Janet Byrd is a walking brain trust on housing issues and messaging. Working behind the scenes locally and with Elected officials in Salem, she has helped push forward a housing agenda statewide that is supported by scores of organizations, and individuals.
Byrd is currently the executive director of Neighborhood Partnerships, which works to create opportunities for low-income people. Byrd cut her teeth in neighborhood organizing in Chicago, working on housing issues such as insurance redlining, neighborhood disinvestment and tenant rights.
At Neighborhood Partnerships, Janet has been central to the success of the statewide advocacy coalition, the Housing Alliance.During her tenure, Neighborhood Partnerships also helped launch the innovative multi-county collaborative to serve high-need homeless families, Bridges to Housing, and quadrupled the impact of the Oregon IDA Initiative, a unique statewide partnership that builds the assets of low income Oregonians.
Street Roots recently talked with Byrd about the work she does, and the political climate we find ourselves in.
Israel Bayer: Can you talk about the messaging and framing work you are involved with and what you’ve found out over the past few years?
Janet Byrd: Neighborhood Partnerships has had the privilege of working with some wonderful experts in strategic communications this past year and a half, including Patrick Bresette of Demos and Larry Wallack of Portland State. We’ve been training and supporting a group of more than 60 leaders and advocates from a broad swath of issue concerns in our trainings, our Leadership Salons and our Advocates College.
We’re just coming to the end of the Advocates College now, and what I hear back from participants is that they’ve been able to use some of the new knowledge and skill in their work in Salem, in their communities, and within their networks.
The most exciting thing we’re doing is honing skills to create the terrain for new conversations. Rather than getting stuck in polarized positions, we are now better able to move toward policy change by carefully choosing words and the order of the concerns raised.
We’ve probably all been in a situation where the conversation we set out to have isn’t the conversation we end up having. We may be trying very earnestly to answer a question and realize mid-stream that we have no clear idea of what understanding lay behind the question, what viewpoint was shaping it.
That viewpoint is what the messaging folks call a frame. It comes from the recognition that humans aren’t blank slates. We walk around with preconceived understandings of the world and new information is slotted into pre-existing “frames.” All too often we don’t stop to think about what those frames are in our listeners. The result is that we’re talking, but we aren’t really having a conversation.
Where before we might end up getting angry or polarized, we now know that it’s possible to step back, spend some time analyzing and listening, and then re-engage in a different conversation. Sometimes the solution is to re-connect to the values that motivate our concern about the issue, because values shape thinking and create an emotional connection. Sometimes the solution is to offer a new way of thinking or naming something, so that you aren’t triggering a negative response. And sometimes it’s thinking about how you want to structure a conversation — the order of your points. Continue reading