By Richard Muhammad
We can’t predict natural disasters, but forward looking social change communicators can have a plan in place to communicate quickly and effectively on issues related to their work in times of crisis.
When a major earthquake struck Haiti in January, for example, Janvieve Williams Comrie, who is active with the Progressive Communicators Network, and the Latin American and Caribbean Community Center in Atlanta were able to quickly respond to push successfully for Temporary Protective Status (TPS), which now allows Haitians to remain in the U.S. and work legally. The center already had a communications plan and strategy at work
“We see communications as the pendulum for generating change. All the people involved in the organization really understand communication's importance as well as how messages are created, how messages are disseminated, how they are concealed and how they can create change,” she says.
Her group, which is devoted to organizing and educating immigrants on democracy and racial justice in the Americas, didn’t have to create something new to inform people about Haiti. Through its Radio Diaspora weekly radio show, e-mails, press release and other media efforts, Haiti had been a subject for many years. A base had been laid for understanding how past U.S. policy as well as policies of other countries had made the Black republic fragile and vulnerable when the quake struck.
“All the earthquake did for our work was say, ‘This has to happen now!’ It is more important because now we’re talking about people’s livelihood in regards to over there and over here being tripled in regards to the precariousness of their lives,” Janvieve explains. Work and the ability to earn money are vital to Haiti, where remittances from abroad are the leading source of revenue. That money also flowed into the country more quickly than some aid and was more accessible than food for some people in the devastated capital of Port Au Prince.
Janvieve worried desperation would set in and if TPS wasn’t granted quickly, lives would be lost if massive chaos followed the Jan. 12 disaster. But with a constituency already briefed on Haiti, her group aggressively started reposting and reworking info from past broadcasts and moved forward as part of a year-and-a-half-old national TPS Working Group.
“You can have a large organizational communications strategy, but you also have to have something that I consider sub-strategies which go by topics, because different issues within the organization are digested and consumed differently,” says Janvieve. “We found we had a core of people that really knew the issues around Haiti and could say ‘this is not only a natural disaster, this is also a man-made disaster so our response should be different,’ ” she said. Discussions of TPS could be had alongside questions about why the U.S. military was going into Haiti, and why aid wasn’t reaching people—placing emphasis on something beyond relief efforts. Conversations went beyond the earthquake to broader issues around U.S. treatment of and relations with Haiti before the disaster, Janvieve says.
While many immigrant organizations hadn’t wanted to touch pre-disaster TPS for Haitians, Janvieve’s organization had joined grassroots groups and immigrant rights lawyers who knew the process for passage. The Florida Immigrant Coalition in Miami was instrumental in taking the issue to Congress, she notes. Janvieve credits the granting of TPS on January 21st to solid work and U.S. fears of “plain embarrassment” if relief wasn’t given to suffering next door.
"Communications is like the seat on a bicycle, according to Janvieve. “If you don’t have a seat on the bicycle, you’re going to be standing up and it’s going to be harder and harder for you to start going up those hills and going down those hills. You’re going to say, ‘Oh my goodness, why is this not working for me?’ But if you just put that seat on, it’s more comfortable, it’s smoother and you just cruise.”