To Achieve Lasting Policy Change for Kids, Advocates Need to Choose Their Words Carefully

By Nat Kendall-Taylor and David Alexander
– Chronicle of Philanthropy 


Kids right now are making more than the usual amount of noise. In Congress and state houses, they’re at the center of public-policy debates on issues such as the child tax credit, Covid-19 vaccines and mask mandates, and the long-term effects of climate change.

For the first time in many years, advocates have a real chance to get something done for children. To take advantage of this opportunity, nonprofits and foundations need to reconsider how they talk about the problems facing kids. They need to recognize that the words they use have the power to shift how legislators, governments, and the public as a whole think about children and what they need.

While many nonprofit organizations are remarkably effective at showing concern for America’s kids, they rarely frame problems affecting them in ways that encourage public action and solutions. A new report released by the organization’s we lead — FrameWorks and Leading for Kids — makes this abundantly clear. The report, How are Advocates Talking About Children’s Issues?, sampled communications materials from 25 organizations that advocate for policies and programs to help children. We found that much of the messaging focuses on fear and crisis, not efficacy or solutions.

Most nonprofits, as well as the media outlets that cover their work, use terms like “vulnerable” or “at risk” to describe the primarily low-income children of color they serve. This is understandable given the significant challenges facing children historically harmed by societal and cultural institutions. But our research shows such language often backfires. The idea of “vulnerability” puts the focus on deficits and sets up a fatalistic perspective. Even if no ill intent exists, such language can be demeaning and paternalistic and can perpetuate racist stereotypes.

Vague and Uninspiring Language

Instead, rather than using language that emphasizes the suffering of oppressed groups, the focus should be on the policies and social structures that cause harm — and what decision makers need to do to fix them. Those discussions should offer clear and concise solutions. Unfortunately, our research found that messages about solutions are themselves often nonspecific and fail to inspire action.

Part of the problem is an overuse of the amorphous term “child well-being” in nonprofit narratives. While “well-being” is a strong, positive word and a rich concept, without clarification it is merely shorthand for a broad set of outcomes and fails to convey the types of solutions that will make a difference. Left in the dark, many people, including policy makers, default to their own interpretation. For instance, we found that people often think about children’s issues solely in terms of child care and education. This narrow focus leaves out many solutions that advocates know would benefit kids.

A better approach is to specifically show what well-being looks like for children and what is necessary to achieve it. An explanation of the child tax credit, for instance, could include a discussion about how the credit helps parents pay the rent, buy healthy food, and provide their children with opportunities, such as camp or music lessons, all of which are essential to a child’s well-being.

When discussing children’s issues, it’s important to translate collective concern for kids into a collective sense of responsibility — and action. That requires demonstrating that these aren’t just problems experienced by some kids but are part of a larger systemwide set of issues that demand a societal response.

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The Black Lives Matter movement, for example, showed that racism isn’t just perpetrated by a few bad cops or some guys waving Confederate flags. It’s deeply embedded in societal systems that, over centuries, favored white people over Black people — from slavery to Jim Crow to housing and employment discrimination to today’s harmful policing practices. Addressing racism requires dismantling these larger systems, not just taking one-off actions.

Show the Impact of Racism

Similarly, when addressing problems affecting children, nonprofits need to clearly explain why creating a new child-care center or education program isn’t nearly enough. Frequently that involves discussions about how racial inequities that permeate institutions and societal systems have hurt children and their families.

Nearly 40 percent of the communications materials we analyzed mentioned issues involving race, using terms such as “racial equity,” “diversity equity, and inclusion,” and “systemic racism.” While such terms are commonplace in the nonprofit world, we found that most people, both white and Black, either don’t understand what they mean or have a different view of their meaning than advocates. Our focus groups, for example, revealed that many people think of equity as a financial term, associating it with home or business equity.

Such terminology needs to be explained in relatable ways that invite more people into the conversation rather than putting up barriers to involvement. One way to do that is by using examples to show what these concepts look like in real life. Again, in the context of the child tax credit, explaining the rationale behind the policy could begin with a discussion of how unequal employment opportunities in this country have created large wealth disparities between both races and immigrant populations. That would lead to the proposed solution: how a tax credit to boost incomes would help alleviate the effects of such systemic inequity and help all children and their families.

A similar approach should be taken when data is used to illustrate challenges confronting children. Too often we found that data presented in reports and other materials about racial disparities were expected to speak for themselves, with little or no explanation provided for why those disparities existed. Here’s an example of a typical sentence from materials we examined: “In 2018, Black children represented 14 percent of the total child population but 23 percent of all kids in foster care.” Without explaining the causes of such disparities, people fill in their own explanations, frequently relying on racist assumptions about people of color.

For example, people might explain differences in income or wealth by suggesting that work or education isn’t valued in “some communities” and that this explains why “those” (Black and brown) families are less successful. In other words, when context isn’t provided, data are often interpreted in ways that reinforce the assumptions about race that communicators are trying to dispel.

Most Americans, including most policy makers, want to solve the problems facing our kids today. To take full advantage of the increased focus on children’s issues, advocates and foundations need to choose their words carefully. That includes recognizing that few people outside their bubbles understand how public policy relates to children. Rather than reflexively using language that doesn’t mean much to most people — or may even alienate them — advocates need to create narratives that pull people in and compel them to fight for the changes we know kids need.

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