Framing

Seattle: The Organizers’ Forum was holding its spring dialogue in Seattle this year and focusing on how organizers of various stripes and varieties could either understand or utilize “framing.”  This has been a hot button notion recently with the popularity of George Lakoff and his books about Moral Politics and other popular titles.  Sweated down, framing is not something so much radically new as a disciplined way of forcing a rethinking about our work and various issues and campaigns and determining whether or not we are communicating as powerfully with the public as we should in order to move people our direction in the political space.  Or something like that.

  George Lakoff began our dialogue telephonically with a review of his basic paradigm polarity that divides messages into a “strict father” frame or a “nurturing mother” frame.  From there we were off to the races.  Part of this kind of discussion is mischievously seductive motivated by an unarticulated hope that perhaps if we just say it differently, we will win next time.  A search for the Holy Grail that believes there just has to be a short cut out there somewhere.

  This framing stuff can get a little dangerous though when you construct it on top of a foundation of values research, as we discovered listening to Ted Nordhaus.  Ted and Michael Shellenberger have written a piece that has stirred a beehive of controversy called The Death of Environmentalism,  (currently available for the first time in print form in the new issue of Social Policy) which began its life when published online on Grist, which is a fascinating outfit in itself.  The basic thesis was that the emperor has no clothes and that the environmental movement was losing the critical fight around global warming and one might read it the piece to say that nothing of real significance had been won since 1973.  A lay reader or an organizer might have read the piece — as I did — and thought that there might be some pieces that were a little rough and needed scraping, but on the whole there was hard metal underneath there.  The large environmental organizations particularly seem to have blown a gasket, but they have a lot at stake in a certain world view, so that was probably predictable. 

  Nordhaus spent several hours with the sixty organizers attending at the Organizers’ Forum, but the word environmental never came up.  He spent the entire time sharing with us an understanding of the “values map” which had been produced in conjunction with Environics, a Toronto based market survey and demographics house.  Now that was very interesting stuff and when it all comes out on the Organizers Forum website report of the dialogue it will be of interest.  They mapped 114 or so values and placed them on a grid.  The bottom line is the population is moving towards security, while “our side” would like to move to autonomy and responsibility.  We have an uphill climb to move people.

  The value in all of this is that it forces us to more carefully examine our work and, frankly, our members to see how they might really be responding to their own organizations and our organizing message.  It’s not easy to rethink some of this, but perhaps it’s essential.  We need to do whatever it takes to win, and these may just be new tricks that our old dogs need to learn.

Ted Nordhaus giving a lecture at the Organizer’s Forum in Seattle.
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