I’ll admit: when I first took a communications class in college, I was a bit arrogant. Being a STEM student, I saw communication as something “easy” and “obvious”— just try to be nice as you say what you need to say! What more is there to it?
A lot more in fact. About halfway through the course, the professor introduced the idea of persuasion. “I will now demonstrate this by convincing you of something that no one in the room actually believes…but by the end of it, all of you will.”
He immediately launched into a performance about why brushing your teeth with a toothbrush is actually bad oral hygiene. He quoted doctors, showed us charts, and by the end of it I was horrified— he had convinced me that I ruined my teeth by brushing them!
So what happened? The key word above is “performance” — communication isn’t “just” about talking, it’s about behavior. The professor carefully considered his audience, pulled together compelling content, and delivered it in a way to achieve his aims. Later, I wound up checking out as many books as I could from the library on strategic communications. I ended up making it into my profession.
I tell the story about my communications class to underscore the importance of taking communications seriously as a skill. In the most distilled sense, communication is about knowing your audience (what is important to them and why), understanding their behaviors, and figuring out which medium to use to deliver the right message (that will result in the intended outcomes). Communication itself is a dynamic process between the sender and recipient: once a sender has a message, they must create the actual content to send, decide on format, send the message, and then ensure it is received. A misstep at any one of those phases (including miscalculations due to perception!) leads to miscommunication. There’s a saying to underscore this: when two people are talking, there are six people in the room: each person as they see themselves, each person as the other sees them, and each as they really are.
But, like feminists have pointed out for other fields such as science, education and medicine, the communications industry (which includes: television stations, movie production studios, digital media platforms, newspapers, book publishing, advertising and public relations firms, and more) is both steeped in patriarchy and used by patriarchal forces to their ends. For example, Facebook was created to share happy moments, not designed to have the uncomfortable conversations needed to challenge behaviors rooted in patriarchy, racism, and capitalism. The majority of senior leadership at companies and corporations are cisgender white men based in the Global North. The world’s leading digital platforms are designed to accumulate corporate wealth and encourage people to acquire social capital and become “influencers.” and not, let’s say, “collaborators.”
So, as feminists who are concerned with changing behavior in a way that resists and dismantles and upsets patriarchy, capitalism, and racism, how can we use communication to our ends? How can we not just communicate feminist messages, but also use communications in a feminist way? What are the challenges facing feminist communicators in the field?
This past November, AWID invited a group of feminist communicators from the Global South and North to convene for a series of discussions on issues facing us in the field. Some were Communications Managers of NGO’s, others were journalists, and some were independent commentators with audiences on social media. Folks joined in from Occupied Turtle Island (also known as Canada and the United States), Brazil, India, Mauritius, Colombia, Benin. As feminists, we worked across various issue areas (disability justice, Indigenous rights, bodily autonomy), but all with a commitment to the political aims of feminism. Together, we discussed challenges in digital organizing, including:
- Pressures of capitalist productivity
- White supremacist algorithms and how feminist platforms are shadowbanned
- Accessibility norms still not widely adopted
- Doubts about the impact of our work
Together, we also shared general good feminist communication advice, like:
“When you feel strongly about something it’ll show in your art; don’t create things for the sake of trends or virality. Remember that just because it isn’t measurable, doesn’t mean it’s not real!”
And we wrapped up our conversation with generative strategies around impact, care, collaboration, expansion, and moving beyond mainstream formats.
On collaboration, someone said:
“We need to create methodologies and practices grounded in collaboration — upending the way we’ve been taught and shown to do work in a landscape where ego has too often defined the work of social justice organizations. That begins with dismantling hero worship within our movement, dispensing with the idea that any of us are “more” or “better” or “best” suited for or gifted in the work of movement-building and instead recognizing that everyone has a role to share. It also means bringing the values of our movement into the way we do this work—ensuring that those who are most marginalized or vulnerable are centered and have the loudest voices when we collaborate, and that they are the ones who hold the power to define what partnerships look like—and striving to bring folks to collaborations as equal, not [deferential], partners.”
What communications barriers are you encountering in your work? What solutions have you found? What do we need to talk more about that we are not?
Join in the conversation: