Movement Communications Academy Builds Narrative Power

Oregon Academy students learning in the Center for Great Purposes at Meyer HQ

As anti-immigrant rhetoric and anti-LGBTQ2SIA+ legislation continue to escalate, building community-led movements requires implementing effective communications strategies to inspire supporters and advance racial, gender and economic justice. Movement Communications Academy is on a mission to prepare today’s communicators to do just that by equipping them with essential skills to inform, empower and transform systems at large.

Over eight months, the Oregon Academy, a pilot program comprised of 19 communications professionals from 15 nonprofits, meets weekly to gain hands-on learning from co-founders Diane Goodwin and Megen Ickler. Seasoned professionals provide subject-specific expertise. Past sessions included guidance on how to develop compelling messages with Strategist Cody Romero to digital advocacy and fundraising campaigns with Iván Hernández, the digital communications and engagement manager at Oregon Food Bank.

“It's important for communications professionals to see a pathway to stay in this field,” Ickler said. “We prioritize trainers who reflect the identities of students in our cohort, especially those who are Black, Indigenous, people of color and queer.”

Inspiring Confidence in Brilliant Communicators

Before founding the Academy, Goodwin and Ickler were colleagues at Brink Communications, a creative agency that worked with scores of regional and national nonprofits. Goodwin has over three decades of experience, including a leadership role on President Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign. Ickler’s political organizing career led her to serve as the communications director for then House Speaker Tina Kotek.

“By centering peer learning, we interrupt imposter syndrome and build confidence to take necessary risks,” Goodwin said. “Communications folks are often expected to learn on the job. Movement Communications Academy sets this generation of brilliant professionals up for success.”

From strategy to implementation, the Academy students dive into real life case studies that cover successful messaging, digital communications, media advocacy and policy communications.

In her session on media advocacy, Kim Melton, vice president of impact at Meyer Memorial Trust, highlighted the difference between reactive and proactive approaches to media advocacy. As a former journalist and communications director, she said responding to stories embedded in misinformation and addressing false equivalencies are just as essential as planting seeds, leveraging events and educating reporters.

Learning Together

“The Academy has given us concrete skills to mobilize our communities on issues that are really important to our cause,” Ernesto Oliva, digital communications and campaign manager at Unite Oregon said. “It’s my job to find innovative ways to ensure that our communities reach the action alerts and opportunities to hopefully, in time, build a cross-cultural movement in Oregon.”

Oliva first joined Unite Oregon as a field organizer with a desire to support more advocacy and ground organizing after beginning his career in education. To support housing justice efforts — one of the six core pillars of the organization’s mission — he trained 150 immigrants and refugees in Washington County to craft their own solutions around tenants rights.

As a first generation, bilingual Latino, he saw how accurately translating messaging into accessible languages for many communities brought more people to the decision-making table.

“I got into communications because I saw that there was power in building bridges with different communities, with immigrants and refugees,” he said. “Being effective with our organizing and advocacy to shift policy at the local and state level involves language accessibility and messaging.”

He knows he can’t do it alone. Only halfway through the course, they’ve built a sense of camaraderie, understanding how intersectional each other’s missions are in the pursuit of justice. This inclusive style of learning resonates with Oliva and his team at Unite Oregon who incorporate this belief into their operations: there are no experts in the room, everyone co-learns together. The same goes for Blair Stenvick, the communications manager at Basic Rights Oregon (BRO).

“Realizing that you’re not alone, that a lot of the challenges I face are faced by others and finding ways to work around it together means a lot,” Stenvick said. “Connecting with each other on that human level and sharing each other’s work on social media, we’re supporting each other in measurable ways.”

Transforming Systems Statewide

They said the cohort style builds momentum by bringing people with different lived experiences and skills together to uplift one another in this work.

“Tribe grows impact,” they said. “We want equality for every LGBTQ+ person or guardian no matter what part of the state you live in, your age, your race or your income level. Being as inclusive as possible is what drives us at BRO.”

As a communications team of one, Stenvick relies on their instincts and often moves quickly to translate messaging into effective narratives.

“The Academy has taught me how to slow down and really think through the basics: what is my audience, what is the goal of this specific action?” they said. “It has reminded me that the message needs to be inclusive so it can be understood and acted on at different levels, meeting people where they’re at.”

Before joining Basic Rights Oregon, Stenvick worked as a reporter where they met organizers on the ground who were leading campaigns throughout the state. As a queer trans person, they resonated with BRO’s mission. When a communications position became available, they knew it was the right time to move from reporting on issues to being an active agent for transforming systems.

Since joining the team, they’ve successfully campaigned for the passage of HB 2002, expanding reproductive health care and abortion protections statewide. Now, BRO is collaborating with Planned Parenthood and ACLU Oregon to enshrine abortion rights, marriage equality and gender-affirming care into the state constitution.

While Oregon has some of the most inclusive reproductive and gender affirming access in the country, passing this type of legislation will still be an uphill battle. Stenvick hopes to apply the lessons they continue to learn at the Academy as they ramp up their efforts.

As the Academy rounds the halfway point, evaluation and growth are top of mind for Goodwin and Ickler. The Oregon cohort could serve as a model for taking this training nationwide.

Oliva believes every communications professional would benefit from the program no matter where they are in their career path.

“Education is your passport through life,” he said. “This will either be a refresher for you or it will be a new program that will equip you with real life skill sets to be able to do your job. And the better we do our job as communications professionals, the more our communities will benefit.”