How to Communicate our Values in Political Advocacy


The opening session of Resistance School dives into the steps necessary for engaging in effective communication for change by building on history, exploring the tools of value-based communication, and ultimately reviewing the most meaningful ways to enact this change in the world around us.  This session will draw on the political history of the United States to explore how value-based communication has galvanized support for political and social movements. Historian and activist Timothy McCarthy leads us through an interactive lecture on how to develop a compelling frame and narrative for initiating meaningful conversations that build bridges and connect people through stories.


Start With Our Founding Documents

Studying the U.S. founding documents can help ground us in history in order to trace the roots and evolution of our values. For example, with the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. wrote itself into existence by articulating the grievances of a people, and giving political legitimacy to an act of civil disobedience. This was an act of radical dissent. The Constitution offers parallel lessons with regard to the Bill of Rights. The Bill of Rights is “an engine of resistance” embedded within that founding document. The five freedoms—religion, speech, press, assembly, and petition—underpin American democracy.

Recognize the Relationship Between Progress and Prejudice in the U.S. 

In claiming our history, we must also recognize the paradox of progress and prejudice. Even when it seems like rights and equality are moving in the right direction, they often come with far less progressive realities. The birth and life of this nation were fueled by the colonial settlement of indigenous lands and slaughter of indigenous peoples, the enslavement and then pervasive segregation of black people, and the sustained subjugation of women and workers, immigrants and queer folks, the disabled, and others. We need to be able to talk about progress and prejudice. 

In this spirit, 19th century reformers appealed to U.S. founding claims of liberty, equality, and rights to create movements for social change. These include the Working Man’s Movement in the 1820s, the Abolitionist Movement in the 1830s, and the Women’s Rights Movement of the 1840s and onward. These are just three movements (for liberty, equality, and rights) that took root in the face of pervasive unfreedoms and inequalities based on class and race and gender, that emerged between the Founding and the American Revolution and the Civil War and Reconstruction.

Tip: See Eric Foner’s letter to Bernie Sanders as one example of how to claim U.S. history for the present moment. He urges him to tap into the roots of this tradition in order to articulate a progressive agenda.

Define Your Non-Negotiables

The first step towards being able to communicate your values effectively is in naming those principles that you hold most dear – your ‘non-negotiables.’  When have you defended those values?  When have you failed to defend them?  Yet it's not just about defining what lines you’re not willing to cross – it’s understanding why those are your lines in the first place.  And through the process of naming your non-negotiables, you will begin to share stories; stories about where your values come from, about your childhood, about where you grew up.  Stories that personalize those values, so that others don’t just know your non-negotiables – they understand why you feel that way.

Tip:  Avoid stating values without further context and explanation.  Instead of stating, “I value family or freedom,” explain what family or freedom means to you.  By placing your values within a broader context, you can personalize those values and begin to convey your story to others – potentially to those with vastly different world-views.

Find Your Frames

One of the most important factors in communicating values is the frame that we choose to present information to others.  Frames are the mental models – the structured meaning – that influence how individuals perceive a piece of information.  For example, if someone says the word ‘elephant,’ what you think about depends on the frame that you attribute to that word (e.g. a grey animal in a zoo, the symbol of the Republican party, or an African safari).  When you begin to forge a message you want to communicate, the frame you choose (and understanding the context from where that frame emerges) is often just as important as the message itself.  Are taxes an American duty or an example of government waste?  Are protests a first-amendment right or a degradation of common decency?  Franklin Roosevelt talked about four freedoms: the freedom of speech, the freedom of religion, freedom from want, and the freedom from fear. He too was framing, usingpositive freedom and negative freedom.  

Tip:  When thinking about the types of frames you want to use in order to describe your values, consider using aspirational words, such as ‘imagine’, ‘compassion’, and ‘trust’.  Aspirational words have the potential to carry your message further than negative language, showing others the possibilities for a better tomorrow through an inspiration to create things together. 

Integrate the Three Elements of Speech: Logos, Ethos, and Pathos.

When we communicate we need to be able to integrate the three elements of rhetoric: logos (the appeal to logic), ethos (the appeal to character and credibility) and pathos (the appeal to emotion or sentiment).  Building an effective message requires a combination of all three, as opposed to separate arguments based on a single type of rhetoric.  Quantitative, data-driven information needs to be complemented with value-based appeals detailing the human-dimensions behind the data.  Stories should be paired with statistics; numbers should be paired with narratives. 

Tip:  When building a rhetorical narrative, consider employing the “both-and” approach, rather than an “either-or” approach.  As opposed to simply describing what is wrong (either-or), explain the problem and a way to solve it (both-and).  Build people a bridge to your solution through a clearly defined call to action.

Share Your Story

Stories are the fabric that binds human beings together.  We are hardwired to connect emotionally with others and stories are one of the most effective tools we have that allow us to tap into those emotions.  The narratives that you develop may emphasize conflicts, reconciliations, or consequences; they may focus on antagonists, protagonists, or a variety of characters.  But they should always focus on choices, because choices – whether short-term or long-term, positive or negative– are rooted and shaped by the values we hold dear.  Stories are just another way to reveal our values – and the values of others – to the world.

Tip:  You should develop a stable of stories: origin stories, stories of struggle, stories of aspiration.  Being able to draw on experiences that emphasize varying themes and messages allow you to tailor your narrative to specific situations. 

Broaden Your Base

The final step in effectively communicating our values involves venturing into new and uncharted territories in order to engage with others in higher-stakes settings.  In order to do this, we need to refine our message in private settings – in front of people who challenge us, support us, and ultimately take us to a better place.  We need to test our stories, articulate our frames, and refine our messages in constructive environments.  Yet ultimately, when we are ready, we need to broaden our audience in order to build bridges and connect with others in new and unexpected ways.

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Embrace Both Insider and Outsider Politics

In order to affect social change, we need to begin embracing both ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’ politics.  Too often, people view social justice work in absolutes – you’re either in the ivory tower or in the gutter.  Yet in reality, there is a significant amount of middle ground in between the two.  One only needs to look at the Civil Rights or LGBTQ movements – working both inside the White House and Congress, as well as through protests and grassroots initiatives – to understand this.

Build Bridges and Cross Boundaries

One of the most important responsibilities all of us have after this past election – those on the right, left, and center of political spectrum – is to begin to build bridges.  Make no mistake: this is frustrating, tedious, and often unrecognized work.  But it’s important.  It’s the only way we can move forward as a nation.  This is a moment in time where we can’t demonize each other, we need to reach out an embrace our commonalities and try to work together. 

Display Reciprocal Solidarity

With so many different movements in today’s world, it’s important that we use our various identities, insights, and other inclinations to try and bolster each other’s movements.  This allows us to create a common set of politics – a universal language – that isn’t competing over which identity should be valued more, but rather embraces intersectionality.  Ultimately, this gives all of us a common purpose of understanding that no person and no movement is only one thing; we all contain multitudes, contradictions, and tensions that make us who we are. 

Tip:  Try to adopt the mantra of ‘thinking globally and acting locally.’  We often can have the most impact in our own communities due to how intimately we know our neighbors.  These connections allow us to continue working together even when we’re not at our best and they give us permission to celebrate each other’s multitudes.  Change begins there – in the way you talk to and forgive your neighbors.

Be Fierce. Be Generous.

There’s no question that we’re all living and breathing, we’re all struggling and existing in a world filled with contention and conflict.  Yet by learning to communicate our values effectively – defining non-negotiables, framing our messages, integrating logos, pathos, and ethos – we can enter into the world fiercer and more prepared than ever before.  But it’s also important never to forget that we have the responsibility to be generous.  After all, even those people that we struggle to find even a single shred of common ground with are still human beings – they are still individuals with lives, with stories to be heard, with hopes and dreams.  And it’s our responsibility – each and every one of ours – to listen to those stories, because that is the only was we will begin to understand each other.