The communications goals and strategies of Black Lives Matter

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Shanelle Matthews, lead communications strategist for Black Lives Matter, tells Dipka Bhambhani about driving conversations from the 'hood to the White House

What is the mission of the organization?
Black Lives Matter is an international network of more than 30 chapters working to rebuild the black liberation movement and affirm the lives of all black people — specifically black women, queer and trans people, people who are differently abled, and those who are undocumented and formerly incarcerated.

We focus on those marginalized within black liberation movements, imposing a call to action and response to state-sanctioned violence against black people, as well as the virulent anti-black racism that permeates our society.

What impact have you made?
We're proud of our commitment to centering the voices of everyday people and mobilizing hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people globally.

Do you have short-term goals?
Our communications strategy is largely long term. Shifting culture, changing the way people think and behave toward one another requires significant investment of time. But some of goals — inserting ourselves and our analysis into current events impacting black communities, participating in meaningful dialogue with our base and allies on social media, and having one-on-one conversations with people who value our political aspirations — could be considered short term.

Narratives created about black people, our experiences and our value, are deep-seated. Un-anchoring those narratives won’t happen overnight.

How do you determine success?
The ultimate success we imagine has yet to be realized: There is no rubric. That we can either be successful or unsuccessful is a false dichotomy.

As we continue to build a movement of leaders committed to the political, social and economic power of black people, we listen to and solicit feedback from people who are at the center of the oppression we work every day to eradicate. They know best whether or not we’re doing what we need to be doing.

How will communications advance your goals?
Strategic communications is three things: a blueprint for creating visibility for our work; a manifestation of our goals and vision; and our approach to maintaining dialogue about what ending state-sanctioned violence against black people looks like.

Our strategy is to organize and mobilize people, actively working to broaden international conversation about the impact of state violence on black people and communities, drive critical conversations from the ’hood to the White House about authentic transformation of American democracy, and ensure policies reflect and prioritize the needs of black people.

Communications leads with bold, visionary values rooted in the black experience. For example, we unearth and analyze egregious examples of violence imposed on black communities, like the man-made Flint water pandemic, excessive police brutality and murder of black people, and regressive, paternalistic legislation rolling back access to reproductive healthcare services such as abortion.

What are the issues with existing strategy?
We embrace a "fail fast to learn fast" approach. Because each state, city and issue we’re involved in is unique, we tailor our strategies accordingly. That requires significant capacity. One challenge is keeping up with the needs of the people we collaborate with and serve.

What unique strategies are you planning for election year?
No 2016 presidential candidate has developed a comprehensive and transformative plan that addresses the systemic and pervasive discrimination imposed upon black people in this country. Our unique experience demands a specific and concrete plan to address it. We’d strongly consider an amended communications strategy should one of the hopefuls dare step outside the status quo.

Do you work alongside or align communications with other organizations?
We collaborate with lots of organizations that share our vision. The larger Movement for Black Lives is ubiquitous and, while we may have divergent strategies and tactics, we’re all committed to building political will and mobilizing people.

Is the movement fractured with so many groups advancing a similar message?
There is no one right way to get free. We support divergent strategies. We also aspire to meaningful collaboration, especially in communications. Perception trumps reality in this work, so even if we’re not entirely aligned on strategy, sometimes our shared vision is enough. And sometimes it’s not.

How do you ensure consistent communication among so many chapters?
While the fight for black political power isn’t new, the larger Movement for Black Lives and the Black Lives Matter National Network is in its infancy. We’re still building our infrastructure.

Because we are decentralized, chapters are autonomous and develop their own strategies. They know what’s best for their communities. Anyone working outside a chapter is here to provide technical assistance and support. Consistency in communications is essential, but only to the extent that it serves the broader goal.

Have you ever disagreed with another chapter's approach or another group in the larger movement?
We're all anchored in what we believe to be the right thing to do. Some of us choose reform, while others want abolition. They're fundamentally different concepts with divergent strategies for winning.

We often disagree because the possibilities for black liberation are unique to the person who is dreaming of it, and it's hard, sometimes impossible, to move people when their ideologies are rooted in their experiences and implicit and explicit biases.

This idea of endless possibilities often brings me to a painfully nihilistic place because who am I to try to do that anyway? But while we may disagree, we must prioritize ending violence against black communities, and so we try to work it out. We are not always successful, and that's OK. Collaboration should be iterative, and so must we.

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