Communicating Representative Points of View

1st Nov 2016 | Posted by Kerri Allen Kerri Allen's picture

I recently found out the nation of Germany has, for six decades, provided monetary reparations to Jews who survived the Holocaust. I couldn’t believe I’d never known this. And I was somewhat impressed.

It made me think about Ta-Nehisi Coates’s June 2014 Atlantic cover story, “The Case for Reparations,” and how his thesis for payment of “compounded moral debts” was literal. At first glance, I’d assumed it to be a theory, that reparations might simply mean a new kind of code of conduct or an approach to different groups who had suffered social injustice. But not only did Coates call for monetary reparations from the U.S. government to African-Americans, but he was also not even asking to set a precedent in the West for such things.

I began my master’s program at Georgetown last month, the same week that the university announced its own form of reparations (though not the monetary kind) for its connection to slavery. Georgetown pledged to publicly apologize for its role in the slave trade and offered to give admissions preference to the descendants of those sold for the benefit of the school, which The Washington Post called, “one of the most aggressive responses to date among the universities trying to make amends for the horrors of slavery.”

Last November, Georgetown temporarily renamed Mulledy Hall — a student dormitory named for the president who authorized the sale of about 272 slaves in 1838 — as “Freedom Hall,” until a permanent name is chosen. The university will also be calling McSherry Hall, which was named for another university president who served as an adviser on the slave sale, “Remembrance Hall” until it, too, is officially renamed.

As an American, a cultural Jew (from my father’s side of the family, though not religiously practicing) and now, a Georgetown student, these calls for reparations and recompense are close to various parts of my identity.

I believe strongly in equality, but what is right when a major power eviscerates that equality? Is there a way to make it up? What can convey remorse for historical atrocities like the Holocaust or slavery?

A matter of perspective

As communicators dedicated to raising awareness of a broad array of issues for our organizations and clients, we must have points of view on larger world issues like these. The way in which we communicate, the lens through which we see the world, and even the journalists we engage with or the locations where we produce events shape the people who we include and the stories that we tell.

Points of view and stories like Coates’s became national news, in no small part, because a mainstream outlet, The Atlantic, deemed it to be worthy of a cover story. Georgetown has weight and can garner major media outlets’ attention and plenty of screen time. But for lesser-known issues of social justice without national heft, how can we keep the public’s attention and invite discourse? How can we make sure that people know what’s happening and what positive steps are being taken to improve our world (unlike my experience with Germany’s reparations history)?

One small way we do this at my agency is through a “diversity dashboard,” a digital RSS feed of nearly 1,000 media outlets that is organized by media type and demographic focus. That way, at a glance, employees can look at the news of the day and see how headlines differ. The way that The Root covered Georgetown’s news differed greatly from how The New York Times reported on it. In a cross-cultural nation, it’s vital for us to first understand that there are differences, and then begin to deeply understand why.

This also points to diversifying our profession, a topic that remains constant as we look to fill the pipeline and institute better hiring and retention practices. We all need to work to balance out inequalities — whether they are large national or global issues, or as small as recruiting a diverse workforce. Only then will we be able to communicate representative points of view from people whose voices have not always been heard, but whose stories merit a remedy for a long-standing lack of attention.

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