We tend to tell children heartening stories that have happy endings, and tales that boost their ambitious dreams. Celebrating potential and positivity are cornerstones of storytelling aimed at kids, yet the stories we tell each other about pressing social challenges tend to focus on problems, rather than possibilities.
When our children ask why people sleep on the sidewalk, imagine explaining that no one chooses to live without a home, and that we can end homelessness by making housing affordable and providing extra support to people who need it, rather than saying people experiencing homelessness are most likely addicts who can’t be helped. When beautiful, multi-unit homes are ready to be built in your town, imagine telling your neighbors that having apartments near shops and residents from different backgrounds will make your community more vibrant, rather than suggesting people with lower incomes will diminish your quality of life.
Just as we tell children they can do anything they put their minds to, we have to start telling one another stories that support solutions to homelessness and the lack of housing for people of all incomes.
Recognizing that the stories we tell become our shared reality, the Melville Trust has invested in two exciting projects that aim to shift the public discussion around homelessness and housing, as part of our increasing work to shift public and political will.
The first is focused on Fairfield County, Connecticut, one of the most housing segregated counties in the country. Efforts to build housing that would allow essential workers, young professionals and older residents to live and thrive have been met with strong resistance, and zoning laws prevent multi-family units from being built, making Fairfield County among the most expensive places to live.
To change this dynamic and help people understand the benefits of housing for people of all incomes, housing advocates have to tell a different story.
To do that, Fairfield County’s Center for Housing Opportunity partnered with sociologist and systems change expert, Dr. Tiffany Manuel, President and CEO of TheCaseMade. By listening to Fairfield County residents and understanding what they value about their community, Dr T. created an essential playbook to shift how we talk about housing in Fairfield County (and across the U.S.). The Way Forward: A New Narrative for Housing in Fairfield County provides excellent, actionable messaging to help shift the story we tell about housing, moving us from scarcity, fear-based narratives to those that offer a positive and inclusive vision for the future.
Another project we are investing in – the Homeless Narrative Action Campaign – is national in scope and aims to shift public dialogue around the causes of homelessness. We know that homelessness is the result of racist and dysfunctional housing, healthcare, criminal justice, economic and land use policies, not personal failures, so the way to end homelessness must focus on correcting those policies, not blaming individuals.
Lake Research Partners, ASO Communications and HIT Strategies are conducting essential research and message development about who becomes homeless and why, and veteran campaign director Jeffrey Robinson is overseeing the research and launching a comprehensive communications infrastructure. The communications ‘war room’ will advance new messaging across national, regional and local media; hold elected officials and media influencers accountable for messages that blame or seek to criminalize people experiencing homelessness; and support grassroots networks and organizations to connect homelessness with larger racial and economic justice campaigns.
The Homeless Narrative Action Campaign will finalize its research and messaging and launch the communications infrastructure in the first quarter of 2021. We are honored to partner with the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation on this effort and invite other funders to join us in this work.
Changing narratives that have been deeply woven into our belief systems require significant and sustained effort, and we are heartened by the interest in storytelling, messaging and narrative change we see across philanthropy. There are many exciting projects being supported by philanthropy right now, and we look forward to working with our funder colleagues so that the research, messaging and communications campaigns being funded get deployed at even greater scale.
Like good stories, our resources and efforts are better when shared.