Communicating The Hard Truths with Najma Roberts

Democracy Fund’s Najma Roberts joins Carrie Fox to talk about the role professional communicators hold in guiding and demonstrating institutional values to the world.

Episode Hosts:

Subscribe to the Show in Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or anywhere you find your favorite podcasts!

On this week’s show, we are thrilled to introduce you to Najma Roberts, Senior Director of Communications and Equity at Democracy Fund, a private foundation that champions the people and organizations who defend democracy, while challenging our political system to be more open and just. Najma joined the organization in 2018 and ever since, she’s been guiding this powerhouse philanthropy to be even more intentional and direct in its own commitments to justice and equity, while helping advance the organization’s mission and vision. But Najma brings more to the conversation than just her last several years. She’s well aware of the responsibility that a communicator has to speak truth to power, with love.  Having worked with her now for more than 10 years, I can say honestly that leading with love is one of her greatest strengths.

In every stage of her career, Najma has been strong advocate for communications and the role that communicators play in how organizations demonstrate collective values, commitment to equity and justice. She is an expert when it comes to engaging institutional leaders, created trusted and open spaces, and challenging the status quo in favor of fresh thinking. And this week on Mission Forward, she’s going to help the rest of us do the same. We’re honored to welcome her to the show.

Episode Transcript

Najma Roberts: What I am seeing now is that communications professionals are, and should be, at the center of these strategic conversations. So they should be at, "Who are we? What are our values? And how do we want to talk about that?" Communications is also, it’s opportunity to show your blind spots. We’re going to call you out on your blind spots and that’s our job.

Carrie Fox: That, my friends, is the voice of Najma Roberts, senior director of communications and equity at Democracy Fund, my longtime friend, and this week’s guest on the Mission Forward podcast.

Carrie Fox: Now, if you’ve listened to a few first episodes from the season, you know that we’re exploring the intersection of communications and power, looking at all angles, the role that communications plays in helping us make sense of the world, and the enormous opportunity that communicators have in moving toward a more just future.

Carrie Fox: If this is your first time here, then thanks for dropping by. My name is Carrie Fox, your host and CEO of Mission Partners. We’re a social impact communications firm and certified B corporation. Before we get into today’s show, I have just one request for you. If you are enjoying the content, we’re bringing you this season, then please let me know. Leave a rating or a review if your podcast platform allows it and drop me a line at [email protected], to let me know, what’s got you thinking from these conversations and what about this intersection of communications and power you hope we take on next. Okay, great show ahead so stay tuned from my conversation with the awesome Najma Roberts.

Carrie Fox: Welcome to Mission Forward.

Najma Roberts: Oh, my goodness. Thank you for having me. You know I’m a cry baby, so it’s like … The intro, I’m crying. Oh, my goodness. Thank you. It’s such a pleasure to be here.

Carrie Fox: Tell me about this journey that brought you to Democracy Fund.

Najma Roberts: Yeah. Oh my goodness. Well, one, let me just say, there’s a saying that you make plans and God laughs. I went to Hampton University. I graduated in ’03 and thought I was going to do fashion and entertainment public relations. I wanted to be on the red carpet. I just had this whole big thing outlined and then I did my first internship and I was like, "Oh no, I don’t like this. This is not fun. It’s not glamorous, my feet hurt. I’m working long hours." I went from quickly learning that that was not going to be my journey to actually spending a good chunk of my career in public health communications and really thinking about this concept of distilling complex messaging down so that everyday people could access it and what does that look like? What does it look like to develop campaigns that really everyday folks understand what the message is and the call to action and it’s super clear and understandable?

Najma Roberts: As I think about my time in public health and think about sort of our society’s ecosystem and the things that sort of drive who we are, the opportunity with Democracy Fund came up. They called me at the time I was actually with a pharmaceutical company, Astrazeneca, and they were like, "We’re really curious about your work and your career and would love to have coffee with you." I got to be honest, I was like, "I’m not giving up my stock options. I am with a pharma, I’m good. I am going to retire with Astrazeneca."

Najma Roberts: I met the leadership team. I met Joe who’s the president of Democracy Fund and other members of the leadership team. I remember coming home to my husband Greg and I was like, "So about those stock options, I think I might be wanting to go back into the non-profit, mission-driven role and work." I was just so enthusiastic about what they were doing and feeling like it gave me an ability to like affect change in a really real way.

Carrie Fox: Little did you know, I think because when did you join? What year?

Najma Roberts: It was 2018.

Carrie Fox: Yeah. All right. The world was pretty interesting then.

Najma Roberts: Yeah.

Carrie Fox: But talk about what has gone on the last couple years and what you’ve been at the center of?

Najma Roberts: Oh my goodness.

Carrie Fox: It’s incredible, the work you’re doing.

Najma Roberts: Absolutely. Yeah, I joined right after … 2018 after the sort of Trump administration had been in place for a year, which was still sort of a surprise for everyone and the shift away from the norms that were happening in Washington, the intersection of that. Democracy Fund started as a bipartisan organization, a bipartisan grant making foundation. We really wanted to work on both sides of the aisle and seeing the philosophy of creating a healthy democracy, being the ability to do both.

Najma Roberts: Then we all know what happened over the last few years. My work has truly been at the intersection of who are we? What is our positioning? How do we think about this work in a way that’s not necessarily bipartisan, but maybe nonpartisan? I always say, "We lean into our values," and we think about what is happening in our country as how do we lean into our values? How are we values led and values driven? It’s not politics or political discourse that drives our theory of change or drives what we do, it’s about our values. It’s amazing to be at the intersection of that, though, particularly between 2018 and 2020, what we all experienced last year.

Carrie Fox: What you raised there, I think is a really interesting thing to pick up. The kinds of questions and conversations that you’re guiding in house, the, "Who are we? What do we stand for? What are our values?" Those are in a lot of ways, universal conversations. I think a lot of organizations are having right now coming out of 2020, emerging ever so slowly and carefully from COVID, thinking about where we are and where we’re going. Organizations universally are still thinking about their purpose and how they will show up and what that work will look like, and some of them much more further advanced down the road on that values alignment conversation that you’re having. But universally, I think organizations are struggling with who are we and, and what will we become?

Carrie Fox: I’m curious because you have had such an interesting career trajectory. You just mentioned you were in pharmaceuticals, you’ve been in agencies, you’ve been in government, you’re now in foundation work, you’ve been in nonprofits. I suspect that there are some new universal truths there to how leadership teams communicate, what they do well, where they struggle. Would love to hear that from you. Are there any universal themes you’ve seen across your career?

Najma Roberts: Yeah. One, I can tell you in this year, I have seen across organizations that I volunteer for, that my friends work for everyone is struggling with, "How do we show up in this moment? What does it look like to be an organization that actually has values and leans into them in this moment?" Then when difficult things happen in the external environment, when your January 6th happens, when the murder of George Floyd happened, it’s still because it’s a question of, "What is the role that this organization has?" People are really still navigating that. It’s really hard.

Najma Roberts: One of the things I always say to folks is people used to look at communications is sort of order takers. There was a menu of options, you had a press release, you got some social medias, some graphics, maybe a video, an annual report and then maybe in a crisis, they’ll bring in communications to make the words sound pretty and less horrible.

Najma Roberts: What I am seeing now is that communications professionals are, and should be, at the center of these strategic conversations. They should be at, "Who are we? What are our values? How do we want to talk about that, not only externally, but to our employees and to our staff?" Which by the way, I always say, "Your staff and your employees are your number one audience. Your number one." I know a lot of shareholders would buck against that, but they still are. They are your biggest brand champions, they are going to talk about the what you do, the work you do, the mission, whether you’re selling a lipstick or you’ve got a grant-making foundation. I always say, "Care for your employees, treat them like your number one audience."

Najma Roberts: But that is the thing that I am seeing. That’s really the pivot that I’m seeing in comms where we’re becoming less of these order takers and here’s the of scripted menu, and we’re now really at the center of these movements, in the center of when we say thought leadership, how does your executive, how does your principal, how does the leadership of this organization want to show up in this moment and what do they want their legacies to be?

Carrie Fox: It’s so interesting that you see, say it that way because you’re making me think about a mirror and the role that communications directors have to, the opportunity, I should say, the communications directors have to be a mirror to the fellow members of their leadership team. To say, "Hey, you’re telling me to go out there and say this to the world. Are you sure we can hold that up? Are you sure we’re doing this?"

Carrie Fox: I think what we’ve seen a lot also in the last couple years is this idea of purpose washing, making really big commitments and then having a hard time carrying through or following through on them. But it’s still a communicator who had to make that statement. I wonder how many times the communicator makes it wondering, "Are we going to be able to fulfill this?"

Najma Roberts: That’s right. My good friend, Jeff Johnson says, and you’ve seen him on MSNBC and [inaudible 00:10:42] and he also co-host the Rickey Smiley Morning Show. He always says, "Communications professionals are not fiction writers." We’re not. We’re not fiction writers. What we are going to do is mirror back to you what you think you want. Like, "Here’s a message," but let’s poke holes in it and let’s make sure where it can stand on its own.

Najma Roberts: Now, what we can do is position it, we can put it in the right channels, we can talk about how does this fit into the overall strategy, but absolutely we are … It’s our job and I love it. That’s where I get a lot of my energy is, "All right, let’s red test this, let’s redline what we’re saying," because if we are an organization that leans into our values and even leans into some of those uncomfortable spaces, then we’ve got to be able to have our messaging really stand on its own.

Carrie Fox: Yeah, so you know there’s something I’ve been exploring for a while, I’ve mentioned this to you before, and that’s this intersection of communications and power and the communicators as kind of power brokers. That the person that holds the pen is the person that’s holding a lot of power, it’s how that’s narrative is shaped, it’s how the story is told. It’s what’s put in that corporate email or how the team comes together, the experience they have. Everything we do, everything we’re designing is communications, whether we’re thinking about it or not, it’s still all communications. Being intentional in that space can be difficult, often when you’re being asked to turn things around quickly, too. But I’m curious what comes to mind when you think about that intersection of communications and power, whether that’s in the work you do now or just generally thinking across the landscape of communications. Where are you seeing that show up?

Najma Roberts: I’m going to give a very specific example. There’s so many ways that communications and power can be aligned and you’re right. The person that holds the pin holds the power. But I also say, "The person that holds the pen can dismantle the power dynamic that shouldn’t be there." The reason why I say that is, particularly in philanthropy, I thought this would’ve been a thing in pharma with scientific messaging, but it really happens in the mission-driven nonprofit space, where we come up with these beautiful strategies and we have these wonderful theories of change. We’re like, "Great. This is what we’re going to do, this is how we believe we will move the needle." We use these amazing words and lots of smart people work for philanthropy, way smart than me. They might as well be rocket scientists. Way smarter than me using big, wonderful words and beautiful memos to talk about the theory of change.

Najma Roberts: Then me as a communications person and my wonderful team, we take a step back and we read these wonderful memos. We’re like, "Hm. We have no bloody idea what anyone is talking about. We don’t know what it is you all want to do. If we didn’t work for this industry or in this organization, or understand this landscape, we, would’ve no idea what is the ask? What is it that you want me to do?"

Najma Roberts: The reason why I bring that up is because sometimes, and I think Democracy Fund is doing a better job with this, I think this is a industry problem, a philanthropic industry problem, but it’s not just the words that make you sound smart. It’s the inability for everyday people to access and understand what you’re doing. We saw that in health too, Carrie. You remember from the tobacco days-

Carrie Fox: Right.

Najma Roberts: It was all about if we want to stop kids from smoking, if we want to prevent these horrible things that happen if you pick up smoking, you had to say it in a way that was accessible to the audience you’re trying to reach. That’s why Truth was so successful. I look at my role, particularly in this moment, as comms being a dismantling of some of that power, dismantling of some of that complex, complicated language, and making sure that it’s accessible to everyone, because one of my personal goals are to create a culture of philanthropy, even among everyday people, to create a culture of giving.

Carrie Fox: Well, that’s why I also think it’s so interesting the title that you hold and the role that you play, which is a bit of a dual role, looking at how you communicate externally and also some somewhat internally, but also the role that equity plays in the organization and how those two have to be connected. Because in order to be thinking about equity, you have to make sure that the message is accessible. The communications are accessible. Did that come up intentionally in terms of how those two roles came together? Because that’s not something that we see a lot.

Najma Roberts: I have to give a shout out again to Democracy Fund and the wonderful leadership there. I saw a gap in the ability to do just that. It was like we had comms on one end and then it was the equity work on a another, and we have lots of people doing it, but there wasn’t a person connecting the dots or seeing it from a 50 foot view, so seeing those holes and sort of getting out of the silos and seeing how between program and messaging, how it all works together.

Najma Roberts: I actually designed the role and I said, "Hey guys, I think there’s a need here. I think there’s an intersection. It’s not about me taking a step back from comms, but it’s identifying what are the ways that equity can be infused in the DNA of an organization." I say that intentionally, because it’s also, the word of the year is be authentic. You, you can’t be authentic and you’re performative at the same time, so how do we make sure that equity, inclusion, belonging is infused in the fabric and the DNA of the organization. I think what better person than a communications professional to lead that conversation?

Carrie Fox: Right. Right. You have such a deep experience and bench there that that makes sense for you to have that dual role. But I’m thinking about a lot of folks who might be listening right now, who are in that communications spot and wanting to be advocating for more equitable or inclusive communications, perhaps they don’t yet have the knowledge or skills to do so, but I think it’s an important reminder that that is a place of opportunity for folks who sit in the communication seat, to be the one that’s helping the organization develop a shared language and a shared understanding, and then maybe a shared commitment to what the future could look like. So much of that could fall naturally inside that communications role if they take that opportunity to do that.

Najma Roberts: That’s absolutely right. I think opportunity is the best word to use be because oftentimes people either view communications in the defensive lane, like, "I’m going to go to comms when I need my reputation saved and salvaged," or, "I’m only going to go to comms when I need something promoted to do a thing, to increase this, to amplify that." What communications really does is peel back the layers and creates opportunity, rather that’s opportunity for amplifying or bettering your reputation or repositioning it so people understand, maybe there’s been some misinformation, but it’s also opportunity to talk about, "Here are the ways in which we probably haven’t connected the dots before, or we haven’t leaned into some internal thought leadership before." It’s being that dot connector and saying, "All right, now here’s the package and here’s how we’re going to deploy that narrative. Here’s how we’re going to deploy the messaging."

Najma Roberts: The other thing about communications is the word opportunity rings for me is communications is also, it’s opportunity to show your blind spots. We’re going to call you out on your blind spots and that’s our job. It’s super, super uncomfortable to do it and to anyone that’s listening, I know. I know how hard it is to say, "Hey, organization, this is not what you think it is, and we are not going to do well if we continue to do this thing." The best comms people are the ones that they don’t care. They’re like, "I’ve got to call out those blind spots." It’s a really important part of our role. I see it as an important part of the equity role, and it’s those little things, it’s those little nuances. It’s not the big stuff. The big stuff is easy to, "Oh, that’s not a good idea to buy that billboard," but it’s like, "Hey, that word? That word may not resonate with the people that you think you’re trying to reach."

Carrie Fox: Actually, it makes me think about a conversation we had here a couple seasons ago, we had Edgar Villanueva on who I love and just came out with the second edition of his amazing book, Decolonizing Wealth. There’s something that he says that I have carried with me to that point. He said his role is to speak truth to power with love. I have thought how many times I have been in that position too, and you have, and so many folks who are listening, as the communicator to need to speak to the leadership, in our case, whether it’s a board or a CEO to say, "I’m going to need to tell you a hard truth here, and I’m going to need you to hear it, but know that I’m doing it from a place of love."

Najma Roberts: From a place of love. Yes.

Carrie Fox: Quite honestly, Najma, I said that earlier this week in a board meeting. We were presenting some findings and there were some difficult findings. I said, at the top of the session, "What I’m going to share with you might be hard, but know I’m doing it from a place of love." When it ended someone commented and they said, "I could never have imagined a communications consultant starting a meeting with the word love," but how much that changed their ability to hear it.

Najma Roberts: That’s absolutely right. I think, to take it a step further, because you and I have had experience throughout our career in the principal of an organization, that leader. Not only do I try to call out those blind spots and speak truth to power from a place of love, but I also really take time to understand that person’s love language and how they hear because everybody’s love language is different. What is their work love language? How will they receive this difficult albeit true information that I’m giving? What’s their love language? That’s where the art and the science of comms comes together and becomes one. But I always say, "Learn your executives, learn your principal’s love language, and it will be an easier road to speak that truth to power."

Carrie Fox: Yeah. It sure is hard to do this work without a pretty high level of emotional intelligence.

Najma Roberts: Yes. Right.

Carrie Fox: To be able to really hear what’s not being said, listen, in between the words, all of those things.

Najma Roberts: All of the things.

Carrie Fox: So much of it is, it’s emotion. You’ve got to look at it through all of those emotions that exist.

Najma Roberts: Someone should do a study, Carrie, maybe Mission Partners could do this, I don’t know, but around how our virtual environment has impacted comms people in a way because we’re not seeing that body language.

Carrie Fox: That’s right.

Najma Roberts: Because we’re big, I know folks can only hear me. I’m using hands and I’m picking up things, we’re super expressive. What has the virtual environment and this post-COVID world done to inhibit us from reading that body language and how has that impacted organizations? I think that would be super interesting.

Carrie Fox: I would be happy to do that research, but I think some of it’s already been done and I was just reading a book, it’s called Digital Body Language and it’s actually a lot about this. It’s how you show up in a virtual world, and that 50% of the communications that we deliver in a digital environment are totally lost because tone can’t be conveyed the same way. If we are looking at each other in a box, we might feel like we’ve got eye contact, but we don’t. I’m looking at your eyes on my screen, it might not look like I’m looking at your eyes on your screen.

Najma Roberts: Right. Right.

Carrie Fox: There’s that connection that we so badly want to have, it’s what we’re designed to have as humans, yeah. That we just don’t right now.

Najma Roberts: Absolutely. It’s tough. It’s all the things, to my fellow communicators that are listening, know that we’re in it to together. Most of us are a good blend of extrovert and introvert. We certainly need our time by ourselves to regroup, but we certainly love a good networking thing or being in a meeting, whiteboarding in a room together and brainstorming, and man, we miss it.

Carrie Fox: All right. We’re going to wrap up, we last couple minutes here. What do you see happening in the comms field that gets you excited or interested or makes you feel hopeful about coming out of this time that we’re in?

Najma Roberts: I think there’s three things. The first one is I think that communications people, there’s our own reputation of this work of this field is shifting. Like I said at the top, we’re no longer just the order takers. We’re no longer just the press release writers. We actually are being leaned upon and are taking on leadership roles to talk about strategy. I think that that’s really important and I think having those roles at the center of organizations, I’m seeing a shift there, I’m seeing how people are integrating this type of work into how they think about fundraising, how they think about positioning and brand. I think that’s really, really important, so that’s number one.

Najma Roberts: I think number two is folks understand the value that comes with communications. Even in a corporate environment, it used to be all about the marketing team and the sales people. I think folks are starting to see the monetary and economic value of comms, but also diversity, equity, and inclusion. Because as you think about, and this is again for me, the intersection of this role, while I work for a foundation and we are not a fundraising vehicle, there still is some value that we bring as we think about diversity, equity, inclusion, and I think that is a cross sector. I think that particularly on the corporate side, you’re leaving money on the table when you don’t have in the forefront and not have a team of people thinking about it, also it’s integrated into your culture.

Najma Roberts: I think the third thing that gets me excited is there is a movement of young people that are re-energized about this field and I love that. Because you and I, we need to retire at some point, hopefully. I [inaudible 00:26:33] retirement. I’m excited that there are people that are studying this craft. I love working with interns. I tell folks all the time no matter how senior I get in my career, it doesn’t matter that I’m on a leadership team, on the executive team, I will always take time for interns because they teach me just as much as I think that I might be teaching them. It may even be more and it’s because one, technology, I can’t keep up, so I’ve given up, I depend on my 16 year old to tell me what’s new and great. But the interns, how this younger approach comes with a different frame of mind, comes with different thinking and innovation. In my field of democracy, if we want to be transformative, we’ve got to work with new and interesting and different people. I’m excited about the next generation of comms professionals,

Carrie Fox: Last word, Najma. Anything else that we didn’t get to today that’s on your mind that you want to share before we wrap up?

Najma Roberts: Oh, man, no. Man, this time went by so fast. This is crazy. No, it was just a delight to be here. I am so thrilled at the work that you’re doing and I just encourage everybody, I know it’s such an overused word, but your whole self, particularly in comms. Show up fully. Carries knows I’m a Midwest church girl. I use church references all the time. It may make people a little uncomfortable, but I’m like, "I’m showing up completely me." I know it’s hard to do, but it means so much and when people see that you’re coming being your authentic self, it disarm other folks and they show up that way. The power, when we talk about this transformational work and we talk about movement building and power building and narrative shaping, all of those things are essential ingredients to doing that work well. Those are my last words, yeah.

Carrie Fox: That’s an awesome. That’s an awesome last word. Well, we’ll end it there. Thank you, Najma, so much for your time today.

Najma Roberts: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

Carrie Fox: Mission Forward is produced with the support of Nimra Haroon and the Mission Partners team in association with True Story FM .engineering by Pete Wright, music this week by Ian Post and Josh Lee. If your podcast app allows ratings and reviews, I hope you will 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 a colleague. Thanks to your support and we’ll see you next time.

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.