Recently I spoke to the first “class” of Progressive Women’s Voices, an exciting new program of the Women’s Media Center, where I serve on the board. I was asked about the lessons I learned leading a social movement where I worked a great deal with the media and messages as vehicles of social change. Here are my comments:
Once, soon after we arrived in New York, my husband Alex and I were on the corner of 57th and 8th talking rather intensely with our realtor. A homeless man approached us and asked, “Will you give me the money for a lobster dinner?” We paid no attention and went on talking about our apartment options.
“Will you give me the money for a lobster dinner?” the man repeated a little louder. Again, we didn’t respond. Again the man made his request. At this point, my Brooklyn born husband quipped back, “What’s the matter, a hamburger isn’t good enough?” The man pulled himself up to full height, puffed out his chest, and precisely enunciated every word as he retorted: “Answer the question as asked!”
The lesson is this: when you are making change—and with Progressive Women’s Voices (PWV), we’re changing the way the media portrays women and women’s stories and issues–we do not answer the question as asked. We determine what we want the question to be and start there.
Your passion for your substantive areas of expertise and the power of your knowledge are key elements to enable you to frame the questions as you think they should be. That’s the obvious part.
But the most important thing is that you must also learn to embrace controversy, not run away from it if you want to use your message to get your ideas into the political and cultural bloodstream. Here’s why:
Politics writ large is the clash of uncertainties from which social realities are constructed (as I’ve quoted political scientist Walt Anderson in my podcast). You are groundbreakers. Your mission is creating new social realities. We tend to recoil from controversy, women especially. Learning to walk into the wave of controversy and ride it rather than backing away from it is by far the most important political communication lesson I learned and that I want to impart to you.
Like Margaret Sanger and Rosa Parks, we are revolutionaries. We are insurgents. We are a movement. And a movement has to move. Forward. More or less together. And when we do that we will make some waves. We will create some controversy. We will tick some people off. That is a good thing. Parks and Sanger had to do civil disobedience—so our task is easy, we just have to use our freedom of speech.
We must learn not just to deal with or dodge but to embrace controversy. Controversy is your friend. Think of 6 “C’s”:
Controversy is the
Courage to risk putting your
Convictions out there to the world, using the controversy strategically, because controversy is a Clarifier—it gets people’s attention so you can use your platform to present your
Case at a time when people are paying attention, and therefore controversy is a
Change agent—because to make change you have to make people think differently, learn new things, and clarify their values.
Martin Luther King said, “The true measure of a man (and I am sure that today he would add ‘or woman’) is not where he stands in times of comfort and convenience, but where he stands in times of controversy and change.”
So learning to embrace controversy–not for its own sake but for what it can do to create those new social realities—is the most important lesson I’ve learned.
Do not answer the question as asked unless it is the question you want to answer.