Communicating The Multifaith Movement For Justice

By Macky Alston

As 2017 drew to a close, I spoke with three leaders in the multifaith movements for justice whose communications work inspires me and allows me to see the year, the work and the road ahead through their wise eyes.

  • Dan Nejfelt is Training Director at Faith in Public Life, “a strategy center for the faith community advancing faith in the public square as a powerful force for justice, compassion and the common good.”
  • Jennifer R. Farmer is Managing Director for Communications at PICO National Network, “a national network of faith-based community organizations working to create innovative solutions to problems facing urban, suburban and rural communities.”
  • Michelle Reyf is Senior Digital Organizer of Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice, “a national organization inspired by the steadfast belief that American Jews are compelled to create justice and opportunity for all.”

How did you come to be a communications expert in the multifaith movements for justice?

Dan: For me it started in journalism. I knew that using communications as a means for social justice was my vocation and I started from a place of faith. Early in my career I started working for Sojourners Magazine, so I was just lucky that I fell into journalism that was coming from a place of faith.

Jennifer: I come to social and racial justice work bringing a variety of experiences, having spearheaded or been a part of campaigns for workers’ rights, social and racial justice and political advocacy. I’ve accumulated enough experiences and have had numerous occasions to learn what works and what does not in terms of advocating for important causes. The breadth of experiences has help me earn the title of expert.

Labor leader Gerry Hudson once described me as an activist communicator, and that accurately  sums up my career over the past 16 years.

I spent time in Wisconsin and New Hampshire in 2011 doing communications in support of right-to-work pushback; and previously worked in Ohio pushing back against the Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR) measure; and in North Carolina with Rev. Dr. William J. Barber on the Forward Together Moral Movement which birthed Moral Mondays, which included the weekly protests at the North Carolina Capitol. I view all of this as God’s work – amplifying the voices of people who are struggling and working to obtain agency. My job is telling the world about what people who are struggling are going through.

My experiences were chronicled in my book Extraordinary PR, Ordinary Budget: A Strategy Guide. The book is a series of case studies on what it takes to garner media attention. In it, I highlight successful campaigns from a communications perspective. I wrote the book with grassroots groups in mind. The book offers practical tips and resources for mission-driven groups.

Michelle: I grew up hearing stories of my family’s journey to America from the Soviet Union as refugees and the pain and suffering of their experience of poverty and anti-semitism, and it made me very early on know what I was going to do with my life, that I was going to spend it making the world a more just place.

I happened to have a gift for language. I devoured books as a kid. I did debate during high school. After college, I found that I could use art, both photographic and graphic, and written word to educate people on issues, open their hearts to others’ suffering and provide them with opportunities to make a contribution.

My journey wouldn’t have been possible without mentorship from people around me and loving care and encouragement, particularly from older women in my life and my old boss Isaac [Luria]. I wouldn’t be here without so much support. And my mom – shout out to my mom.

What is the moment in your work this past year of which you are most proud?

Dan: A moment that I am very proud of was being able to train leaders in Charlottesville literally the day before the white supremacist attack. Those folks were already well-organized, but they were looking to us for communications support, the skills themselves and how to keep your message tight and make it in a vivid moral way. These were people doing such important work in such harrowing circumstances.

As a result, people were more confident about speaking out and willing to engage the media than they would have been otherwise. They knew they weren’t alone, that a wider community was praying for them, standing with them and working to help their leadership succeed. People need to know that they are not alone and that they are supported by others.

Jennifer: I am really proud of work that I did on behalf of an undocumented immigrant Catalino Guererro in New Jersey. He was facing deportation – has been for many years. I worked with his family and our team at PICO to amplify his story and humanize his experience; I wanted people to see themselves in his story. Part of my work was to arrange media interviews for him and his daughter. His daughter and granddaughter were being separated from him, from their family. After widespread media coverage of his story, he received a one-year stay of deportation. I know the power of communications and can see it in his life.

I am also proud of the work I did leading up to the World Meeting of Popular Movements with was organized by PICO National Network and the Vatican. The convening included grassroots movement leaders and others from around the country. I wanted to make sure it was well-covered, that reporters physically went to California and experienced the gathering right along with movement leaders. I really believe the more we can embed reporters in faith-based work, the more it changes their lives and reporting.

Michelle: On the National Day of Remembrance, the U.S. Holocaust Museum in D.C. invited Trump to give the keynote because the annual tradition is to invite the President. They put out a press release the day before and a woman in my office whose parents were survivors told me how outraged she was and what an insult it was to have Trump speak on the Day of Remembrance.

At Bend the Arc, we launched an open letter to the Museum that said, Not this president, because of who Trump is. On the National Day of Remembrance, he neglected to mention the Jews. He filled his cabinet with unapologetic white supremacists like Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka. He demonized immigrants and Muslims and has been undermining our democracy at every turn, which is the opposite of Jewish and American values.

Nearly 10,000 people signed that letter almost overnight. When Trump did end up speaking at the Museum, the news coverage said that Trump spoke, but look at all these Jews who are opposed because they do not share his values. We had coverage in the New York Times, USA Today, CNN, Newsweek, plus Jewish outlets. And it meant that, regardless of what Trump said, our message would really be clear, that his treatment of other communities – Muslims, immigrants, people of color, women – wasn’t acceptable and we as the Jewish community rejected it.

What is the moment in your work this past year that pains you the most, that you replay when you cannot sleep at 3 am in the morning?

Dan: The immigrant families who are being torn apart. We have worked with moms who have been ripped away from their children. We have worked to try and prevent deportations and it hasn’t always worked. Just absorbing the anguish that they are going through is something that stays with you – and the Dreamers, too, the people whose futures are being toyed with like a yo-yo and being put in permanent peril. It is not only heart-breaking. It is enraging. I have to work very hard to put the hate out of my heart when I see my neighbors lives being toyed with for political gain and out of racism.

Jennifer: There is so much happening in the world and I feel like we are constantly bombarded with negativity – police shootings, the tax bill, the gradual gutting of the Affordable Care Act. What pains me about these experiences is that even when you secure a victory, there is still much more to fight for.

Consider Catalino for example; while we were able help him obtain a stay of removal, he is just one person in a sea of people. Even when you secure a victory, you look around and there is still so much work to do.

Michelle: It’s the stories I’ve heard from undocumented kids and their parents about what it’s like to live in fear of deportation and being torn apart from their families. I feel lucky that I get to fight for compassionate and just immigration policies like the Dream Act, but I am still haunted by the suffering that happens every day.

Where do you get your news?

Dan: Every morning I make sure to listen to NPR and read the Washington Post. I am careful to curate my Twitter feed to follow journalists – those I agree with and those I don’t, and people who are on the ground. I learn more about the Dream Act from United We Dream than from the Associated Press. Religion News Service is essential, The National Catholic Reporter. And I look at what journalists themselves are serving up.

Someone who I really like is Greg Sargent at the Washington Post and also Joy Reid has an important perspective often. Also Jack Jenkins, formerly of Think Progress, now of the Religion News Service. He will give you the best coverage of the religious left, so I am very partial to him.

And then Russell Moore. I think it is important what people on the other side are thinking, especially about religious liberty. We need to listen in order to sharpen our own message to people who are respectful and coming from a place of intellectual integrity. If I were keeping close tabs on Tony Perkins, I would spend most of my day in an angry state.

Jennifer: I use a variety of sources to obtain news such as Twitter, Flipboard, traditional media sites such as the Washington Post, the New York Times, CNN, The Root and others.

Michelle: Twitter and Facebook. I feel really lucky to be connected to so many incredible activists, journalists, policy wonks and faith leaders – very brilliant people who are engaging with the news on social media every day.

One person for example is Iram Ali. She’s a campaign director at MoveOn. She’s “Pakistan-born, Brooklyn-raised” according to her Twitter account and has an important analysis on Muslim America that I rely on to know how to best support our Muslim allies.

For news, I really like Talking Points Memo, and then, for example on the Dream Act, I’ll just use the hashtag #DreamActNow or #GOPTaxScam to keep up on those issues.

What religious voices inspire you?

Dan: The first person who comes to mind is the Rev. Traci Blackmon – on health care and economic issues, as well as on how to be a spiritually healthy leader.

Jennifer: Rev. Barber. Pastor Mike McBride who heads up our gun violence and mass incarceration work. A spiritual teacher Iyanla Vanzant. The Rev. Dr. Brianna K. Parker. And Dr. Leonard Hamlin, the pastor of my church, Macedonia Baptist Church in Arlington, Virginia. I find that one of the self-care practices I have in this political environment is that every day I am on YouTube listening to sermons and spiritual teachings. It keeps me grounded, present, and willing to stay in the fight.

Michelle: One person is the Rev. Noel Anderson at Church World Service. Another is our rabbi-in-residence Aryeh Cohen. Rev. Barber, as always. I love Wajahat Ali. [Laughter.] He’s so great on Twitter. And then for my own spiritual grounding, I really rely on Thich Nhat Hanh.

This will hit just after New Years as we look into 2018. What opportunity would you like to lift up to readers?

Dan: The final expiration of DACA. It is already winding down and comes to an end on March 5th. Right now 122 Dreamers are losing their DACA protections every day and on March 5th that number is going to go above 1000 per day, so passing a Dream Act is the most important thing to do in the first quarter.

Also, we have to be ready to respond to another Charlottesville. We need to be vigilant. Being at the ready for that.

And there’s an election. It is important to vote in such a way that is going to protect people who are under threat or suffering.

Jennifer: Part of my gift is training and developing, so I host quarterly professional development trainings for communicators. I sometimes lead the trainings or I invite colleagues in the field to lead them. For instance, I’ve invited my colleague Alan Rosenblatt to lead a training “Bots, Trolls and #FakeNews” in January. This past November, I convened a “Who’s Who in Journalism” training with religion reporters and social justice reporters. The event was well attended and informative. My goal is to continue offering services that help communicators to stay in the hard work of social and racial justice.

Michelle: As a Jewish social justice organizer, I know that responding to the moment is a collective undertaking and that the opportunity is before us to continue building the muscle of resistance and solidarity, to continue supporting frontline communities, to be generous with our appreciation of our colleagues, leaders in the field, peers and comrades, and to empower others to do the same.

Macky Alston is Senior Vice President for Prophetic and Creative Leadership and an award-winning filmmaker.

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