Power, Privilege, & Responsibility: Communications to Bridge Divides

Nimra Haroon joins Carrie to talk about the key themes that will drive the interviews in Season 4 of Mission Forward as the show turns to assess the power, privilege, and responsibility in the field of communications.

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That’s the voice of Nimra Haroon, senior strategist at Mission Partners and a partner in the production of the Mission Forward podcast. Nimra brings a set of foundational insights that help us to set up the key themes we’ll be talking about this season. She’ll be back with us at the end of the season to reflect on what we learned.

Here’s what we’re looking forward to exploring this season:

  1. Themes like the role of power in communications…the role of the storyteller, and the main character in how we interpret and understand the world around us.
  2. Themes like the role of communication to close gaps, across digital divides and the need to explore some of the ways we communicate by default through an ableist lens. What would happen if in every communication we developed, we asked—-how accessible is my message? In this season, we’ll take that on.
  3. We’ll explore themes like communications as a tool to advance social justice, and how inherently the more inclusive a message, the more socially just it is.
  4. And we’ll touch on the importance of specificity in our words and messages, and that a lack of communication, especially in heightened moments, is still communication.

There is so much good conversation ahead, and it’s clear in this first episode that we’re just getting started. Join us next week as we sit down with Ashton Lattimore, editor in chief of Prism, an independent, nonprofit news outlet led by journalists of color who together are challenging the way we get our news and the perspectives in which it’s told.

Episode Transcript

Nimra Haroon: There’s times where we may have to sit certain games out and ensure that there are different messengers to relay different messages. I think what I’m really touching at here is this notion of power and the role of power within communications.

Carrie Fox: That’s the voice of Nimra Haroon, senior strategist at Mission Partners, and my partner in the production of this podcast. I’m excited to start off this fourth season with her and then have her come on back at the end to talk out what we learned. Today, you’ll hear us setting up some of the themes for the season ahead. Hi, and welcome to Mission Forward, a podcast that explores the power of communication to change the world. I’m Carrie Fox, your host and CEO of Mission Partners, a social impact communications firm and certified B corporation. Over the season, we are taking you on a journey to meet 10 people who are influencing and shaping how we communicate for social change. We’ll meet an incredible lineup of folks who are shaping and challenging that power of communication. We’ll share lessons, stories, and insights from some of the brightest minds in marketing and design, plus a lot of tools to help you practically apply these lessons to your own communications work. In today’s episode, we start the conversation that sets up the season with a quick take at the themes ahead, themes like the role of power in communication, what [inaudible 00:01:37] set up at the top for us, the role of the storyteller and the main character in how we interpret and understand the world around us, themes like the role of communications to close gaps, especially across digital divides, and the need to explore some of the ways that we communicate by default, often through ableist lens. What would happen if in every communication we developed we asked, how accessible is my message? In this season, we’re going to take on that question. We’re also going to look at themes like communications as a tool to advance social justice and how inherently the more inclusive the message, the more socially just. We’ll touch on the importance of specificity in our words and our messages, and that a lack of communication, especially in heightened moments, is still communication. Stay tuned for a special introductory conversation with Nimra Haroon of Mission Partners, and I’ll see you on the other side. Every day, every industry, every relationship we have is all built on communications and whether we are connecting across boundaries or deepening and widening the boundaries between us. I am so glad to have this time and space first before we get into what I know will be 10 amazing conversations with folks across this season. We get to start and end with someone that I so admire and love working alongside, and that is our own Nimra Haroon, who is a senior strategist at Mission Partners, my partner on the podcast and has, for the last season, been in a lot of ways behind the scenes helping to get all of the episodes ready, and now it gets to be here and I get to learn from her to start the season. I will share that as we are recording this, Nimra is in New York at the ADCOLOR conference where she has an credible role she’s playing, and we’ll learn a little more about that, but Nimra, thank you for taking some time out of what I know has been an incredibly hectic few days to get us started in a really intentional, smart way. Welcome to the podcast.

Nimra Haroon: Thank you for having me, Carrie. I’m so, so delighted to be a part of this season and to just be in conversation with you. The topics that we’re going to explore, the questions that we’re going to ask, I know are so, so deeply important to both of us, and so I’m just happy to share this space with you and learn with you and alongside you and from our guests.

Carrie Fox: Tell folks a little bit more about what brought you into the field of communications. What brought you along this journey?

Nimra Haroon: It’s interesting because in some ways I feel like I’m making a full circle back to it, but I dabbled in several expressive hobbies, like cooking, arts and crafts, all of those things. I considered careers in those directions, but one of the primary careers I always can considered was counseling or therapy. I thought about what it would mean to hear people’s stories and to assist them and support them in ways that would help them continue to live their best lives, their best narratives. At that point in college, I realized that my emotional threshold was not one to go into that field of social work or counseling or therapy, or what have you. I got as close to it through different intersections, through nonprofit management, through sociology and through communications. I find myself coming back to, in so many ways you could argue, supporting people, helping people tell their narratives, just not in that direct one-to-one relationship, but at the heart of it all was this desire to speak to people, to speak with people and to speak alongside people. Communications is how I fell into that.

Carrie Fox: I love that. Tell me what you’re doing at ADCOLOR.

Nimra Haroon: ADCOLOR, for our listeners, is a conference and an organization for creatives in the fields of marketing, media, tech, advertising, entertainment, what have you. It’s really for folks that are wanting to advance diversity, inclusion and equity across these industries from an internal employees and retention standpoint, but also the art, the entertainment, the media, the messages that we put out into the universe for people to consume. What does that look like? What is equity in these fields of expression and creativity look like? This year, after the COVID-19 pandemic, they’re having a hybrid option where they’re having a small capacity gathering in New York City and the rest of the country’s tuning in virtually. The content has been so, so thought provoking and I’m excited to share some of my findings.

Carrie Fox: You and I have had some really thoughtful conversations around the role of communicators. I really appreciated the way you started and how you think about communications and the role of the communicator as also in a lot of ways as the guide, walking people and guiding people through the process of it’s not just what you say, it’s not just the words that you use, but it’s how you say them and it’s what people hear and what people feel and what people experience as a result of the communications choices that you are making, or that any one of us are making. As we think about heading into this season, thinking really deeply about how we, as a society, as individuals, communicate with one another, among one another, even what platforms we do that on, there’s a lot of really big core questions around our traditional norms in communications bringing us together or pushing us apart. I’ve got a few things that are on my mind, but I’m curious if there’s any particular things that are on your mind that have maybe surfaced in these last few days at the conference or in conversations that we’ve had that you hope we dig into with some of our guest this season,

Nimra Haroon: Really something that I’ve been thinking really deeply about specifically in the last few days while I’ve been attending the conference, but I think the work that you and I do with our clients and our teams, is the role that we individually play not only in the message that we’re relaying, but ourselves as the messenger. There’s times where we may have to sit certain games out and ensure that there are different messengers to relay different messages. I think what I’m really touching at here is this notion of power and the role of power within communications. Somebody is telling the story and there is a story being told, but every piece of that story, from the narrator to the plot to the climax, is so critically important. I’ve been thinking of myself as a messenger and what role I play and the stories that I tell and the stories that I shouldn’t be telling, who and what are the stories that actually will be harmful if I tell them versus somebody else. It’s just relaying that notion of power and you can’t even deny it, we all hold it and we’re going to hold it in different spaces. It’s so critical for us to recognize the spaces in which we hold it and should apply it and the ones that we should probably hold back in spaces.

Carrie Fox: That reminds me of conversations we’ve had before when we talk about the power of the pen. The person that holds the pen is the person that holds the power. We see this show up a lot with nonprofit organizations who are writing appeals and fundraising and using stories of community members or beneficiaries or clients, whatever their term of choice is there, which is fraught in itself, but they use those stories as fundraising mechanisms. The challenges of is the person at the center of that story, were they part of the storytelling, were they part of reviewing the material before it went out, were they compensated for telling that story or were they just used as the tool to fundraise? Nimra, that sits with me really deeply, because I think you’re right, there’s still a lot of organizations who aren’t yet there in their journey to determine the power that a story can have, but also the harm that a story can have in how it is told.

Nimra Haroon: I think you’re touching on so many things that we are actually schooled on when we’re getting an education in communications, but something when you apply it in a practical way on the job, it’s such a slippery slope to go down because we talk about sharing stories, we talk about telling people’s authentic selves, but what is that line that we’re toggling between exploitation versus appreciation, or appropriation versus articulation. It’s just it’s so true and it’s something that you have to really consider, are we talking about the subject or are we going to name the systems that perhaps put a certain subject in a realm of conditions that we may be hinting at? We talk about person-first language at Mission Partners and ensuring that we’re doing that with our clients, but I really think about how in marketing and just the barrage of messages that we’re inundated with on a daily occasion, how many people’s stories and cultures are exploited on a daily basis. It’s quite jarring.

Carrie Fox: Well, I think that’s a really important theme to be able to ask some folks about this season, the role of the storyteller and the role of the main character in the story and what we can learn from that, what new tools and practices we can apply to be our most inclusive marketer or inclusive storyteller, and that some of the norms and practices that we were taught in school aren’t necessarily the same ones we should you be using moving forward. I think that’s going to be a really good theme to dig into. There’s another theme that I would really like to dig into with our guests this season, and that’s how we communicate across divides. There’s one divide that’s very specifically on my mind, but if we think about how we communicate across culture, how we communicate across language barrier, but also how we communicate across digital platforms. If we think about the world that we live in now, the vast majority of our communications between one another are on digital platforms. We spend much of our days, at least those of us in the communications industry, those of us who are listening probably are spending a good amount of time talking to their team members on Slack, on Teams, on email. In a lot of cases, we have not returned to work and may not be returning to a workplace where we are seeing one another and being in a physical space together, and so we are communicating digitally, and how much is lost in tone and in delivery when we are not literally in the same spaces with one another and how much more common it becomes for not just tone to be lost, but for the meaning or purpose or the intention of communication to be lost. I’m thinking about that a lot. As we set out on this season, thinking about the role of communicators and communications to bridge gaps, that we need to be thinking about how we communicate in different platforms and across generations, that there’s a lot there that could either contribute to our ability to hear a message or prohibit or preclude us from hearing the message.

Nimra Haroon: I can’t think about digital media and platforms and technology without thinking of how ableist some of the platforms are from an accessibility standpoint. That’s a topic that I know we’ve been exploring more at Mission Partners and something that I think in the realm of social justice movements, the movement around disability awareness and how ableist our society and our constructs and our infrastructure is, is something that we’re very, very behind on. That includes technology and the infrastructure of technology and their role within communications, how we perpetuate some of the harms that we think, in theory, technology alleves for everybody, when in fact everybody is not included in that. 15% of the world is living with a disability, so many of those that are invisible. When we’re thinking about accessibility, screen readers, alternative techs, voice activations, I mean, you name it, there’s so much potential that technology can provide us, and then it’s still that double-edged sword because it excludes all the people who aren’t digitally literate. How are we catering to, like you said, intergenerationally, when we’re learning and absorbing and consuming on the same platforms? It’s just something that we absolutely are called to have heightened awareness about and take more action there. Then, Carrie, to your note about social justice, I think about how when we talk about the values and our principles of justice, equity, diversity and inclusion, that first and foremost we talk about people and the people that that includes, but those people then come with their experiences, lived and acquired, and the issues that they all face. You talk about race, gender, disability, socioeconomic status, gender, sexuality, whatever have you, these are intersections of social justice that inherently will be a part of communications and the stories that we tell, and the narratives that are then shared, and then the messages that are conveyed from that. Is there equitable communications without social justice? I would argue not. I think about my role. Let’s say I’m a South Asian, Brown, cis woman. I also think about the issues that are inextricably tied to Islamphobia and to the issues that perhaps my community faces. I can’t talk about me in the realm of diversity and inclusion without naming the issues that I also face as an individual, and then part of certain communities. Social justice is just becoming, I think, for good. I mean, certainly we’re behind on it in so many ways, collectively as a society, but it’s just the part of our daily work.

Carrie Fox: Yeah. You know what this brings up is how many times I’ve heard people say, "I just don’t know what to say, so I’m not going to say anything at all. I don’t even know where to start. I don’t have the words to do this and I’m afraid that whatever I’m going to say is going to be wrong." Start where you are, wherever you are, and we will figure it out together, because everyone is trying to figure out whether we say that the best way, the most inclusive way. It’s not written down in a do this, this, and then this. It’s thinking first about making sure that we are mindful of perhaps the biases that each one of us brings given the experiences that we’ve had, making sure that we are communicating in a way that is most accessible across our wide audiences or community, whatever that might be, and that the reality is that every organization’s audience is more diverse today than it was five years ago and so any communications tools that an organization was using five years ago are not going to be the same ones that work today.

Nimra Haroon: I think we find fear to be so, so consuming of us that it disables our ability to act so many times, but I would echo what you said, that you have to do something beyond just be inspired. It’s one thing to be inspired and then it’s another thing to act on it, and perhaps fears what stands in the way of that, but silence is complic in so many ways.

Carrie Fox: The other one I wanted to raise is the importance of clear and explicit language. I see this showing up a lot. Often, I think when we see organizations using broad, unclear language, often it’s because they feel they don’t have the words to say what they’re trying to say. We see instead an overview of an organization when you really don’t know what they’re doing, you don’t really know where your funding is going. Yet, if we are to be more explicit and clear in who we are addressing, who we are talking about, what we are talking about, how that also helps to fill our gaps as readers or on the receiving end, consumers of media. We need to know detail, and explicitly as much as we can, but I find that that’s very hard for individuals to get to a level of clarity and explicit nature in their communications.

Nimra Haroon: It’s interesting that you say this, because one of the panelists that I was listening to yesterday actually talked about how even within movements of solidarity that are happening, of course following the summer of 2020 and the murder of George Floyd, but ever since then, the different kinds of communities that are uniting despite of the solidarity that we collectively have to have in combating or resisting against certain systems, the need for specificity is so, so important, because nuance, specificity and naming just the individual, perhaps be it problem stories, traumas, whatever, is so, so critical. Because what can happen in movements of solidarity even is this homogenous washing of it all, as somehow everybody’s experiencing something, when in fact perhaps the systems at play between the Black Lives Matter movement, Stop Asian Hate movement, the need to protect indigenous cultures, perhaps the systems at play may be absolutely in parallel, the issues and the stories and the complexities between each of these communities and even within the sub-communities of each of these communities is so, so critical. Something I think about, even from a standpoint of communications, is ensuring that when we’re talking about movements and mobilizing that we don’t lose the need and the absolute importance of nuance and ensuring that nuance is not lost in spite of solidarity.

Carrie Fox: I want to share one last thing with you. I was on a call this morning and someone said something that stuck with me so deeply. She said, "Our actions scream over our words." It was a really good reminder that while we are talking about communications, and by default folks might think we’re coming into a season talking about storytelling and the words we use and the words we don’t use, and at the end of the day, those are just words. What we need to make sure is that the words we’re using are not throw away words, but that we so deeply make sure that the actions we take, in a good way, scream over our words, that everything we do, everything we stand for, plays out in the decisions we make and the actions we take and in the words that we use. We have to think about all of those things. Anyway, that’s sitting really deeply with me on how important that it is to think about the full picture of how we communicate.

Nimra Haroon: If I could just piggyback off of that. Something another panelist said, that sadly I can’t take credit for, I wish I could because it was just so brilliant. This panelist at the conference said that the message will always precede the action and there’s danger in that. Whereas, yes, the actions scream louder than the words, it’s so important to remember that people are going to first hear a message before they ever take an action. As communicators, when our job, in so many ways it’s arguable, is for that first step in getting that message across, are we holding the accountability or who holds the accountability to ensure the action is then followed through upon?

Carrie Fox: Oh my gosh, Nimra, there is so much good conversation ahead, and it is clear we are just getting started. Join us back here for the next episode of Mission Forward, in which we will sit down with Ashton Lattimore, editor-in-chief of Prism, an independent nonprofit news outlet led by journalists of color, who together are challenging the way we get our news and the perspective in which it’s told. Mission Forward is produced with the support of Nimra Haroon and the Mission Partners team in association with True Story FM, engineering by the awesome Pete Wright. Music this week is by [Simo 00:24:21] and Josh Leak. If your podcast app allows rating and reviews, we hope you’ll consider doing just that for our show, but the best thing you can do to support Mission Forward is simply to share the show with a friend or colleague. Thanks for your support, and we’ll see you next time on Mission Forward.

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.