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Reflections on Empathy and Accuracy from the Media Impact Forum


By Sarah Armour-Jones, Deputy Director

San Francisco is the epicenter of a national debate about homelessness so it was a fitting place for Executive Director Marisol Bello to share her expertise and perspectives at the Media Impact Forum, hosted by Media Impact Funders earlier this month.

The power of storytelling was a big theme throughout the day, with lots of conversation about how accurate and empathetic stories can unite communities and create the kind of change we’re pushing for. Of course, stories can also be used to divide us, which is often what happens when conversations around homelessness — especially unsheltered homelessness — hit a boiling point.

Marisol noted that there’s a false choice being presented across the country: Either communities have to accept tent cities, needles and piles of trash OR people experiencing homelessness have to be arrested or corralled, their belongings and sense of belonging destroyed in encampment raids.

The truth is that no one should have to live on the streets, under bridges or in their cars, without access to even the most basic amenities like bathrooms.

And no one should live surrounded by chaotic tent cities.

As Joe Faillace, the business owner of Old Station Subs in Phoenix, said in a must-read New York Times article exploring the hard realities of business owners and struggling encampment residents, the situation isn’t working for anyone. “I’m realizing here lately that we’re living in a frigging hellhole,” he said. “Us, them, inside, outside. Who’s it working for? When does it stop?”

The false choice narrative is being weaponized and driving increasing support for raids because it’s “doing something” in the face of a mounting crisis that seems unsolvable.

As Marisol noted during her session with Mark Horvath of Invisible People, we need to keep our focus and narratives on a North Star, a shared vision for the future we want. 

We know that working to solve homelessness and housing insecurity can feel overwhelming, and there is plenty of bad news to focus on. But we also know that hope and a positive vision for the future are essential to our success.

Side note: That’s the topic of an upcoming webinar featuring a conversation between Marisol and Dr. Tiffany Manuel (Dr T.), CEO of TheCaseMade on Tuesday, June 27 at 4 pm ET / 1 pm PT. 

We were also inspired by many of the other Media Impact Forum speakers:

I was excited to learn more about the work of Devon Gray, President of Ending Poverty in California (EPIC) and filmmaker Jacob Kornbluth, who are sharing essential stories that advance new narratives and build narrative power to create change. 

The Oaklandside Editor-in-Chief Tasneem Raja and other speakers got me thinking about how local news can be partners in narrative work. Good local news like The Oaklandside gives communities the information they need while amplifying community voices. These outlets provide local stories with accuracy and empathy, and highlight what is working, and what needs to change.  

And because I live in Vermont, I was really excited to see that Front Porch Forum was elevated by Deepti Doshi, Co-Director of New_Public as an example of functional, community-oriented digital space (i.e. not a cesspool of nasty comments and clickbait). At a dinner hosted by New_Public, Deepti asked each guest to share something about a public place they love, and what makes it so special. She reminded us that those feelings ought to be in our digital spaces too, which felt like a wild idea.

Marisol and I left San Francisco feeling energized by the storytelling and storytellers we heard from, and ways community perspectives and needs are being incorporated into local news, social spaces and art. That is how we begin to shift narratives and create the kinds of thriving communities that work for everyone.

Check out the full recap of the Media Impact Forum for much more content.