How the Black Lives Matter Movement is Using Stories and Science to Drive Change
“If we don’t share our stories, then somebody else is going to tell our stories for us,” said Matthews.
By Taylor Tringali, staff writer
Black Lives Matter is the historical movement catalyzed by the murder of Trayvon Martin which began online as a love letter to black people from the organization’s founder, Alicia Garza. Since its inception, Black Lives Matter has opened the conversation about injustices faced by black people and has garnered support and momentum in changing the long standing narrative about blackness in America.
I had the pleasure of speaking with the Director of Communications for the Black Lives Matter Global Network, Shanelle Matthews, who is also speaking at frank 2017. Shanelle fleshed out the crucial role of strategic communications in the Black Lives Matter movement.
Taylor: What are you currently working on?
Shanelle: Right now we are working on a number of things, but from a communications perspective, we are working on developing an ideological intervention in America’s consciousness about race and race reform. We work across issue area and across geography to eliminate state sanctioned violence against black people. We are training the next generation of black millennial leaders to make strategic interventions on race and racism in the media through Channel Black, an immersive training program I developed. Channel Black supports the debate, improv, cognitive linguistics, and media skills of black millennials working within the movement for black lives. Through that we hope to eliminate barriers to empathy and understanding and change the way people interact with black people and blackness.
How does storytelling drive your organization? How do you use stories to further the movement?
February 26th marks the 5-year anniversary of the murder of Trayvon Martin. Our movement and organization were catalyzed by this and we have told that story time and again. The stories of black people that are told every single day with regard to hate crimes they experience are the stories that catalyze our movement and our strategy every day. We talk about our experiences explicitly. There are long standing narratives about black people that shape the way people understand us and where we come from. If we don’t share our stories, then somebody else is going to tell our stories for us.
What are some communication or campaign strategies you use that have been successful?
Over the course of the last 3 years we have built a fairly comprehensive editorial strategy. Building narrative is equally as important as building people power. We have a strong desire to use tested messaging to change the way people understand anti-black racism and blackness in America, so we work with cognitive scientists to develop messaging. We have also built relationships with local and national reporters who view us as a primary source of information when it comes to issues with racism and other issues impacting black people in America.
Social media has been a driving force for Black Lives Matter. How would you say you use social media as a tool?
More often than not, a lot of our political education and information dissemination happens through social media. So because a lot of our base gets their news online, we share a lot of information online. It’s the way we get out information about rallies, marches and events, or political education seminars. Black Lives Matter started online as a love letter from Alicia Garza to black people and transformed into an offline organizing organization. We use social media but we’re also really mindful that our base lives real lives offline, so we also engage them there too.
“In order to change that behavior, you have to create a system of repetition around your issue in order to create new neuropathways in people’s brains so that they interact with black people and blackness differently,” said Matthews.
What are some challenges you’ve encountered on your journey with Black Lives Matter?
When you’re a communications professional you understand that human behavior is predicated on people’s implicit bias. In order to change that behavior, you have to create a system of repetition around your issue in order to create new neuropathways in people’s brains so that they interact with black people and blackness differently.
Another challenge is dealing with anti-black racism in the media. As a former journalist I’m embarrassed to say that media makers do a poor job of giving reporters cultural competency. I spend a significant amount of my time doing political education with reporters and reminding them that they have a moral and ethical responsibility to report the news as unbiased as possible.
Finally, another challenge we have is propaganda. We’re constantly dealing with propaganda about who we are and what we do. Because anti-blackness is so pervasive, people assume that everybody who works for BLM is exactly the same, which is bullshit. Every single individual who organizes with us has a different perspective and understanding of their work and a different level of commitment to the organizing that they’re doing. We have been very explicit about what it is that we do and unfortunately because black people are often not believed and are viewed as inherently criminal, people don’t believe us.
What are some things we can expect to see from BLM in the future?
The election changed a lot of things for a lot of people. While we’re more mindful of how precarious life is under the Trump administration, our mandate has not changed. We will organize an end to state sanctioned violence so that all black lives matter. We will develop comprehensive strategies to implement organizing tactics on the ground so that people will take action on behalf of black lives. You can certainly look forward to us continuing to build narrative power and changing the way people understand and interact with black people in America.
Finally, do you have any words of wisdom for our fellow franksters?
I strongly encourage people at frank to draw their inspiration from people who have nothing left to lose. Secondly, it’s time to get uncomfortable and it’s time for each of us to imagine what it looks like to institute 21st century communication strategies in order to win.