• Jennifer Rich

Three Lessons to Strengthen Our Case for Housing Justice

Before joining @TheCaseMade last summer, I worked at the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness with some of the smartest people I know on the task of ending homelessness. But despite all the great progress we were making on solving the technical challenges of ending homelessness, we still weren’t making the progress we needed.

Because even with the political support of the Obama Administration and all the evidence and hard work from the field, we simply weren’t convincing the larger group of Americans we needed to bring our solutions to scale. We keep spinning our wheels in all these really unhelpful narratives: The problem is too hard. The government can’t fix anything. Those people want to be homeless. But my property values!

I recently joined former colleagues at the National Alliance to End Homelessness virtual conference to share three lessons on shifting the narrative and making the strongest possible case for systems change that is grounded in racial equity and laser focused on justice as the ultimate outcome. Because if we miss this moment to address the toxic racism embedded in our housing system and get America on a path to housing justice, it may never come again.

Lesson 1: Making a strong case for our work is an adaptive leadership exercise not a communications exercise.

As a communications person, I’d be the first to tell you how smart and capable communications people are. But the lack of public will around ending homelessness is not a communications problem, and it’s not going to be solved by focus groups or advocacy campaigns or all the one-pagers in the world. It will be solved by adding a public will building skillset to the toolkit that we as leaders use every time we go out and do the hard coalition building work that equitable systems change requires.

Lesson 2: If making a strong case for change is about connecting to people’s hearts and minds, we’ve got to get better at the hearts part.

A lot of the way we try to convince people to get behind our efforts to end homelessness is by talking about ourselves. This usually goes one of two ways: Either we talk about the huge uphill battle we’re climbing and scare away the people we need to actively engage. Or we talk about the changes we’ve made in the individual lives of the people we have served, and those same people lean back again, fully content that we’ve got it under control.

In both of those stories, the people we need on our side to make the big changes that are required to rebuild our systems for equity are missing: unions, healthcare systems, civic organizations, politicians, and yes even millionaires and billionaires. We get those folks to engage by tapping into their own aspirations for themselves and their future.

How do we learn about people’s aspirations? We ask them. @TheCaseMade, we do that through formal community voice sessions. But you can also do it through the normal course of your day: in the supermarket, on the sidelines at soccer games, or on local Facebook groups. Ask questions like: What do you love about living here? What do you hope for the future? What opportunities do you want for your kids? And then you start mirroring what you hear back in your pitch for stronger communities through housing. If your story is one people want to be in, they’ll stick around for a while.

Lesson 3: We must become experts in anticipating and navigating around the narratives that stop our progress.

We are getting crushed by the unhelpful narratives that permeate our society about people experiencing homelessness. And our typical response is to run headlong into them and try to convince people out of them. That is where the Myth vs. Fact sheet comes from, or the social media

“clapback,” or our tendency to just explain harder in hopes that folks finally “get it.” The minute you start doing that you’ve already lost.

So how do we avoid those traps? We absolutely have to master the skill of pivoting. It looks like this:

Step One: You make a list of all the argumentative and fatalistic things you know you are going to hear from people.

Step Two: You find a kernel in each statement that you can authentically agree with and relabel it in a positive way.

Step Three: Pivot right back to your story.

Here’s an example:

Them: But affordable housing will ruin my property values.

You: I totally agree that our homes are our most valuable assets! That’s why it’s so important for our community to remain a vibrant place that people from all walks of life want to move to.

It is really hard for someone to keep arguing once you’ve agreed with them. And you’ve shifted the room away from fatalism and back to hope. You are back in your story and back to what matters.

Jennifer Rich, senior communications strategist at TheCaseMade, is the former Director of Communications at the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness.

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