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 the Attacks on Critical Race Theory

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

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

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

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

General Advice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Values to Lead With

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

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

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

Five Strategies for Talking About Anti-Asian Racism

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

– Rinku Sen, Race Forward, to NBC News

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

– Chancellor Carol Christ, University of California, Berkeley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

– The Racial Equity Anchor Collaborative

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

– The American Sociological Association

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

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

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

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

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

Moving Forward: Three Ideas for Talking About the Moment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More resources:

Democracy Rising Social Media Toolkit

Speaking Out About January 6,” Frameworks Institute

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

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

Telling a Story About Families and Opportunity

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

Updated September 2020

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

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

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

The Power of Narrative

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

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

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

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

Building a Narrative

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

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

Elements of a Paid Family and Medical Leave Narrative

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Building a Message

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

Values, Problem, Solution, Action

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Problem Themes

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

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

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

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

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

Descriptions of the Solution:

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

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

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

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

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

Highest Rated VPSA Messages from Online Survey:

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

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

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

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

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

Overview of Research

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

Audience Considerations

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

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


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

Characteristics of the Base

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


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

Characteristics of the Opposition

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

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

Characteristics of Persuadables

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

Key Findings: Support for Paid Family and Medical Leave Policies

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

Audience Considerations

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

Key Findings: Types of Leave and for Whom

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

Audience Considerations

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

Key Findings—Favorability of Aspects of a National Program

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

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

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

Key Findings—Role of Government

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

Key Findings—Small Business

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

Key Findings—Doubts about a National Program

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


Online Dial Survey

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

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

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

Focus Groups

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

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

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

[2] Ibid.

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

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

[5] Ibid.

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

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

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

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

[11] Ibid.

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

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

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

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

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

Updated July 2020

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

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

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

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

Sample Language:

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

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

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

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

Sample Language:

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


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

3. Know the Counter Narratives.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Sample Language:

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

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


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

6. Consider Audience and Goals.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Sample Language:

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


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

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

9. Listen to and Center the Voices of BIPOC.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sample Language:

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


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

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

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

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

Applying the Lessons

VPSA: Value, Problem, Solution, Action

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



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


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


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


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



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


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


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


Join a racial justice campaign near you.



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


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


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


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


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

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

[8] Ibid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our Shared Values

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

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

Sample VPSA Message

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

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

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

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

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

10 Key Facts About Perception of Fear, Safety & Criminal Justice in CA


In recent years, California has emerged as fertile ground for progressive criminal justice reform, with the passage of policies such as SB 439, SB 1319, and SB 10—just a few examples of activists, advocates, and policymakers’ recent success working within the state. Despite these many gains, challenges abound, including continued resistance to the adoption of policies that rectify the disproportional targeting of communities of color in the past. At the same time, the overt xenophobia in today’s political discourse has made fear-mongering and scapegoating more commonplace in law enforcement and other government agencies interactions with communities of color.

With the goal of gaining a better understanding of these state-level successes and challenges while also gathering insights that can be translated to messaging strategy for use in the field at large, The Opportunity Agenda and the ACLU of California engaged in a collaborative research project examining Californians’ attitudes and beliefs about the criminal justice system. This memo draws from the data from a statewide survey of 1,055 randomly sampled respondents representative of Californians administered in July 2018.


This memo draws on the results of a collaborative research project with the ACLU of California conducted in July 2018. The insights are based on data from a statewide online dial survey administered to a total of 1,055 registered voters in the state. The margin of error is ± 3.1 percent for the overall sample and larger for subgroups.

In this memo, we make references to three populations defined as the base, opposition, and persuadables. Our base, opposition, and persuadables were created using a statistical cluster analysis that identified groups of like-minded voters based on the patterns of their responses to a series of questions about their attitudes toward the criminal justice system, discrimination, racial inequities, and a variety of related topics.


The Opportunity Agenda wishes to thank and acknowledge the many people who contributed their time, energy, and expertise to the research and writing of this report. The survey was commissioned and designed in collaboration with Cheryl Alethia Phelps, Communications Director of the ACLU San Diego and Imperial County and Margaret Dooley-Sammuli. Data was collected, cleaned, and analyzed by Andrew Hart and Steven Riskey of Strop Insights and Kyle Francis of Qualtrics. Additional analysis of data and the drafting of this report was conducted by Lucy Odigie-Turley of The Opportunity Agenda. Recommendations were drafted by Julie-Fisher Rowe of The Opportunity Agenda. The graphics and illustrations were created by Lincoln Bovell. Final proofing and copy editing were conducted by Margo Harris. Finally, this report would have not been possible without the support of our generous funders: American Civil Liberties Union, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Marguerite Casey Foundation, Nathan Cummings Foundation, The Annie E. Casey Foundation, The Ford Foundation, The JPB Foundation, The Libra Foundation, The Tow Foundation, Unbound Philanthropy, and W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

1. California has a strong base of support for wider criminal justice reform, and a significant portion of Californians are persuadable on a variety of reform issues

As of July 2018, 26 percent of surveyed Californians form part of the base of support for criminal justice reform, 57 percent can be described as persuadable on issues related to criminal justice reform, and 17 percent can be described as oppositional to widespread criminal justice reform. The base is significantly more likely to believe that the criminal justice system generally treats people “somewhat/very unfairly” (73% of the base support this statement, versus 26% of persuadables and just 8% of the opposition) and hold a strong belief that racial and income inequities are serious issues.

The opposition is defined by a strong belief in the fairness of the existing criminal justice system, a preference for harsher punishment over rehabilitation, and support for the profiling of specific racial/ethnic groups. Persuadables hold views that overlap with both the base and opposition but are most strongly defined by their self-reported lack of familiarity with most roles within the criminal justice system, including prosecutors and public defenders.

2. People of color, low-income adults, and the religiously unaffiliated are an important base of support for criminal justice reform in California

Although audience segments are based on respondents’ responses to a range of attitudinal questions, our research findings point to important demographic distinctions between the three segments. As seen in Figure 1, 35 percent of the base self-identified as Black (11%), Latinx/Hispanic (10%), Asian/Pacific Islander (8%), bi/multi-racial (4%), or Native American (2%). A significant portion of people of color also fall within the persuadable audience segment, with Asian/Pacific Islanders slightly more likely to fall into the persuadable (12%) or opposition (12%) than the base (8%) group. Alongside communities of color, those who express no religious affiliation also emerged as an important base of support for criminal justice, with 43 percent of the base self-identifying as having no religious affiliation compared to 26 percent of persuadables and 17 percent of the opposition. The base and persuadables are also significantly more likely than the opposition to be low-income. Twenty-eight percent of the base and 23 percent of persuadables earn less than $25,000 annually, compared to just 11 percent of the opposition. At the same time, just over a quarter (26%) of the opposition earn upwards of $100,000 annually, compared to 15 percent and 14 percent of the base and persuadables, respectively.

3. Base and persuadable audiences have distinct media consumption and engagement habits

Base and persuadable audiences have distinct media consumption and engagement habits: Media consumption and usage habits are increasingly recognized as important predictors of political decision-making and attitudes related to a range of issues. To gauge their impact, if any, on Californians ’ attitude toward the criminal justice system we included a range of questions about participants’ engagement with news and social media and different genres of entertainment media. In terms of entertainment, all audience segments reported similar rates of regular use and engagement on Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram, but persuadables are slightly more likely to report that they make regular use of Twitter (36%) compared to the base and opposition (27% and 28%, respectively).

4. Police accountability is the highest policy priority identified among all segments

We asked respondents to rank a range of policy solutions intended to reduce unfairness within the criminal justice system from highest to lowest priority (with each respondent given the option to rank every item as a high, moderate, or low priority). Across all three segments “holding police officers who use excessive force accountable,” “addressing instances of police brutality,” “ensuring people of color are treated fairly by law enforcement and within the criminal justice system,” and “minimizing the interactions people suffering from substance abuse have with the criminal justice system” were ranked as the highest policy priorities.

5. Bail reform and issues at the intersection of homelessness and criminal justice are lower priorities among both base and persuadable audiences

Our survey findings indicate that despite widespread recognition of inequities within the criminal justice system and how these inequities disproportionately impact communities of color and those living in poverty, voters are less likely to see bail reform and the treatment of homeless Americans by law enforcement as a high policy priority. Just 47 percent of those surveyed selected “minimizing the interactions people living in homelessness have with the criminal justice system” as a high policy priority (67% of the base, 38% of persuadables, and 35% of the opposition). At the same time, just 45 percent of those surveyed ranked “reducing the cost of bail for low-income Americans” as a high policy priority (59% of the base, 39% of persuadables, and 37% of the opposition).

6. More than half of Californians report knowing someone who has been arrested, and nearly 50 percent know someone who has been incarcerated

In July 2018, 56 percent of surveyed Californians reported that they personally know someone who has been arrested, 49 percent know someone who has been in prison or jail, and a third personally know someone who has been a victim of a violent crime (Table 2). The rate of self-reported experiences with the criminal justice system varies between audience segments, with the base and persuadables more likely than the opposition to report knowing someone who has been arrested (66% and 53% versus 46%, respectively), in prison or jail (59% and 48% versus 40%, respectively), or stopped and searched by a police officer (52% and 38% versus 33%, respectively). Alongside widespread first- and/or second-hand experiences with the criminal justice system, the base is significantly more likely than both persuadables and the opposition to report knowing someone who has been the victim of a violent crime (42% versus 30% and 29%, respectively) or murdered (22% versus 14% and 9%, respectively)—a finding that is one of the most significant variations between base and persuadable audiences in California.

7. Perception of physical safety is a key predictor of attitudes toward and perceptions of the criminal justice system

As noted in our analysis of existing public opinion research related to criminal justice, fear of crime and victimization have long been recognized as a driving force behind Americans’ attitudes toward criminal justice policy. In an effort to examine this relationship more closely in the context of California, we included a series of questions intended to gauge respondents’ level of fear related to their physical safety and the impact, if any, on their attitudes toward criminal justice. Respondents were asked how often they have serious concerns about their safety in a range of places, including at home, while driving, or in their neighborhood, and they ranked this concern on a 5-point scale, from “never” to “often.” We used participants’ responses to create a fear scale, with respondents grouped as low, moderate, or high fear based on their average score.

As of July 2018, 19 percent of Californians surveyed expressed low levels of fear, 68 percent moderate levels of fear, 13 percent high levels of fear related to their physical safety. Respondents’ score on the fear scale correlates strongly with their overall perception of the criminal justice system and proved to be a stronger predictor of attitudes toward the criminal justice system than party affiliation and ideological lean. Those who reported that they were generally “often ” or “nearly always” in fear of their safety and received a high score on the fear scale were also significantly less likely than those with moderate or low fear to believe that the criminal justice system treats people unequally (26% versus 55% and 47%, respectively).

8. Those who express high levels of fear are less likely to report having any direct contact with the criminal justice system, but are also more confident in their perceived knowledge of the criminal justice system

Alongside having a marked impact on people’s overall perception and attitude toward the criminal justice system, fear related to physical safety also correlated strongly with people’s experience with the criminal justice system and perceived knowledge of the criminal justice system. For instance, individuals who scored low or moderately on the fear scale were more likely than those who scored high to report knowing someone who have been arrested (55% and 56% versus 43%, respectively), in prison or jail (49% and 49% versus 41%, respectively). All three segments report similar rates of knowing someone who has been search by a police officer (38%, 42%, and 39%, respectively). However, those who scored high on the fear scale were more likely to report knowing someone who has been murdered, with 20 percent reporting knowing someone who has been murdered versus 14 percent of individuals with moderate fear and 12 percent of individuals with high fear (Figure 2). At the same time, individuals who scored high on the fear scale were also significantly more likely to rate their overall knowledge of the criminal justice system as high (Figure 3). For instance, 44.5 percent of those who scored high on the fear scale also scored high on the self-reported knowledge scale—that is, what they said they knew about or their familiarity with various components and roles within the criminal justice system, including judges, prosecutors, public defenders, and bail bond companies.

At the same time, those with moderate or low fear were also significantly less confident about their knowledge and familiarity of the criminal justice system, with only 27 percent of those who scored low on the fear scale rating their knowledge of the overall criminal justice system as high.

9. Californians believe that Black men, people living in poverty, people without documentation, formerly incarcerated people, and immigrants are the least likely to receive fair treatment within criminal justice

Our findings show that although a plurality of Californians believe that the criminal justice system generally treats people fairly, responses to this question varied significantly between audience segments and also when participants were asked more specific questions regarding who is more or less likely to receive fair treatment. When asked to what extent different demographic groups are treated fairly or unfairly by the criminal justice system, the majority of Californians expressed the belief that Black men (59%), people living in poverty (58%), undocumented immigrants (53%), people who have been incarcerated (53%), and immigrants (52%) are somewhat/very likely to receive unfair treatment in the overall criminal justice system (Figure 4).

10. All segments appear to make a distinction between “unequal” versus “unfair” treatment within the criminal justice system

A key finding of our survey was that Californians across audience segments are significantly more likely to express the belief that the criminal justice system is “unequal” as opposed to “unfair.” Using a random split sampling, we asked 50 percent of respondents in general how “fairly” and the other 50 percent how “equally” they believe the criminal justice system treats people. As seen in Figure 5, whereas 73 percent of the base expressed the belief that the criminal justice system generally treats people “somewhat/very unfairly,” 95 percent of the base express the belief that the criminal justice system generally treats people “somewhat/very unequally,” representing a 22-point variation. A similar trend emerges among both persuadables and the opposition, with a 17-point variation among persuadables and 7-point among the opposition.


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