Reframing issues to change policy is a long-term game that has to be held down intergenerationally, because frameworks anchor themselves with repetition as well as information and illustrative stories. As we well know, frames, once achieved, can be lost to a reframing, especially if that reframing is well used and never fully relinquished. This implies that for today’s social movement and nonprofit leaders, playing effectively means building teams of advocates with the skills to stay in the game and see reframing efforts through.
Recent media coverage of various social movements highlights what young people have to offer as leaders, organizers, and communicators. We’ve known for a while that youth are choosing to be involved in solving complex problems1. The sizeable organizing power of young people from Ferguson, Missouri, to Howard University in Washington, DC, to Parkland, Florida proves this—and is an important reminder to nonprofit leaders that young people are a vibrant part of advocacy communities and the social movements they drive.
Coverage of youth-led movements also offers an image of young people that pushes back against the damage done by more unproductive representations of them. Every eye roll directed at “totally foreign”2 adolescents, every joke about “out-of-control” and “risk-loving” teens3 separates young people from “the rest of us.” For too long, even adults who recognize the value of young people have lacked an alternative meta-narrative to help people think about our similarities and shared fates, rather than our differences and divergences. New images of engaged young people have arrived at the right time to support a positive view of youth and their development.
Let’s remember that nonprofit leaders have been known to fall into the trap of seeing younger people through a deficit lens that imagines them as privileged, impatient, and unreasonable in our own workplaces instead of through an asset lens that acknowledges their native literacy in a new communications and operating environment. Falling into that generational complaint trap couldn’t be more of an “old dog” kind of dynamic to foist on young colleagues. And that dynamic creates a barrier for those same young people can use a reciprocal gift in communications “lessons learned” from elders.
At the FrameWorks Institute, we’ve seen this firsthand. Over the past two years, we have partnered with more than a dozen colleges and universities to bring strategic framing to campus. Our lectures and workshops on framing civic engagement, cultural identity, immigration, adolescent substance use, and early childhood development, to name a few issue areas we’ve studied, draw groups of committed students looking to improve their skills as advocates. For nonprofit leaders, this is great news—and it gets better.
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As a social scientist who is privileged to make campus visits and teach at the university level, I follow the journey from student to social change leader, and I get to listen in on questions and discussions about communicating for social change. In my experience, students have three main goals when it comes to framing. They seek to:
- Change minds. Students want to change how people think and what they believe about their core issues.
- Increase support for new and better policies. As emerging policy leaders and advocates, students know that their communications can help them speak up for collective action on the issues they care about.
- Build movements. Students see their public-facing communications as a means to bring in more voices to advocate for better policy and increase the number of people who are actively engaged in pushing for change on civic and social issues.
Like any new skill, framing requires practice and support. Nonprofit organizations should be interested in exposing students to strategic framing as an engagement strategy and weaving framing for advocacy into their lives. Failing to answer young people’s calls for strategic support in their advocacy is a costly oversight for society. To start, young people are headed for the very nonprofit groups that are leading the charge for social justice. They are the volunteers, staff, donors, and activists who not only form social movements but also lead them. The challenge for today’s nonprofit leaders is to help them acquire the skills they need to do just that.
Engaging young people as issue-framers and helping them to build new narratives for pressing problems should start in schools and on campus. This is where FrameWorks’ strategic framing tools for civic engagement have picked up, in classrooms from Los Angeles, to Madison, Wisc., to Sewanee, Tenn., to New Haven, Conn. But we know that learning happens outside the classroom just as effectively as within. Young people also acquire knowledge through their direct interactions with community mentors and NGOs. What’s more, research shows that civic engagement and participation supports youth development and is correlated with positive social outcomes and behaviors, not least of which is higher rates of civic participation and engagement in the future.4, 5
Strategic framing is an essential part of the NGO skillset. Rather than wait to teach it on-the-job and on-the-fly as current events break, now is the time to engage young people in understanding how culture shapes the way we think about social issues and what we can see as viable solutions.
- Kim, J. and Sherman, R. F. (2006). “Youth as important civic actors: From the margins to the center.” National Civic Review 95(1), 3-6.
- Trester, A. (2018). How to Talk About Youth Development. Washington, DC: FrameWorks Institute.
- Volmert, A., Fond, M., Haydon, A., O’Neil, M., Pineau, M. (2016). “It’s a Rite of Passage:” Mapping the Gaps between Expert, Practitioner, and Public Understandings of Adolescent Substance Use. Washington, DC: FrameWorks Institute.
- Ballard, P. J., Hoyt, L. T. and Pachucki, M. C. (2018). “Impacts of Adolescent and Young Adult Civic Engagement on Health and Socioeconomic Status in Adulthood.” Child Development.
- Zaff, J. F., Kawashima-Ginsberg, K., Lin, E.S., Lamb, M., Balsano, A., Lerner, R.M., (2011). “Developmental Trajectories of Civic Engagement across adolescence: Disaggregation of an integrated construct.” Journal of Adolescence 34(6), 1207-1220.