Changing the Housing Narrative — A Talk with Dr. Tiffany Manuel

By Catherine Hinrichsen, project director, Seattle University’s Project on Family Homelessness

An emotional video about a blind man begging — “Change Your Words, Change Your World,” with 27 million views on YouTube — is one example of powerful messaging that Dr. Tiffany Manuel shared at a convening of housing communicators July 24 at Seattle University.

The video tells the story of a blind man unsuccessfully begging for change, until a passerby intervenes and shifts his story. “DrT,” as she prefers to be called, asked for our observations on the before/after scenario in the film: What was different about the message that didn’t work, and the one that changed everything ? Our discussion uncovered some of the key elements of successful messaging: A positive approach. Shared experiences. Evoking empathy rather than sympathy. A call to action.

But too often, says DrT, our messages about housing and homelessness backfire. “Our single biggest failure is that we treat it like it’s a technical problem – like we only need more housing,” when in fact there are systemic and adaptive challenges, she said.

Tiffany Manuel snip

Forty-five communicators representing 37 different local housing and homelessness providers, advocacy organizations and funders attended the convening to hear this national expert on building inclusive communities. We also thank Philanthropy Northwest for their partnership on this and recruiting their members. While we hold smaller quarterly convenings with our advocacy partners, we were able to offer this expanded experience through the generosity of Katie Hong of the Raikes Foundation, who had invited DrT to Seattle for a foundation gathering.

Unlike the story in the video, we want to achieve more than collecting a few more coins for a person on the street. We want to change the narrative about homelessness and affordable housing in our region and help build a welcoming community of opportunity, with adequate housing, transportation, education, healthcare and more for the people who live here.

So let’s talk about what we heard from DrT.


Communication “Backfires”

Tiffany Manuel at convening CROP
Obligatory, poorly lit photo taken from where one is seated: DrT at the recent convening.

In the 2017 report she co-wrote with Dr. Nat Kendall-Taylor of Frameworks Institute, “You Don’t Have To Live Here,” DrT had outlined ways our housing messaging backfires and 10 things we can do about it. “Backfire” happens, she said, when in the face of contradictory evidence, the opposition gets stronger and confidence in their position increases (aka confirmation bias).

She highlighted a few of the backfires for us, including the “mobility, personal responsibility and self-makingness narrative” – or, “just move somewhere else.” (See all of them in the paper.)

DrT said every housing market in the country is in crisis, and we must build public will to address it. One of the barriers, she noted, is that our culture is emphasizing hyper-individualism and backsliding toward inequality. She said that New York Times columnist David Brooks did some good writing on this recently in “A Nation of Weavers,” in which he described a new project of The Aspen Institute that aims to rebuild the social fabric.

The challenge to building public will about housing is that “people support affordable housing until you try to build it on their block,” she said. But there are solutions. She quoted Archbishop Desmond Tutu: “Don’t raise your voice, improve your argument.”

Solutions to Housing Messaging

Books to Read_by Anne Martens
From DrT’s presentation, a much better photo of her slide than the one I took; thanks to Anne Martens of the Gates Foundation.

One way to get smarter on our housing messaging: crack a book about all the research on messaging, narrative and community building. DrT’s recommendations include “Dream Hoarders” by Richard Reeves; “The Hidden Brain” by Shankar Vedantam; and “Made to Stick” by Chip & Dan Heath. (The Heath book is what my former boss, Prof. Barry Mitzman, used for his messaging class here at SU.) Perhaps most relevant is her own book, “Backpacks, Backfires and Bedtime Stories: The Urgency to Fix Public Will and Fix What is Ailing America.” You can order it on the website for her company, TheCaseMade; or, if you’re one of the first two people to email me, our project will give you one as a gift.

To ensure our messages land effectively, DrT noted that first, we need to get people to slow their brains down and stop so they can process information, and that there are lots of ways to help people “lean forward.” Her 10 principles of casemaking include:

  1. Navigate away from the dominant narratives.
  2. Tell the “story of us” to include a wider range of community stakeholders.
  3. Anchor and credential the solutions.
  4. Center racial equity as a lens (or set of metrics) that can be used to gauge how equitable and inclusive our community development has become.
DrT casemaking definition
Wondering what case-making means? This is the definition from DrT’s organization’s site.

She suggested we consult her “The Case Made” website, which is full of resources to explain her principles of casemaking.

What It Means for The Local Picture

To drill deeper into these issues from a local perspective, we transitioned to a dialogue with DrT and three of our partners who have been working on messaging and narrative shaping: Eric Bronson of YWCA Seattle-King-Snohomish; Leah Haberman of Housing Development Consortium; and Jamala Henderson of Washington Low Income Housing Alliance.  They posed questions such as how to:

  • Build a framework that consists of stories of individuals, systems *and* place;
  • Move away from hyper-individualism and create empathy rather than sympathy;
  • Battle the dominant narrative of stereotypes of people who are experiencing homeless.

Some of her responses:

  • We need to inspire people, to remind everyone why we love this place. It’s a seat of learning and innovation, in addition to the beauty and the environment. Think about whether we have a strong enough regional narrative.
  • To balance the individual vs. system focus: It’s not as compelling to talk about systems as it is to tell personal stories, but it’s also important for context. She recommends using a metaphor for the system to help people understand. Examples: A car and the need to shift to the right gears; or, in the case of affordable housing work in Sonoma, Calif., music in which every part needs to harmonize.
  • To engage the community in our new regional plan and encourage them to take action with the government, our lever of power: Get away from the idea that only government can solve the problem, because nobody believes that. Emphasize that you need everybody — the average everyday citizen, banks, developers, United Way, YWCA, Rotary, teachers’ unions, police associations, nurses. Referring back to Shankar Vedantam: Create a desire for conformity before it exists.

Nuggets from the audience Q&A:

  • Yes, it’s easier to get people *not* to do something than to do it, but using fear language can backfire because of the negativity. Resist the urge to get in the mud; going negative takes you off your message. Lift up the issue you want people to see.
  • To engage the business community more effectively, focus on the business opportunity that building affordable housing offers. They need to see they have a stake in this. Think about who needs to solve this as much as you do. For example, hospitals lose money and we all bear the cost.
  • Call out racial inequities. Center equity and do it constructively.


Other examples DrT mentioned or expanded on:

  • Raj Chetty and the “Lost Einsteins” research, and the fact that “so much of our talent is being wasted on the streets. We’re losing innovation.” (Coincidentally – or not? — Raj Chetty was one of the researchers on the recent Creating Moves to Opportunity study)
  • An affordable housing campaign in Chicago — “We need the people who need affordable housing” campaign – as a way to resist the “you can just move” narrative.
  • The study about how your brain lights up when you see someone who is homeless (which was beautifully examined in this all-time top Firesteel post called “Why We Keep Walking”).
  • The Troy, Mich. library “book burning” campaign, which navigated the dominant narrative (apathy toward a library levy) and re-set it.
  • The Minnesota Family Investment Program campaign; the program’s funding had not increased since 1986, so advocates invited people to post on social media pictures of themselves from the time of the last increase 33 years ago.
  • A Nantucket affordable housing video called “The Ripple Effect,” which illustrated the region’s beautiful scenery, talked about families who live there, then connected to housing.


Group Discussion and More Good Stuff

After DrT had to zip to the airport for another engagement, we continued the discussion and talked about other resources.

anat tweet

  • Sightline Institute hosted local focus groups on affordable housing messaging last summer and wrote two enlightening reports. Thanks to Anna Fahey for describing those findings.
  • Another good source of information on messaging and narrative is Anat Shankar-Osorio, who spoke at the Budget Matters conference for Washington State Budget and Policy Center a couple of years ago. Clearly, she believes that repeating myths only strengthens them. Thanks to Melinda Young-Flynn for summarizing some key points from Anat’s work. (By the way, this year’s Budget Matters is Oct. 2.) UPDATE, 9/27/19: Anat has produced a fascinating new podcast called Brave New Words, featuring narrative shifts that have led to victories both around the world and close to home (such as De-Escale Washington). Five stars!
  • Fans and future fans of Shankar Vedantam can see him when he keynotes for the Plymouth Housing luncheon this fall.

I don’t think we talked about these in the convening, but here are a few more resources on narrative and messaging:


“The Story of Us”: Takeaways

We asked attendees to write down one takeaway before they left. Here’s a list of some of those reflections:

  • How to educate the public on misconceptions using the positive frame and not relying on “sad facts”
  • How to come together to create a positive “we” and “why” for our region
  • Using racial equity as a measure of success
  • Housing is thought of as a consumer good. How do we get the public to think of it as a public good?
  • Telling the story of us – how do we get everyone to see it’s about every single person and not just those w/similar backgrounds?
  • Emphasis on interdependence, why we need each other
  • Make racial equity the measure of success, to tackle it head-on
  • Who have “we” been, and who do “we” want to be in the future?
  • Metaphor; Society as an interdependent ecosystem – the importance of mutualism
  • Our tendency to talk about the negative, hoping others will see the need for change, when it’s the positive that brings action
  • Fewer facts, more feelings 🙂
  • The Story of “Us”
  • Framing issues in a way that makes it clear we all benefit
  • Make case to business that their investment makes profitable sense to them to addressing housing and homelessness issues
  • We are all involved – this issue effects each one of us and spreading that will get the people we want involved.
  • Engage peoples’ aspirations and civic pride
  • Shared messaging is very important
  • People are called to action through messages of hope/positivity not negativity/fear


Takeaways posters
A few of the takeaways from the convening.


Thanks to everyone who participated in the Convening; to Katie Hong; to Kiran Ahuja of Philanthropy Northwest; to Eric, Jamala and Leah; and to DrT for sharing her brilliance and inspiration. We look forward to more work with partners on this important work.

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