Tag Archives: framing

Overton Windows of Opportunity

From Flickr Creative Commons

It’s very satisfying to find actual, recognized theories for some of the ideas and instincts that float around in my head.

Especially when I’d never heard of them before–it’s like finding a friend you never knew you had, or something.

In some research that I’ve been doing about message development, as part of work on some advocacy campaigns on which I’m consulting, I came across this concept of the Overton Window(there’s apparently a novel by Glenn Beck by the same title, definitely NOT what I’m talking about here).

This Overton Window is related to the idea of political windows of opportunity, except that it’s specifically referring to messages, and the range of such ideas (or policy proposals) on a continuum from unthinkable to actualized policy (with radical, acceptable, sensible, and popular in between–I love that there’s a distinction between sensible and popular because, of course, there is).

But where I think this connects most to our advocacy challenges today, and so why I find it most comforting, is that, while much of what we know those we serve really need, in terms of policy approaches, falls somewhere in the lower ranges, from “unthinkable” (true universal health care as a guaranteed human right) to “radical” (progressive tax policies that would provide a strong foundation for economic justice), there are opportunities to move the window by deliberating building momentum around ideas that are unthinkable, so that alternatives seem quite sensible by comparison.

Conversely, in the realm of messaging, there are ways to couch the policy approaches that are our goals in terms of popular themes, riding the coattails, so to speak, of those frames in order to create space for a particular policy innovation.

What does this mean for social work policy advocates, at least those who aren’t taking my advanced policy course next fall and, therefore, will have to read and talk about this part of political theory as a part of class?

1. We absolutely have to have a sense of the policy and message landscapes around the issues we’re working, so that we can correctly diagnose why a particular idea is struggling to gain traction. There’s a real danger, always, of becoming too myopically focused on our own perspective; what the Overton Window reveals is that, without a “pulse” on the issue, we won’t know where we fall, or why we fail.

2. There is a place for the outlandish in policy debates. As I’ve said before, we’re sometimes too reluctant to appear “radical”, and so we cede wide swaths of the policy debate, which we really can’t afford, especially when we’ve got windows to shift.

3. Events beyond our control can move policy proposals from one end of the spectrum to another, just as critical events can open windows of opportunity in the policymaking process. Strategic analysis must include an assessment of how attitudes and prevailing wisdom are evolving, so that we can anticipate and respond to these changes.

Where do your policy agendas fall on this continuum, and how do you craft messages that increase the likelihood of support for your issues? How do you build momentum around ideas that clearly fall in lower ranges, particularly when they represent your “sacred extremes“? And are there any of your favorite theories, that help to explain your world and the way you see it, that I should know about?

Fighting fear with fear?

Flickr Commons photo of Arizona protests

I hate it when really effective messages are off-limits because they’re just so…ethically suspect.

I’m actually not convinced that this particular quandry falls into that category, so I guess what I’m hoping for is some guidance. Because it’s a question that needs to be faced, not just in the immigrant rights community, as I’m dealing with here, but more broadly among social justice advocates at large.

Here’s the deal:

So we acknowledge that the pervasive use of fear as a messaging component, and, indeed, an overarching political strategy is problematic, right? We want social policy that appeals to people’s best ideals and greatest hopes, not their basest anxieties. We know that the former is how we arrive at policy that uplifts and affirms and builds, rather than that which divides and denigrates and destroys. We deplore the use of fear-laden imagery in the policy campaigns that are directed against our communities and those we serve, and which label those individuals as “other”, raising specters of dire consequences if one’s desired policy objectives are not pursued.

And yet.

When it comes to opposing some of the onerous (and, indeed, odious) legislation aimed at immigrants, we find that using fear as a messaging strategy is, in fact, quite effective. It saves us from having to label as morally “bad” that which absolutely is, and it can sometimes allow us to sidestep the whole, “how do we treat newcomers in our midst” question in the first place, by shifting the focus to our fears about the implications for other sectors of the community.

And we can win.

When we talk about Arizona-style profiling legislation as “show me your papers” proposals that will intrude upon the lives of U.S. citizens, we’re tapping into fears about police states and encroaching authority. When we project that employer sanctions bills will decimate whole industries and lead to economic collapses, we’re relying on latent (and not-so-latent) fears about the precariousness of the current economy.

We’re not lying. Those are real dangers, and real possible impacts. And therein lies the dilemma; if this was a question about truth or not, we wouldn’t have an ethical quandry, just a question about our commitment to integrity in advocacy practice. The dilemma comes from deciding between what we can do and what we should do, and between short-term expediency and long-term shifting of the foundation from which our policies spring.

And, again, this isn’t limited to the immigrant rights arena. What about when we talk about investing in early childhood education as a way to save later costs in incarceration? Or public health as a way to ward off epidemics? Or…fill in the blank for your particular area of emphasis?

Why don’t we, instead, use messages that emphasize our universal humanity, the right of everyone to quality education and adequate health care and economic security?

Because those messages don’t have as much “pop”, quite honestly, as the scary ones. We know from psychological research and the consistent advice of those high-dollar communications consultants that fear sells, and that we are more motivated to act on our fears than on our dreams. And so we rely on those same techniques, and different variants of those same messages, to make our points, even though, when we stop to think about it, we’re a little squeamish about doing precisely what we abhor in the abstract.

So, again, my question is this: Should we focus on energies on shifting the conversation, knowing that if we don’t move away from fear as the conduit, others are unlikely to? Or do we engage in battle on the terms outlined today, because the stakes are just too high not to? Is there a middle ground that’s workable, or how can we make peace with where we think we must be? How do you use fear, and how do you respond to it, and how do you live with it? Does it make a difference, the question of what we’re teaching people to fear? Are there “good” and “bad” fear-based messages and, if so, how can we be sure that we’re only crafting the former?

How do we move people towards the world as it should be, without becoming entangled in the pervasive fears that inhabit this one?

Demographics and Destiny, de nuevo

It’s “update” week at Classroom to Capitol.

As I read through previous posts for my summer maternity break hiatus, I found a few that I really wanted to revisit, rather than repost. This is the second of the three that I have chosen for this week, with new thoughts and, of course, new questions.

One of the very first posts that I wrote for Classroom to Capitol, in May 2009, was about the disconnect between actual incidence of a given social problem (or the size of the affected population) and its prominence in policy debates. I called it “Demographics are not Destiny”, and it’s that title that drew me back in, more than anything, in thinking about where we stand today.

It’s Hispanic Heritage Month, what used to be a very busy time for me, when institutions all over the place suddenly decided that they wanted someone to come to “talk about Hispanic issues” in order to fill a slot in their calendars (Rotary Clubs, church circles, even the IRS one year). And a lot of the media coverage and conversation this year is about the new U.S. Census data that show the growth of the Latino origin population (accounting for 56% of total U.S. population growth between 2000-2010), particularly in some regions of the country.

Source, Pew Hispanic Center, from 2010 Census data

I’m not saying that’s not a big deal. It very well could be.

Could be.

But, in itself, population growth doesn’t equal political power. History is replete with examples of that.

And, so, the story this month (and every month) should be about what those population increases mean for our country, and about what advocates for social justice are going to do about the implications. We need to frame the discussion about how Latino voters may impact the 2012 election–and register and turn out Latino voters to ensure that they do just that. We need to talk about how more Latinos means more poverty in the U.S.–and address the educational barriers and employment discrimination that contribute to those trends. We need to demand attention to real immigration reform, given that many of the more than 50 million Latinos counted in the 2010 Census are affected (themselves or through family and community relationships) by our nation’s completely dysfunctional and destructive immigration policies. We must insert into the federal budget debate the reality that young Latino workers and their young children are essential to our nation’s fiscal (present and) future, and insist on a budget that invests in them so that they can play those needed economic roles in decades to come. We should build continue the solid work that’s being done to build alliances with immigrant communities and their allies in parts of the country that have long seen significant Latino and immigrant populations, as well as in the southeast U.S., where policy institutions are grappling with how to respond to public pressures and new challenges. In isolation, the Census figures are neither our salvation or our downfall.

They just are.

It’s how we organize within those numbers, how we frame the conversations about them, and how we respond to the opportunities and needs they present, that make all the difference.

Building a Better Frame

*I’m still on maternity leave, and, so, reposting some of my favorite posts from the last two years of Classroom to Capitol. I’ve tried to pick out a mix of those that attracted a lot of attention at the time and those that are just personally meaningful to me (and, I hope, to some of you!), and I’ve also updated them, in some cases, with some new questions and information. Thank you for your patience as I dedicate myself to full-time motherhood for a few more weeks!

Speaking two languages has been very helpful to me in many aspects of my life, and my social work practice. Certainly I could have never been an organizer and advocate within the Latino immigrant community without being fluent in Spanish. And now, even removed from that community on a daily basis, I find abundant opportunities to use my Spanish, not just to interpret while waiting in line at the pharmacy to pick up medicine for a sick kid (although that happens quite regularly), but also because there are so many things that can be said more eloquently or emphatically in one language than another. My husband, who doesn’t speak much Spanish, has fully accepted these idioms in our family life.

But speaking another language has also been helpful for me in my thinking about language itself, how we communicate, and how messages gain resonance and power. It helps me to think about how people are excluded from power by virtue of what their history or social place hasn’t provided them in terms of context. And it helps me to think about how we can use language to accomplish the kinds of shifts in public opinion and understanding that we need in order to push forward a social agenda more consistent with social work values.

A few months ago, I participated in an advocacy training session on media and messaging. While they are connected for the sake of calendar simplicity, they’re of course quite separate exercises (or should be!). In order to succeed in messaging, we must learn to see media coverage as just what it is–the media through which our established frames can seek dominance in the realm of ideas. Those health care advocates, and, indeed, many of us, are sometimes baffled by the ways in which our accepted frames fail to gain real traction in the common discourse about a certain issue. Often, it’s because we haven’t paid enough attention to how people are already talking about something, or because our messages aren’t framed in such a way as to resonate beyond our own circles. I strongly believe that we have to get better at this. Those of us who are committed to redressing such ills as growing income inequality, rising child poverty, sustained pockets of economic desperation, entrenched injustices for women, people of color, and other groups in society are still not winning the critically important battle for ideas, and this is where we need to focus our energy, in the same way that those opposed to our interests have invested decades and millions of dollars in shaping the way that we think, and talk, about the social problems we face.

An example to convince you of the importance, and then some lessons on framing.

If I would have mentioned ‘the death tax’ 20 years ago, you would have had no idea what I was talking about. “Taxing death?” “Who would do that, and why?” “What on earth do you mean?” Here again, if you were not familiar with English, you would be similarly confused–trying to translate ‘the death tax’ into Spanish is an unsatisfactory exercise. But, indeed, ‘the death tax’ is precisely how the conversation was shaped about the tax on the largest U.S. inheritances, giving this very rational, and modestly progressive, public policy a taint that suggests that the long arm of the U.S. government is reaching into the pocketbooks of the dead and grabbing their last dimes in a final insult. A truly successful adventure in framing, and one that should serve as a challenge for us–how can we ensure that social work values similarly pervade public discourse on a host of issues, from tax policy to economic support for low-income families to child welfare to health care to HIV/AIDS to immigration?

Some of my thoughts, some of which have been sparked by my reading of expert framers like George Lakoff:

1. Don’t use the ‘other side’s’ language—it picks a frame
2. Framing=using language that fits your worldview (so you have to know what this worldview is)
3. Framing has to be about ideas, not just words (if not, you’re just coming up with soundbites, and that’s always going to come up short–our challenge is to use words to shape how people think, not just how they talk–although changing how they talk is a good place to start)
4. People think in frames, not facts—if your facts don’t fit your frame, they won’t believe your facts, but once your frame is accepted, everything you say within that is ‘just common sense’—the battle is won!
5. With framing, your goal is to activate your model/frame among those in the middle (you’ll never convince your extreme opponent, and with your nearest allies, all you need is media to carry your message to them–they’re already predisposed to believe it!)
6. When we lack a clear frame (especially progressives), we overcompensate with extra words—this is a sign of weakness and partially explains why we lose; social workers are particularly notorious for this, because we can always ‘see all sides of an issue’–that’s nice, but framing is not the time or the place for nuances; we need to pick a frame and stick with it!
7. We win when we talk about values and connect with others’ core values without having to sacrifice our own frame in pursuit of common ground. If they get you to abandon your frame, they will have won even if you win the tangible victory (b/c frames shift thinking and attitudes, which is what wins over the long term)
8. Start with values, not facts or issues–we have to find a place to connect (family, liberty, justice…and then how does your particular frame on this issue fit those values?)
9. Repetition, repetition, repetition—people won’t remember where they heard it, but they’ll remember it! (Think of the Doublemint Gum commercials or any parallel from your youth–in framing as in marketing, you get no bonus points for innovation, only for dominance)
10. When interacting with media, always reframe to your perspective before answering—if you answer in their frame, you won’t even have a chance to communicate your real message. Midwesterners have a particularly hard time with this, so you may need to practice this so that it doesn’t feel rude or unduly awkward. Remember, they have to print/quote/use something, so if you only say things that are consistent with your frame, then that will come through by default!
11. Build stocks of effective stories with your frame built in, and work them into every opportunity to talk about the issue–every example you give and every picture you paint with your words needs to be pulling people towards the same, common frame.

I want to hear–what, in your opinion, are the most important frames in public discourse about the social problem(s) that are your particular focus? Who is responsible for driving them? How might you reframe where needed? Do you have a social problem with which you’re especially struggling with a frame? Leave it in the comments and we’ll think together about how you might frame it!

Messages and Collateral Damage

Photo credit: Reform Immigration for America

Five months ago tomorrow (I know, who else remembers where they were?), the U.S. Senate proved themselves real Grinches, as they defeated, by a five-vote margin, the DREAM Act, which had passed the U.S. House the week before.

And, in the intervening months, as we struggle for any traction around immigrant rights in the midst of an increasingly hostile climate, I find myself mourning most, not for the students whose dreams were so coldly turned back, but for their parents. And that has me thinking about messaging, and how we sometimes don’t do ourselves any favors, and also about parenting, and about how powerless we are, as parents, to protect our kids from the cruelty of the world.

Around the same time that DREAM was defeated, I sat in a conference room in our local school district and heard an administrator actually say that “parents in our district expect more for their children than those elsewhere.”

I know. Disgusting.

Because I know a lot of immigrant parents who expected so much for their children that they WALKED ACROSS THE DESERT to give them a chance at a better life. Or RODE IN THE TRUNK OF A CAR for eight hours.

If that’s not complete dedication to the well-being of one’s kids, well, you can imagine how I reacted to that bigoted statement.

But even some of our greatest DREAM Act allies: immigrant rights organizations, champion Senators, and members of the Administration, have unfairly villified immigrant parents over the past several months, in an effort to win sympathy for DREAM-eligible youth. You’ve heard the claims, I’m sure: “children shouldn’t have to pay for the sins of their parents”.

As if wanting more for your children, and being willing to risk your own life to get it, is a sin.

And, so, as I’ve thought about what could have been, and what should have been, if the DREAM Act had won the support of just FIVE more Senators, I’ve thought about how those parents must feel.

They’ve watched their children become all they had ever hoped and more: bright, accomplished, committed, brave, articulate, ambitious. And they’ve watched powerful people in their adopted country deny their children the most basic opportunities to build on those assets in pursuit of a better future. And then they’ve watched those who are supposed to be their friends throw them under the bus, in a desperate attempt to win what should by rights be theirs in the first place.

And they can’t do anything to stem the tears or salve the disappointments.

I’ve said it before, but I’m more convinced than ever: we need messages that work for the long-term, and across multiple issues. We can’t sacrifice principles for expediency. Because we often lose anyway, and, along the way, we’ve hurt people who are hurting enough already.

Moms and Dads, I talk with your kids a lot. And, without fail, they credit you for who and where they are today. You instilled these values in them, and you inspire them every day.

They know that they’re not atoning for your crimes; they’re living up to your legacy.

Muy bien hecho, mamás y papás. Muy bien hecho.

Why we need a “left flank”: Reflections on the Kansas Legislature, 2010

When I was reading The Woman Behind the New Deal last summer, I found myself thinking about the Kansas Legislature’s 2010 session during the section on the role of the Townsend Movement in the legislative battle for Social Security.

Yes, that’s how my mind works.

The book relates the story of how, when congressional support for the Economic Security Act (retirement support, unemployment compensation, mothers’ pensions, and other key measures in our social welfare system) was waning, passage was ultimately secured, in part, due to pressure from supporters of a more aggressively liberal proposal: the Townsend bill. These campaigners wanted $200 per month for retirees, and they sent letters to Congress, held events around the country, and, most importantly, influenced the debate over economic security legislation, such that a more modest pension plan like the one supported by the Roosevelt Administration was ultimately seen as a compromise measure, not a radical initiative.

And that’s what made me think about the Kansas Legislature.

During the 2010 debate on new revenue measures, the factions coalesced around the “no new taxes/cut and cut and cut” pole, versus the “sales tax increase to avoid further cuts” camp. The increase revenue side eventually won, and the legislature passed a budget which included a sales tax increase (and an increase in the state Earned Income Tax Credit, so all was not bad!) and no new cuts in education or social services. It was actually quite amazing how a coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans came together to support the package, which none of them thought was perfect but all of them preferred to cuts upon cuts.


Reading about this history of the role played by the Townsend Movement (whose goals were, ultimately, not all that reflected in the final version of Social Security that won approval in Congress) made me wonder…

what if?

What if there had been a strong, coordinated push for a truly progressive revenue package, with an increase in the income tax (especially on higher earners) and additional rollbacks of corporate tax cuts? What if there had been an effort to light a fire in middle-class and working-class households and communities, where people are feeling the simultaneous squeeze of declining incomes (which reduce their ability to absorb a sales tax increase) and the effects of reduced services? What if there had been the kind of movement that resulted in all of those letters to Congress from older adults, and the Kansas Legislature had felt some real pressure to enact a progressive revenue package? And what if that coalition, or maybe even a slightly different one, had then had to tack to the left in order to accommodate that pressure, and we had ended up with a revenue base that would have not only put us on sound financial footing for the coming budget year but also promoted the kind of just economic policy that is its own reward?

Too often, we put forward these “reasonable”-sounding policy proposals that we think can garner bipartisan support, as though there were some kind of advocacy bonus point system for sounding reasonable, when what we really need is some outlandish proposals that make even the huge victories that we ultimately ‘settle’ for look modest by comparison.

Townsend reportedly told his wife, who wanted him to quiet down as he was ranting about the world’s injustices (my husband could probably empathize), “I want all the neighbors to hear me! I want God almighty to hear me. I’m going to shout till the whole country hears!”

Of course, he did. And his legacy, while perhaps unrecognizable as a shadow of his actual vision, looms huge in U.S. social policy today.

So, for next year’s Kansas legislative session, and on the national stage too, I’m proposing a whole lot more shouting. We need to revive (and perhaps invent anew) a bunch of crazy-sounding ideas (amnesty, perhaps? guaranteed incomes? universal free higher education?) that make aggressively progressive proposals look tame and more restrictive ones look radioactive. 2011, when the deck is already stacked against us after the 2010 elections, just might be the year to go out on a limb. What do we have to lose?

Those are the kinds of compromises I can get excited about.

Not game-changing: why it will take a movement to win immigration reform

Photo credit, Reform Immigration for America

The Immigration Policy Center just came out with a new report on the demographics, achievements, and economic contributions of immigrants in Kansas. It’s a great organization that puts out good research relating to the realities of immigrant families and communities, and I think they even “get” the politics of influencing attitudes on immigration reform better than most organizations; their blog and reports include such values-based items as What the Bible Really Says About Immigration and focus on the impact of anti-immigrant policies on immigrant children.

And this report itself has very positive data: “If all unauthorized immigrants were removed from Kansas, the state would lose $1.8 billion in expenditures, $807.2 million in economic output, and approximately 11,879 jobs, even accounting for adequate market adjustment time.”

So my argument is NOT that there’s anything wrong with producing these kinds of reports, or with organizations dedicating themselves to publicizing them. At all.


The problem is that, alone, they won’t do much at all to move us towards our goal of good, progressive, workable, pro-immigrant reform. Our opinion polling on Americans’ attitudes towards immigration tell us that, overwhelming, it is an appeal to common values that moves them towards pro-immigrant positions, not a barrage of facts seeking to irrefutably demonstrate immigrants’ importance to our economy or society. There are two main reasons for this, and we need to understand the nature of these limitations in order to reduce our reliance on this kind of data in favor of the laborious, exhilarating, very hard work of building a social movement that will demand policy change, rather than expecting politicians to have a sudden epiphany that, “hey, immigrants are really contributing to our country and doing great things–we should be nicer to them!”

Reason 1: People just aren’t moved by facts the way that they are by stories and values. Think about it: what are YOU more likely to pay attention to and remember–a list of impressive economic data, or a really compelling story that resonates with something central about how you see the world? Yeah, me too.

Reason 2: Unfortunately, people know that data can be manipulated, and, in this particular area, for every study highlighting the significant contributions of immigrants to our nation, there is at least one put out by the anti-immigrant ideologues arguing exactly the opposite (plus, thrown in for good measure, some allegations that they’re all criminal child molesters and welfare cheats, too). I’ve looked at the methodology and I think it’s pretty clear that the evidence asserting a net positive impact of immigrants, including those undocumented, on the country is overwhelming, and there is even some (albeit slightly less strong) evidence of net positive impact on the state, too, AND, of course, that these positive impacts would only increase with immigration reform that gave people legal status to work in the U.S. (which would raise wages and education levels and bring people out of the underground economy). But, the point is, of course I’d come to that conclusion, because those facts support my worldview. It doesn’t happen the other way around.

So, what to do when a report like this comes out? We should absolutely use it with our allies, to add to our talking points, share with legislators inclined towards supporting our cause but in search of ammunition with which to support it, and use with media who are tempted to run as ‘fact’ the reports that the anti-immigrant groups parade out.

But, then, we have to get back to the work of building relationships, tying immigration reform to how people see this nation of immigrants moving forward into the future, registering citizen children of immigrant parents to vote, organizing immigrant communities to engage in collective action, building solidarity with workers and progressives…in other words, building a movement.

Women didn’t win the right to vote because men were suddenly convinced of their (um, obvious) economic and social import. Much of the U.S. would have collapsed without the labor and consumption of African Americans, yet it wasn’t their economic impact that won their freedom, from slavery or from apartheid rule.

Movements won those struggles, and it will take a movement again.

Frames and Conventional Wisdom

I read Freakonomics last fall, and it was a seriously bizarre book, but I really liked it. It was another one of the books that I needed to read because a student had chosen it for the reading analysis assignment, and it was thoroughly readable.

I was tempted to start this new year with his argument about how legalized abortion deserves the credit for declining crime rates in the 1990s, more than increases in policing or any of the other, oft-cited causes (seriously; he makes a really fascinating and persuasive case there–check it out!), but I decided to focus on the theme that really runs through the book instead–how, when we’re willing to challenge prevailing frames and rethink what we’ve always taken for granted, we can often find surprising solutions to the social problems that plague us.

And that, I guess, is one of my greatest hopes for this new year: that social work advocates and others of like spirit will find the courage and the creativity and the outright audacity to turn ‘conventional wisdom’ (which, of course, is often quite unwise) on its head and, in the process, find rays of light out of some of the tunnels in which we currently find ourselves. This will require asking the right questions, because all too often we are debating the ‘right’ answers to questions that we should never be asking (see current discussion of whether or not to drug test Food Stamp beneficiaries) or failing to ask the hard, even odd questions that could yield the greatest promise (what if we developed a whole new way to invest in nonprofits, outside of the grant structure?).

Check out the book–it’s worth reading for the great example of the civil servant who comes up with the idea to require Social Security Numbers for dependents, which revealed (and recouped) more than $14 billion in additional tax revenue from cheaters in five years alone–and then consider making one of your new year’s revolutions a commitment to unorthodoxy. If we start looking in the right places, talking to the right people, and daring to question those who (like the KKK example that Levitt also uses) seek to control and distort with selectively-presented misinformation, we just may be surprised at what we find: sumo wrestlers and public school teachers have something in common.