Plain Speech in Sacramento, California

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An interview with Kevan Insko

Kevan Insko has been the Director of Outreach and Development for Friends Committee on Legislation of California (FCLCA) since 2009.  She spoke by phone with Western Friend on October 21, 2013. The text below was excerpted from a transcript of that interview.

Western Friend: Would you begin by describing what brought you to FCLCA and the changes you’ve seen since you started?

Kevan Insko: What most attracted me to the position with FCLCA was the opportunity to do work that’s in concert with my values. Not being a Quaker myself, I didn’t know a lot about contemporary Quakerism, but I knew that Friends had been behind some of the most effective social justice organizations in the country.

When FCLCA first started sixty years ago, there were only a couple of social justice lobby groups working in Sacramento. In the current environment, there are a number of organizations that work on criminal justice reform and the other issues we address, so one aspect of growth I’ve seen in the last few years is our work in coalitions. FCLCA plays a major role in several social change coalitions because of our long history, our strong relationships with legislators and their staffs, and our strong reputation for honesty and providing reliable information.

Another area where I’ve seen a lot of growth is in our communications and grassroots organizing. One key way we’re doing that is online. We launched a new website and also really expanded what we call our “Action Network” – people who have signed up to respond to action alerts about legislation. And we’ve expanded our use of online petitions through MoveOn.org.

We’ve also recognized that we really need to expand our base of support beyond Friends, so I’ve developed a list of other organizations, Meeting contacts, and other individuals who receive our action alerts, and they broadcast them to their networks.  We reach about four thousand people directly through our own networks. And we also reach thousands more people through our allies. We’re probably reaching ten thousand people now.

So especially when I’m working with allies, I need to take our message and put it into language that people’s current attention spans can handle. I try not to lose the essential message while putting it into a brief action alert or even into a petition that might only be two lines long.

WF: And that is the key point I’m interested in today.

KI:  Yes, because of the public’s short attention span for new information, we have to think about how we frame a message so that it doesn’t lose sight of our key values, yet still contains a strong “call to action” that people will relate to and that will motivate them to act. And we have to remember that we’re not talking to Quakers all the time. So when we write a petition on an issue, we may test different messages to see which ones work best, because obviously we want to get as many signatures as possible.

These different messages are all faithful to our point of view, but they highlight different aspects – let me give you an example.  We were co-sponsoring a bill called Senate Bill 649, the Local Control over Sentencing Act.  This bill would have allowed local prosecutors to charge simple possession of drugs as a misdemeanor, rather than always as a felony.  So we tested several messages, all of which were true, and sent them out to three groups of people.  The three arguments we tested were: One, that the bill would allow more local control and discretion; two, that it made common sense – it is less expensive to prosecute misdemeanors and just as effective in addressing the issue; and three, that it would save thousands of people from the lifelong consequences of a felony conviction.  In this case, message number three persuaded far more people to sign, and we then sent that out to a broader audience.

I think that working on framing a message is actually a way of respecting your audience, because you’re asking, what does my audience care about?

WF: Last year, when the anti-death-penalty proposition was on the California ballot, my meeting considered a request to sign on as a supporter, as a meeting. And it was contentious. We finally did decide to support the proposition publicly, but it was difficult for us to put our name on a message that talked about saving the state money as the main reason for opposing the death penalty.

KI: You have to think of these issues on a case-by-case basis. There can be times when you’re speaking to people who generally agree with you. But with a proposition, you’re talking about millions of voters. Hypothetically, let’s say that 40% of the people in California really oppose the death penalty, and another 40% will support the death penalty no matter what you say. So you’re really just trying to speak to that 20% who are in the middle and might agree with you, but don’t yet. If what you’re trying to do is move them, you need to understand which messages will get them to actively vote your way. For us, it is fundamentally immoral to take a human life in retribution, and those who agree with us are probably in the first 40%.  For the people we are trying to persuade to vote yes – that key 20% - we are highlighting the “wrongness” of wasting public resources that are desperately needed for good works elsewhere and to solve the huge numbers of unsolved rapes and murders, and the immorality of executing innocent people.  This was information we had reason to believe they would be open to hearing.

So we want our message to count, we want it to make sense, and we also want it to respect our audience. We want to talk in ways so that people can hear us. Because if we’re talking in a way that only we can hear, then what’s the point?  At the same time, we also have to be careful that messages that come from FCLCA always reflect our core values, because our fundamental mission is to be a voice of conscience – a voice for compassion and justice.

WF:  How do you draw the line between what is manipulation in communication and what is not?

KI: Well, I think with some of these complex political issues, we have to look at things three-dimensionally. I appreciate information that says, here are some facts, here’s some analysis, here’s how it has an impact on people, and here are some voices you may not have heard from before.

So facts, analysis, stories and perspectives from different points of view – I like to take all that in and digest it. Now, this kind of dialogue is not something that we usually have a lot of time for.  At FCLCA, we provide longer articles with analysis and in-depth interviews in our quarterly publication, the FCLCA Newsletter. I think Quakers have a tradition of thoughtful communication, but I don’t think that’s true of our culture generally.

Also, you need to think about your goals: what are you trying to change, and who has the power to change it? Are you trying to change people’s view of humanity? Then you might talk in terms of religion or spirituality. Are you trying to leave people with a different way of seeing and experiencing the world? Then you might do art. Are you trying to move people who are in the middle to one side or the other? Then you might test different messages that speak in a language that reflects their values. Are you trying to get a powerful person to make a different decision? Then you might try different strategies, such as having someone they respect talk to them personally.   It’s not an either/or – all these goals are important.

They say that politics is the art of the possible.  One of the things I most admire about Quakers is that they have never hesitated to engage in politics – in the real world with all its traps and follies.

WF:  What other kinds of challenges does FCLCA face when shaping messages?

KI: Part of what I do here is work on development, which is partly fund-raising, but is also about figuring out how to develop a sustainable organization.  I know Quakers appreciate plain speech, so I’ll be really plain. I think that a challenge for FCLCA is going to be, with a very small base of Friends in the state, how we can successfully communicate our value and our needs to enough people to become sustainable over time. We have to be able to close that funding gap that starts at the beginning of every year between what we want to do during the year and what we can afford to do.

Let’s face it: it can be really hard to talk about money. We use all these terms like “contribution, gift, support.” They’re not really deceptive, but they’re kind of euphemistic. I think that generally in our society, there’s a sense that money is unclean, or that it shouldn’t be talked about – that it’s embarrassing to ask people for money, and it’s embarrassing to be asked. Sometimes I get the idea that people want to believe that good works and the people who do them should kind of exist on air. And we know that’s not the case.

I see FCLCA at a crossroads right now.  We had many successes this past year legislatively and in our grassroots outreach. There are many other organizations doing wonderful work, even lobbying, at the Capitol.  Our challenge is to consistently show the value of FCLCA and gather more donors and activists.

So maybe it’s time for everyone to really think about how important it is for them to have a Quaker voice in Sacramento: to ask themselves, is this just “kind of a good idea” or is it really a priority for me – in terms of my volunteerism, activism, and financial support?   I hope the answer will be a renewed commitment to the voice of conscience that FCLCA brings to Sacramento – or as we say, “60 more years.” ~~~

To learn more about effective messaging for social change, see: Speaking Rights to Power: Constructing Political Will by Alison Brysk, and The Metaphor Project by Susan C. Strong.

To learn more about FCLCA, visit their website at www.fclca.org.