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Tapping Into American Aspirations

This article first appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of Change Agent.

Even in these challenging times, we find common ground for justice in America.

One month after the 2016 presidential election, six focus group participants gathered around a table in Grand Rapids, Michigan, to talk about their lives and their country. They didn’t know that some of them had voted for Republican Donald Trump, while others had voted for Democrat Hillary Clinton or Green Party candidate Jill Stein.

The conversation wasn’t about the election, in fact. It was about their aspirations—for their lives, their communities, and their country—and big ideas like “opportunity” and “inequality.”

Focus group participants in cities across the country in late 2016 expressed common concerns about the problem of rising inequality in America. They shared aspirations for achieving a more level playing field and expressed support for measures to get there. We found in town after town that when you put aside partisan debate and simply ask people about their hopes for themselves and America, there is striking unity.

The Ford Foundation supports more than 1,000 front-line social change organizations in the U.S. For years, these organizations have been expressing concern about a narrative of America that they felt divided people and discouraged support for measures to address poverty and inequality. That narrative, they believe, is based on a commonly held myth about opportunity, which says: “Everyone has equal opportunity in America. If you’re willing to work hard, you’ll get ahead.”

In 2012, the Ford Foundation and Hattaway Communications joined forces to understand this well-established narrative and if it might be replaced with something equally deep and powerful in the American psyche. We wanted to understand the elements of American identity today, and how those insights inform how non-profit organizations engage with people to advance important causes.

Since then, American Aspirations has conducted dozens of ethnographic interviews in people’s homes, led an ongoing series of focus group conversations, and conducted a survey of more than 2,000 Americans representing the nation’s full diversity.

Why Explore Identity and Aspiration?

Brain science says it’s difficult to dislodge an entrenched narrative by offering facts and figures that disprove it; each of us tends to reject ideas and information that do not confirm our established worldview. To “change the narrative” on any topic, communicators must side-step deeply held but counterproductive narratives by offering equally resonant and more constructive ones.

To gain these kinds of insights, we decided it was important to explore American identity and aspirations, deep and powerful motivators that shape people’s openness to what you have to say, drive their decision-making, and tap their sense of purpose and hope.

Early in our research, using qualitative methods, we identified six broad elements of American identity that appear widely shared. None of these should come as a surprise; they are core elements of American identity that we see again and again in political discourse, popular culture, and advertising.

The unique self: Americans see themselves in highly individualistic terms—unique, hard-working, self-determining. In our research they spoke little about the larger community or “village” of which they are a part.
The pursuit of happiness: Close to their unique self-concept is the pursuit of personal fulfillment, be it in work accomplishment, work/life balance, self-expression, or exciting life experiences.
The sanctity of work: Tightly linked to happiness was a reverence for work ethic. In their own family histories and in cherished American myths, people held tightly to the idea that “we came from nothing.” Determination and perseverance are thus highly valued. The sanctity of work also involved entrepreneurial dreams.
The fairness factor: Despite believing that what happens in Washington has little effect on their day-to-day lives, we found in most people a deep belief that “fairness” is needed in the system, ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to achieve. Fairness, of course, is a broad concept and cuts in multiple directions.
A sense of order: One of the most striking early findings was the degree to which people yearned for a clear sense of cosmic order in terms of the “right way” to live. A respect for “moral fiber” or “a sense of right and wrong” came through very clearly, whether or not people identified as particularly religious.
A winning team: Finally, Americans—though they see themselves in highly individualistic terms—still believe in America as “a winning team,” one that enables individual achievement, fuels creativity and innovation, renews itself through diversity and acceptance of difference, prizes individual enterprise but as part of a common drive for accomplishment, and embraces absolutes tempered by fairness.

An Emerging Consensus on What Matters

These ideas—about individual as well as national identity—became central to our next round of research, a large national survey. Without dwelling too much on the extensive data, we found the ideas of identity we unearthed in the qualitative rounds to be valid across the country. Most important from our perspective was the general finding that Americans are more aligned and united than we might imagine, opening up considerable opportunity for finding uniting narratives.

That’s what our recent focus groups have been seeking to do. With the insights about language and images we are now gleaning, we plan a new national survey this spring and summer that will test narrative ideas about equality, fairness, and opportunity in America. These broad concepts need definition and fresh language that makes them more concrete and real in people’s lives—enabling you to connect your cause to your audiences using stories and language that will truly resonate.

While we work to complete the research, there are already a handful of key lessons we have derived from this effort to understand American Aspirations. These lessons are broadly applicable to the work of cause organizations and can immediately be put to work.

Lesson 1: Remind people that not everyone is born with the same opportunity.

The words we use are key to starting conversations on common ground. Linguistic analysis of some 200,000 words uttered in a dozen focus groups in 2016 showed that people expressed the idea that our opportunities in life are influenced to a great degree by the circumstances of our birth.

We asked focus group participants if some Americans have more opportunity than others. People of all political persuasions expressed a common narrative about a lack of equal opportunity in America:  

Not every child is born with the same opportunity

Children born into happy families in safe neighborhoods with good schools have plenty of opportunity

Children born in struggling families in unsafe neighborhoods with underfunded schools have less opportunity.

Poverty and inequality are complex problems. Solving them will take massive investments of know-how, energy and resources. Complex and confusing messaging is overwhelming and de-motivating for most people. Frame the problem in an intuitive way so people will understand it immediately.

This narrative offers a simple but powerful lesson for framing a conversation about addressing inequality: Remind people that we’re not all born with the same opportunities in life. People from all walks of life will know what you mean.

Lesson 2: Frame public investments as “tools” that empower people to build a good life.

Our conversations also found consensus around the idea that individual effort alone does not guarantee opportunity in America. The people we spoke to agreed there is still opportunity in America for those willing and able to work hard, but all of them rejected the idea that hard work alone is enough to get ahead. Many alluded to the fact that public policies, programs and infrastructure are necessary to help people get ahead.

Everyone, whether we’re born into poverty or not, needs access to “tools” to build a good life—like a good education, access to health care and economic infrastructure like roads, bridges and broadband.

The lesson is to frame public programs as tools that empower everyone. Most Americans value self-reliance and want to stand on their own two feet—but they also respond to a narrative reminding them that public investments are necessary to achieve that aspiration. This insight can also apply to government-supported anti-poverty programs.

Lesson 3: When talking about people, talk about character traits rather than demographic categories

One of the most common traps social sector organizations fall into is talking about the people we serve using language that alienates our audiences. At Ford, we found expressions such as “low-income people of color,” “vulnerable and marginalized populations,” “the working poor,” to be ubiquitous in our blog posts and web content.

The trouble is, this type of language turns off audiences because it “otherizes” the people we are talking about, making them seem distant, different, and unrelatable. No one thinks of themselves in these terms—not the people we work with nor those we seek to communicate with. We discovered that such language automatically creates barriers that limit the impact of anything else you communicate.

Our research found that when we talk about people using traits that are relatable—essentially spoke of them as real people with dignity and purpose—messages were much better received and had greater impact. Now we strive to depict the character traits of people rather than demographic categories. “Hard-working people trying to make ends meet,” for example. “Young people born into tough circumstances and working doubly hard to get ahead.” Speaking about people’s character draws audiences in because they respect traits that they strive for in their own lives. This builds connection and empathy—much better starting points for any discussion of serious issues of poverty, inequality, or injustice.

Driving a new narrative about opportunity

These insights suggest an alternative narrative to the myth of equal opportunity—a message built on the common ground shared by people of many different backgrounds and beliefs:

Everyone in America who is willing and able to work hard should have the opportunity to get ahead.

But your opportunities in life are shaped by where you’re born.

Americans do best when everyone has the tools and opportunity to build a good life—no matter who you are or where you were born.

The consensus in Grand Rapids and elsewhere suggests that people with very different political perspectives will see their hopes and values reflected in this simple but profound narrative about the reality of opportunity in America. It can open the door to conversations about a wide variety of issues and solutions.

Visit AmericanAspirations.com to learn how you can connect your cause to hopes and values that motivate people—and create communications that inspire and engage them.

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