Breaking Down Portrayed Income

In the 2017–2018 season of television, character representation across race and ethnicity skews overwhelmingly white. This disproportionate sample means that each level of income holds double-digit percentage rates of white representation, whereas their BIPOC peers remain 8% or less in any income representation. The greatest distribution of income representation by race/ethnicity occurs at the middle-income tier—with white characters making up 37%, Black characters 8%, Hispanic 3%, and Asian and Other at 2% each. This is unsurprising, given the wide range of income this designation covers.

The overwhelming whiteness of the 2017–2018 TV season means that all calculations of race and income for this study are more likely to represent white characters and households. White characters out-ratio Black characters such that we see 4 white characters for every 1 Black character, 11 white characters to every Hispanic character, 13 white characters to every 1 Asian character, and 14 white characters to every character included in the “Other” category—which typically identifies persons of mixed ethnicity or race. There is, in fact, no representation at all in the entire sample of Native/Indigenous characters, an extremely excessive oversight on behalf of casting in Hollywood.

Approximately 75% of all characters included in this sample were part of the main cast of their respective shows, while 23% of the sample filled either recurring or guest spots. Much of the same race/ethnicity breakdowns remain the same in this breakdown, with 52% of key characters being white to 15% recurring, 12% key Black characters to 4% recurring, 5% key Hispanic characters to 1% recurring, 4% key Asian characters to 1% recurring, and equal amounts of characters representing key and recurring roles for those categorized as Other at 4% each. Here the overrepresentation of white characters stands without overrepresentation of any other race in either key or recurring roles. As far as income, key characters represent 18% of low-income characters to recurring characters’ 3%, 39% of middle-income characters to 13%, and 17% of low-income characters to 6% of high-income characters. To better encapsulate the circumstances these characters represented, we conducted an analysis of characters representing recurrent or low wage–bearing professions by their local or regional wage representation via Glassdoor. This includes common roles that place characters within the upper-middle income range of pay—such as investigators and detectives—as well as families of three or more living on lower middle to low incomes.

The spread of income presented in the table must be further scrutinized by the number of people in each household who also generate income as well as cost of living per locality. What we overwhelmingly found is that those with higher salaries tended to live in households with partners who generate similar income or on their own, leaving them free to afford cost of living in the cities they inhabit. For example, Rainbow Johnson from Black-ish not only generates high income as a physician, but she also is also married to a senior advertisement executive who helps their family of five children, two retired grandparents, and two working adults to pay for college, private school, and a lifestyle befitting the suburbs of Los Angeles. This representation is in direct juxtaposition to the DiMeo family in Speechless, who get by on the single income of the father, Jimmy DiMeo, and any disability aid that supports one of the three kids, JJ, who has cerebral palsy.

This is significant not only for offering a snapshot of the general spread of income representation and why outliers like the Johnson family influence the sample’s observed income by race, but also because studies indicate that many lower-middle to low-income families are simply one economic emergency away from being impoverished—with 45% of families having resources no more than twice the poverty threshold.[20]


Indeed, observations from hunger experts like Josh Gwin of Marion Polk Food Share shows that people who are only one missed utility bill away from hunger or eviction often depend on social services like food drives,[21] which bears questioning of the ways income have been calculated by scholar and the general public alike given inflation, stagnant wages, and increases to the cost of living throughout the United States. If someone who is considered middle income by current estimates is only one debt away from facing denial of food or shelter, is the income bracket underestimating poverty?

In terms of this report’s sample, while we found the levels of income tied to racial representation as a whole, we would like to note that the only key BIPOC character of The Big Bang Theory, Raj Koothrappali, works in a field that pays significantly less than his fellow scientists, at $60,056 to his peers’ income upwards of $90,000. While he is shown to be supported by his parents, who bring in significant wealth, this was an observance of significant difference by race within one show included in the sample.

While the above observations sum up the report sample, they do not represent the reality or scope of racial disparity in economic opportunities. In a 2021 Urban Institute report, two-thirds of white children were estimated to be born into advantageous circumstances, while only one in five Black children and one in three Hispanic children are born into advantageous circumstances. This study further projected that 50% of all children born into disadvantaged circumstances versus more than 66% of those born into advantaged circumstances are on track toward healthy development and economic security at age 30. This disparity in reaching economic stability by 30 is further stratified by race, where 58% of white children from disadvantaged circumstances are on track but only 37% of Black, non-Hispanic and 50% of Hispanic children from similar circumstances meet this projection.[22] With structural economic and social stakeholders like residential segregation, unequal access to educational opportunities, and unequal treatment by law enforcement contributing to this ongoing disparity, the 2017–2018 season severely misrepresents reality.

Not even in our select sample of shows depicting low-income characters did we find representation of a low-income BIPOC family to help us exemplify the above finding. Thus, there is a void in scripted television for this arena of representation.


21 Asian, 2018: alone%20or%20in%20combination%20with%20one%20or%20more%20other%20races%20%20%28400-499%29%20%26%20%28100-299%29%20or%20%28300,%20A01-Z99%29%20 or%20%28400-999%29
Black, 2018: Black%20or%20African%20American%20alone%20or%20in%20combination%20with%20one%20or%20more%20other%20races
Hispanic, 2010: %28Households,%20Families,%20Individuals%29%3AIncome%20and%20Earnings%3AIncome%20and%20Poverty%3ASNAP%2FFood%20Stamps&tid=ACSDP5YSPT2010.DP03
Other, 2018: race%20alone%20or%20in%20combination%20with%20one%20or%20more%20other%20races
White, 2018:



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.

Appendix I

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).

Appendix II

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.

Shifting the Narrative: Lessons Learned

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.

Lessons Learned

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”

Moving Forward

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.

i “Shifting the Narrative.” The Opportunity Agenda. Published 2021.

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.

Five Strategies for Talking About Anti-Asian Racism

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

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

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

While audiences are accustomed to hearing about the harms of racism and, more recently, are becoming aware of the different and ongoing impacts of anti-Asian racism, they are less likely to be familiar with a positive anti-racism vision, rooted in shared values, that they can embrace. If we start our communications with a shared vision of what our country should be: a safe, inclusive place of participation and belonging where everyone’s rights are protected and respected, we can frame anything that gets in the way of that as a pressing issue.

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

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


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

– Rinku Sen, Race Forward, to NBC News

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

– Chancellor Carol Christ, University of California, Berkeley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

– The Racial Equity Anchor Collaborative

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

– The American Sociological Association

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

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

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

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

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

Moving Forward: Three Ideas for Talking About the Moment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More resources:

Democracy Rising Social Media Toolkit

Speaking Out About January 6,” Frameworks Institute

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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