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7 Min Read

Complicating the Narrative: Embracing Identity Politics in Order to Win Social Change

Key Takeaways: 

  1. Focusing on marginalized identities helps unite groups and bridge gaps between individuals. 
  2. When talking about inclusion and identity, when you don’t focus on those who are directly impacted, you create more room for people in the middle to side with the opposition. 
  3. Historically, domestic workers have not been included in state and federal laws. Because of this, domestic workers have difficulty advocating for themselves and bringing up sexual harassment complaints.
  4. It is important to be deliberate, consistent and strategic when communicating with the press and target audiences. 

Session Summary: 

For some, the term “identity politics” carries many negative connotations. In 2016 people argued that Trump won the presidential election because progressives spent too much time focusing on issues pertaining to queer people, people of color, and women.  The session speakers argued that identity politics is not a negative term. Instead, it allows an individual to embrace complexity and speak to a fuller self. The term was coined by the Combahee River Collective, a group of black, feminist lesbians who were active in Boston in the 1970s. They felt it was important to participate in whole person politics and express all facets of their identities.

Jung Hee Choi, associate director of Power California, talked about the goals of the organization she represents in the context of identity politics. California has the nation’s fifth largest population of African Americans under 25. However, older white voters set most of the state’s policy decisions. This is an example of a white minority establishing policies that affect a black majority. For instance, following the Parkland the narrative surrounding school shootings became race-neutral. Young people of color now felt invisible in a situation in which they were actually over-represented. Power California decided to have a narrative intervention. Through art, social and digital media, and organized young people in mass. By engaging in an intersectional dialogue young people connected their identities to the effects of gun violence. 

Hermelinda Cortes, program manager for ReFrame Mentorship, discussed the complicated conversation surrounding North Carolina HB 2, aka: the “bathroom bill.” Starting in 2014, there was a push to include protected classes in city council ordinances. Although the original measure was focused on inclusive language, the opposition shifted the conversation toward trans people attacking women and children in bathrooms. When this tension arose, her organization argued with advisors who told them not to use the term “transgender” in their messaging. Later, they wondered what would have happened if they didn’t argue with these firms but instead worked to advocate for marginalized people. They learned that when the conversation isn’t centered on those who are directly impacted by legislation, then people with a moderate stance are likely to side with the opposition. Therefore, when advocating for change, it is crucial to focus on the group being affected instead of trying to appeal to the majority. 

Jennifer Dillon, communications director for the National Domestic Workers Alliance, described the difficulties domestic workers face when trying to advocate for themselves. There are approximately 2.5 million domestic workers throughout the US who face pervasive discrimination. Historically, they have been written out of state and federal laws which makes it difficult to file sexual harassment claims and advocate for their wellbeing. In 2017, the Weinstein case broke open and women who had been abused came forward with their stories. This moment made sexual harassment a white collar issue. The conversation was not focused on low-income people. However, Meryl Streep called their organization ahead of the 2018 Golden Globe Awards ceremony. That year Streep walked the red carpet with Ai-jen Poo, the director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance. Many actresses followed suit and allowed the advocates to speak to the press about the issues affecting marginalized people. As a result of their efforts, the organization helped pass the National Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in 2019 which provided federal protections for the 2.5 million workers who had previously been unprotected. 

Additional Notes, Quotes, and Interesting Points:

  • From presentation slide: Youth Organizer Tre Vasquez believes that all youth have a right to safe schools and communities free from violence. “This includes gun violence, police brutality, deportations, and educational inequities that leave behind marginalized students and their families,” said Vasquez. “Instead of more security, students are voicing a need for more resources like counselors, restorative justice and health centers.” 
  • It is important to embrace complexity because it allows people to bridge their differences, create more inclusive narratives and solutions, and build long term power and structural transformations. 
  • Inclusion: The behaviors and social norms that ensure individuals are treated fairly and with dignity and have equal access to opportunities and resources to contribute to our society. 
  • Intersectionality: A framework for conceptualizing a person’s overlapping identities and experiences in order to understand the complexity of structural oppression and how to address them. 

Examples Provided: 

  • Traditional messaging suggests that it is best to be inclusive. However, there is new research coming out that challenges this standard. It suggests race-forward messaging is more effective in mobilizing an organization’s base than attempting to appeal to everyone. 
  • Organizations are predisposed to believe that communities on the ground cannot develop effective strategies. However, some of the most effective changes have come from the ground up. Progressives need to invest in movement building and developing strategies from the ground up. 
  • Although some organizations don’t have strong communications infrastructure, it is important to teach your staff about strategic communications in order to implement the lessons learned from ground-up.

Experts in this Field: 

  • Youth Organizer Tre Vasquez

Resources & Tools: 

Next Steps: 

  1. When advocating for a cause, consider intersectionality a strength, not a weakness. 
  2. Determine who your target audience is. Talking to the general public is ineffective. It is important to connect with your base and learn how to move people who are undecided. 

Questions from the Audience: 

Q: How can organizations move away from reliance on research? 

A: You don’t need to throw polling and messaging tests out the window, but you don’t need to spend millions of dollars on it. 

Q: Hermelinda Cortés talked about the complications surrounding House Bill 2, aka the “bathroom bill” in North Carolina. How do you fund communication efforts without worsening the issue? 

A: Make sure program staff know that strategic communication is a way to leverage power. Figure out what kind of communications infrastructure is needed based on the cause you are advocating for and don’t be afraid to use communication firms to help win important fights. 

Q: How can you do a better job of helping people who speak up about important issues? 

A: Progressives need to invest in ground-up communication strategies and movement building. 


These notes were captured by Nataleah Small and have been reviewed by the presenters Jennifer Dillon, Jung Hee Choi, and Hermelinda Cortes.


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