After Charlottesville: What’s New for Advocates and Activists?

For the past five years, I’ve taught a graduate class on Advocacy for Public Health each fall at The George Washington University’s School of Public Health. It is my favorite among the subjects I teach (market research and health communication, among others), and I update my syllabus each year to incorporate current events.

This year, as I watched protests, counter-protests, and violence unfold in Charlottesville, one reaction I had – in addition to horror, disbelief, and fury – was, “Wow! This changes everything! What am I going to say to my advocacy students?” I thought I was going to have to scrap my syllabus and start all over again, as it seemed that the rules of advocacy had turned upside down. Instead of Act Up protesters armed with placards and potentially putting themselves in harm’s way by disrupting traffic, we had white supremacists armed with assault weapons, threatening harm to anyone who doesn’t look like them, and killing a woman with a motor vehicle. A dangerous new era for advocacy and activism.

The semester starts this week, and I decided to keep most of my syllabus intact, as it focuses on a classic approach to the advocacy process. However, I added readings and class discussions around the three takeaways I gathered from Charlottesville. These three might even represent new avenues and opportunities for advocates, activists, and others who are interested in driving social change:

  1. Corporations increasingly represent potential allies and channels for activists. We are all familiar with the victories public health advocates have achieved against corporations – from workplace safety and food sanitation standards in the early 20th century, to mandatory seat belts in cars at mid-century, to more recent policies to ban tobacco use in public areas and restrict advertising of cigarettes.But what happens when corporations become activists and agents for change in the public interest? We saw this in the response of major corporations to the Charlottesville events. As reported by The Wall Street Journal and other news outlets, CEOs from Intel, Merck, and Under Armour resigned from President Trump’s business advisory panel to protest the president’s failure to denounce white supremacists. And this type of corporate activism is not a completely new phenomenon – last year, for example, Target announced it would build private bathrooms in all its locations as a solution to battles over transgender bathroom choices, and way back in 1996, Disney Corporation supported gay rights by having “gay day” at its theme parks. Of course, conservatives led a boycott against Disney for that action, but it was not effective – consumer preference for Mickey, Goofy, and The Mighty Ducks won out. Now, CEOs like Apple’s Tim Cook are eager to protect their brands by taking a stand for “human decency” against white supremacists. I believe this trend of corporate activism will continue and grow, as corporations know they need to appeal to (and be accountable to) rising Millennials, who are generally more progressive than older generations and expect good citizenship from the brands they buy. That’s good news for public health advocates. It broadens our net of potential allies and opens up new avenues to drive social change.
  2. Framing is now more important than ever. As communications professionals, we have always known how important framing is – words make a world of difference in how we relate to and understand social issues. An example I have used in my advocacy class on the importance of framing is a New York Times article from January 2000, which shows the difference in polling numbers among those who support proposed uses of the budget surplus (remember those days?) based on two different descriptions. It should surprise no one in Washington that while more Americans will opt to fund “programs for education, the environment, health care, crime-fighting and military defense” over tax cuts, far fewer will opt to fund “government programs” over tax cuts. The moral of the story is that people need to be able to relate personally to the words we use, especially when describing policy options.After Charlottesville, I have a new example to discuss in class – the long-term framing of the American Civil War, as outlined in an excellent article in Politico. The article recounts the deliberate efforts of Confederates to position the Civil War as a battle over states’ rights instead of the core issue of slavery. The Confederates pursued this framing consistently and relentlessly over decades and through a variety of channels – from textbooks and curricula in public schools to social clubs and news media. The takeaway is that public health advocates need to be very deliberate, strategic, consistent, and resilient in how they frame health and social issues. Changing social norms usually requires time, repetition, and reinforcement through a variety of channels. As George Lakoff has noted, we need to frame our values, not our policy objectives.
  3.  Activism is a battle of rights. Speaking of George Lakoff and framing our values… Lakoff has noted  that progressives have been losing debates in recent years because they argue their points using Level 3 frames (i.e., the tiresome details of policy programs that make people’s eyes glaze over), while conservatives have used Level 1 frames to appeal to values. With Charlottesville, we have something new – a battle between two Level 1 frames: The First Amendment’s right to freedom of speech versus the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms. An article in Slate captured this best, asserting that “the presence of large quantities of lethal guns had in fact effectively silenced the many people who’d assembled to peacefully express their opposition to racism.“ A key takeaway moving forward is that “our First Amendment jurisprudence hasn’t reckoned with our Second Amendment reality.” It is likely that the courts will be the main venue for the ongoing battle of rights, and advocates should be alert to opportunities in this area. If recent court victories to protect access to reproductive care are any indication of the future, public health advocates have some reason to be hopeful. Or maybe that’s just me being optimistic.

Perhaps the most frightening aspect about the Charlottesville events is that white supremacists have beat the activists at their own game – they have co-opted classic advocacy tactics to assert their own First and Second Amendment rights, using assault weapons to threaten the safety and rights of an unarmed opposition. And because of open carry laws in 45 states, the threats and intimidation tactics are legal. We cannot let this become the accepted social norm. As public health and public interest advocates, we have to do better.

As a community, how might we collaborate to counter this threat? I welcome your thoughts and suggestions!

Christina Nicols, M.P.H., M.S., M.S.
Senior Vice President, Director of Strategic Planning and Research