across perceived income. Our analysis will also focus on storylines associated with low-income characters and income disparity more broadly.
Character income should be coded in instances when explicit references are made that identify a character’s income (through scripted dialogue or search engine) and also in instances when more implicit social/cultural markers are used to designate issues primarily faced by those with a low income (i.e. poor housing, food insecurity or scarcity, lack of safety net for financial straits or survival, and dependence on social programs).
The following character profiles were developed to showcase the depth of portrayal necessary to frame the hardships of living on a low wage. As stated in the report, none of these characters fully portray the level of hardship faced by most people living in the United States under similar incomes. We have chosen these characters for their accessible yet under-developed storylines, which serve as entry to better, fuller portrayals in the future. The blank template is for consumer use in embarking on a similar analysis of the characters they watch on TV.
Advocates have long understood the centrality of storytelling to building power, as well as winning both short term victories and long-term systemic change. Both research and lived experience consistently show that stories and language play a significant role in shaping our views of the world and, ultimately, the policies we support. These “big stories” or “narratives” about the world around us can either be a wind in our face, making advances in social justice extremely difficult or impossible, or they can be the wind in our sails, propelling us forward to victories and new frontiers of liberation.
Over the last several years, many social justice leaders have begun to actively engage in strategies designed to shift, counter, or replace prevailing narratives about social issues, the economy, our history, and other stories that shape and influence culture and policy.
But exactly how does narrative shift success happen? Are there key factors which organizers can learn and replicate? Or are they a mixture of luck and strategy?
The Opportunity Agenda is a social justice communications lab dedicated to helping movement leaders use their ideas to improve our world. We conducted a six-part study to look closely at a range of key narrative shifts over the past 70 years to answer those questions.
In Shifting the Narrative, our research and work set out to identify essential and replicable elements of past successful narrative change efforts by engaging in deep research of thousands of documents, and interviewing a diverse cadre of leaders who played a critical role in making those shifts happen, as well as academics and journalists.i
To this end, we chose the following six examples to study, from long-term efforts that resulted in shifts to both cultural thinking and policy, to shorter-term, focused campaigns. For most, we studied efforts that resulted in social justice wins or improvements. In one case, our examination of narratives related a governmental role in supporting economic justice, we looked at how the prevailing narrative shifted against us:
1. Narrative Shift and the Death Penalty. Shifting public understanding of the role of innocence in a campaign to eventually end the use of the death penalty.
2. Narrative Shift: From the War on Poverty to “Ending Welfare as We Know It.” Examining the conservative response to New Deal programs enacted to eliminate persistent poverty.
3. Documentary Film and The Blackfish Effect. Exploring the role of a documentary film in public perception of the treatment and ethics of keeping animals in captivity.
4. Sexual Violence, The #MeToo Movement, and Narrative Shift. Studying the recently amplified campaign designed to bring attention to long-standing issues of sexual harassment and assault.
5. Gun Politics and Narrative Shift. Tracking the long-term narrative-shift effort to enact gun control measures.
6. Narrative Shift and the Campaign to End Racial Profiling. Moving from the “bad apple cop” to examining systemic racism.
At The Opportunity Agenda, we define narrative as a Big Story, rooted in shared values and common themes, that influences how audiences process information and make decisions. Narratives are conveyed not only in political and policy discourse, but also in news media, in popular culture, on social media, and at dinner tables across communities.
Here are key lessons learned or reinforced by Shifting the Narrative followed by the specific studies which best illustrate each lesson:
Narrative shift transcends messaging shifts and take longer. Narratives are not shortterm, single-audience-focused messages, but rather larger stories that often transcend any one campaign for policy change. Importantly, narratives shape the way audiences understand the context in which campaigns for policy change take place.For instance, in the case of the shift in public perceptions of gun control efforts in Virginia, the narrative challenge was not overcoming a lack of public support for gun control policies. In this case, most of the public supported gun control legislation but that public support was not resulting in policy change. The barrier to victory was the narrative that the National Rifle Association (NRA) was a credible and insurmountable obstacle to any such legislation. In the context of that narrative, efforts to pass gun control legislation died on the vine despite having public support. By intentionally undermining the credibility of the NRA by telling stories of mismanagement and incompetence over time, while also running pro-gun control candidates who won in the region, Virginia activists were able to weaken the prevailing narrative of the NRA being all powerful. The shift helped gun control supporters to see that Goliath could be defeated and energized them to introduce and pass legislation.Case Studies to Reference: Narrative Shift and the Death Penalty; Narrative Shift: From the War on Poverty to “Ending Welfare as We Know It; Gun Politics and Narrative Shift; Narrative Shift and the Campaign to End Racial Profiling.
Narrative shift efforts are difficult to evaluate. Because narratives happen over long periods of time and may not be focused on one specific outcome, evaluating the causality between a successful narrative shift and the strategies designed to shift it, can be particularly challenging. Over the long-term, changes in storytelling and language happen amidst an ever-changing landscape of environmental factors like political developments, economic trends, demographic shifts, cultural developments, and so on. Under these circumstances, narrative shift strategies are constantly affecting, and being affected by, the world around them. Because of this, pinpointing the precise moments in time when narrative shifts have happened is nearly impossible.Also complicating evaluation efforts is the fact that the field of narrative strategy research is relatively new. Therefore most, if not all, of the leaders we interviewed did not necessarily consider themselves to be engaged in a “narrative strategy” at the outset of their work. Narratives can often outwardly appear static for many years and then can appear to suddenly shift over a short period of time. This can make it difficult for people to observe the change they are making in the moment or to know precisely which activities are serving as the catalyst for change as they happen. Additionally, the effects of campaigns for social change often intersect with one another across issue areas. Because of this, social change leaders who are working in one issue area may inadvertently be playing a significant role in shifting narratives in areas they are not setting out to impact.Case studies to reference: Narrative Shift and the Death Penalty; Narrative Shift: From the War on Poverty to “Ending Welfare as We Know It; Gun Politics and Narrative Shift.
We must tell our own affirmative story, not just react to bad, dominant narratives. The investment in long-term thinking is crucial to any movement’s engagement in narrative shift. With this mindset, the challenge of shorter-term setbacks or unexpected headlines becomes how to build them into our own affirmative narrative, not how to deal with each individually. The latter often results in the outlay of significant time and resources to play a scattered defensive role instead of using each moment to bolster our longterm, affirmative story. In the case of the death penalty, advocates found themselves on the defensive throughout the 1980’s as media coverage about, and thus the public’s fear of, crime increased and intensified. Activists were primarily engaged in a series of legal fights, generating legal arguments, and gathering data as their strategy to challenge the death penalty. Advocates then realized that regardless of the number of court cases won, they had no hope of ending the death penalty amid a dominant narrative of increased crime and fear – they had a narrative problem on their hands. If activists could not get public opinion on their side, proponents of the death penalty would find new ways to pass laws enshrining the policy despite the mounting individual legal victories. By moving to a pro-active narrative strategy focused activists’ efforts on racial disparities and unfairness in its application, advocates were able to increase the public’s unease with the death penalty more than the previous strategy of amassing a string of court cases did.Case Studies to Reference: Narrative Shift and the Death Penalty; Sexual Violence, The #MeToo Movement, and Narrative Shift; Narrative Shift and the Campaign to End Racial Profiling.
Social justice narratives must not shy from discussions of race. If those of us committed to social justice, fairness and true opportunity do not talk about race, we cede that conversation to the other side. For example, for a long time, advocates working on antipoverty policies did not address the racialization of poverty in a unified way, leaving the opponents of public benefits nearly unchallenged to use race in their drive to “end welfare as we know it.” While people did call out the “welfare queen” trope, it successfully persisted nonetheless without a directed, purposeful conversations about the historic and systemic causes of poverty and racial disparities in income and wealth. But those working on criminal justice reform – in the cases of racial profiling and the death penalty – realized they had to clearly discuss racial biases and disparities. If they did not, the myth of “Black criminality” would continue to successfully dominate conversations and meaningful, equitable reform would be out of reach.Case Studies to Reference: Narrative Shift and the Death Penalty; Narrative Shift and the Campaign to End Racial Profiling; Narrative Shift: From the War on Poverty to “Ending Welfare as We Know It”
There are approaches that those seeking to engage in narrative change strategies for justice can adopt to smooth the way for success.
First, narrative work takes long-term investment and a commitment to collaboration. Projects seeking to popularize a slogan or secure only an isolated policy win can be a part of a narrative strategy, but only if they are developed and executed in collaboration with other projects that build toward shared narrative goals. This means that spaces for those engaging in narrative work to collaborate and strategize are a much needed, and yet currently rare, resource.
Second, the development of frameworks and evaluation strategies that utilize well-defined benchmarks will be important contributions to the future of the field. The more that social justice communicators can agree on what comprises a narrative, and where we think we can see success along the path, the better we will be able to craft successful and collaborative narrative change strategies.
That said, while a shared agreement of form and definitions among those expressly inhabiting the young and growing field of narrative strategy are important, it is also crucial that a broad range of people can see themselves as part of any strategy. In the cases we studied, many people were engaging in narrative strategy who would never call it that. Our terms and approaches need to be accessible to people who do not see themselves as “narrative strategists,” or “communications experts.” We should find ways to make the case for the practical importance of narrative strategy to attract key collaborators and be effective in crafting strategies with them, while avoiding a reliance on jargon, formulas, or unwieldy definitions.
Finally, we need to tell the stories we want to tell rather than chasing behind current prevailing narratives just to argue with or shift them. By analyzing their opponents’ strengths and weaknesses, and then telling their own, affirmative story, we saw a wide range of advocates reshape the prevailing narrative in ways that put their goals and policies for justice on stronger ground. Using long range, affirmative narrative strategies, we can weaken the power of antijustice narratives and propel our campaigns toward victory.
Both research and our lived experience consistently show that the language we use and the stories we tell play a significant role in shaping our views of the world and, ultimately, the policies we support. As the concept of “narrative” has grown in prominence within the advocacy space, more stakeholders are recognizing the centrality of storytelling to systemic change. But how do we define narrative and the elements that contribute to a successful narrative change strategy? Is change inevitable or the product of coordinated efforts that are possible to replicate?
At The Opportunity Agenda, we define narrative as: a Big Story, rooted in shared values and common themes, that influences how audiences process information and make decisions. Narratives are conveyed not only in political and policy discourse, but also in news media, in popular culture, on social media, and at dinner tables across communities.
To lay the groundwork for a sustained 21st century narrative change effort promoting mobility from poverty, criminal justice reform, and opportunity for all, The Opportunity Agenda embarked on a six-part narrative research study, with the aim of identifying the essential and replicable elements of past successful efforts, gleaning the insights captured in academic literature, consulting with diverse leaders from practice, and sharing our analysis and recommendations broadly with the field.
To this end, we chose a range of narrative-shift examples to study. Some were long-term narrative-shift efforts that resulted in shifts to both cultural thinking and policy; others were shorter-term, single-issue–focused campaigns with a particular policy goal that required a shift in narrative to achieve.
Across efforts, it is clear that narrative change does not happen on its own, particularly around contested social justice issues. It typically results from a sophisticated combination of collaboration, strategic communications tactics, and cultural engagement, all attuned to key audiences and societal trends. It requires both discipline and investment. The involvement of people whose lives are directly impacted by the narrative change being attempted is critical in the development and deployment of strategy. The process is a feedback loop because shifting narratives over time requires listening and learning from what is and is not working and incorporating that back into movement goals, more refined research, and narrative evolution.
External circumstances change, moreover, requiring recalibration and, sometimes, reformulation. A human rights narrative that worked before the events of Sept. 11, 2001, for example, would have to evolve in the years immediately after those events. Conversely, a more populist and transformative economic justice narrative became possible after the economic crisis and rising inequality of the past decade. Ignoring those seismic changes risks clinging to a narrative that has become out of date.
Among these very divergent and diverse case studies, there are consistent tactics, trends, and revelations that we found throughout. We believe that the recommendations below, as determined through our analysis, can provide social justice advocates, policymakers, activists, and media commentators with insight into the elements of successful narrative shift efforts, as well as recommendations about what to consider when undertaking such campaigns.
…narrative change does not happen on its own, particularly around contested social justice issues. It typically results from a sophisticated combination of collaboration, strategic communication tactics, and cultural engagement, all attuned to key audiences and societal trends.
The Opportunity Agenda’s Creative Change Innovation Fellowship was an invitation-only pilot program intended to support a cohort of leading-edge storytellers as they create, imagine, and empower us with what’s possible.
The fellowship aimed to give each artist/cultural strategist an opportunity to 1) focus their efforts on projects that support an affirmative, creative vision for a more inclusive, just democracy and 2) gather field members to collaborate on, discuss and/or amplify their work.
We are thrilled to share some offerings from the Fellowship below — two brand new cultural strategy tools, designed by our Fellows, to use in your work.
The Opportunity Agenda wishes to first acknowledge the decades of activism that have led to the prominence of the movement to fully invest in healthy communities, which includes the labor and thought leadership of many Black feminists, and to thank and acknowledge the many people who contributed to the history of work and discourse, as well as to the research and writing of this report.
This report’s author is Opportunity Agenda Law & Policy Fellow I. India Thusi, Associate Professor of Law at Delaware Law School. Substantial research support was provided by: Mitch McCloy, Washington and Lee University School of Law class of 2021; Kristen Rosenthal, California Western School of Law class of 2021; and Paul Schochet, St. John’s University School of Law class of 2021. The messaging guidance was written by Julie Fisher Rowe, Director of Narrative and Engagement at The Opportunity Agenda, and Eva-Marie Malone, Director of Training and Criminal Justice at The Opportunity Agenda. Special thanks to those who contributed to the analysis, review, and editing of the report, including Eva-Marie Malone; Adam Luna, Vice President for Program, Strategy and Impact at The Opportunity Agenda. Additional thanks go to Christiaan Perez, Manager of Media Strategy, for outreach support. This report was designed and produced by Lorissa Shepstone and Gordon Clemmons of Being Wicked. Production was coordinated by Elizabeth Johnsen, Outreach and Editorial Director at The Opportunity Agenda. Sarah Wasko created the original artwork on the cover of the report. Overall guidance was provided by The Opportunity Agenda’s President, Ellen Buchman.
Finally, this research would not have been possible without the generous support of The Joyce Foundation, The Annie E. Casey Foundation, The Ford Foundation, and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. The statements made and views expressed are solely those of The Opportunity Agenda.
BEYOND POLICING – SUPPORTING #DEFUNDTHEPOLICE
We all deserve to live in communities where we feel safe. And true community safety means feeling safe from violence by the state, which includes the police.
Social inequity has systematically and institutionally permeated our country since its founding, becoming more visible at various times in our history. We are now living in one of those moments of tremendous clarity, and it calls on us to look deeply at the efficacy of the reforms and narratives which preceded it. The deadly consequences of political decisions that create health disparities are now a wound that cannot be unseen as the COVID-19 pandemic disproportionately ravages Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities. At the same moment, Americans of all backgrounds are bearing witness to the pervasive nature of racism in this country as we watch a seemingly endless stream of viral videos of police officers and white supremacist vigilantes murdering Black people.
This storm of violence, awareness, and anger about racial injustice has energized a new social justice movement to address police violence. Protesters around the world have taken to the streets chanting “Defund the Police” and “Black Lives Matter” to eradicate the ongoing threat of police violence. In light of the growing acknowledgment that policing has been an institution that compromises the safety of marginalized communities, the political will to re-imagine the very essence of community safety is growing.
Society must move beyond police and punishment when thinking about community safety, so that we can enjoy solutions and interventions that promote dignity, humanity, anti-racism, and freedom from fear.
Beyond Policing reveals that calls to enact moderate policing reforms are not backed up by a track record of success. Instead, the analysis shows why calls to defund the police open doors to new solutions, which show promise and move beyond the police and punishment. It is intended as a tool for advocates and policymakers to talk about the importance of defunding the police and investing in communities. Beyond Policing includes:
A 13 city analysis of police departments that have adopted moderate reforms to improve policing but have nevertheless continued to engage in police violence. Our analysis provides support for the #DefundthePolice movement’s acknowledgment that it is past time to look beyond the old reforms and old ways of communicating about police reform.
A detailed look at numerous community groups and programs that enhance community safety without relying on police involvement. These programs adopt restorative justice, community empowerment, peer mediation, and economic support to address and prevent harm. They provide concrete solutions that address the question, “If not police, then what?”
Tips for talking about #DefundthePolice, including guidance for supporting a narrative that recognizes that the demand is realistic and needed in this moment.
WHY CALLS FOR “MODERATE POLICE REFORMS” ARE NOT ENOUGH
Advocates are calling for policymakers to #DefundthePolice because many moderate reforms, such as bans on chokeholds and the use of body-worn cameras, that are typically suggested—and often implemented— after incidents of police violence have failed to systemically transform the practice of policing.
We conducted a survey of existing police department policies in 13 cities to illustrate how these policies have not led to the elimination of pervasive police violence and discriminatory policing. We looked at the policies of the police departments in New York City; Chicago; Philadelphia; Washington, DC; San Francisco; Los Angeles; New Orleans; Miami; Atlanta; Minneapolis; Yonkers; Oklahoma City; and Milwaukee. We compared: (1) bans on chokeholds, (2) de-escalation trainings, (3) implicit bias trainings, (4) “community policing” programs, (5) civilian complaint review boards, (6) body cameras, and (7) duty to intervene and/or report.
We found that the selected police departments have adopted the vast majority of the moderate policing reforms. Every city, except Milwaukee, has adopted a ban on chokeholds.1 Likewise, every city except for Yonkers has adopted a body-camera-wearing policy,2 a de-escalation training course,3 and a duty to intervene against or report misconduct by a fellow officer.4
In addition, all the cities adopted implicit bias training5 and a community policing program.6 Finally, with the exception of Yonkers, each city has an independent department for complaints or civilian complaint review board to evaluate police misconduct.7
In sum, moderate police reform policies have already been adopted across the country.
MODERATE POLICE REFORM POLICIES HAVE ALREADY BEEN ADOPTED ACROSS THE COUNTRY
The prevalence of these policies in police departments suggests that moderate reform policies have failed to eliminate systematic police violence. Systemic racial disparities in police enforcement have continued as well. One study found African Americans were nearly three times more likely to die at the hands of police officers than white Americans.8 African Americans are similarly overrepresented in arrest rates. Indeed, in one study of more than 800 jurisdictions across the country, African Americans were five times more likely to be arrested.9 And once arrested, African Americans are, according to one study, 50 times more likely to “experience some form of force.”10 These disparities continue unabated even as departments have adopted the moderate policies that some commentators are suggesting as a response to the ongoing policing crisis.
In some cases, the civil rights violations by officers have been severe enough to require federal intervention. Specifically, cities have entered into “consent decrees” with the federal government, a court order where the city agrees to take or refrain from certain actions.11 Of the cities covered by this memorandum, Chicago, Philadelphia, New Orleans, Yonkers, and Los Angeles (for the county sheriff’s department) are subject to some federal supervision.12
The need for federal intervention and the failure to reverse systemic disparities reveal the limits of moderate reforms. Some of the limits are practical. Implicit bias training, for instance, is helpful, but it is unlikely to change a new officer with a preexisting racial bias.13 Some of the limits are institutional. Duties to report and intervene when another officer is engaging in unauthorized acts of violence are helpful. Yet such requirements cannot overcome ingrained cultures of silence among officers, especially when strong police unions stand ready to fight any accusation against an officer.14 Officers in Buffalo and Chicago, for instance, were fired for reporting a fellow officer’s misconduct.15 Other limits include legal doctrines that shield officers, qualified immunity chief among them.
Yet all these policies share a common thread: they depend on officer buy-in. And officers are buying in. This resistance to reform has been pronounced with body camera requirements. According to a New York City Civilian Complaint Review Board investigation, officers would tip each other off when they had a camera on16 and in Chicago, officers often either did not wear or turn on their body cameras.17 Given these violations, it should come as no surprise that the use of body cameras has shown no statistical impact on a reduction in force.1
Following that trend, the near-uniform ban on chokeholds across the country actually seemed to increase the use of force. In fact, a review by the New York City Civilian Complaint Review Board in 2014 found the practice on the rise.19 And this “banned” technique has caused the death of multiple victims, including Eric Garner, James Thompson, and Gerald Arthur.20 The resistance to the chokehold ban has become so prevalent in Washington, DC, that city legislatures felt compelled to pass a new law to strengthen the ban.21
Moderate reforms have failed to curb racially disparate treatment by police across the country. These policies have been met by resistance and sabotage by the departments the policy is meant to restrain. Thus, cities should look to more systemic change to end racially disparate treatment by the police. Acting under that frame of change, Berkeley, California, recently replaced officers at traffic stops with unarmed, city employees.22 Other police departments across the country should follow Berkeley’s lead by adopting policies that look beyond police for public safety. The following chart outlines the various moderate policies that the selected police departments have already adopted. Advocates can use this chart to respond to the “Why Defund the Police?” question.
The chart below suggests that we need to move beyond the same old reforms if we want to promote true community safety.
LOOKING BEYOND POLICE TO PROMOTE TRUE COMMUNITY SAFETY
Below is a list of programs and organizations that look beyond policing to promote true community safety. It aims to assist advocates with addressing the question, “If no police, then what?” The techniques surveyed here include the use of violence interrupters, peacemaking circles, mobile crisis intervention systems, the use of stipends, and youth and community courts. The featured programs are illustrative of the potential of a model of community safety that redirects resources from the police to programs that aim to provide true community safety.
Restorative justice organizations with violence interrupter programs employ local members from the community who have experienced violence themselves to connect with young adults to stop violence before it happens.113 Violence interrupters and other community-based outreach workers use their “personal relationships, social networks, and knowledge of their communities to dissuade specific individuals and neighborhood residents in general from engaging in violence.”114 After connecting with high-risk individuals, the program links youth with needed services.115 Organizations with this type of program include Cure Violence, Oakland Unite, the Newark Community Street Team, and the Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective. In October 2017, the John Jay College of Criminal Justice released a study of two Cure Violence programs located in the South Bronx and in Brooklyn.116 The study included analysis of a variety of metrics, including the reduction in social norms that support violence and violent acts. In terms of social norms, the study found that propensity to use violence in petty disputes declined by 20%.117 Overall, young men in neighborhoods with Cure Violence and violence interrupters reported “sharper reductions in their willingness to use violence compared with young men in similar areas without programs.”118
When it came to gun violence, the study found that gun injury rates fell by 50% in the Brooklyn neighborhood with Cure Violence, whereas injury rates only fell by 5% in a Brooklyn neighborhood without Cure Violence.119 In the area of the South Bronx with Cure Violence, gun injuries declined by 37% and shooting victimizations fell by 63%, compared with 29% and 17% in an area of Harlem without Cure Violence.120 Overall, the study concluded that Cure Violence’s approach to violence reduction “may help to create safer and healthier communities.”121
Many restorative justice organizations now use a Native American traditional approach to justice: peacemaking circles. Circles include disputants as well as their family members, friends, and other members of the community, giving them the chance to resolve the dispute but also heal relationships among those involved.122 A number of restorative justice organizations have a peacemaking circle program, including the Red Hook Community Justice Center, the Brownsville Community Justice Center, Philly Stands Up, Common Justice, and Men As Peacemakers.
Several qualitative studies of programs implemented in schools and by restorative justice organizations reveal the beneficial impact peacemaking circles have had on participants. For example, a study focusing on two Chicago schools that used peacemaking circles found that peace circles “effectively provide young people a nonjudgmental, safe, and trusting space to express themselves” and serve as “effective sites of social and emotional learning.”123 A study of the Red Hook Community Justice Center’s peacemaking program showed more mixed results, but generally participants positively responded to the program and felt like they were making progress with the dispute.124 Victims, however, were generally less likely to say the program had a positive impact on them.125 Nevertheless, peacemaking circles can serve as an effective way to resolve disputes through community-led efforts.
MOBILE CRISIS CENTERS
Mobile crisis centers modeled after Eugene, Oregon’s Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets (CAHOOTS) program are promising alternatives to policing. Established in 1989, CAHOOTS is a “community-based public safety system to provide mental health first response for crises involving mental illness, homelessness, and addiction.”126 Rather than deploy police officers, mental health specialists respond to situations to “ensure a nonviolent resolution of crisis situations.”127 In 2019 alone, CAHOOTS responded to 24,000 calls and only requested police backup 150 times.128 In terms of cost, CAHOOTS saves the city of Eugene around $8.5 million every year in public safety costs.129 The CAHOOTS budget of $2.1 million is a fraction of the size of the Eugene and Springfield police departments, which have an annual budget of around $90 million.130
Other cities have responded by implementing their own mobile crisis programs, including Portland, which just last month approved the budget for Portland Street Response.131 Organizations in other cities like Denver are currently advocating for the establishment of mobile crisis centers.132
STIPENDS WITH ADVANCE PEACE
Advance Peace has implemented one of the more unique but encouraging programs to resolve gun violence that does not rely on the police. Upon learning that 70% of shootings in Richmond, California, were caused by 17 people, Advance Peace created a program to identify the most potentially lethal men, invite them to a meeting, and offer to pay them a monthly stipend of up to $1,000 for a maximum period of 9 months to attend meetings, stay out of trouble, and respond to mentoring.133 Advance Peace’s founder explained the reasoning behind the stipend in a New York Times op-ed: “The social context for our prospective fellows was a laundry list of deprivation and dysfunction: high unemployment, fragmented families, inadequate education and a heavy dose of substance abuse.”134 Compared to the massive amount of money spent on law enforcement and prisons used to respond to gun violence, the stipend is modest.135
After 6 years of the program, 94% of the program fellows were still alive, 84% had not sustained a gun-related injury or been hospitalized for one since becoming fellows, and 79% had not been arrested or charged for gun-related activity since becoming fellows.136 After just the first year of the program, Richmond homicides fell by half, from 45 to 22.137
YOUTH AND COMMUNITY COURTS
Community courts are part of a larger “problem-solving courts” movement that “seeks to prevent crime by directly addressing its underlying causes” rather than simply relying on punishment to address social issues.138 The nation’s first community court was established in Manhattan in 1993 as a way to relocate justice from courts to the local community, aiming to encourage communities to enforce social norms, and now there are at least 70 community courts around the world.139 Distinguishing features of community courts include individualized justice through wider access to information about defendants, expanded sentencing options, varying mandate length, offender accountability, community engagement, and community impact.140 Community courts, unlike other problem-solving courts, do not specialize in one particular problem like drugs, mental health, or domestic violence.
In November 2013, the National Center for State Courts released an extensive evaluation of the Red Hook Community Center’s community court in Brooklyn. The study found that adult misdemeanor offenders who went through the community court were to a “statistically significant degree less likely to become recidivists” than adult misdemeanor offenders in a control group.141 The probability of rearrests for offenders that went through the community court reduced by 10%.142 In addition, although the study could not definitively conclude that there was a causal relationship between the opening of the Community Center and a reduction in local arrests, there were “sharp decreases in the levels of both felony and misdemeanor arrests in the catchment area precincts” when the Center opened.143 Overall, the study concluded that “the community court model can indeed reduce crime and help to strengthen neighborhoods” and “the practice of procedural justice in interactions with individual representatives of the justice system…comprise[s] highly effective criminal justice policies.”144
THE COMMUNITY COURT MODEL CAN INDEED REDUCE CRIME AND HELP STRENGTHEN NEIGHBORHOODS
This evaluation of one particular community court falls in line with the results of other studies including an Urban Institute report conducted in 2002. This report focused on youth teen courts in Alaska, Missouri, Arizona, and Maryland and concluded that “teen courts represent a promising alternative for the juvenile justice system” after finding that youth who were sent to teen court were less likely to re-offend than youth in comparison groups.145 Nevertheless, community courts should not be used to expand the reach of the criminal system, nor should they be the primary basis for providing social welfare services. Instead, they should be viewed as an alternative when interaction with the criminal system would otherwise be required.
When it comes to community safety and justice, no one size fits all: each community’s needs are unique and each responds differently to efforts to resolve complicated issues like violence. However, there are effective alternative ways to improve community safety that do not involve the police. The programs outlined here reveal the powerful impact that restorative justice methods can have on communities in terms of both their ability to directly address issues like violence and their potential to strengthen communities as a whole by relying on community members to serve as active participants in community safety.
…THERE ARE EFFECTIVE ALTERNATIVE WAYS TO IMPROVE COMMUNITY SAFETY THAT DO NOT INVOLVE THE POLICE.
SHIFTING TO A NARRATIVE ABOUT TRUE COMMUNITY SAFETY
The Opportunity Agenda believes that any conversation about policing practices must start with the aspiration to redefine safety and for communities that can live without fear. Below is a guide to shifting to a narrative about true community safety and away from one rooted in state violence.
1. Lead with a Positive Vision and Shared Values.
The Opportunity Agenda’s past analysis shows that commentators are often divided about how they discuss criminal justice issues. Uplifting the values that you share with different audiences will allow them to “hear” what you’re saying. 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.
Share a clear and inspiring vision. In many cases, audiences have a difficult time envisioning what a different system would look like. Offer a vision that both shows how a new approach will uphold our values and what that could concretely look like. What would it look like to have first responders who were unarmed mental health specialists work with those experiencing a crisis in public? How would it be different for those experiencing homelessness if they had an ongoing relationship with a trained social worker instead of periodic encounters with police? Paint a clear picture for audiences that shows what defunding looks like and how it benefits the larger community while also protecting those most currently affected by problematic policing policies.
Be prepared to answer tough questions, but don’t dwell on them. Many who are opposed to the idea of defunding the police, or who don’t fully understand the vision it represents, will start with the toughest questions: “What happens when someone is murdered?” “How should we handle school shooters?” and so on. It’s important to have a strategy for these questions and to not appear to dodge them. Then, you can move on to the larger part of the argument that affects far more people: what the country would look like with more and better mental health services, enough affordable housing and robust anti-homelessness programs, and well-funded schools, for instance.
Evoke shared values. Some values to engage audiences in conversations about policing include:
Equal Justice—the assurance that what you look like, the accent you have, or how much money you make should not affect the treatment you receive in our justice system. Current disparities in the application of laws violate this value, and the emphasis on policing and punishment has contributed heavily to these disparities.
Community—the notion that we share responsibility for each other and that opportunity is not only about personal success but about our success as a people. Define what a truly healthy and safe community looks like and remind audiences that we can use the resources we expend on policing to promote our shared values by enhancing health and education and protecting family.
True Community Safety—the belief that we all want to live in communities where our family and property are safe. We should work toward communities where all individuals feel safe and paint a picture of what that can look like and what steps will get us there.
Voice—the idea that we should all have a say in the decisions that affect us and our communities.
Basic Rights/Human Rights—the guarantee of dignity and fairness we all deserve by virtue of our humanity, some of which are also itemized in the Constitution.
2. Clearly identify and describe the problem. Emphasize how police violence undermines community safety.
The violence that police inflict upon Black and Brown communities is often unreported and uncounted but nevertheless very dangerous for these communities. This everyday violence may take the form of aggressive searches and verbal abuse on the streets, and it is often overlooked in crime statistics that police officials use to argue that we should rely on police to redress community harms. Remind your audience that the police themselves have undermined safety in many communities through acts of everyday violence that is often unrecorded and without witnesses.
3. Communicate that reforms that fail to name the harms of racial discrimination, namely anti-Black racism, perpetuate the status quo.
The centrality of racism to police violence is apparent, and policymakers should address this issue directly. Adopting colorblind reforms and language that fail to name racism will only continue to exacerbate the racist outcomes that persist in policing. It is time to have the tough conversation about racism in policing and to look for solutions that deal with it head on.
4. Discuss the overreliance on punitive responses to social problems.
Remind your readers about the harms of this country’s overreliance on incarceration and policing to address social issues. Emphasize that there are alternatives for addressing social issues that don’t involve punishment and incarceration, both of which can separate families, punish people for being poor, and come with collateral consequences that keep people from voting and living in public housing after they have been incarcerated.
5. Highlight the failures of moderate reforms that allow police departments to operate as business as usual.
The Opportunity Agenda has provided charts that advocates can use to illustrate the need for transformative demands that move beyond the minor reforms of the past that have been ineffective or moderately successful. Many of these reforms direct more public dollars into the nation’s police departments.
6. Provide solutions that go beyond policing to achieve community safety.
Tell people what works. Put forward specific goals and solutions and show how they support the larger vision.
Talk about the need to re-examine our laws. What should be de-criminalized and what does that look like? How can our laws be fair, be fairly enforced, and lead to true safety?
The Opportunity Agenda chart on effective alternatives to policing (page 10) provides community programs that may serve as examples for thinking about a world that looks beyond police for community safety. Advocates can use this chart to respond to questions about how to provide safety while taking resources away from the police.
7. Be cautious when discussing data and statistics.
Make sure to frame racial disparities in statistics and data as caused by systemic obstacles to equal opportunity and equal justice. For some audiences, disparities that are not properly framed as the result of systemic obstacles may only reinforce racist views that those audiences already had about why those disparities exist. 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 interest.
8. Redefine the notion of community safety.
Don’t shy away from conversations about safety. #DefundthePolice is about providing safety for everyone and doing so in a manner that respects everyone’s rights and dignity. It’s about well-resourced communities that feel empowered. The goal is to achieve True Community Safety that is centered on empowering communities rather than punishing them.
9. Don’t forget the importance of staying intersectional.
It’s important to keep the conversation intersectional. At times, there can be a tendency to only focus on Black men and boys when talking about police violence. But it’s important to remind your audiences that Black women and girls have experienced unique harms from police violence in this country, as have Black trans people, indigenous women, and others. In addition, people with disabilities, mental health issues, and other communities that have experience with systemic discrimination should remain a part of the conversation.
10. Emphasize the uniqueness of this moment, and invite audiences to imagine a world that matches our values as a society.
We are at a unique moment of our history. Now is the time for us to use our imagination to create the world we would like to see.
Call out the fear-based narratives that our opponents will use to undermine the movement.
The call to #DefundthePolice is a call to fundamentally shift power from the police to the community. It is a radical demand, and advocates should expect strong opposition to it. Some of the opposition may come through direct responses to the demand. But much of the opposition will likely come through the manipulation of crime statistics, threats that the police will not enforce the law, and other indirect tactics to stoke fear. Call out these fear-based tactics and narratives for what they are. Remind your audiences that #DefundthePolice is about providing True Community Safety.
VPSA: VALUES, PROBLEMS, SOLUTIONS, ACTION
We all deserve to live in communities where we feel safe. And true community safety means being safe from violence from members of the government, including the police.
Americans have witnessed the pervasive nature of racism in this country from the steady stream of videos of police officers and vigilantes murdering Black people. These videos demonstrate that racism permeates policing and cannot be addressed by tinkering with the system.
It’s time for policymakers to defund the police and readjust local budgets to provide resources back to the communities. In NYC, the New York City Council should reallocate $1 billion from the NYPD budget to education, healthcare, and social services for the city’s low-income communities.
Call your city council representative.
Mariame Kaba, Yes, We Literally Mean Abolish the Police, The New York Times
Suggesting community care workers replace officers when responding to mental health checks as well as recommending restorative justice groups.
Mariame Kaba and Shira Hassan, Fumbling Towards Repair
A workbook on facilitating restorative justice groups.
Mariame Kaba and Kelly Hayes, A Jailbreak of the Imagination: Seeing Prisons for What They Truly Are and Demanding Transformation, Truthout.org
Discusses how rhetoric in response to prison abolition sometimes demands answers for the most extreme cases that there is not necessarily an answer to instead of the vast majority of cases, and how advocates should not feel pressured to answer those questions and should continue to critique the current system.
“Questions like, ‘what about the really dangerous people?’ are not questions a prison abolitionist must answer in order to insist the prison industrial complex must be undone. These are questions we must collectively answer, even as we trouble the very notion of ‘dangerousness.’ The inability to offer a neatly packaged and easily digestible solution does not preclude offering critique or analysis of the ills of our current system.”
Mariame Kaba, Free Us All: Participatory defense campaigns as abolitionist organizing, The New Inquiry
Highlighting the importance of defense campaigns as a part of the abolitionist movement, especially for advocating for the freedom of survivors of gender-based violence. Includes a helpful list of ideas to keep in mind when organizing.
Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California
Outlines the dilemma of the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC) in California and how California criminal justice policies were fueled in part by the PIC.
Amna K. Akbar, Toward a Radical Reimagination of Law, 93 New York University Law Review 405 (2018)
Discussing how the police provides the “armed protection of state interests” and that the law allows for more racialized police violence. Professor Akbar argues that legal scholars should imagine change beyond the current legal bounds, influenced by the social movements driving the change that should be centered.
Allegra McLeod, Developments in the Law: Envisioning Abolition Democracy, 132 Harvard Law Review 1613 (2019)
Allegra McLeod, Prison Abolition and Grounded Justice, 62 UCLA Law Review 1156 (2015)
Explaining that abolition is less about physically tearing down prisons and is more focused on abolishing the culture of racialized punishment.
Discussing abolition as a positive and a negative project.
Charlotte Rosen, Abolition or Bust: Liberal Prison Reform as an Engine of Carceral Violence, The Abusable Past
Explaining why liberal policing reform is harmful from a historical context, branching off of work by Naomi Murakawa’s The First Civil Right.
K. Agbebiyi, Sarah T. Hamid, Rachel Kuo, and Mon Mohapatra, Abolition Cannot Wait: Visions for Transformation and Radical World-Building, WEAR YOUR VOICE
Discussing the many issues that abolition affects, including anti-white supremacy, anti-capitalism, and anti-imperialism.
8 Sarah DeGue, Katherine Fowler, & Cynthia Calkins, Deaths due to use of lethal force by law enforcement: Findings from the National Violent Death Reporting System, 17 U.S. States 2009–2012. Am J Prev Med. 2016 Nov; 51(5 Suppl 3): S173–S187, available at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6080222/.
114 Sheyla Delgado, Laila Alsabahi, Kevin Wolff, Nicole Alexander, Patricia Coba, and Jeffrey Butts, The Effects of Cure Violence in the South Bronx and East New York, Brooklyn, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, October 2, 2017 https://johnjayrec.nyc/2017/10/02/cvinsobronxeastny/.
In recent years, California has emerged as fertile ground for progressive criminal justice reform, with the passage of policies such as SB 439, SB 1319, and SB 10—just a few examples of activists, advocates, and policymakers’ recent success working within the state. Despite these many gains, challenges abound, including continued resistance to the adoption of policies that rectify the disproportional targeting of communities of color in the past. At the same time, the overt xenophobia in today’s political discourse has made fear-mongering and scapegoating more commonplace in law enforcement and other government agencies interactions with communities of color.
With the goal of gaining a better understanding of these state-level successes and challenges while also gathering insights that can be translated to messaging strategy for use in the ﬁeld at large, The Opportunity Agenda and the ACLU of California engaged in a collaborative research project examining Californians’ attitudes and beliefs about the criminal justice system. This memo draws from the data from a statewide survey of 1,055 randomly sampled respondents representative of Californians administered in July 2018.
This memo draws on the results of a collaborative research project with the ACLU of California conducted in July 2018. The insights are based on data from a statewide online dial survey administered to a total of 1,055 registered voters in the state. The margin of error is ± 3.1 percent for the overall sample and larger for subgroups.
In this memo, we make references to three populations deﬁned as the base, opposition, and persuadables. Our base, opposition, and persuadables were created using a statistical cluster analysis that identiﬁed groups of like-minded voters based on the patterns of their responses to a series of questions about their attitudes toward the criminal justice system, discrimination, racial inequities, and a variety of related topics.
The Opportunity Agenda wishes to thank and acknowledge the many people who contributed their time, energy, and expertise to the research and writing of this report. The survey was commissioned and designed in collaboration with Cheryl Alethia Phelps, Communications Director of the ACLU San Diego and Imperial County and Margaret Dooley-Sammuli. Data was collected, cleaned, and analyzed by Andrew Hart and Steven Riskey of Strop Insights and Kyle Francis of Qualtrics. Additional analysis of data and the drafting of this report was conducted by Lucy Odigie-Turley of The Opportunity Agenda. Recommendations were drafted by Julie-Fisher Rowe of The Opportunity Agenda. The graphics and illustrations were created by Lincoln Bovell. Final proofing and copy editing were conducted by Margo Harris. Finally, this report would have not been possible without the support of our generous funders: American Civil Liberties Union, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Marguerite Casey Foundation, Nathan Cummings Foundation, The Annie E. Casey Foundation, The Ford Foundation, The JPB Foundation, The Libra Foundation, The Tow Foundation, Unbound Philanthropy, and W.K. Kellogg Foundation.
1. California has a strong base of support for wider criminal justice reform, and a significant portion of Californians are persuadable on a variety of reform issues
As of July 2018, 26 percent of surveyed Californians form part of the base of support for criminal justice reform, 57 percent can be described as persuadable on issues related to criminal justice reform, and 17 percent can be described as oppositional to widespread criminal justice reform. The base is significantly more likely to believe that the criminal justice system generally treats people “somewhat/very unfairly” (73% of the base support this statement, versus 26% of persuadables and just 8% of the opposition) and hold a strong belief that racial and income inequities are serious issues.
The opposition is defined by a strong belief in the fairness of the existing criminal justice system, a preference for harsher punishment over rehabilitation, and support for the profiling of specific racial/ethnic groups. Persuadables hold views that overlap with both the base and opposition but are most strongly defined by their self-reported lack of familiarity with most roles within the criminal justice system, including prosecutors and public defenders.
2. People of color, low-income adults, and the religiously unaffiliated are an important base of support for criminal justice reform in California
Although audience segments are based on respondents’ responses to a range of attitudinal questions, our research findings point to important demographic distinctions between the three segments. As seen in Figure 1, 35 percent of the base self-identified as Black (11%), Latinx/Hispanic (10%), Asian/Pacific Islander (8%), bi/multi-racial (4%), or Native American (2%). A significant portion of people of color also fall within the persuadable audience segment, with Asian/Pacific Islanders slightly more likely to fall into the persuadable (12%) or opposition (12%) than the base (8%) group. Alongside communities of color, those who express no religious affiliation also emerged as an important base of support for criminal justice, with 43 percent of the base self-identifying as having no religious affiliation compared to 26 percent of persuadables and 17 percent of the opposition. The base and persuadables are also significantly more likely than the opposition to be low-income. Twenty-eight percent of the base and 23 percent of persuadables earn less than $25,000 annually, compared to just 11 percent of the opposition. At the same time, just over a quarter (26%) of the opposition earn upwards of $100,000 annually, compared to 15 percent and 14 percent of the base and persuadables, respectively.
3. Base and persuadable audiences have distinct media consumption and engagement habits
Base and persuadable audiences have distinct media consumption and engagement habits: Media consumption and usage habits are increasingly recognized as important predictors of political decision-making and attitudes related to a range of issues. To gauge their impact, if any, on Californians ’ attitude toward the criminal justice system we included a range of questions about participants’ engagement with news and social media and different genres of entertainment media. In terms of entertainment, all audience segments reported similar rates of regular use and engagement on Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram, but persuadables are slightly more likely to report that they make regular use of Twitter (36%) compared to the base and opposition (27% and 28%, respectively).
4. Police accountability is the highest policy priority identified among all segments
We asked respondents to rank a range of policy solutions intended to reduce unfairness within the criminal justice system from highest to lowest priority (with each respondent given the option to rank every item as a high, moderate, or low priority). Across all three segments “holding police officers who use excessive force accountable,” “addressing instances of police brutality,” “ensuring people of color are treated fairly by law enforcement and within the criminal justice system,” and “minimizing the interactions people suffering from substance abuse have with the criminal justice system” were ranked as the highest policy priorities.
5. Bail reform and issues at the intersection of homelessness and criminal justice are lower priorities among both base and persuadable audiences
Our survey findings indicate that despite widespread recognition of inequities within the criminal justice system and how these inequities disproportionately impact communities of color and those living in poverty, voters are less likely to see bail reform and the treatment of homeless Americans by law enforcement as a high policy priority. Just 47 percent of those surveyed selected “minimizing the interactions people living in homelessness have with the criminal justice system” as a high policy priority (67% of the base, 38% of persuadables, and 35% of the opposition). At the same time, just 45 percent of those surveyed ranked “reducing the cost of bail for low-income Americans” as a high policy priority (59% of the base, 39% of persuadables, and 37% of the opposition).
6. More than half of Californians report knowing someone who has been arrested, and nearly 50 percent know someone who has been incarcerated
In July 2018, 56 percent of surveyed Californians reported that they personally know someone who has been arrested, 49 percent know someone who has been in prison or jail, and a third personally know someone who has been a victim of a violent crime (Table 2). The rate of self-reported experiences with the criminal justice system varies between audience segments, with the base and persuadables more likely than the opposition to report knowing someone who has been arrested (66% and 53% versus 46%, respectively), in prison or jail (59% and 48% versus 40%, respectively), or stopped and searched by a police officer (52% and 38% versus 33%, respectively). Alongside widespread first- and/or second-hand experiences with the criminal justice system, the base is significantly more likely than both persuadables and the opposition to report knowing someone who has been the victim of a violent crime (42% versus 30% and 29%, respectively) or murdered (22% versus 14% and 9%, respectively)—a finding that is one of the most significant variations between base and persuadable audiences in California.
7. Perception of physical safety is a key predictor of attitudes toward and perceptions of the criminal justice system
As noted in our analysis of existing public opinion research related to criminal justice, fear of crime and victimization have long been recognized as a driving force behind Americans’ attitudes toward criminal justice policy. In an effort to examine this relationship more closely in the context of California, we included a series of questions intended to gauge respondents’ level of fear related to their physical safety and the impact, if any, on their attitudes toward criminal justice. Respondents were asked how often they have serious concerns about their safety in a range of places, including at home, while driving, or in their neighborhood, and they ranked this concern on a 5-point scale, from “never” to “often.” We used participants’ responses to create a fear scale, with respondents grouped as low, moderate, or high fear based on their average score.
As of July 2018, 19 percent of Californians surveyed expressed low levels of fear, 68 percent moderate levels of fear, 13 percent high levels of fear related to their physical safety. Respondents’ score on the fear scale correlates strongly with their overall perception of the criminal justice system and proved to be a stronger predictor of attitudes toward the criminal justice system than party affiliation and ideological lean. Those who reported that they were generally “often ” or “nearly always” in fear of their safety and received a high score on the fear scale were also significantly less likely than those with moderate or low fear to believe that the criminal justice system treats people unequally (26% versus 55% and 47%, respectively).
8. Those who express high levels of fear are less likely to report having any direct contact with the criminal justice system, but are also more confident in their perceived knowledge of the criminal justice system
Alongside having a marked impact on people’s overall perception and attitude toward the criminal justice system, fear related to physical safety also correlated strongly with people’s experience with the criminal justice system and perceived knowledge of the criminal justice system. For instance, individuals who scored low or moderately on the fear scale were more likely than those who scored high to report knowing someone who have been arrested (55% and 56% versus 43%, respectively), in prison or jail (49% and 49% versus 41%, respectively). All three segments report similar rates of knowing someone who has been search by a police officer (38%, 42%, and 39%, respectively). However, those who scored high on the fear scale were more likely to report knowing someone who has been murdered, with 20 percent reporting knowing someone who has been murdered versus 14 percent of individuals with moderate fear and 12 percent of individuals with high fear (Figure 2). At the same time, individuals who scored high on the fear scale were also significantly more likely to rate their overall knowledge of the criminal justice system as high (Figure 3). For instance, 44.5 percent of those who scored high on the fear scale also scored high on the self-reported knowledge scale—that is, what they said they knew about or their familiarity with various components and roles within the criminal justice system, including judges, prosecutors, public defenders, and bail bond companies.
At the same time, those with moderate or low fear were also significantly less confident about their knowledge and familiarity of the criminal justice system, with only 27 percent of those who scored low on the fear scale rating their knowledge of the overall criminal justice system as high.
9. Californians believe that Black men, people living in poverty, people without documentation, formerly incarcerated people, and immigrants are the least likely to receive fair treatment within criminal justice
Our findings show that although a plurality of Californians believe that the criminal justice system generally treats people fairly, responses to this question varied significantly between audience segments and also when participants were asked more specific questions regarding who is more or less likely to receive fair treatment. When asked to what extent different demographic groups are treated fairly or unfairly by the criminal justice system, the majority of Californians expressed the belief that Black men (59%), people living in poverty (58%), undocumented immigrants (53%), people who have been incarcerated (53%), and immigrants (52%) are somewhat/very likely to receive unfair treatment in the overall criminal justice system (Figure 4).
10. All segments appear to make a distinction between “unequal” versus “unfair” treatment within the criminal justice system
A key finding of our survey was that Californians across audience segments are significantly more likely to express the belief that the criminal justice system is “unequal” as opposed to “unfair.” Using a random split sampling, we asked 50 percent of respondents in general how “fairly” and the other 50 percent how “equally” they believe the criminal justice system treats people. As seen in Figure 5, whereas 73 percent of the base expressed the belief that the criminal justice system generally treats people “somewhat/very unfairly,” 95 percent of the base express the belief that the criminal justice system generally treats people “somewhat/very unequally,” representing a 22-point variation. A similar trend emerges among both persuadables and the opposition, with a 17-point variation among persuadables and 7-point among the opposition.
Our nation can and should be a place where everyone enjoys full and equal opportunity. We are strongest when we all have a fair chance to achieve our full potential, contributing fully to our economic engine and social fabric. When everyone has the tools to support themselves and their families, the benefits flow to individuals, communities, and our nation as a whole.
Key to that full and fair opportunity is the ability to pursue gainful work while maintaining a safe and healthy life for one’s children and family. Yet, in our changing economy, that opportunity is increasingly at risk as Americans must make the unacceptable choice between caring for sick family members and earning the full salary needed to support that family. Access to paid family and medical leave determines whether parents can care for a new baby or sick child, whether a dedicated worker can also dedicate time to an ailing or dying elderly parent, and whether a family health emergency will also become an economic catastrophe. Despite significant public support, political will has been lacking, leaving working families and national economic opportunity at risk. According to the National Compensation Study, only 14% of civilian workers had access to paid leave in 2016. Federal law has remained stagnant on the issue since the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which requires unpaid leave, passed in 1993, and state and local progress has been slow and uneven. The lack of paid family and medical leave burdens families of all backgrounds. It also worsens patterns of unequal opportunity based on race, ethnicity, gender, and income.
On behalf of the Opportunity Agenda, Lake Research Partners (LRP) conducted a review of research studies related to paid family and medical leave. This literature review synthesizes and summarizes relevant opinion research findings about attitudes toward paid family and medical leave. This report provides a detailed overview of gaps in existing internal and external public opinion research alongside a summary of what messages, messengers, mediums, and platforms have been most effective to date.
Current Paid Family and Medical Leave Legislation
States are leading the way in implementing legislation to provide paid caregiving, parental, and medical leave.
On the national level, both Democratic and Republican legislators want federal paid family and medical leave legislation but disagree over what to cover and how to fund it.
Democratic voters tend to be more supportive of paid family and medical leave than Republican voters. However, there is a gender gap among Republicans.
Attitudes on Paid Family and Medical Leave: Small Business Community
Small business owners are supportive of paid family and medical leave, which could give them a competitive advantage, but many would prefer that employers be allowed to choose whether to provide paid family and medical leave.
Polls show that there is a great deal of support for paid family and medical leave in the United States and the support is bipartisan.
In addition to supporting a national paid leave policy, most Americans are also willing to contribute to funding for such a program.
Insights from dyads and focus groups conducted by Lake Research Partners suggest there may be opportunities to build support for paid family and medical leave among women of color and Independent/weak Republican women.
Working families respond best to messaging around paid family and medical leave that talks about helping your family and being there for them and that addresses the caregiving needs a person may have beyond simply parental leave.
Attitudes on Paid Family and Medical Leave: Caregivers
As the elderly population continues to grow, so does the number of people who are involved in informal caregiving of older family members. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 16% of the employed civilian population provided unpaid care to someone with an aging-related condition.
A growing number of Americans are recognizing the need to provide paid leave to care for an elderly family member who is seriously ill, injured, or disabled.
Access to paid family leave has demonstrable economic impacts, and lack of access has consequences.
Attitudes on Paid Family and Medical Leave: Communities of Color & Non-Traditional Families
A disproportionate number of those in communities of color do not have access to paid leave. A national paid leave policy would ensure equal access to paid leave.
FMLA does not recognize same-sex relationships, so employers are not required to provide leave to care for a same-sex partner or spouse. Access to paid leave is a major concern for LGBTQ workers.
Effective Messaging for Paid Family and Medical Leave
Determining the best messaging and language that will move voters from support to action on a national paid family and medical leave policy is critical as both Democrats and Republicans prepare for the 2020 election cycle.
Voters respond well to several of our key values in messaging, including the importance of family, the freedom to do what is right, and the recognition that caregiving is part of life.
Statements that focus on the positive impact of paid leave on economic security and not having to choose between giving care and getting a paycheck have a powerful and positive effect on voters and activists. Word choices like “workplace” or “public” do not affect results much.
The words used in a message, especially the first few words or “kickoff phrase,” can increase or decrease support. It is important to know how different audiences respond to particular words and statements.