Communicating for Change: What the Democracy Center is Trying to Do

Mera Szendro recently invited us to contribute to her Forward Dialogues project, which aims at ‘creating new dialogues which empower communities and dynamic participation’. Answering Mera’s questions gave communications director Maddy Ryle a chance to reflect on what the Democracy Center’s communication aims are, and what we are doing to meet them. We have posted the interview below – you can see the original here.

Interview with Maddy Ryle, Democracy Center Communications Director

1) What led you to focusing on democracy and climate change issues?maddy-120w

The Democracy Center was established over two decades ago by our current Director, Jim Shultz, who is from the Bay Area in the USA. Having worked within the official California Capitol hierarchy Jim saw that there was a great need to educate citizens about the levers of power that were available to them to effect real change on public issues. The Center was born out of a desire to help people doing the hard work of citizen advocacy – fighting for justice in all kinds of areas – be more effective at what they do. Our mission statement says ‘The Democracy Center works globally to advance social, economic and environmental justice, by helping citizens understand and influence the public issues that impact their lives.’ That’s what drives out work. Over time the Center moved its base to Bolivia, where it worked for a long time on the public issues that related to economic globalization there, and got very involved in the Cochabamba ‘water war‘. As the 2000s progressed it became clear that the most pressing issue affecting citizens, both in Bolivia and globally – and the one most in desperate need of effective advocacy strategies – is the climate crisis. That takes up a large part of our attention today, and we also still do lots of work on challenging corporate power, especially to spread understanding about the global investment rules system and how it favours corporate interests over those of the public citizen – we founded the Network for Justice in Global Investment with those aims in mind.

2) What is your mission, what do you hope to create in the world?

I think I’ve said quite a bit about that in the answer to the previous question, but in terms of what we are seeking to create, one response might be: “A genuine and mighty democracy embedded in the grassroots of society that works for the common interest and secures a just and sustainable life for all citizens”.

3) Which communities do you empower?

We hope to empower anyone who seeks to be empowered! We do research and produce various kinds of publications and resources for people to make use of, and to aid understanding of issues such as the impact of climate change in Bolivia (like our website on climate change and water, designed for teachers. Or our resource for anti-corporate campaigners, Beating Goliath). It is our hope that activists can use those materials in their own work to help raise awareness or to aid in their own planning. We aim to be a bridge between people fighting for a better future in Bolivia and in other parts of world (our own networks are particularly in the USA and western Europe), and we produce many of our materials in both English and Spanish. In terms of our more direct capacity-building work on advocacy, Jim Shultz has delivered advocacy strategy workshops to groups on every continent, working on a wide range of issues. The whole staff team has also been involved in strategy workshops, especially on climate activism, with groups in Bolivia.

4) What has been in the impact of misinformation on climate change advocacy?

Well I think those engaged in advocacy efforts themselves have mostly not been put off their work by denialist campaigns and the like – in fact they have probably served as extra motivation, especially where clear links can be perceived between denialism and self-interest (for example within the fossil fuel lobby). But obviously the misinformation campaign has been a useful one for a corporate media, also much enchained by those same corporate interests, to use in order to confuse the public – claiming the need for so-called balance as a way of giving airtime to such views, even though the scientific consensus on this has been repeatedly emphasised. I’m not sure if it’s useful to focus on these so-called debates however, especially as the realities of climate impacts are currently blowing them aside with some force. Much more important, I would say, is to continue exposing those corporate self-interests that are behind the forces who try to stall action on climate change, and help people understand how they work, how they relate to public authority, and how they can be challenged. Denialism has turned into the sideshow distraction it was designed to be, when what we really need is to inform ourselves of how to change the realities that we know we are facing.

5) What do you take into consideration when crafting the language of your messages?

Accessibility and comprehensibility have always been incredibly important for the Democracy Center. We seek to produce materials that people can easily understand and digest, while still containing powerful and useful information. How do you help people understand what are very complex realities? Part of that involves breaking topics down into elements that people can relate to. A good case in point is our microsite ‘Climate Change is About…Water‘. That title says it all: we thought about what are the key, elemental things that climate change is really about. Things like food, energy, trees. And most importantly, water. That resource is designed for use in the classroom; we wanted students, who may be put off by the often abstract nature of discussions about climate change, to be able to understand at a basic level what was at stake. Then, when it comes to transmitting the information itself, narrative – storytelling – is a very powerful tool. Collecting people’s experiences, using the voices of that experience, putting it into a narrative that people can absorb and relate to – that is how you can facilitate engagement with an issue. Policy language – important as it can be in its right space – is going to get you nowhere in terms of firing people up to protect what they care about and join their energies to a cause. Narrative is an empathy-building tool, and empathy – be it towards your own future interests or those of someone on the other side of the globe – is the spark for engagement.

6) What efforts are you taking to reframe climate change issues?

This is a cricual issue for us right now, and follows on from my previous answer. The “climate movement” has not been successful at talking about this crisis in a way that builds the necessary momentum for change, either within the corridors of  institutional power, or amongst the wider public. There are lots of reasons for that, and lots of those have to do with the very powerful forces pushing against that change – we could talk all day about those. But the fact remains that we need to find a different way to talk about this complex, multifaceted, but ultimately existential problem we are all facing. How we use narratives to do that is part of it, and forms a strand of our current work. One bit of recent ‘storytelling’ by the Center which I love is our video about a seed festival in Northern Potosí. It looks and sounds beautiful, and it enables this particular theme, which is an empowering one about resilience, to carry many other complex aspects of what climate change signifies.

We are also engaged right now in facilitating a big, global conversation with actors from all over the climate movement, all over the world, about what we can do to better take advantage of the opportunities that the COP negotiations in Lima this December will provide. One of the things we keep hearing in our discussions with people is precisely this need for reframing. We’ll be pulling all of that together in the coming months and identifying strategies for taking this forwards – so watch this space!

7) What messages have you had most success with?

A recent example would be the launch of our 2013 report ‘Unfair, Unsustainable and Under the Radar‘. This is a paper that is designed to cut through all the technical language and policy speak and help people understand the very complex system of global investment rules that underlies all the trade deals that form the architecture for the global economy, and why that system stands right in the way of attempts to set policies for ‘sustainable development’. It explains what ‘investor-state arbitration’ is, and why the threat of court action can stop governments from setting policies in the public interest – e.g. to protect health or the environment. It came out just as campaigns aorund the world were getting off the ground to raise public awareness about the potential impacts of big trade agreements like TAFTA/TTIP and the TPP, and has been a useful contribution for activists getting involved in those campaigns. It was also useful to draw the links between issues of environmental sustainability and issues of economic justice, and we are planning more work along these lines. Joining the dots in this way is really crucial – and strategic. In the same vein, more generally it is important to look out for ways to amplify core messages by repeating and emphasising them in different ways in different spaces. Social media provides good opportunities to do that, plus we regularly publish articles and comment pieces in a range of publications that allow us to explore the different facets of our work and our messages. Our director recently published a much-read and reposted article about the crisis of hope that activists, especially climate activists, can be vulnerable to. It distils a lot of the thinking I’ve been sharing with you here.

8) What creative solutions to the climate change crisis do you support?

It is very important to recognise that the climate crisis is a hydra. It implies many different simultaneous issues and problems to address, and we need to have many different ideas, solutions and approaches to tackle it. People need to play to their strengths and, where possible, they do need to work together to find common and acceptable solutions that crosscut these various issues. Above all, we need to be strategic about what we are doing. We often make the point that someone’s energy and enthusiasm to take action is the most precious resource we have to make change, and we mustn’t waste it. That means careful analysis and planning to take the most effective action we can. There is a wealth of creative energy out there, and people all over the globe are coming together and challenging the drivers of climate change and seeking empowering alternatives to those drivers. Our 2012 series of profiles of grassroots climate action from Kosovo to Thailand to Washington state looks at some of those inspirational campaigns, and at what made them work. It is a collective effort we are involved in – we must learn from, be inspired by, and support each other. Creativity is very important, as is starting out with the right tools and analysis. ‘Knowing your enemy’ is a very important part of this, and exposing the ways in which corporate interests are holding us back from genuine action on climate change is absolutely crucial, and something we are currently working on.

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