We Can Thrive Together: Visioning Economic Justice for All

Art & Discussion Guide

We believe that ending poverty is within our reach, and that we have both the power and responsibility to do so. Unfortunately, persistent economic hardship is a pervasive, complicated issue with roots that grow deep into the fabric of our country, driven by a history of racism, classism, and gender inequality. All of this can make talking about poverty very difficult.

This is why we partnered with Amplifier to create We Can Thrive Together: Visioning Economic Justice for All, an Economic Justice discussion guide that includes ten original works of art by Alex Albadree, Noa Denmon, and Rommy Torrico. These materials are open source, to be used by activists, cultural strategists, teachers, and youth across the country in a rising movement for Economic Justice. Amplifier has also developed four distinct lesson plans on Economic Justice, which will be distributed to 15,000 teachers across the country for their 2021 virtual curricula. (If you are interested in these lesson plans, please see the bottom of this page)

We Can Thrive Together: Visioning Economic Justice for All is designed to start a conversation about what Economic Justice looks like and how to achieve it. It is also a call to action.

Discussion Guide (English)
Guía de Discusión (Español)

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Shifting the Narrative


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.

Talking About Justice and Equity Through Sports

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Introducing New Cultural Strategy Tools from Our Creative Change Fellows

​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.

When They See Us: Improving the Media’s Coverage of Black Men and Boys

This memo is intended to help journalists and media organizations produce fuller and more accurate reporting on African-American boys and men while reducing bias and stereotyping in their coverage. It is designed to inform coverage around the release of the new film, When They See Us, and the 30th Anniversary of the Central Park Five case in 1989.

The Central Park Five case involved the assault and rape of a white female jogger and the wrongful arrest and conviction of four African-American and one Latinx teenager—Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, Kharey Wise, and Raymond Santana—for the crime. The young men spent between 6 and 13 years in prison before being exonerated in 2002 when another man confessed to the crime.

Created by Ava DuVernay for Netflix, When They See Us, depicts the story of the Central Park Five and highlights how biased media coverage and harmful stereotypes contributed to the young men’s unjust incarceration.

Why Coverage Matters

Media coverage powerfully shapes the ability of individuals and communities to receive fair and equal justice. Politicians, prosecutors, police, juries, and everyday people are influenced not only by the facts reported in stories, but also by the images, labels, framing, and narratives that those stories convey. Decades of research reveal a persistent trend of distorted media depictions of Black men and boys that contribute to negative stereotypes, inequitable treatment, and unequal opportunity in areas ranging from employment, to education, policing and sentencing.

Research by The Opportunity Agenda1 reviewing hundreds of studies over several years found: that news coverage and other media depictions overrepresent Black boys and men in stories of violence, crime, and poverty; underreport important dimensions of Black males’ lives, such as fatherhood and work; and lack coverage of systemic barriers facing members of this group. The research further found that distorted media depictions can lead to negative attitudes toward African-American boys and men, such as increased public support for punitive approaches and tolerance for racial disparities. Subsequent research on depictions of African-American families2 similarly found that news and opinion media significantly overrepresent the association between Black families and criminality while significantly underrepresenting White families’ association with criminality.

Improving the Quality and Accuracy of Coverage

The release of Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us and the 30th anniversary of the Central Park Five case represent a moment for national reflection and coverage, not only on the show and wrongful convictions, but also on the societal and media biases that allowed that tragedy to happen. Based on our research and analysis and best practices from the journalism field, The Opportunity Agenda recommends six ways that news outlets and journalists can more accurately portray Black life and adhere to the media’s fundamental role in informing the public and furthering our democracy.

  1. Acknowledge and Review for Bias. Research shows that we all harbor subconscious or implicit racial and ethnic biases that do not necessarily align with our stated beliefs. Those biases can enter into reporting in the form of stereotyped vocabulary, images, framing, and story choice. Assumptions about people and neighborhoods that are “dangerous,” “violent,” or deserving/undeserving of attention are just a few examples. Reviewing story choices and content for tropes and stereotypes is important to quality reporting. The Perception Institute3 and Harvard’s Project Implicit4 provide two useful starting points for assessing unintentional bias.
  2. Look at the Big Picture. Monitor the amount of coverage, type of coverage, and the nature of the coverage that different communities, topics, and types of sources receive. Who is quoted as an expert? With whom is the reader or viewer supposed to identify? Are African-American individuals and communities featured, and if so in what roles? A quarterly review of stories in the aggregate can reveal and address trends of bias or stereotypes that are not readily apparent when consuming stories one at a time.
  3. Foster Diversity. One of the factors that media scholars see as contributing to distorted and incomplete coverage is the paucity of African-American media owners, producers, journalists and experts invited to contribute content. Encouraging diversity and inclusivity at every stage of the media content process will make it far more likely that varied experiences and fresh perspectives are incorporated.
  4. Cover Obstacles as Well as Outcomes. Research shows that stories about the unique and disparate obstacles facing African-Americans are few and far between—giving many news consumers the impression that these individuals simply lack the drive, honesty, or talent of their white counterparts. Provide audiences with the information and context to make informed decisions about causes and solutions. And before reporting on unequal outcomes in criminal justice, for example, consider explaining the documented inequities in policing, prosecution, and sentencing, and opportunities to re-enter society that African Americans frequently face.
  5. Capture the Missing Stories. In addition to stories about systemic obstacles and solutions, media analysts find a paucity of stories featuring African-American boys and men who are workers, problem solvers, innovators, or even users of technology. Those underreported stories can break through the clutter while avoiding the stereotypes found in a large volume of past reporting.
  6. Be Responsive and Accountable. In-person engagement and digital input from diverse communities are crucial to finding and telling fresh, accurate stories that reflect a diversity of lived realities. They are also critical reality checks on tired tropes or inaccurate storylines. Soliciting and listening to community and audience input is another crucial tool for full and accurate journalism.


As When They See Us makes clear, improving the quality of media coverage of Black men and boys is critical because the stakes are so high. Distorted media coverage and portrayals contribute to the perception that Black men and boys should be viewed as threats and burdens instead of valued and participating members of our society. Those perceptions play out in our justice systems, in employment, in education, and in other contexts that are crucial to opportunity, health, and happiness.

Through full and accurate reporting, journalists can counter these trends and be part of the solution. Just as individual stories must be fair and accurate, we hope that patterns of distorted reporting will trigger changes in story assignment, reporting, and editing practices.

1 The Opportunity Agenda, Social Science Literature Review: Media Representations and Impact on the Lives of Black Men and Boys (2011), https://bit.ly/2H551mm.
2 Travis L. Dixon, “A Dangerous Distortion of Our Families: Representations of Families, by Race, in News and Opinion Media.” (2017). https://bit.ly/2z9ST0Y.
3 https://perception.org.
4 https://implicit.harvard.edu.

When They See Us: Thirty Years Since the Central Park Five Case

Improving Media Coverage of Black Men and Boys

This memo provides tips and resources to people advocating for fuller and more accurate reporting on African-American boys, men, and families, and reducing bias and stereotyping in media coverage. It accompanies the release of the film When They See Us and marks 30 years since the Central Park Five case. The film and 30-year anniversary present important opportunities to advocate for improvements in reporting and mass communications, as well as equal justice.

The Central Park Five case involved the assault and rape of a White female jogger and the wrongful arrest and conviction of four African-American and one Latinx teenagers—Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, Kharey Wise, and Raymond Santana. The young men spent between six and 13 years in prison before being exonerated in 2002 when another man confessed to the crime.

Created by Ava DuVernay for Netflix, When They See Us depicts the story of the Central Park Five and highlights how biased media coverage and harmful stereotypes contributed to the young men’s arrest, public vilification, and unjust incarceration.

What’s at Stake?

As the film When They See Us makes clear, improving media portrayals and coverage of Black boys, men, and families is critical because the stakes are so high. Media coverage powerfully shapes the ability of individuals and communities to receive fair and equal justice. Politicians, prosecutors, police, juries, and everyday people are influenced not only by the facts reported in stories, but also by the images, labels, framing, and narratives that those stories convey.

A large body of research (discussed later in this memo) finds a persistent trend of distorted media depictions of Black men and boys that contributes to negative stereotypes, inequitable treatment, and unequal opportunity in areas ranging from employment, to education, to policing and sentencing.

Help Improve Media Coverage

There is much that we can do together to improve media coverage of African-American boys and men, as well as of other communities that are often marginalized or caricatured in media coverage. Here are six tips for making a difference:

  1. Call for Full and Accurate Reporting. Most journalists are wary of demands for positive or negative coverage, which they see as conflicting with their proper role. But most aspire to report on stories fairly, accurately, and without bias. Most news outlets, moreover, seek to report fully on the issues, communities, and people whom they cover, especially across multiple stories.In pushing for improved reporting, focus on a standard of full and accurate reporting. For example, the American Society of News Editors Statement of Principles states that “[g]ood faith with the reader is the foundation of good journalism. Every effort must be made to assure that the news content is accurate, free from bias and in context, and that all sides are presented fairly.” Remind editors and producers that demands for fair presentation, elimination of bias, accuracy and context are, in fact, demands that they live up to their own articulated values.
  2. Monitor and Discuss Coverage Over Time. Identify systemic blind spots and distortions as well as problematic stories, images, and language. While individual problem stories should be called out, patterns of bias or distortion are easiest to see when looking at multiple stories over time. Repetition of tropes and stereotypes also causes the greatest harm. Review multiple stories with an eye toward trends like over-association with violence, descriptions of neighborhoods and communities, and the context that is or is not provided. Get specific about different outlets and journalists, noting differences in their reporting.
  3. Highlight the Research. Many media gatekeepers are still unaware of the large body of research on media coverage trends. In advocating for improved local coverage, combine your own specific observations with the many research findings on distorted coverage and its harmful effects. A number of organizations regularly produce or commission research on media depictions and other industry metrics, including The Opportunity Agenda; the American Society of News Editors; the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy; and the Columbia Journalism Review.
  4. Point to Positive Examples. Be ready with real-world examples of full and accurate coverage that can serve as positive examples to be emulated. In addition to pointing out distortions and problematic trends, it’s important to identify and—where appropriate—to praise exemplary coverage and best practices. Many outlets track positive and negative social media comments, and all take note of direct audience feedback. In addition, providing positive examples from their peer institutions can both provide practical guidance and spark friendly competition from other outlets.
  5. Prioritize Decisionmakers. Engage editors, producers, corporate ownership, and advertisers who have the power to make systemic changes. While news ombudspersons and community liaisons can be a good starting point, it’s frequently necessary to demand meetings and action from more powerful decisionmakers and gatekeepers. The successful campaigns to oust biased media figures like Bill O’Reilly and Lou Dobbs by targeting their advertisers show that mass campaigns to demand fair reporting can be successful.
  6. Demand Diversity. Greater diversity in all roles within news organizations and companies helps to foster fuller and more nuanced coverage and reduce stereotyping. Five decades ago, the Kerner Commission, appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson to examine the cause of racial strife in America’s cities, concluded that the lack of diversity in newsrooms was partly responsible for the pernicious stereotypes, neglect, and discrimination that led to the era’s urban uprisings: the Commission declared that “the journalistic profession has been shockingly backward in seeking out, hiring, and promoting Negroes.” It added that “the press has too long basked in a white world looking out of it, if at all, with white men’s eyes and white perspective. That is no longer good enough. The painful process of readjustment that is required of the American news media must begin now.”1 Yet, in 2017, for example, only 16.6% of journalists at daily newspapers were people of color, whereas the U.S. population was more than 37% non-white. Representation in broadcast media is similarly abysmal, and diversity of media ownership is still worse.

Pressing for greater diversity throughout the industry, though a tough and lengthy slog, is crucial to long-term improvement of coverage. One step is demanding that media organization make public the (anonymous) demographic breakdowns of staff and leadership that most are already required to collect under federal law. Transparency and accountability regarding proactive diversity efforts are crucial, as is advocating greater attention to this issue by the Federal Communications Commission, which regulates the industry.

Sample Messages to Media Decisionmakers

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


Principles of accuracy, impartiality, and fair play are critical. They are also core to the journalism profession. The American Society of News Editors’ Statement of Principles, for example, requires that “[e]very effort must be made to assure that the news content is accurate, free from bias and in context, and that all sides are presented fairly.”


But a decade of research2 shows that too many news organizations are falling short of that standard when it comes to coverage of African-American men and boys. Trends include over-representing Black males in stories about crime, violence, and poverty— far beyond their actual association with those problems—and under-representation in their roles as fathers, workers, and problem solvers. Those patterns paint a picture of Black males that is inaccurate, biased, and harmful, contributing to racial stereotypes, discrimination, and other barriers.


Journalists and editors must strive for greater intentionality, accuracy and authenticity in how they are depicting the people featured in their coverage. They should provide information not only on the stories of individuals, but also on the systems that these individuals have – or don’t have – access to. Just as individual stories must be fair and accurate, patterns of distorted reporting must trigger changes in story assignment, reporting, and editing practices. Greater in-depth reporting on systemic obstacles, prevention, and success stories are notably missing and important.


Contact journalists and editorial boards and push them to learn more about how media portrayals impact Black male outcomes. Tell them that they should work to provide unbiased representation of the stories they cover. Watch When They See Us and have a dialogue about how the media portrayals then, and now, are impacting perceptions of Black men and boys such as the Central Park 5.


Our country’s population is becoming increasingly diverse. If broadcasters want to compete for audiences in a more diverse America, their programming has to both reflect and respect our nation’s diverse communities; their hopes, aspirations, struggles, and experiences.


After studying programming over many months, we’re not seeing adequately representative depictions of African-American men and boys. Black male characters can tend to be more often depicted engaging in anti-social, dysfunctional, and violent behavior than other groups, and more so than in reality as well. That’s irresponsible and harmful, and it’s also bad business for any network struggling to build an audience in the 21st century.


Balance and fairness are critical in representation of all people, most primarily in how people of color, particularly Black men and boys, are depicted. Show the spectrum and fullness of the lives of Black males, just as is done with White characters.


Call on networks to update Broadcast Standards and Practices systems to periodically review, identify, and avoid harmful stereotypes and one-dimensional portrayals as themes in programming.

The Research and the Central Park Five

Stereotypes and popular myths. Distorted media coverage and portrayals have contributed to the perception that Black men and boys should be viewed as threats and sources of violence. Our research shows that Black men and boys are more likely to be depicted as threatening, and news outlets are more likely to depict Black men and boys as committing crimes when compared to their arrest rates. These media stories contribute the myth of Black criminality contrary to what research shows.

For example, in 1989, the defendants in the Central Park 5 case were routinely labeled “a wolf pack” and worse. Donald Trump took out newspaper ads calling for restoration of the death penalty. And then-mayor Ed Koch routinely referred to the young men as “monsters.” The media picked up these examples, and others, countless times.

Systemic bias in the criminal system. As noted in our report on the topic, the “media world can be mistaken for the real world.”3 Distorted media coverage contributes to systemic bias. For example, when members of the public serve on juries, where they are expected to make objective judgments about the quality of evidence, media stories about Black men and boys as threatening criminals inform their perceptions of Black men and boys who are accused of crime, even when there is evidence of injustice in their prosecutions. Media stories shape popular perception and contribute to implicit biases that suggest that White people are more likely to be innocent victims and Black people are more likely to be guilty of crimes. These perceptions help to explain the persistent racial disparities in all areas of the criminal system, including unjust policing, overzealous prosecution, and harsh sentencing practices.

Justifying inequality. Unfair media coverage may be used as an excuse for systemic inequality in our criminal justice system. Some commentators may claim that racial disparities are justified and are a natural consequence because they believe that Black men and boys are inherently more criminal. The racial disparities appear inevitable and a likely consequence of inferiority—rather than the result of historic inequality in this country— because biased media coverage is consistent with ensuing and persistent racial bias.

This justification was especially pronounced in the coverage of the Central Park 5 case, such as in Pete Hamill’s April 23, 1989 piece in the NY Post, which painted a menacing backdrop that would color the coverage of the defendants, and the case, to come:

They were coming downtown from a world of crack, welfare, guns, knives, indifference and ignorance. They were coming from a land with no fathers … They were coming from the anarchic province of the poor.


As When They See Us makes clear, improving the quality of media coverage of Black men and boys is critical because the stakes are so high. Distorted media coverage and portrayals contribute to the perception that Black men and boys should be viewed as threats and burdens instead of valued and participating members of our society. Those perceptions play out in our justice systems, in employment, in education, and in other contexts that are crucial to opportunity, health, and happiness.

Through full and accurate reporting, journalists can counter these trends and be part of the solution. Just as individual stories must be fair and accurate, we hope that patterns of distorted reporting will trigger changes in story assignment, reporting, and editing practices.

1 Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (1968).
2 Media Portrayals and Black Male Outcomes: Media Representations and Impact on the Lives of Black Men and Boys
3 Black Men Report at 14.

Working with Cultural Influencers

10 Tips to Spark Change

Our research report, Power of Pop: The Case of the Cultural Influencers, underscores the potential of celebrity not only to spotlight social issues, but also to spark meaningful dialogue and action that can lead to lasting policy and social change. These tips are intended for those who work with cultural influencers of all kinds – not only luminaries in entertainment and sports, but also the wide range of influencers who are in a position to harness the energy of fandom and media to inspire large audiences and help shift cultural norms. We hope these tips help you increase your impact for social change.

1. Seek out guidance from frontline advocates. The people most directly impacted by an issue can provide essential expertise to make an influencer’s efforts meaningful. Find groups that are led by or deeply embedded with frontline communities and listen to their policy priorities and proposed solutions. What are their goals and how do they want people to feel, think, and talk about the issue?

2. Determine the influencer’s unique role. To determine where an influencer could add the most value, look for the intersection of: 1) the cultural and political changes needed to get to the desired solutions, and 2) the ways in which the influencer can contribute given their interests, skill sets, and platforms. For instance, if the debate around an issue is being dominated by destructive perspectives, how could they help reframe the conversation? If an issue is not gaining broad attention, how could they put it in the spotlight? If an issue is in the public eye but not broadly supported, how could they create the cultural symbols or stories that will help define the issue and build its popularity?

3. Choose the influencer’s tone and approach. If an influencer is a public figure, then what they say or do in public impacts their brand. It is useful to carefully consider what about their brand could make them especially effective. If an influencer is known for playing a universally loved character in films, they might be in a position to help bridge political divides. If an influencer is known for a character (or previous personal statements) that identifies them as having a particular worldview, they might be in a position to
mobilize supporters to take action. Decide in advance what kind of tone and approach would align with an influencer’s existing brand or would intentionally expand that brand in directions the influencer would want. Remember that maintaining influence with an audience is usually dependent on choosing a tone and approach that is congruent to this brand.

4. Identify your target audience and where to reach them. Different platforms have the potential to reach different audiences. It is important to be clear on your goals in order to determine which audiences an influencer might aim to target. For example, if an influencer’s goal is to raise awareness about the impact of mass incarceration, and their fan base is made up primarily of communities who have already been deeply impacted by that issue, then they might look at engaging platforms that could reach beyond their fan base, (i.e., social media or events hosted by other influencers). If the goal is to reframe how people think about an issue familiar to their audience, such as rethinking bail reform, then engaging platforms that target their fan base, (i.e., fan sites or social media channels) would be the more effective strategy

5. Establish shared values. Research shows that audiences are more receptive to unfamiliar arguments when they are framed with shared values. Values are our most fundamental principles and they become a means of establishing a human connection that can cut through stereotypes and partisan suspicion. Facts and figures can be tuned out or disregarded, but values activate emotions, invite common ground, and open minds to new ideas. Influencers should identify the values that motivate them, and lead with those values when talking about the issues. It would also be worthwhile to explore how an influencer might use their creative skills and platforms to encourage or model those values.

6. Plan ahead how you will center frontline voices. It can be tempting for the media and public attention to focus on an influencer’s actions rather than the issues they are trying to raise. It is important to take extra steps to incorporate the voices and perspectives of those traditionally overlooked or excluded from public discourse and ensure that credit is given to grassroots activists and/or community organizers who are already leading the charge in social change efforts. Partnering with frontline groups – which requires building relationships and trust – can be very helpful in deciding whose voices and/or which stories should be centered.

7. Find allies. For most social and political change efforts, there is power in numbers. Find like-minded influencers who would be willing to join in a coordinated effort, or at least amplify when the influencer decides to speak out or take action on an issue. Find organizations and activists who would be willing to coordinate with and/or publicly support the influencer. Lining up these allies can be especially important, not only to increase the impact of the message, but also to help protect the influencer from becoming a target for industry or public reprisals.

8. Link the influencer’s personal story to the larger story. Authenticity matters. Our research shows that news coverage favors individual storytelling by directly-impacted influencers. If an influencer isn’t directly impacted, they should find ways to share what about their own experience compels them to support an issue. Additionally, personal stories should link to systemic issues. In telling the story of one child’s family who isn’t able to pay for a needed surgery, an audience might become motivated to provide an individual solution, solving only that one family’s problem. But to motivate an audience around a systemic solution, (i.e., universal healthcare), an influencer should link that child’s story to the larger issue: the fact that millions of children do not have healthcare coverage.

9. Write a mission or artist statement. An initial written or artistic statement laying out an influencer’s reasons for speaking out will likely become a foundation for future discussion. If an influencer takes subsequent actions, the media will likely continue to quote the original statement, which will help frame the debate as long as the influencer garners public attention for the issue. When drafting a statement, feedback should be sought from various sources, with priority placed on incorporating the feedback of those directly impacted: individuals and communities regularly excluded from national discourse. Our “Establish Shared Values” tip above may provide valuable guidance for drafting a statement.

10. Make use of replicable symbols or imagery. The power of symbolism and imagery has emerged as a key cultural tool to keep issues in the public eye and motivate supporters to take action. Symbols and easily replicable content create avenues and inspiration for widespread participation. Think about how many athletes have now taken a knee to uplift racial justice, or how many people are now using the “Wakanda Forever” salute. A symbol can boil down a complex idea into something that is replicable, digestible, and accessible. When an influencer is planning what action to take, consider how they can integrate an element that supporters can replicate. It is important to take extra steps to incorporate the voices and perspectives of those traditionally overlooked or excluded from public discourse.

The Case of the Cultural Influencers: Colin Kaepernick, Jimmy Kimmel, and #MeToo

Executive Summary

In recent years, the power of popular entertainment to inspire large audiences and shift cultural norms has become a topic of growing interest in the social advocacy space. A large body of research has been dedicated to tracking representation trends in film and television, and a growing cohort of organizations provides practical recommendations for those seeking to leverage popular culture in their advocacy work. While existing research has provided critical insights into the effectiveness of high-profile spokespeople in short-term campaigns and fundraising, significant gaps in the literature exist in terms of in-depth analysis of more symbolic actions on the part of high-profile individuals as well as measurements of the impact of celebrity influencers on long-term narrative shift.

Under which circumstances do cultural influencers have the greatest ability to achieve their goals?

Currently there is a pressing need to better understand the potential of high-profile influencers to not only draw attention to social issues but also spark meaningful dialogue and actions that lead to lasting social and policy change. As part of our Power of Pop series, this current research examines three cases of high-profile entertainers and athletes speaking out or advocating for a social and/or policy change. The cases include: Case 1: Colin Kaepernick and the Take A Knee protest Case 2: Jimmy Kimmel and the healthcare debate Case 3: Me Too and Time’s Up movement This research aims to better understand the unique influence of high-profile athletes and entertainers and provide practical recommendations for those seeking to work directly or indirectly with cultural influencers to shift narratives and effect policy change. Key questions explored in the research include:

  • Under which circumstances do cultural influencers have the greatest ability to achieve their goals?
  • Are cultural influencers’ interventions best suited for long-term cultural change, short term policy shifts, or other types of impact?
  • What types of celebrity intervention have the most impact?
  • How can social justice advocates best support/leverage the influence of cultural influencers both through direct and indirect contact?

To evaluate the effectiveness of the range of strategies and issues covered in our selected case studies, we established the following criteria for success:

  • If the action or sets of actions had a clearly stated goal, to what extent was this goal achieved?
  • Was there a marked impact on the national discourse, in both media coverage and public discussions of the issue the cultural influencer was addressing?
  • Did the actions of one influencer encourage others to speak out or also act?
  • Were there unanticipated shifts in the public discourse (and, where applicable, policy change) as a direct or indirect result of a cultural influencer’s actions?
  • Based on these criteria, we conducted a media content analysis and social media analysis for each individual case. Our findings point to a series of lessons learned and best practices for future cultural campaigns.

The Impact

Taken together, our findings demonstrate that strategic engagement from high-profile influencers can have the following impact on social advocacy campaigns:

  • Significant increases in news media and social media engagement with social justice issues: All three case studies revealed a marked increase in both the volume and focus on news media and social media engagement. For instance, since Colin Kaepernick and other athletes began taking a knee, news media coverage of police misconduct has nearly doubled (from an average of 4000 articles to 7000 articles published every 12 months), and social media engagement with the issue has seen a nearly three-fold increase.
  • Direct or indirect policy and cultural changes in organizations and institutions: The case studies in this report have resulted in a myriad of organizational policy and cultural shifts as a direct and indirect result of the efforts of high-profile influencers. In the case of Jimmy Kimmel, the Graham-Cassidy bill was ultimately defeated. Since Kaepernick and other athletes began taking a knee in protest to police killings of unarmed people of color, the National Football League (NFL) and several teams have spoken out in support of criminal justice reform. For instance, in September 2016, shortly after Kaepernick’s first field-side protest, the San Francisco 49ers announced that it would be donating $1 million to two charities in the Bay area focused on racial and economic justice. In January2018, the NFL in conjunction with players formed the “Let’s Listen Together” coalition, which aims to improve police and community relations. As of July 2018, 10 NFL teams have announced the launch of new committees, coalitions, or other activities aimed at raising awareness and tackling social justice issues. The Me Too movement has had a similar impact. Since the Me Too movement first began to proliferate in October 2017, more than 800 high-profile figures have been publicly accused of harassment, sexual assault, rape, workplace misconduct, and other related behavior. A recent article details the range of policy changes that have been introduced across industries because of the Me Too movement. This includes the introduction of mandatory annual anti-harassment trainings for lawmakers and staff in Congress and the inclusion of so-called “Weinstein Clauses” in several large mergers and acquisitions.
  • Encouraging other high-profile individuals and members of the public to speak out: Each case study was characterized by high-profile influencers successfully encouraging others to speak out in support of or opposition to an issue. Following a series of monologues from Jimmy Kimmel, several Republican senators spoke out openly against the Graham-Cassidy bill, eventually leading to its defeat. Since Kaepernick first begin his protest in August 2016, more than 200 athletes have sat or kneeled during the national anthem. Our analysis revealed that a significant portion of news media and online discourse focused on actions and commentary of other high-profile athletes and spokespeople. In the case of the Me Too movement, not only did the personal stories of high-profile entertainers propel the issue of gendered violence into the national discourse, but also subsequent coordinated efforts of the Time’s Up campaign maintained engagement with the issue after media coverage began to wane.

Learn More

Read the entire Executive Summary, including Recommendations, or download the Full Report to learn how you can take action.

Art that Tells a New Story About Economic Opportunity

We need a new story about the U.S. economy; a story that recognizes the economic insecurity faced by thousands of American families while also offering aspirational goals for a more equitable and just future. An important part of telling this story is envisioning the foundational values for true economic opportunity. We believe that art has the unique power to do this


With this in mind, The Opportunity Agenda commissioned artist Nina Montenegro to create high-resolution, downloadable art that illustrate values that would allow for a prospering economy. The portfolio draws inspiration from the work of advocacy groups that are championing solutions to our unjust economy. Our hope is that these aspirational images will help social justice leaders in their economic opportunity work. These images are free, however the artist maintains the copyright and should be credited as such.  They are for non-commercial use only and may not be re-used or re-interpreted by for-profit ventures under any circumstances.

More about the artist: Nina Montenegro is a Chilean-American visual artist, illustrator, and designer.  Montenegro’s practice crosses disciplines to advocate for an ecologically-viable and socially-just future.  Her work has been featured in Orion, Art in America, The Guardian, Grist, and printed and distributed by publications worldwide.  She is co-founder and co-creative director of the design studio The Far Woods, located on an organic farm outside of Portland, Oregon.

If you’d like more information on our economic opportunity work, sign up for “The Amp,” our weekly action alert that helps prepare you for the week ahead. The Amp keeps you ahead of the curve by spotlighting what’s coming — not only in the news, but from your partners in racial and economic justice. We help you identify and respond to what’s important by providing you with the messaging, research, and pop culture hooks you need. Check out past editions here.

Let us know how you plan to use these images. Please send us photos or links when you use them. And send any additional feedback or ideas you might have.

Downloadable Images (PDFs): 

Illustration of the Capitol with text: We need a government that works for all of us

Illustration of the Capitol with text: We need a government that works for all of us

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