Mission Forward guest Nimra Haroon

A Season of Communicators: Mission Forward Season Four Recap with Nimra Haroon

Carrie Fox and Nimra Haroon review a rich season of lessons from some of our best and brightest communications practitioners in Season Four of Mission Forward.

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When we started this season of Mission Forward, we wanted to go back to our roots. We are, after all, a communications firm. It seems only right that we spend a little time talking about communications.

And so, we began our journey to meet ten people influencing and shaping how we communicate at scale for social change. Authors, journalists, and designers sat down with us to share their journey against the headwinds of change, illuminating how they use the tools of their craft to change minds and influence markets for action.

This week on the show, producer Nimra Haroon joins Carrie Fox to review lessons learned over the course of this season, distilling for you the highlights of ten interviews that plumb the depths of our field. It is a bittersweet close to this chapter of the podcast as we break the holidays and the new year, but we will return in 2022 with season five, and a new collection of conversations to help you move your mission forward.

Our cup runs over with gratitude to Ashton Lattimore, Tim Hykes, Najma Robers, Greg Galle, Grady Powell, Houston Kraft, Eleni Stamoulis, Rae Oglesby, and Dan Buettner, along with each representative of their teams who helped to bring this season of interviews to fruition. Thank you to all — guests, production partners, and listeners alike — for making this podcast such a rewarding journey for us to undertake.

Episode Transcript

Carrie Fox: Welcome to Mission Forward, a podcast for inclusive and thoughtful communicators who wish to advance social justice through the power of their communications, the words we use, the actions we take and the way we design our daily lives. I’m Carrie Fox, your host and CEO of Mission Partners, a social impact communications firm, and certified B Corporation. Before we officially wrap up season four, we have got a quick recap episode today. We go back in time providing top line lessons from each of the 10 guests who were with us this year. I’m excited to be back at this with Nimra Haroon today, my partner in this podcast. And we’re going to reflect on what we learned and where we go from here. Before we get to it, we also have some exciting news, that Mission Forward has a new home over at missionforward.us. This podcast, thanks to you, is growing and we hope you will check out the new site and opportunities to engage more deeply in our content and our conversations. Now, let’s get to the show.

Carrie Fox: Hi, folks, and welcome to this final closing wrap up episode of season four of the Mission Forward podcast. I am back with Nimra Haroon, just as we started this episode, we’re going to do a closeout and talk about what we learned and, Oh, my gosh, what a season it was. I feel so blessed to have had so many incredible conversations with such inspiring and inspired people who are living life through their values, who are challenging capitalism in business, and the ways of work to be able to build us toward a more, just an equitable future. And they are doing it and they shared so much with us this season. Nimra, welcome back. I want to get your top line take. What do you think of this season?

Nimra Haroon: It was a special one and it’s really special that such a core group of communicators who navigate all these different spaces in the world actually have a very, very common outlook that we share and the role that communications plays in the responsibility that we bear and the jobs that we fulfill on an everyday basis. So it was pretty humbling to be in conversation with these people. And I think, Carrie, it says so much about the work that they’re doing, that we had them on and vice versa and the work that you’re doing.

Carrie Fox: We say something a lot in our work that if we stop to look, we’ll find that we all have more income. And then we have a part. And we have, that’s different between one another. And we at Mission Partners have gone so much deeper in our work over the last two years, but certainly even this year on how we think about the role of communications and the role of our team as communicators and trying to bridge the gaps that we see and trying to break the toxic narratives that we see, how much power is in fact in communications as a tool. If we go back to the top of the season, we started with this awesome conversation with Ashton Lattimore, editor-in-chief of Prism who has built a newsroom really unlike any other, and is challenging a lot of the norms in terms of how news is shared. What was something that stuck with you from this one?

Nimra Haroon: So many points that Ashton pointed out, but a couple that really resonated with me is remembering that any narrative that’s told, any story that’s told, has a protagonist. And so often media has positioned the person who’s in power as a protagonist. And who we decide from a journalistic standpoint is the center of the story and is significant enough to report on, will shape our consumption of it and then the narrative that’s told. And so to remember that, power is not necessarily going to be the protagonist because we have to continue to question our systems, our structures, and our institutions that are empowered to keep them accountable.

Carrie Fox: That stuck with me too. The other piece that stuck with me about the conversation with Ashton was she talked about how it’s well and good if you have a journalist writing a story, bringing a certain perspective, but if you still have an editor over their head, that’s going to remove that context, then it’s no different, you might as well as have a homogenous makeup of that newsroom. That’s an important point, not just in the media we consume, but in the organizations we’re part of as well.

Nimra Haroon: That was such a poignant point that Ashton made. It goes back to something that we said at the top of the season, the person who holds the power holds the pen. Not only are you holding that power, but you are continuing to influence the spaces around you, the narratives that are continuously perpetuated, and then what we as consumers and readers and followers of these media institutions, are we questioning the makeup of those newsrooms? Are we questioning the makeup of who’s telling us that news? So you can have that well-staffed, diverse newsroom, but then once again, the systems that are, and the people who are in power, have that pen.

Carrie Fox: Good reminder to check who’s behind your news? Who’s in the newsroom? Who’s crafting those stories? Check it if you haven’t recently. Do an audit of your own news consumption. Episode three, we’ll move to the awesome Tim Hikes, the amazing energetic Tim Hikes, who brought so much to this conversation and revealed stories with us that he said, he really hasn’t shared with many, talking about the role that his grandmother played in his life and his ability really to move into a design field. So much will stick with me from this one. What sticks with you, Nimra?

Nimra Haroon: Really what stuck with me is, when he mentioned how much of our world actually is not designed for it, and in his day job is a UX designer where he studies that intersection between humans and technology, and he touched on this example of machine learning and the bias that’s baked into our tech infrastructure. So when we Google something as simple as a term like a black man and the screenshots, the images, the stock photos that may come up are going to be significantly different and entirely baked into narratives that we as culture and media and society have perpetuated about that demographic. And the onus is on these tech companies, that the onus is on these people who are the technologists and the designers to unmake that. It so resonated with me.

Carrie Fox: Yeah. And it’s interesting because there is an interesting parallel to the conversation we had with Elainey later in the season. Whereas Tim talked about how so much of our world is not designed for, Elainey raised this concept, that design creates culture. If we stop to think about that for a minute, that so much of our world is not designed, but it is that piece that actually creates our culture. So that there’s really, maybe a negative breakdown that’s happening, that ultimately is still resulting in the culture we have. How important, intentional and inclusive design is, and how that leads to a more intentional, inclusive culture too.

Nimra Haroon: Absolutely. And it touches on that piece of accessibility. So then we wonder why in this day of 2021, so much of our world is not accessible. And yet we have all the information about it. The largest living minority in the world are people who live with disabilities. And yet our world is actually not designed to be accessible for them and on a technological front, on a physical infrastructure [inaudible 00:08:21] and Tim and Delaine, both spoke to that.

Carrie Fox: Yeah. I agree. How awesome it was to have Elainey, on the show and having worked with her for five years and to still hear and learn new things about her and how powerful her teacher was in coaching her and giving her that, not just the confidence in herself, but the opportunity to see what she could be as a designer and how grateful I will forever be to Bob for instilling that in her. Najma Roberts, she was on the show coming to us from Democracy Fund, where she’s the Senior Director of Communications and Equity. We talked a lot about power, the role that communicators have in holding their leadership teams accountable, the way that we can ensure that we are not just helping to translate what our executives are saying, but put it out into the world in a way that we can also so be accountable for.

Nimra Haroon: Najma, touched on something that I think so many in comms professionals will identify with. She said that we’ve been order takers in the past, and that there’s this menu of options which agencies like our own actually offer organizations with regards to a plethora of things that they can do. Communications has often been seen as, this backstage act or an afterthought. There’s strategic planning, there’s the C-suite coordination, and then, Oh, comms, that’s that thing that those people do over there. And what we have witnessed in the last few years is how vital communications is to every organization and that whether you’re trying to salvage a reputation or amplify it, it has to be at the center of all conversations. And that’s with your leadership teams, that’s in those boardrooms, that’s with every stakeholder and how it’s an integrated component in every org. And the sooner, and the more hopefully these organizations live that out, the more successful that they’ll be in delivering upon those strategies.

Carrie Fox: That’s for sure. And this idea that, if we think about the opportunity that exists when communications is embedded in the center of a conversation, not at the outside, at the very basic level. The thing that works when organizations work, when societies work, it’s when there’s communication happening, when there’s an understanding and an empathy that goes two ways. And often, even more than that, but the layers she talked about, what communications can do, not just to promote and amplify an idea, but what it can do to peel back the layer, to create opportunities for justice. I really loved the way she talks about that.

Nimra Haroon: And holding the accountability that those values actually live out. Not that it’s just talk or lip service, but are these ideas that can stand on their own and will they stand on the integrity of the values that they claim that they stand upon?

Carrie Fox: I have been in those rooms when, earlier in my career, for sure, about when an executive would say, "Go push this out to the world." And I say, "But I’m going to have to hold back then. That is a big statement you’re about to make, are you sure we can back that up?" And that’s what we heard Najma say too. It’s the communicators, ultimately that have the ability to push back and say, "We’re not going to be able to deliver on that, let’s work on that." Because that’s a big idea and we can work towards that, but let’s be accountable to our words and our actions too. Okay, great girl. The author of Think Wrong, the co-founder of Solve Next, what a cool guy and great conversation this was. What sticks with you from this one?

Nimra Haroon: I want to start with something that Greg framed at the very top of the episode, and that is, he said that culture is self preserving. So it’s great if you have a healthy culture, but if you’re trying to create, improve, change, or strengthen a culture, it’s natural to have some resistance and really, really speaking to, how are we going to live within that resistance and that discomfort? Because it actually a means to getting us to a better framing of society, a better society, a better world. And gosh, that stuck with me.

Carrie Fox: I just love the concept I always have, is this idea of think wrong and how much of what we do inside any day, inside any industry, inside any job is, we do it because it’s the way it’s been done. And when we stop to really challenge and ask ourselves why, but why, but why, but why? We start to understand that a lot of what we do, isn’t in fact, the way that makes the best sense for the ultimate vision at the end. I found the conversation with him freeing. To think about that you can set aside the status quo. You can set aside the expectations to be able to see truly the possibilities that exist when you design fully for those around you, not just for the audience that’s right in front of you.

Nimra Haroon: And that it’s a muscle that needs to be trained because we’ve been so conditioned, biologically, socially, culturally, to have this certain vision. Greg really spoke to thinking outside of that and having to really exercise it. It is a muscle that needs to be exercised. And something else that Greg said that really, really resonated me was that when we think about planning, people get excited about solutions and we don’t focus on the problem and really when the meat of that solution lies within the problem itself. And so if we were to focus on that problem, we’d come to a solution and probably a far more embedded one, more quickly. And, Greg said that that means sitting with people, sitting with their pain and the ability to be empathetic and coexist where the pain is, that’s where the problem solving will happen, man, the world needs to hear that message.

Carrie Fox: And what was so cool about that is we went from this episode called, Communicating The Impossible with Greg. And then we shifted and we talked about Communicating The Possible, and that was with Grady Powell at Openfields. Also, the founder of Capita, which is this amazing think tank working to build a better future for children and families and challenging again, the way things are done and the way things can be. What stuck with you from this one?

Nimra Haroon: Just talking about going from impossible to possible. Grady spoke to the danger of that blue sky vision. And so we think, we have a blue sky vision we’re dreaming and actually how dangerous it can be, how paralyzing it can be, because it’s starts to give this connotation that people have to have a single vision and that there’s a limit, and there’s some parameters to that vision. And it has to be executed a certain way, but really what Grady, encouraged us to do and continues to encourage people to do is, create multiple possible futures, multiple visions for what’s possible. And then that harnesses all the creative energy within you to think that you can do so much more than what you thought. I thought that was just brilliant.

Carrie Fox: Me too. One of the things I love about Grady, there’s a lot of things that I love about the way he does his work, but that there’s something really important to remember about getting the groundwork right first. If you’ve got clear values, you’ve got a clear understanding for why you exist, then those pathways start to become more clear. You know where you’re going because you know where you started and what you stand for and what you don’t. And that’s something I think often. It’s easy for organizations to forget or lose sight of why they started and what they believe in. Again, I think this idea of really understanding what’s possible, first starts a grounding and understanding of what you believe in. And sometimes that’s about challenging what you believe in too. It’s challenging about where those beliefs came from, ultimately to get to a set of shared values that can move an organization forward.

Nimra Haroon: And he spoke to that root cause analysis. You have to understand the culture norms, that first shape problem, and spoke to this element of truth that lives in people’s perspectives. If we can understand why we think that things that we do, what shaped it, then you can move forward in a more honest capacity from there.

Carrie Fox: All right. Moving on, we went deep kindness next. We went and had an awesome conversation with Houston Kraft, the founder of CharacterStrong and the author of Deep Kindness. I met Houston by chance. I’m so glad that I did. I’ve been following his work and think he’s just really such a great gift to the schools and the communities he’s been working with, but his message is so simple. And yet maybe that’s why it’s so powerful.

Nimra Haroon: I was excited about this episode because you and Houston’s paths cross between your books and your work on kindness and building kindness activists. So this was a really fun one. There was a lot that Houston said that resonated with me, but I’m going to name two things. The first is, Houston spoke to this student who came up to him and cited the difference between being nice and being kind. And that student cited niceness was a reaction, a transaction. And kindness is a proactive act. It means that you choose it, even when it’s difficult, you choose it, even when it’s difficult to get along with someone, kindness requires that work. And Houston went on to say that our world has oversimplified kindness and people say, "Oh, you should be a kind person, you should be a kind person." But Houston said that it’s lost its rigor, the sacrifice, the discomfort and the work that is required to practice kindness and goodness. That struck me.

Carrie Fox: Me too. I think that is one of the stickiest lines of the season. I have repeated that so many times to myself, but also to so many people, the importance of understanding the difference between nice and kind. Houston and I have in common, how we talk about kindness as a muscle that you have to build, you have to maintain it, you have to grow it just like we think about maintaining our physical bodies and our mental health. Kindness is a muscle too. And there is so much practical information and inspiring information in that conversation. I hope folks go back and listen to that one a few times.

Carrie Fox: All right. We talked about Elainey, already a little bit. We came into episode eight, we had this awesome conversation with our colleague Elainey, graphic designer at mission partners. We talked about how she has really focused in on accessibility and has brought this lens, this clarity to how we think about the role of design and everything that we create on behalf of our clients and in our community, so much that she shared in that episode, that again are just gems to go back and remember over time.

Nimra Haroon: It’s such a pleasure working with Elainey, I will say that. She mentioned a disparity that I think was so poignant to call out. She mentioned the disparity between representation and design and the labor force and black African Americans and Latinx makeup and design is so low, and yet it’s so, so high in labor. She mentioned how it’s ironic because design is used as a tool in advancing racial justice, racial equity, social justice. And so why does that continue to exist? It’s pretty fascinating that her master’s thesis is touching on this topic of the role of design educators and shrinking that gap between those who are in design school, but then the ones who actually end up in that industry, and why is that gap so wide?

Carrie Fox: It’s true. And that’s right. That’s what her research is focused on. We were glad to be able to learn more and share more about that too. Okay. We are coming into the episode that was the most special for me. You talked about some of the ones that have been most special. I loved the conversation we had with Ray Osby, at up together, formally family independence initiative. I have loved Ray, from the moment I met her and the way her mind works and the way she is applying her values and her process of communications and questioning and intentional inquiry and interrogation.

Carrie Fox: She really challenges the role that communications can play. And so much we talked about episodes and, we talked about themes we’ve mentioned in other episodes, themes like deficit framing versus asset framing, the power of strength based messages versus savior messages. She made it so practical, but she was so… You could feel her emotions so deeply through the words of this, that just that in itself, I think was a measure of how strong of a communicator she is.

Nimra Haroon: And she spoke too, that the power dynamics that exist within nonprofits themselves, and that these organizations as air quotations, the good work that they do, how it can be rather problematic even, and just the framing of how we position ourselves with regards to the communities that these organizations will be working with or alongside or for. And so how you consider and define and name yourself will reinforce a power dynamic. Ray spoke to up together and how they think about themselves within the population that they’re serving. And they’re not any different or any outsider who’s working with them. They’re right there alongside with them. And Ray spoke to how she is a part of the community that she works with. And so you’re not, authorizing yourself, you’re not making yourself seem better than, or other than, or like a savior, but integrated with, and how that completely changes the frame for a client, or a client provider. It’s pretty, pretty imperative that we continue to keep that in mind as we move forward.

Carrie Fox: Well said, well said. Enormous thanks to Ray, for joining us for that special conversation. And then we ended with one that, wow, so, so glad to have that time with Dan Buettner. To be able to talk about his new book and communicating for life, going deeper inside the blue zones that he first introduced to us many, many years ago. I’m going to pause on this one for a minute. I know you’ve got some good stuff to share, but I’m so grateful to Dan, for coming and introducing some concepts that I think are so core to the way we can think about living our life and entering every day intentionally with purpose.

Nimra Haroon: What I really appreciated about this episode is how Dan, made the integration of fitness of life, of health, of nutrition as just an integrated part of all of these things that we live on a daily basis. They’re not somehow isolated. It’s not the blue zones challenge. It’s what we’re speaking about right now is not a fitness planner, a diet that exists in some vacuuming over there. It is our means to our fullest potential. And that carries over to how we show up in every space with our friends, with our community, at work. And I’m so grateful for Dan for joining us. I’m actually excited to embark on the blue zone challenge with you and with our team in the new year.

Nimra Haroon: It really, really struck a chord of me when he was speaking to even the role of marketing in communities and how, when we think about the billboards and the advertisements and all these different elements of noise that exist in our world. What are the messages that we’re telling people about themselves, about their bodies, about their worth? We have a responsibility to reverse that course of action when it’s actually harmful. I’m really appreciative of the work and the research that Dan, and his team is doing and showing that there’s actually a different path that we can take to integrate wellness and betterment of our lives in a more holistic way.

Carrie Fox: And that is like the perfect summation of the whole season too, in that if I think back to every single episode we have, that thought can be applied to everyone. There’s always a different path. And if we’re thinking about moving toward the more equitable path, moving toward the more just path, moving toward the more inclusive path, it’s not going to be the way that it’s done now. There’s always a flip to the story, there’s always another side to the story, there’s always another way to look at the problem or the situation. And it’s that look, look again, mentality that I love so much that I think communications always has the power to help us do.

Carrie Fox: Communications is not just what we say or the actions we take. It’s also how deeply we’re listening and learning and being deeply in community with one another to build that empathy and that compassion yet at the end of the day, that’s what all of this is about. We are humans first. It is the thing we all have in common and how much I loved going on this journey with these 10 people, you included to start and end this season. And I hope folks, as they’re wrapping up this wrap up little episode, that they go back and listen to some of the episodes. Maybe they haven’t heard yet, re-listen to some of the ones that they enjoyed, because there are so much to take away and hold on to from this episode and season of Mission Forward.

Nimra Haroon: I’m appreciative of you, Carrie. I’m so excited to go back and listen to these episodes. Admittedly, that’s what is on my holiday playlist queue. And I’m appreciative to our guests for joining us for the season, what a season.

Carrie Fox: Agreed. As we close out folks, we are getting ready to gear up again for season five. We also have some really big news to share in that the Mission Forward website is going to be launching any day in effect. By the time you listen to this, it will be [email protected] I hope you go check it out. You can see all of the episodes and seasons we’ve had today. You can join the community. You can be part of the future of the Mission Forward podcast. I’m so proud of what we are building Nimra, here at Mission Partners in partnership with true story. I’m excited for what the year ahead has for us to continue on this amazing learning journey together. Thanks as always for your time. Thanks for listening, and we’ll see you on the other side.

This season, we are taking you on a journey to meet ten people influencing and shaping how we communicate at scale for social change. From advertising executives to coalition directors, news editors, campaign managers, and authors, they're all people who are shaping and challenging the deep power of communication. If you’re working to become a more inclusive and thoughtful communicator, there’s nothing holding you back—except you.

Carrie Fox

Carrie Fox is the founder and CEO of Mission Partners, a woman-owned strategic communications firm and Certified B Corporation that guides high-potential nonprofits, foundations, and socially responsible corporations in realizing their greatest social impact. Since launching her first firm in 2004, she has guided hundreds of organizations around the world to lead with purpose, fueling organizations and their missions forward in new and more impactful ways.