Please guess my song: Pro-immigrant advocacy lost in translation

This week, I’m writing about some of my reactions to Made to Stick, for me, of course, not from a straight communications angle, but, instead, from the perspective of advocacy, and what lessons about strategic communications our advocacy needs to embrace if our policy ideas–and our way of viewing social problems–are to stick.

There’s a piece of the book that relays an experiment with a tapper and a guesser that, in perhaps a somewhat surprising way, makes me thinking about my immigration advocacy.

I hope it will make as much sense to you as it does in my head. I guess it will be a sort of ‘tapper and guesser’ mini-experiment right here, no?

See, in this scenario, someone is charged with tapping out the tune to a common song (think: Jingle Bells or Mary Had a Little Lamb), while someone else, who has no idea what is trying to be communicated, has to interpret the taps.

You can imagine how well this goes, right?

And here’s where the immigration advocacy piece comes in.

See, I often feel, when I’m talking 1:1 with a policymaker who is pretty ardently anti-immigrant, or giving a presentation to a Rotary Club, or even trying to have a conversation with my grandpa, that there’s a wide gap, not just in what we believe, but in what we even see.

And, of course, when there’s such a disparity between how I see the world, and this particular issue, and how someone else sees it, arriving at a conclusion about how we address the problem, about the kind of policy approaches that would bring us to resolution, is even more elusive.

I see hard-working immigrants who are essential to our prosperity; you see a threat to ‘American jobs’. I see young people whose dreams are just like my kids’; you see people who don’t belong here. I see families torn apart; you see people reaping what they sow.

Kind of like when you’re tapping My County ’tis of Thee and I’m hearing Old McDonald.

And, so, I think, our challenge in advocacy has to be to try to see the situation–to hear the tune–from the perspective of the ‘other’, so that we can start in the right place. This starts with realizing we have a perception problem in the first place, acknowledging it, and trying to come around from behind the curtain, not so that we can accept the other’s views (because I don’t want to sing a different song), but so that we can look off the same sheet music.

We have to recognize that we can’t just tap louder, or more insistently. We have to help people to see reality–to hear the song–the way that we believe it to be, before we can expect them to sing along.

We use stories to help people connect those affected by current policies. We use the language of their own values to root the policy changes we seek.

We listen, even when we know that we have something really important to say.

It doesn’t mean that we’ll necessarily end up in perfect harmony with those whose tunes are much different than ours. It doesn’t mean that we silence our own songs.

It means that we recognize that what is beautiful music to our ears may be completely unrecognizable to others.

And, so, our tapping can get lost in translation, when we know that ours is a song that must be heard.

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