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.)
  • 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.

A Response to the KOMO-TV Special on Homelessness

Crosscut op-ed front page

Like many people who are working on homelessness in this region, our project director, Catherine, was outraged when she saw a recent one-hour special on KOMO-TV. After she tweeted about it, the online media site Crosscut asked her to write an op-ed. Read it here.

If you agree, please share and make your comments known on Crosscut, on social media, or by contacting KOMO-TV.


Collective Urgency, Spirit of Support — Housing and Homelessness Advocacy Day 2019

HHAD 2019 Olympia A&C with structure

By Connor Crinion and Anneke Karreman, Project Assistants, Seattle University Project on Family  Homelessness


Note: Every year our student project assistants create a special event to support Housing and Homelessness Advocacy Day (HHAD) in Olympia, and every year there’s a special twist that reflects the creativity and energy of that team. So when more than 600 advocates from around the state filled the steps of the Legislative Building on Feb. 28, 2019, they saw something new and different: a special art installation created by our project assistants, Anneke and Connor. They reflect on what they’ll take away from this whole experience, which started last fall with the eviction reform fact sheets they created for WLIHA.


What were your expectations before HHAD, and what’s your perspective now after participating?

Anneke: What I thought about HHAD before I got there was chanting on the steps and meeting with legislators about housing and homelessness advocacy, but in reality it turned out to be much more. It was a bonding experience in that everyone was there for the same thing, but with different levels of experience and different lived experiences. It didn’t matter if you had gone before or not; everyone was welcome.

HHADflier(FINALcorrected SINGLE)_1-11-19
Because WLIHA was short-staffed on communications this year, they asked us for help creating a flier. Here’s the flier Anneke designed.

Connor: In some ways, HHAD was similar to the expectations that I had, and in other ways it was quite different. Meeting with legislators and legislative aides felt familiar, as I’ve done that in the past at various lobby days that I’ve attended. However, HHAD also provided a sense of community that I’ve never felt before while engaged in advocacy—meeting advocates and activists throughout the day felt like being welcomed into a broad community. Whether the connection was fleeting, or something that may last more long-term, it felt powerful to connect with others based on our shared values.

Photo Feb 28, 1 43 54 PM (1)
Part of the HHAD community: SU Prof. Rashmi Chordiya joined us for the day, and our partner Eric Bronson of Firesteel/ YWCA Seattle-King-Snohomish was among the many advocates we saw that day. Here, Rashmi, Anneke, Eric and Connor pose in front of the flag of King County and other Washington counties, in the Legislative Building.

What was the postcard project, what was your role, and why did you decide to do it?

Connor and Anneke at one of the postcard tabling events, in Cherry Street Market, our main dining facility.

Anneke: This project was designed to educate and engage the community at Seattle University to advocate for different policies regarding student homelessness, eviction reform, and affordable housing in Washington state.  To expand on the successful advocacy postcard project that Katie, Madison and Tess did last year, we thought up a way for the postcards to be displayed in a way that also alluded to the spirit of support for those who experience housing instability and loss. We decided on a “house”-like structure to symbolize the intrinsic importance of the home and the foundation it provides for a person’s success and well being.

The postcards I designed utilize the human symbol of the hand and connect it to the home through its combination with household belongings.


HHAD Tabling Event 2_2-20-19_by Hallie three cards
Anneke’s friend Hallie came by the tabling event and became one of our most enthusiastic supporters. Here she displays the three postcards, each with a different theme related to this year’s legislative agenda. Photo by Hallie.


Connor: My contributions to the display structure and postcard project mainly related to writing the copy for the postcards, legislative research, and handling some of the logistics related to placing the structure on the Capitol campus in Olympia. To help in writing the copy, I was able to draw in knowledge from classes and past work experiences to better inform how we discussed and framed issues of eviction, affordable housing, cost burden for renters, and the challenges faced by students experiencing homelessness.

SU’s mascot, Rudy the Redhawk, stopped by one of our tabling events. “Home is a warm nest,” he wrote (with a little help from Connor).

I am grateful that collecting the advocacy postcards – nearly 200 — provided us with the opportunity to engage the Seattle University community in critical discussion about the tremendous need for housing in our city and state. For me, deciding to display the postcards allowed us to connect our community to the larger statewide movement for housing justice. Even though only Anneke and I were the only SU students to travel down to Olympia, our display was a reminder that we were joined in spirit by many remote advocates, both those from SU and others.


Photo Feb 28, 12 49 20 PM
We visited the office of Anneke’s representative, Sen. Christine Rolfes, who’s also the chair of Senate Ways & Means. Because of her leadership role, we delivered the postcards about affordable housing and student homelessness to her.


What’s one moment or memory that stands out to you from the day?


HHAD Olympia display from back
The postcards could be displayed on both sides of the structure; here’s the view looking up at the Legislative Building.

Anneke: One of the most compelling parts of HHAD to me was the drumming and prayer led from indigenous members from Chief Seattle Club. A woman from the Lakota tribe led the prayer which she spoke in both her first indigenous language, then in English. Sage was burned during this time and the rich smoke wafted from the parking lot up to the steps. There was something truly special about that moment, to hear the expression of an ancient and endangered language by a native leader. Her speech was also followed by a drumming session by members of the club.

HHAD Olympia Chief Seattle drum circle
Members of Chief Seattle Club led the crowd in drumming and prayer. Photo from Chief Seattle Club.

The rhythmic beat of the drum connected everyone there in that moment and made me think about how we all stood on indigenous land of the Duwamish tribe. It was also mentioned how Native Americans have been the top demographic to experience homelessness. In truth, it started a long time ago during the time of Westernization and assimilation and natives were forced from their home spaces.

Connor: One aspect that struck me was the scale and the collective urgency that I felt while participating. Gathering on the steps of the Legislative Building in Olympia with hundreds of other advocates was a moment that reminded me of the stakes of the day, and the potential impact that our advocacy could have on the lives of thousands of Washingtonians.

As WLIHA staff and other HHAD participants led chants with the 600-strong crowd gathered on the steps, I almost felt like I could feel the possibility of a world with more just eviction laws, more affordable housing, and fewer students experiencing homelessness. While obviously our chanting alone did not get us there, I believe the collective power that it represented will help us get a bit closer to that world.


HHAD Olympia rally
Advocates gather on the steps of the Legislative Building to rally for housing justice.


What are you most proud of from your experience at HHAD?

Anneke: I am most proud of the potential ways in which this project inspired people at HHAD, at Seattle University, and lawmakers to have conversations about housing affordability, eviction reform, and student homelessness. I really hope that lawmakers will read each postcard thoroughly.

HHAD Olympia with Chopp Anneke talking
At the 43rd District meeting, Anneke describes the project to Speaker Frank Chopp. Later, we delivered the eviction-themed postcards to him.

Possibly, the postcards will influence some of the outcome of some law decisions around housing and eviction reform.

Last year, the sticker with the image of the red advocacy scarf was a big hit. Madison Vucci, our student design assistant last year and now SU alum, updated the sticker for 2019.


I am also proud of our team of three that enabled this installation to happen. It was a crazy idea to start out, which seemed unattainable at times, but all of our meetings discussing logistics and content paid off. I am honored that I could bring local Seattle voices to the Capitol and support those who need it the most through public art. As a team of only two project assistants, I am very proud of the way Connor and I brought our strengths to the table for this project.

HHAD Olympia Anneke and dad installing
Anneke’s dad, Frank Karreman, is an architect who designed the structure. He even came to Olympia to help us install it.


The video below, by Prof. Chordiya, shows a close-up of some of the postcard messages.


Connor: There’s a lot to be proud of. First and foremost, I think Anneke and her dad, Frank, deserve recognition and appreciation for the hard work that they put into creating the structure. Without them, displaying the postcards would not have been possible.

I am also proud of our entire team for the way that we collaborated to get the project done. From Catherine helping us through brainstorming and anticipating challenges, to the way Anneke and I collaborated to integrate the written messaging with the vision for the design of the hand, I think our collaboration and flexibility made this project possible.

HHAD Olympia installation roof
Anneke and Connor, directed by Anneke’s dad, Frank, install the roof on the display.


Lastly, a short thank you from Anneke and Connor:

In recognition that this project was a collaborative effort, we would like to conclude by thanking many of the people that helped make it possible. Many thanks to the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance for organizing this day, as well as Seattle University’s Facilities Team for their assistance in getting this project down to Olympia.

HHAD Olympia Dimitri
Dimitri Groce managed HHAD and took care of thousands of details. Thank you, Dimitri!

In particular, thank you to Dimitri Groce of WLIHA for all his support and encouragement throughout the process.

Thank you to our Project Supervisor Catherine for supporting us in every way throughout this project. Thank you Prof. Rashmi Chordiya for your positive presence and technical support at Olympia during the event.



HHAD Olympia A C C installation
The team at the end of a long but rewarding day: Connor, Catherine, Anneke. Photo by Rashmi Chordiya.


We’d also like to thank Kristina Sawyckyj, the 43rd District legislative lead (and SU student), for her support in our meeting with Speaker Chopp.

Thank you also to Frank Karreman; you made the “house” design come to life.

HHAD Olympia Frank and Anneke
Architect Frank Karreman and daughter, Anneke, a talented design team!


Finally, we are grateful to all the Seattle University students, faculty, staff, and community members who took the time to write a postcard — thank you for adding your voice to a statewide movement.




All photos by Catherine Hinrichsen unless otherwise noted. 

Durkan and Moon: Voters’ Guide on Housing and Homelessness


To help Seattle voters make the important choice of how to vote for our next mayor, we’ve partnered with leading housing and homelessness advocacy organizations and service providers on a 2017 voter education project, with two major components:

  • Voters’ Guide on Housing and Homelessness
  • Changing Seattle: Mayoral Candidates Debate Growth, Affordable Housing and Homelessness, Tuesday, Sept. 12 at Seattle University

Voter’s Guide

The first, below, is this online Voters’ Guide on Housing and Homelessness, produced in partnership with Solid Ground, Housing Development Consortium and Seattle-King County Coalition on Homelessness.  Continue reading