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Essentials for Transformative Narratives: Establishing Shared Values


By Claire Sloss, Digital Content Strategist

As we continue to work together to solve homelessness and housing insecurity, many of us have come to recognize the crucial role that narrative plays in building the public will to solve homelessness. Dominant narratives about people experiencing homelessness rooted in individual failing and personal choice are harmful and lead to ineffective and sometimes dehumanizing solutions. That’s why we’re working to build a transformative narrative that recognizes that housing is a human need and necessary for everyone in our community to thrive.

Through research, we have identified several essential elements for crafting messaging that will help us build narrative power. 

The first of these elements is establishing shared values.

When we meet someone for the first time, we often look for points of connection, commonalities that we share. Deep connection is often built through the common values we hold – love, family, home, equity, justice. 

When crafting messages, we start from this place of connection to draw people in, so we can start to think about what this means for our community. The values we hold determine what kind of community we want to have and the role we play in creating it. We use our values to assess what systems work – and don’t work – for each of us, and what we want to do to change them.

By framing housing justice in terms of values that people already hold, we are appealing to their own self-interest and stake in the issue. We are helping the public to recognize the benefit that solving homelessness has for us all, not just those directly affected by housing insecurity. 

So often we ask people to prioritize solving homelessness by referring to it as a ‘crisis,’ emphasizing the immense scope of those affected, or unintentionally characterizing it as an intractable problem. This is more likely to lead our audiences to hopelessness or apathy rather than action. Instead, our messages should point to a North Star, a common vision for the future that is consistent with the values we all share. 

Relying on facts and figures, or using wonky policy lingo may turn your audience off. Our messages should focus on the brownie, not the recipe to make it. Focus on the end result, our shared vision, and avoid getting stuck in the weeds of how we’re going to get there. 

Building commonality and pointing to our connection as fellow human beings is crucial. In Invisible People’s 2020 report What America Thinks About Homelessness, they suggest “emphasizing ways in which housed and homeless people share the same struggles and hopes provides an on-ramp to empathy.” 

When Advisory Committee member Michael Jackson shared his story in the New York Daily News earlier this month, he used the values of community and family that almost everyone can relate to to connect with his audience. He says, “I know more than most people that having a home is the soil from which families and communities either grow or wither.” 

Through our national narrative research, we found that value statements that invoke a shared desire for everyone to get and keep a roof over their heads resonate with a majority of adults. 

“No matter our race, gender, or income we all want to get and keep a roof over our heads.”

All of the top messages from our research include value statements, especially our Housing First message. It begins “Whether we are black or white, Latino or Asian, native or newcomer, most of us want the best for our families.”

By starting with this common value of providing for our families, it is easier for the audience to understand how challenges to this value are the result of systemic or institutional barriers rather than individual failings. 

Read more about our narrative research here

Most Americans recognize that housing is a human need. It is our job to help them move away from the conflicting idea that housing is a commodity and think of home as a place that provides the safety and stability necessary for a bright future.

When crafting our messages, we should emphasize the opportunities that home allows for each of us – including the next generation of children – to pursue our dreams and plan for the future.

Housing provides a benefit to the whole community, so avoid ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ rhetoric. Using the values of community and interdependence, we should avoid framing ‘affordable housing’ as something that is provided by one group to another.

Equitable access to housing represents justice and fairness. The Opportunity Agenda suggests focusing on “opportunity values” like equality, mobility, community, and security – values that are rooted in the idea that everyone should have the opportunity to reach their full potential. 

CEO of the King County Regional Homelessness Authority Marc Dones relies heavily on these opportunity values in his op-ed in Blavity. He connects with us around our shared ideals of equity and inclusion, but pushes us to move from words to action, to ensure opportunity in “education and income to how long we live.”

Housing Justice Narrative Initiative identified five top values-based messages

All children deserve a roof over their head and a safe place to live.
(75% strongly agree, 93% agree)

Like air to breathe and food to eat, safe shelter is a basic human need.
(65% strongly agree, 92% agree)

Without a job, you are likely to struggle holding down housing.
(64% strongly agree, 90% agree)

Being denied where to live because of race, family status, or disability is discrimination.
(62% strongly agree, 84% agree)

Everyone should have a safe, stable place to call home.
(62% strongly agree, 84% agree)

Lastly, make sure you craft messages to the specific audience you are trying to reach and the goals you are trying to achieve. Shift the Bay created a helpful guide for messaging to different audiences: base, persuadables and opposition.