Turbulent Times Call for Justice Out Loud

February 27, 2020 Ellen Buchman

Insights from The Opportunity Agenda

In January I shared why, even on the heels of the challenges of 2019, I’m optimistic about 2020, and all that The Opportunity Agenda can offer to strengthen social justice communication in this new year. But earlier this month, when the U.S. Senate voted largely along party lines to acquit President Trump on the two articles of impeachment approved by the House, it took a deep breath, and a bit of fortitude, to remain confident and hopeful.

After all, the Senate’s inaction flew in the face of the values and demands for accountability enunciated by the hundreds of thousands of people – among them Opportunity Agenda partners – calling for the president to be held to account. As such, the Senate’s refusal to even hear from witnesses, or to even interrogate the facts, can be interpreted as an affront to the basic vision of possibility that should unify our country: the very democratic principles that underscore the importance of government fairness and accountability by and for the people. It was as though the Senate was thumbing its nose at the vision of the so-called founding fathers, to instead embrace the nihilistic and undemocratic values of this president.

As depressing as that is, I took that breath and realized that I felt even more certain that this moment of chaos calls for Justice Out Loud. I believe that the Senate’s [in]actions actually serve as a kind of clarion call. A reminder that the spirit of, “can’t stop, won’t stop,” has to fuel that fortitude, that as history has shown us time and time again, the march for justice is in fact a long-game strategy that must withstand the test of time and not be distracted by our constant desire for instant gratification, or “the win,” no matter how tough it is sometimes to remember that. After all, as the great Frederick Douglass poignantly observed, “if there is no struggle, there is no progress.”

The period in which we find ourselves, as difficult and lawless as it can seem, presents an opportunity for anyone who cares about social justice to go big. It’s a time that calls directly, loudly and confidently for us to use the power and philosophy that, with unity and collaboration, strategy and vision, there is strength. And with that, we can not only survive the turmoil of today, as so many people are doing, but we can also find success together and make things better than they were before.

Here is a reminder of three key principles for progress to be made while we do just that.

1. Recall the power of narrative and strategically redirect any big story toward the promise of possibilities and away from the jaws of injustice.

We know from so many examples in our movement that the big story that we tell – starting with the one we tell ourselves – prevails if it is conveyed with values and themes that enhance what’s possible and underscore what happens when we recall the powerful vision of justice. We should acknowledge the tumult and chaos, but we must not give in to it as though there aren’t solutions or a coherent drumbeat to redirect counter-narratives toward true progress. As we like to remind ourselves at The Opportunity Agenda, it is our vision – or dream – that shapes the big story. For example, Dr. King proclaimed that he had a dream, not a complaint. So we’ve got to remember the genius of uplifting the light of our narrative during the most difficult of times, and proclaiming it.

2. Remember that if we’re not careful, culture will always eat strategy for breakfast. So go big, or go home.

Sometimes the moments of greatest chaos can be interpreted as a call – even a scream – for unity. The clarion call of the moment reminds us that life is way too short to wait to convey what’s right. As any smart strategist will share, without addressing the culture around us by pronouncing the values that bring us together, no strategy will be able to endure the clutter, beat the test of time and succeed. So we’ve got to go big and tell it like it is – call out the nihilism with the values of love, inclusion, accountability, empowerment and optimism. Again – think about Dr. King and the giants that came before us and remember how they translated their strategy by uniting people around them with their vision. So many movement movers and shakers are already doing this – it takes all of us to notice it, support them, and amplify their messages.

3. Communicate your narrative using the strategic edge of values.

Values, values, values. That’s what brings us together. We know from research that, for the most part, facts turn people off and values turn people on and toward action. So start with the proclamation of the values we want to see and follow up with a brief description of what’s preventing those values from being released. Then pivot quickly to the solution(s) that we must work toward, and the action(s) we are encouraging audiences to take. The Opportunity Agenda calls it VPSA.

These are tough times for all of us. But they can also be profoundly unifying times. I wrote last month that, in spite of all the turmoil and chaos, I was still optimistic for all of what’s possible. That this time in our history presents us with a challenge to be radically and clearly calling for the vision that we want to see. It is a time when we must clear the fog and practice how we best use the power of voice, values, and vision to proclaim justice out loud. The time is now, and our vision for the future is depending on it.