Berkeley Human Rights Q&A #10: Makani Themba

More than Messaging

Makani Themba speaks at Berkeley Law on the framing of the gun debate (photo by Monica Haulman).

Makani Themba is a writer, strategist, and organizer who helps individuals and organizations use media more effectively to challenge racism and advance social justice. The longtime director of the Praxis Project, Themba is now the chief strategist at Higher Ground Change Strategies in Detroit, Michigan. She came to UC Berkeley this fall to speak specifically about how we frame the gun violence debate, and how we can use framing to instigate action for gun safety. Although she spoke to us before the U.S. presidential election, she illuminated the challenge and pressing need to communicate across racial, economic, regional, and political chasms in a vastly divided country.

Q. Where did you get your deep commitment to making change

A. I’m a child of the ’60s. I grew up during turbulent times. I lived in Harlem, New York, so it was a kind of ‘ground zero’ for the Black Nationalist movement and also the peace movement and local control. My mom was really active in fighting for good schools, which was critically important. Malcolm X used to preach on the street corner in a neighborhood where we shopped. So I was surrounded by a tremendous amount of inspiration. The ’60s was really a time of optimism. For those of us who were children during that time, it not only captured our imagination, but it put something in us that makes us want to find that sense again, that sense of winning, that sense of being surrounded by a feeling of ‘any day now we’re all going to be free.’ My very first job out of college was working for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, so that was what started me on my way.

Q. Tell me something important about your family.

A. I think I’ll tell you something important about my family relationship to this topic—gun violence. I come from a family on my father’s side that is very much into guns—hunters—and into guns as safety. And then on my mother’s side it’s the exact opposite. My mother is a practicing devotee of Paramahansa Yogananda, and she tries to live a super non-violent life, vegetarian, all of that. They had a moment in the ‘60s where they got married and were together, and then went their separate ways. As an activist, I have a lot of facets that come from a very diverse family.

Q. And that probably helps you translate this debate for people, I’d imagine.

A: It does feel that way because I do have to have that conversation with folks. And I also think that having a mom in particular who was—and is—so committed to mindfulness and presence, keeps me from thinking of the debate as ‘a war.’ That’s important to me, because when you can see the other person, and they can see you, and you can walk into a discussion where you’re holding the humanity of both of you at the center, I think it’s a different conversation [than you would have otherwise]. And that takes practice.

Q. Do you consider your work human rights work?

A. Human rights are a really big part of my personal journey. I worked at Amnesty [International]. I also worked in other human rights settings and racial justice settings to better understand ‘the human rights framework’ as a tool. And it’s a great tool. It also has some limits, too. Because in ‘the rights’ framework, ‘rights’ are not the same as obligations, right? So there’s a lot of focus on what we have a right to, but not as much focus on who’s obliged to make sure that we have those rights. And so for me, it’s like well, what does a policy framework at a local level look like that gets at that? Whose job is that? How does a city act? How does a state act? How does the federal government act?

Q. You talk about ‘change communications.’ What does that mean and how does it work in practice?

A. Sure, well it’s 1. communication supports organizing, and 2. communication actually has as its metric that people think differently about the fundamental underlying principles that drive the ‘debate.’ A lot of messaging focuses at the surface. So people say, “well really if you say it this way, then their brain is going to shift that way,” or that kind of thing. But the truth of the matter is that most of what we think is deeply rooted in ideas that we have been learning all of our lives and for hundreds of years. And so change communications combines what we understand about communicating in the classic way, which is messaging, and understand that if we’re going to make change, we have to change how we make meaning. So a history book is just as important to a change communication strategy as a newspaper, because it affects how we think and how we believe, and then how we act. And so if we’re learning that certain people are not valuable in school, that’s going to carry through in all of our political beliefs. And so we’re not going to change that with a message. We have to start to look at changing all of the ways in which people draw meaning and make meaning in the world.

Q. You seem to think outside the box in how you support grassroots organizing.

A: I just had this super fun time with Black Women for Wellness, facilitating this Afro-futurist vision where we had about 200 women and a few men in a room and we imagined the Black family one hundred years in the future. We imagined what would be the organizing principles of policy if they not about profit and value or punishment, but rather love and teaching each other. And in some ways, when we even imagine a human rights framework, a lot of times we think about human rights in the context of “human wrongs.” We think this is this human wrong and you need a right to something different. And so the organizing principle is often about the injustice and correcting injustice versus justice at the center. And so part of my work recently is to rethink the organizing principles: What are the foundational principles that we build these ideas and policies around, and what happens if we shift them? I just also facilitated a project session with this amazing group called Design Studio for Social Intervention that’s based in Boston— brilliant folks—and they are doing this thing in Roxbury to imagine a people’s redevelopment agency. So instead of a city redevelopment agency, what would happen if residents ran it? What would it do? What would be its guiding principle? What would it look like if the organizing principle of development was love? What would the houses look like? What would the neighborhoods feel like? What would be the rules?

Q. Using change communications, how do we talk about gun violence?

A. Gun violence is what it is because violence is so deeply embedded in this culture. And so there was a point in the ’60s or early ’70s when a critical mass of folks really started to interrogate how violent our culture was. We have the idea that the only way to solve problems is through violence. And so when you think about dealing with gun violence, the main argument for guns is that they’re necessary. Because if people did not think they were necessary, we really wouldn’t have them in the way that we do. And there are issues of throwing up the race card to make people afraid of ‘the other,’ so you need a gun to protect yourself. And the idea, whether it’s war, or whether it’s fighting over somebody calling you a name or something, how do you understand how to resolve issues, if you understand that violence is not necessary to do so? And so that’s the fundamental work. That fear, that’s deeply embedded, the idea of violence being deeply embedded as an antidote to address the fear, the association of guns with mass killings as well as protection, and strength, and the idea that it is a right.

Q. What’s an example of how violence is deeply embedded?

A. I love old movies, and I watch them not only because they are great, but also because they are a blueprint of the American psyche. Some are actually sponsored by the NRA [National Rifle Association]. They actually say in the beginning of the film that this studio is a proud member of the NRA, pretty much up until the ’50s. That’s embedded in our culture in such a profound way—so we’ve got some work to do. We’ve got to address the structures that promote this thinking and find ways to restructure them. We’re not going to message this away.