Behind the scenes: How powerful women train to change the world

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Imagine a group of women, half of them women of color, spending three days rigorously, frustratingly, yet committedly poring over the most microscopic of details about hard-to-explain issues to perfect a message that you can hear, understand, and that ultimately changes your behavior.

When you’re in the presence of a group of people who know their purpose in life, it’s transformative.

Last weekend, I had the privilege of media-training ten powerful and purposeful women, each of them devoted to radically changing the world. What I love about media-training people is how transformative it is. Transformative for me, for them, and for the people they’ll impact because of what they learn. More on the transformation process later.

Media training is the practice of preparing individuals with specific expertise to proliferate their worldview through the media so they can help others make meaning of the world. We do this by providing tools, drills, and feedback. The training this weekend was a three-day message development and on-camera intensive where each fellow chose a specific issue and learned how to make that issue relevant to a variety of audiences, all of whom might have radically different worldviews. It is organized by the Women’s Media Center, and is the premier media and leadership training program in the country for women.

Progressive Women’s Voices 2019

Progressive Women’s Voices 2019

When we train others to deliver their worldview through the media (television, podcast, radio, newspaper, Instagram Live), we’re creating new opportunities to help everyday people make meaning of the world around them. Meaning-making is the process of how people make sense of life events, relationships, and the self—and it is one way people determine how to treat others, vote, and make economic decisions, among other things.

Take welfare, for example; some people understand welfare as a government responsibility to take care of the least among us while others understand welfare as an irresponsible handout. Each worldview is predicated on how that person makes sense of the world. Trends in worldviews lead to policies that change how people exist, live, and are perceived by others. It’s mind-blowing if you think about it—the way we understand someone determines how they’re treated, colors their life chances, and in some cases, even determines their outcome in life.

Imagine a group of women, half of them women of color, spending three days rigorously, frustratingly, yet committedly poring over the most microscopic of details about hard-to-explain issues to perfect a message that you can hear, understand, and that ultimately changes your behavior.

Their goal? To persuade you to their side. Their challenge? They know next to nothing about you.

These women are incredibly smart and devoted to issues like:

  • The distinction between sex trafficking and sex work, and the need for collaboration between advocates for each group

  • How to build partisan ground for a comprehensive federal program to fill America’s paid family and medical leave gaps

  • Disrupting and ending child sexual abuse without solely relying on the criminal justice system

  • Challenging racial profiling in government programs as discriminatory and ineffective

  • Immigrant youth being profiled, indiscriminately labeled as gang members, and deported

  • Getting police out of schools

  • Ending the war in Afghanistan

  • Recognizing and navigating the connection between sexual violence and state violence

Inevitably, everyone is nervous at the beginning. You’re meeting new people (some whose name and work you recognize), opting into a new professional challenge where public speaking is a staple, and putting your ideas out there for people to hear and critique. By the end, most people leave feeling like a more polished version of themselves, armed with mental and tactical strategies to move their message and story through the media and persuade people to feel, do, or say something different. The transformation occurs in between and after the training.

Like most experiences, it’s hard to describe unless you’ve been through it, but let me paint you a picture. You’ve been passionate about an idea for a long time. You have talked about this idea ad nauseum, and you know the details like the back of your hand. You stand up in front of a room and present the idea to a group of people, some of whom are there to interrogate how you think and talk about the idea. Over the course of two days, you’re asked to articulate the problem the idea is working to solve, the solution, why people should care, and what people should do about it. And then we ask you to do that several more times, until every nuance is teased apart, every potential clapback is contended with, and each new way of framing the issue is explored.

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It’s a tedious and frustrating process because it’s hard to hear that the way you’ve been doing something is ineffective. I’ll tell you a secret: Experts on issues are not always the best messengers. We tend to talk about the issue in a way we and our peers understand, but not in a way that everyday people do. To be confronted with this and asked to change the way you’ve been doing something while also being asked to do on-camera interviews and watch playback in front of other people is a fraught experience. There is a lot of fear, shame, guilt, and embarrassment involved. These feelings offer an opening — to remember that we are forever learners and should always be looking for ways to be better at what we do, and  to remember that we can’t transcend growth. My friend Prentis says true transformation is knowing it’s possible for you to be wrong even when you feel right.

I’ve media-trained hundreds of people, but especially people of color and women. Here are five things I’ve learned, though the list is much longer (book proposal, maybe?):

  1. There are not enough media training programs for people of color, women, and trans and gender-nonconforming people. Where there are programs, they are not emotionally intelligent—forcing a one-size-fits-all agenda with little space to navigate the range of emotions and experiences people have with respect to telling their stories or talking about hard-to-talk-about issues. There is also limited analysis of power. To solve for this, in 2017 I created Channel Black,  a storytelling and media training program that develops the strategy, intervention, and spokesperson skills of social movement leaders who are Black, non-Black people of color, women, trans, and gender-nonconforming people.

    In addition to identifying a gap in representation and media and spokesperson training programs for marginalized communities, I also identified two other critical reasons for this program: democratizing spokespeople in social movements mitigates the propagation of single leaders by distributing visibility and expertise; and moving beyond training figureheads into training organizers mitigates the erasure of marginalized stories.

  2. Women, people socialized as women, or gender-nonconforming people will often say, “I am not an expert, but so-and-so is,” whereas white men will say, “I am not an expert, but I can read up on it.” The latter never pass up an opportunity to expand their reach or boost their reputations.

  3. It’s hard for most women, people socialized as women, people of color, or gender-nonconforming people to find one nice thing to say about themselves. Self-critique is universal, and every time I train anyone in the aforementioned groups, the self-critique is exponential. Like clockwork, when it is time to reflect on how they did on their activities, the women in this training lead with everything they didn’t like about themselves—from their voices to their content. The impacts of sexism on women’s confidence is devastating.

  4. Progressive people are excruciatingly critical of other progressive people—harmful, even. When I’m training people, the trainees will often point out they’re afraid of upsetting their peers. Even more than they’re afraid of the opposition attacking them, they’re afraid of people from their own side “taking them down” or undercutting their message. I feel two ways about this: dialect humanism and generative conflict is necessary and important to social movements and the line between critical and cruel is irreversibly blurred.

  5. Women, people socialized as women, and gender-nonconforming people are continuously trying to toe the line between being persuasive and respectable. When you’re operating outside of the dominant culture, you often need to break down complex systems like racism, sexism, and transphobia in order to persuade people to your side. This is very hard to do, and that is intentional. It can be tempting to appeal to dominant values rather than challenging the mainstream for its failure to accept difference, which is by definition respectability. It’s a constant struggle to push a radically inclusive worldview while trying to be persuasive.

Charlene Carruthers, author of Unapologetic: A Black, Queer, and Feminist Mandate completed the 2017 yearlong  Channel Black  fellowship

Charlene Carruthers, author of Unapologetic: A Black, Queer, and Feminist Mandate completed the 2017 yearlong Channel Black fellowship

As I prepare to teach my first master class in strategic communications, of which media training is a core competency, I am thinking about how to develop curriculums and training programs that are a) not one size fits all, b) emotionally intelligent, and c) capable of training not just platformed figureheads but organizers and marginalized people who have influence in their communities. We must diversify the faces of people identified as experts and featured on television, radio, and in-print media, who end up discussing and intervening on important and polarizing issues that impact marginalized communities. And, we must make sure people are rigorously prepared using culturally appropriate curriculums and experienced trainers.

Representation and divergent, radical voices and experiences inspire a fair and just democracy, as well as an unobstructed national dialogue about how we live our lives, who has power, and who doesn’t.

If you or your organization want to learn how to move your message through the media, hit me up!

p.s. Six years ago I was a participant in this program. This year, I co-trained with the woman who taught me the power of media training. I wrote about that experience here.