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Six Media Advocacy Lessons from a Campaign for Housing Justice and Health Equity

  • Heather Gehlert
    Katherine Schaff
two people holding keys to new home

When California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed legislation to create eviction protections and a rent-relief program this summer to help shield low-income tenants and small landlords from the financial fallout of the pandemic, his office touted it as “the largest and most comprehensive COVID rental protection and rent relief program of any state in the nation.” What readers wouldn’t have known from the news release is that a housing justice coalition had campaigned for such a robust program, pushing Newsom every step of the way. With an eye toward advancing health equity, which is inextricably linked to housing status, they fought hard to ensure that the state’s original, diluted version of an eviction moratorium gained some heft and that key loopholes were closed before Newsom added his signature. They also urged him to extend the moratorium when it became clear that the pandemic — and its economic implications — would outlast the legislation.

“If we’re serious about health equity, we’ve really got to take a very square and sharp focus on preventing evictions.”

Will Dominie

As BMSG offered support to the effort, we realized there were many lessons learned that could aid housing and health justice advocates across the country. However, until now, the work was too fast-paced to reflect on the group’s accomplishments and consider insights for future media advocacy efforts. And, make no mistake, more work remains. The moratorium expired in October, and COVID continues to surge in many locations, with public health experts expecting the pandemic’s financial and health effects to continue for months, or even years, to come. What’s more, our housing system was fractured long before the virus claimed its first victim, making it even more important to analyze — and, hopefully, replicate — victories.

“Preventing evictions and keeping people in their homes is fundamental to our health and our well-being,” explained Will Dominie, former policy manager of housing and equitable development at the Bay Area Regional Health Inequities Initiative (BARHII), in a recent interview. “And housing instability is deeply inequitable by race, class, immigration status, and gender. I think if we’re serious about people’s health, and then if we’re serious about health equity, we’ve really got to take a very square and sharp focus on preventing evictions.”

BARHII, a coalition of Bay Area health departments, was one of many groups that joined a statewide housing justice coalition, which led the charge to prevent evictions during COVID. While Housing Now! California, a diverse movement-building coalition, spearheaded statewide anti-eviction efforts along with Tenants Together, BARHII brought a specific focus on health impacts and mobilized public health groups.

The eviction moratorium was just one of many victories the groups celebrated, from securing funds to help communities burdened by debt to fighting to ensure that those funds would be distributed fairly and equitably. Throughout their year-and-a-half-long campaign, the coalition and its communication workgroup (which included Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE), Public Advocates, Western Center on Law & Poverty, PICO CA, Housing CA, San Francisco Tenants Union, BARHII, and BMSG) used many tactics, including rapid-response data collection and the release of a report, to create narrative and policy change, while building capacity to advance racial and health equity.

To learn more about their work and its implications for other advocates in health, housing, and beyond, we spoke with BARHII’s Dominie, as well as Francisco Dueñas, director of Housing Now!; Rev. Rae Chen Huang, senior organizer at Housing Now! and former organizer with Healthy LA Coalition; and Melissa Jones, executive director of BARHII. Here are a few key communication and narrative-change lessons, based on their insights:

1. Organizing and coalition-building form the foundation for narrative change.

Collaboration and partnerships yield many benefits. First, different groups bring different perspectives with them, allowing coalitions to develop the most thorough and precise view of the problem, which is necessary for envisioning the most effective solutions. Second, combining resources gives coalitions greater reach. And third, having a range of voices offers greater flexibility in messaging.

The housing coalition realized all of these benefits quickly. Having multiple partners allowed them to “reach people where they’re at, and to be able to transmit [their] message differently based on where everybody’s coming from,” Dueñas said, noting that a health group is going to be able to work with the California nurses’ union to bring their voice to the effort, while a tenant-organizing group is going to be positioned to talk to elected officials about what their members are experiencing. “We’re just all coming from different places and are able to add our point of views, in order to say, ‘Here’s why I care about this.’”

“If the groundwork around diversity hasn’t been laid, important voices will likely get left out, no matter how well-intentioned an organization is. That’s why diverse constituencies must be built ahead of time.”

Melissa Jones

Being able to combine or segment their messages when needed was especially useful when writing op-eds. The coalition worked with everyone from faith leaders to the California Nurses Association to author various pieces of writing for different audiences and different publications. The collective result was a body of op-eds (see list below) and other messages reaching people throughout the state, all working in lockstep to lift up a shared goal.

“Not only do you hear from different voices,” Rev. Huang said, “but it shows a really strong united voice, especially when you’re talking about policy, especially when you’re talking with legislators, so that they really see that this is a full picture.”

Rev. Huang went on to explain that solidarity and intersectionality are necessary to make real progress and advance equity: “We have to rise together, or we’re all going to fall down.”

2. To communicate effectively about racial and health justice, a coalition must make sure its goals center racial equity and align with broader movements for justice.

The housing coalition members had long made racial equity a priority in their local organizing. Alongside racial justice education and advocacy groups, such as Black Lives Matter, housing justice organizers and advocates had been educating members for the past decade on the racism deeply embedded within our housing laws. But the call for racial equity in tenant and unhoused protections and rights remained a weak motive for legislators and their constituents.

Then when the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by police happened during a global pandemic, the popular education of critical race theory (organically cultivated by Black communities and gradually sewn into the work of racial justice-focused community organizers) took root and ignited a movement and massive uprisings around racial justice. With racial justice already at the center of their organizing theory, the housing justice coalition was able to emphasize the intersectional relationship between racial equity, housing, health, and COVID to advance protections for tenants and the unhoused.

To support the communities hardest hit by the pandemic and racial injustices, they identified barriers facing renters and small landlords of color, such as language and technology issues that could make it more difficult to receive assistance, and lifted up solutions that would help people experiencing the highest degrees of housing instability.

Because the media were already generating heavy amounts of coverage about racial justice, the coalition was able to tap into the momentum that other movements had already generated, build on that foundation, and elevate messages that advanced not only housing-specific aims but also racial equity more generally.

3. It’s important to tailor your frame to your audience.

Creating messages that center racial inequities was effective in some parts of the Bay Area; however the coalition members knew that pairing a racial justice frame with other narratives would help in other more conservative jurisdictions. In cases like that, a health frame was a helpful starting point.

“Different audiences can hear things differently,” Dominie said. To account for this, he and his fellow organizers led with different parts of the message based on whom they were speaking to. “For some audiences, I would say ‘housing is a human right’; for other audiences, I would say ‘housing is a building block of a healthy community.’” The meaning is roughly the same, but the shift in angle can help some audiences be more receptive to the message.

Dominie noted that the health frame was especially useful when talking with those who favor a more limited role for government.

“We’re in a really difficult political moment,” Dominie said. But, he elaborated, “the health of our children — no one can say ‘no’ to that.”

Dominie said that organizers working on local campaigns, such as for eviction moratoria, often asked for health data or letters explaining health considerations that they could bring with them to Board of Supervisor meetings. “What we’ve heard is that that really helps,” he said. “And it does speak to another set of decision-makers who might not otherwise pay attention to the issue.”

4. Data, when used selectively, can be a powerful vehicle for lifting up the community’s experiences.

Advocates and organizers can use data for many purposes: to negotiate with legislators, to inform testimony and news conferences, or to strengthen op-eds, for example. However, gathering and analyzing data can be challenging.

“All too often, only powerful people have access to it, like the people that can commission a study or pay an academic or large government institutions,” Dominie said, adding that when legislators don’t have clear data that demonstrate the breadth or depth of a problem, they are less likely to invest in solutions.

Knowing this, and knowing that Gov. Newsom is particularly keen on statistics, the coalition prioritized capturing data — both quantitative figures and stories — that would support the powerful anecdotes they knew to be true from their work on the ground: tenants not having enough money to pay the rent, finding it difficult to access assistance, and making terrible trade-offs, like foregoing food or medication to pay the bills.

They set out to collect rapid-response data through a survey in partnership with PolicyLink and with support from BMSG researchers. With data in hand, they then crafted a report showcasing numbers and stories and used the report as the basis for a press conference and to get articles and op-eds placed throughout the state. They also used the data during lobby visits to help decision-makers understand “the places where rental assistance programs weren’t reaching the people that needed them the most and … the long string of inequities by race and class and gender and immigration status that predated COVID and then was replicated by COVID,” Dominie said.

Because the coalition was not invited to the negotiation table, the data helped them move policy from a distance. “There were definitely some policy wins that I feel like were only possible because of the communications work that we were able to do, especially because the … actual advocacy was so inaccessible,” Dueñas said. “Being able to shape the communications environment around the state and around the Capitol was really our most useful and effective tool — and the one that we had available to us,”  he explained.

5. Diverse, well-prepped spokespeople can add authenticity and build trust.

Identifying spokespeople who not only bring different vantage points to an issue but also can speak in different languages is a great way to make messages more relatable. Whether organizers are writing an op-ed or holding a press conference, it’s important to reach out in advance to spokespeople who can discuss their lived experiences with the issue or who bring professional experience that differs from the voices we usually hear in the news.

“If the groundwork around diversity hasn’t been laid, important voices will likely get left out, no matter how well-intentioned an organization is,” BARHII’s Melissa Jones explained. “That’s why diverse constituencies must be built ahead of time.”

The housing coalition did just that by forging key relationships well before any interactions with the media. Then, when the time came, they were able to quickly bring together tenants, health professionals, union organizers and other labor leaders, faith leaders, youth, and others for three separate press conferences and numerous op-eds. They held one of the news conferences exclusively in Spanish and focused heavily on youth voices in another.

“We have to rise together, or we’re all going to fall down.”

Rev. Rae Chen Huang

“An advocate wouldn’t be able to capture … the voice of those children, so it was really important to have them be part of that conversation,” Dueñas said.

Because the people most harmed by housing inequities can also be harmed or silenced by mainstream media coverage, the coalition prioritized connecting with tenant spokespeople and others who could speak from firsthand experience. Because these messengers are not professional advocates, the group provided support for them, helping them to prepare for the pressure of a news conference by practicing ahead of time (especially when stories involved emotional trauma) and, if necessary, by rephrasing reporter questions during news conferences in ways that were more accessible.

The coalition had a long-standing communication working group, which developed policy and narrative strategies, planned some of the press conferences, and pitched and successfully placed many op-eds, often highlighting such authentic voices and framing housing as a health issue. For example, they worked closely with the Public Health Alliance of Southern California and the California Nurses Association to pitch an op-ed to CalMatters, making a public health case for the extension of the eviction moratorium. Two other publications, the Desert Sun and Lake County Record Bee, picked up the op-ed, which allowed the coalition to reach more people — both residents and key legislators — in less time than it would take to author three separate pieces.

“[Having] the right folks to write that type of an op-ed would make it more likely to get published,” Dueñas said. “So, again, relying on your coalition partners is how we were able to make this happen.”

6. Effective communication strategy doesn’t end when your op-ed gets published.

The coalition’s communication workgroup succeeded in getting radio and TV coverage, several op-eds and numerous articles about housing justice and health published in English and Spanish. However, they did not stop there. They built a strong social media strategy for reusing the news and further amplifying their message to achieve their policy goals.

They did this in a couple of ways. Coalition partner ACCE published an email newsletter called “Eviction Cliff News,” which they sent to elected officials, their staff, and legislative directors. Since legislators were a main target, they included links to the op-eds and other relevant coverage to increase the chance that their target audience would see the news they were generating.

They also developed a social media strategy, including shareable posts and graphics and a weekly conversation called Tenant Tuesday. Each week, they discussed a different theme, such as public health or the impact of housing instability on children. Communication colleagues from various organizations within the coalition participated in the social media push, each bringing their own perspective, and amplified the op-eds and other content through their own channels, like websites and newsletters.

“I think the work of this communications cohort was very much multiplied many times over by the activation of our broader coalition, many of whom couldn’t participate in other ways; they could just forward along an email or share a Facebook post,” Dueñas said.

The bottom line, according to Dueñas: “What [a] coalition gets you is an ability to have the end product or the end work be more than the sum of its parts.”

Despite the coalition’s many successes, Dueñas and Dominie say their work isn’t over. Many tenants and landlords are still struggling.

“The current way that evictions are processed, the way they play out, it’s a very unjust system,” Dueñas said. And, they have long-lasting impacts on people’s lives that not only affect those individual families, but affect us broadly, as a community, and as a state. … It’s a boat that has a hole in it. That’s why our coalition is advocating for a state fund to prevent evictions through outreach and education to tenants and to provide legal defense for tenants facing evictions.”

To bring us closer to having the kind of communities that benefit everyone, we also must track and evaluate what’s already been done.

“We rarely get a chance to do evaluation, reflection on our work, much less share it out with others outside of our coalition or outside of other groups,” Dominie said.

To that end, we at BMSG hope this blog is a start.

Thank you to the many coalition partners and communication workgroup members who made these recent housing successes possible. To see a full list of statewide, regional, and local coalition partners, visit​​ https://www.housingnowca.org/about.


News coverage of the coalition’s report:
Preventing an Eviction and Debt Epidemic: Delivering Effective Emergency COVID-19 Rental Assistance in California

Op-eds and editorials

News articles

Spanish-language coverage

Broadcast coverage

Self-published articles

Originally published by Berkeley Media Studies Group


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