All of us who work in social change know that it doesn’t happen overnight. But in the early morning hours of a late July day I woke to discover that something significant had changed overnight — and I firmly believe stories played a central role.
I’m talking about the vote in the U.S. Senate that may well mark the final defeat of Republicans’ efforts to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act (ACA), or Obamacare. I went to bed anxious about what I’d find when I arose, but comforted myself that I’d done everything I could and would keep up all my efforts if the fight continued.
I made my voice heard to my elected officials, I attended rallies, I wrote letters to the editor and, most important of all, I told stories of the Americans whose lives have been changed for the better by the ACA, including my own. My storytelling project was inspired by my work on President Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign and has continued ever since. The stories I began writing to demonstrate the ACA’s value suddenly became vital to protecting its existence.
I believe the stories told by countless Americans made a difference. They elevated the human condition over the often wonky discourse around health insurance and healthcare, giving people on both sides of the aisle a reason to fight for something better than a purely political agenda: people’s lives.
When my friends at frank invited me to answer the question “Does activism work?” for a piece in their newsletter, I was delighted to respond in the affirmative.
One voice at a time, we can steer the conversation in one direction or another. We can make people think, whether they like it or not, about our view. When enough people share the same view — and say it out loud — it becomes impossible to ignore. A storm of public opinion is formed drop by drop, until it becomes a wave crashing on the shore.
You can read my thoughts about how activism helped change the conversation about health reform, along with the insights some of my fellow franksters shared about their work, in the frank newsletter.
“There are no days off from learning,” a friend said to me recently. And it struck me that of all the lessons I will take away from the 2017 frank gathering, it’s that those of us who work in social change must be lifelong learners. We must be willing to learn something new every day — to challenge our assumptions, to say “I don’t know” and to be curious enough to seek answers to the tough questions about the world around us and the work we do.
I’m not surprised by the infusion of information and inspiration I received during the three days of frank, the annual gathering of social change communicators. I came prepared to learn from people who are at the top of their field and the top of their game. What I didn’t necessarily expect was to hear many of those people talk about their relentless pursuit of improvement. They recognize that the work we do — instigating and implementing positive change — can’t be mastered through complacency. It demands that we embrace the challenge of every day as if our lives depended on it. And when we’re championing issues like affordable healthcare, environmental protection or racial justice, people’s lives actually do depend on it.
During the closing ceremonies, Ann Christiano, creative director of frank and Frank Karel Chair in Public Interest Communications at the University of Florida, spoke of the value of virtuosity. Watch her talk online to fully appreciate her message, but these are the words that stuck with me most indelibly: “We must always strive to be our best. We must always self-correct and look for the opportunity to be better.”
Virtuosity is fueled, in part, by curiosity, which was the theme of this year’s frank gathering. We were given a Commonplace Book in which to capture “curious musings.” I covered many pages with ideas from the speakers and sessions I was most curious about, and as I continue filling pages with reflections and revelations I feel certain there will be no holding back the renewed sense of curiosity this year’s gathering unleashed in me.
Now that I’m back at work, I’m reminded of the words of the late, great Wendy Wasserstein, which have long been a mantra for me: “How will you use what you know?”
Some of what I learned at frank is immediately influencing my work, like a bolt of lightning. I’m already putting smarter communication strategies to use, whether they’re concepts that were new to me or approaches I’ve always employed but am applying in more imaginative, innovative ways thanks to what I learned.
But I suspect that what will be even more valuable are the ideas and inspirations that will seep in almost invisibly, like rays of sunshine, over the days and months to come. Our skin tingles with joy when it’s touched by the sun, but the benefits of what our bodies absorb go much deeper. I’m confident that frank will nourish my mind and spirit not just in the moment, but as I continue to pursue curiosity and virtuosity in every aspect of my work and my life at large.
The words of Bridgit Antoinette Evans will echo in my head, perhaps forever. She spoke of “soulful disruptions,” and her frank talk reminded me that who we are is a direct influence on the work we do. I know I’ll also be guided often by the wisdom of Rashad Robinson, who said, “People don’t experience issues. They experience life.” When I’m writing about issue advocacy or telling people’s stories, that truth will provide a meaningful frame for my work. And then there’s Trey Kay, whose Us & Them podcast explores our country’s cultural divides. He said, “When you’re trying to save the world, sometimes you have to recognize that it’s you who must change.” Change is an inevitable part of life — it’s in the name of the work we do: social change. When we see others resistant to changing in the ways we ask them to, it’s important to remember that every one of us can experience that same stubbornness.
Moving forward, I will draw strength and inspiration from the many frank speakers who talked about empathy and hope and optimism. All of these virtues may feel in short supply right now, but after frank I know they are bountiful and necessary to positive action. Just as necessary as the willingness to stay curious, always.
Every day is an opportunity to open our minds and our hearts to new solutions to thorny problems. I’m grateful for the inspiration of the frank community — and the infinite resources it provides for honing our skills and discovering the best use of our talents. From the talks posted online to a new online master’s program in Public Interest Communications launching later this year to a thriving tribe of do-gooders who stay connected and collaborative through frank, there is a steady supply of new things to learn, every single day.
[Photo credits: Top photo by Amy Lynn Smith; other photos courtesy of frank on Facebook].
When I told a colleague I was heading to frank, the annual gathering of social change communicators and movement builders, she replied, “Please change our world for us.” That may sound like a very tall order — especially at this time in America’s ever-unfolding story — but it’s exactly what all of us at frank hope to do, each in our own way, every day.
I first discovered frank and the Public Interest Communications program at the University of Florida when I received a mysterious email that nudged me to request an invite to the 2015 gathering if I thought I belonged. I did, and I was delighted they agreed. It only took me about an hour at frank 2015 to realize I’d found my tribe. I knew there were other people who do the work I do, but I didn’t know there was a name for this emerging field, let alone an academic curriculum. I certainly didn’t know there was a time and place where we could all come together to inspire and learn from each other.
The frank 2017 gathering feels more necessary than ever. Although frank isn’t a partisan entity, the majority of the work attendees do is liberal-leaning: pushing for equality, fairness and justice for all, among other things. And the precarious position of the United States and the world right now makes the work we do feel particularly urgent; it makes the solidarity of like-minded souls feel like essential solace in troubled times.
I’m honored to be part of the frank 2017 steering committee, which includes some of the very best and brightest minds in social change communications. Heading into the 2016 election, we were already talking about how to make sure the view from both sides is explored in this year’s talks and programming, which all center around the theme of curiosity. But in our planning meeting just days after the election, we all recognized that we face a particularly daunting task in the “post-truth” era. How do we educate people — and mobilize them to act and evolve — when it seems a large segment of the American population no longer cares about the truth? During that meeting, I personally felt a sense of profound gratitude that I work in a field where my efforts can make a tangible difference.
A few weeks ago, frank asked us to submit our burning questions of the moment — what we’re curious about right now. One of my questions asked how we can motivate people to recognize and believe in facts in the post-truth era. Another pondered how we continue our work for social change in the midst of animosity, anger and aggression from both sides, without losing our equilibrium in the process. It’s not just about making the world a better place, but also taking good care of each other while we do it.
These are just some of the many questions I know my time at frank will answer. I’m looking forward to this year’s gathering not only for mission-critical information, but also for the camaraderie of others doing the same work I do. I’ll be reunited with friends and colleagues and will meet new ones, knowing we begin united by a mutual concern for the future of our country and our world.
I’m still pinching myself that the frank community has shoulder-tapped me to be more than an attendee. Two years running, I’ve had the pleasure of serving as a speaker coach, helping world-class thinkers prepare remarks you won’t see anywhere but frank. If you’re not going to be at frank, you can catch the livestream or re-casts. Every speaker I’m working with has opened my mind and my heart to new ideas, and I can’t wait to watch them shine and to absorb what their fellow speakers have to say.
This year, I also have the honor of hosting a “scrum” — the frank version of a breakout session. I’ll be leading a group brainstorm about how to use storytelling strategically to educate and engage the public around healthcare topics, with protecting the Affordable Care Act as one pressing issue. It’s work I’ve been doing for years, and I’m excited to share it with my fellow franksters.
The frank motto is “Don’t settle for small change” — a lofty aspiration, particularly right now, when many American leaders would rather see us regress instead of moving forward. But I have faith. I have faith in frank and my fellow franksters. I have faith in the goodness of people, particularly as I see how they’re taking action to protect what already makes America great. I have faith that change is possible, even at a time when we may feel immutably stuck.
I’ll be sharing my insights and experiences at frank on Twitter and Facebook, and will surely have more to say here after the gathering. For now, suffice to say that I can’t wait to reunite with my tribe. I am infinitely curious to discover all the ways we can help each other do more good. And yes, change our world.
[Photo credits: Top image by LAF Lines Photography; photos from frank 2015 and frank 2016 by Amy Lynn Smith.]