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Advocating an End to the Death Penalty

This article originally appeared here on the Stanford Social Innovation Review website.

Advocating an End to the Death Penalty

The Atlantic Philanthropies and its network of partners are using advocacy and communications to end capital punishment in the United States once and for all.

by Annmarie Benedict & Eric Brown

The use of the death penalty in the United States is arguably one of the country’s most controversial political issues. The United States stands practically alone among democracies that use capital punishment. From 2007-2012, it trailed only China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq in the number of its citizens that it put to death.

In 2006, as follow-up to its previous work to abolish the death penalty for juveniles, The Atlantic Philanthropies joined with a number of other funders and grantees, and developed a comprehensive strategy to abolish the death penalty completely. Effective advocacy communications anchored the strategy, and the work appears to be paying off. A recent independent evaluation by researchers Michael Quinn Patton and Kay Sherwood found that the campaign contributed to the momentum toward abolition.

Understanding that changing public opinion and establishing legal precedents would take a great deal of time, Atlantic and some half dozen funding partners and advocates dubbed the campaign Abolition2025. The campaign established a national steering committee and a national campaign coordinator, and funded a number of national anchor organizations, including Equal Justice USA and the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. It also convened regular meetings and conferences, bringing together all aspects of the abolition movement to develop national and state-by-state strategies, and to share best practices. The goals of the campaign were to:

  1. Change public discourse about the death penalty. Reversing the existing norm— the belief that the death penalty was an appropriate punishment—was a critical part of the campaign strategy. The campaign decided to focus on changing public discourse, with the idea that it would ultimately cause more states to ban executions, fewer prosecutors to seek capital punishment, and fewer juries and judges to sentence people to death. To achieve this, Rebecca Rittgers, who directed Atlantic’s death penalty grantmaking at the time, noted the need for a forceful communications strategy to “build up in the American ethos an understanding that the standards of decency have evolved.” “Standards of decency” define what is considered cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment. If advocates could demonstrate that societal norms about the death penalty had shifted significantly, it would communicate to the Supreme Court that so-called “standards of decency” had evolved in such a way that the death penalty could be considered cruel and unusual, and was no longer an acceptable practice.2. Get states to repeal the death penalty. Effective communications and targeted policy advocacy are mutually reinforcing. Grassroots efforts supporting legal efforts to move states toward reducing or ending their use of the death penalty would help advance the narrative that the punishment was outmoded. As states abandoned the death penalty, and as juries, prosecutors, and the public rejected the practice, advocates would give voice to a national consensus to demonstrate the evolving standards of decency.
  2. Persuade the Supreme Court to overturn the death penalty. For this approach to succeed, litigants would need to make the case that the standards of decency had evolved to a point where the legal system must consider the death penalty cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment.

Changing the Public Discourse

Lawyers, grantees, and other campaign advocates attempted to change attitudes about the death penalty by raising awareness of the death penalty system’s many failings: It is expensive, disproportionately affects low-income people and people of color, could kill innocent people, and fails to deter crime. Moreover, it is unevenly applied—a mere two percent of US counties issue 50 percent of death sentences. These messages were delivered in state-by-state campaigns, as well as via broad communications efforts carried out by national advocacy organizations. It employed a spectrum of tactics, including social media, op-eds, coordinated letters to the editor, paid advertising, personal presentations, and in one case, a commissioned play. It was also essential that this information came from credible messengers capable of swaying opinion—including evangelicals and conservatives who believe capital punishment is ineffective, wasteful, and unjust; victims’ families, who believe the lengthy death penalty process prevents them from achieving closure, and argue that the money saved by closing death row could be better spent for victims’ services or to reopen cold cases; and the falsely convicted, who are living proof of the failure of a system to protect the innocent.

Getting States to Repeal the Penalty

A campaign led by the New Mexico Coalition to Repeal the Death Penalty—a small, grassroots organization funded by the campaign—provides an excellent example of the power of multi-faceted advocacy. The campaign targeted the New Mexico legislature, with the goal of passing a bill that would repeal the state’s use of the death penalty. Tactics included:

  • Message development: The campaign worked closely with religious leaders, victims’ families, legislators, litigators, and outside consultants to develop sets of messages they felt would resonate with the public, elected officials, and the governor. The campaign continued to refine its messages over time.
  • Grassroots advocacy: In advance of the 2009 legislative session, death penalty opponents held events across the state at schools, churches, nonprofits, and elsewhere to prepare participants for an “Advocacy Day” in the state capital. On that day, advocates fanned out across Santa Fe, meeting with elected officials, holding press conferences, and making their voices heard.
  • Media outreach: Media outreach included national and international television, print, and radio interviews, and even included a play that told the story of an exonerated death row inmate.
  • Direct policy advocacy: The campaign worked closely with sympathetic legislators to craft a repeal bill and help shepherd it through the legislature to the Governor’s desk.
  • Lobbying: After intense lobbying, the New Mexico House and Senate sent a repeal bill to Governor Bill Richardson, who had previously stated his support for the death penalty. He was persuaded to sign the bill, citing many of the arguments put forward by the coalition.

This was just one of a number of important success stories. From 2007-2013, four other states abolished the death penalty—New Jersey, Illinois, Connecticut, and Maryland— due in no small part to state advocacy campaigns. In addition, the New York Court of Appeals ruled the death penalty unconstitutional. Tactics varied from state to state. In New Jersey, a state known for providing competent public defenders for the accused, the campaign focused on how to reduce the number of capital cases going to trial. Maryland, by contrast, focused on the problem of putting innocent people to death; messaging featured inmates who were exonerated using DNA evidence. In each case, strategies that were responsive to local contexts proved effective.

Outcomes to Date

Last year, the fewest number of death sentences (49) were handed down since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, and the number of states that performed an execution (6) was the smallest in 25 years. Since 2005, death sentences have decreased by almost half; executions have decreased by more than half; states carried out the fewest number of executions (28) in 20 years; and the number of states performing executions has decreased by more than half.

Importantly, for the first time in history the Washington Post/ABC news poll on the death penalty showed that a majority of Americans favor life imprisonment without parole over the death penalty (52 percent vs. 42 percent).

Meanwhile, 19 state legislatures have abolished the death penalty. And although, as mentioned above, 31 states still retain the death penalty, only six of them actually carried out executions in 2015. Seven states, the US Federal Government, and the US Military are now de facto abolitionist by UN standards; they have not executed anyone in at least the past 10 years.

Funders are also building momentum through the Themis Fund, a pooled donor fund created to support anti-death penalty efforts. The fund supports the Eighth Amendment Project (which evolved from Abolition2025), a national campaign organization focused on overturning the death penalty in the Supreme Court.

Advocates have used grassroots organizing to put pressure on legislators, designed smart communications to highlight the issue, and taken politically savvy approaches to identifying audiences and creating messages that speak to their audience’s values—invariably delivered by credible messengers. As we have noted, this work supported significant litigation, which has played an essential role. But there is much more to do. As The Atlantic Philanthropies—a limited-life foundation scheduled to conclude its grantmaking this year—exits the field, we are pleased to share what we’ve learned so that others can continue this important work. We believe the momentum exists to ensure that advocacy, communications, and litigation will succeed in making the case to end the use of the death penalty once and for all.

Ten years, nine months, and four days of lessons.

Ten years, nine months, and four days of lessons.

When I left the Hewlett Foundation in 2014 after eleven years as its communications director, I offered a version of this parting note on the foundation’s blog in which I attempted to summarize more than a decade of lessons into 609 words.

I went back and re-read that post (which I have adapted here) and realized that this is as good a way as any to explain how I approach communications. And so, here’s what I’ve learned about foundation communications in ten years, nine months, and four days:

1. Tactics without strategy are pretty much a waste of time.

I’m about to give away the secret to the nonprofit communications strategy kingdom—start your communications plan with a goal, and make it a good one. There, I said it. Organizations are pretty good about designing strategic plans that have reasonably good goals. They want the utility to remove a dam by 2015, or they want to provide reproductive health services for 25 percent more women in a particular district in Tanzania by the end of the year. Things like that. When the communications plans come in, though, often the goal is do some kind of tactic. Write an op-ed. Get people to like you on Facebook. If pressed, grantees might say that the goal is to “raise awareness” about an issue. Well, I have high awareness that kale is better for me than bacon, but that doesn’t stop me from eating BLTs. You get my point. Good strategies start with good goals, not good tactics. It seems so obvious, but we all know that it doesn’t always go that way.

2. That said, the tactics have changed a lot, and they’re going to keep changing.

I started at the Hewlett Foundation during the first term of the George W. Bush administration. (Some days, but not many, it feels like it was the first term of the George Washington administration.) When I began, most of the popular tools we use today didn’t even exist. There was no Twitter, no Facebook, no YouTube, none of that stuff. We basically had email and carrier pigeons. (I’m starting to sound like my grandfather.) Who knows what we’ll have tomorrow? Nobody. Things keep changing, and it’s important to keep up with the kids. So you should do that.

3. I loved Hewlett’s communications training program—and I learned that training is hard work and it takes a lot of diligence.

One of my favorite times of the year was when we brought grantees together for communications strategy training. We’d pick grantees from across the foundation’s programs and help them learn how to create a communications plan, how to do better presentations, how to improve their storytelling, and other fun things. Grantees were excited, our program staff who attended the training were excited, and everyone would go home energized, at least for a moment. The really important thing we learned was to make sure we followed up with participants about what they learned, and provided as many resources as possible to make sure that what they learned stuck. As it turns out, this is true for just about any training. Many of us have been through speech training, or presentation training, or who knows what other kinds of training, and it’s really easy to go back to the old pre-training ways. So I try to find a buddy who went through the training with me who can keep me honest, remind me what I learned, and help me get back on track if I strayed. So if you conduct or attend a training, spend at least as much time on follow up as you spent on the training.

4. Evaluating the effectiveness of communications is no more or less difficult than evaluating the effectiveness of anything else, which is to say that it’s often more art than science. Nevertheless, you have to try.

Many people have heard the old line attributed to John Wanamaker: “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.” Regardless of whether he actually said this, it rings true today. It’s hard to know whether your communications work was the thing that made the difference, but that’s no reason not to try. At my Hewlett going away party, after a bunch of speeches, my teenage daughter said that she still didn’t know what her dad, the communications director, did. My colleague Fay Twersky said that the field of evaluation is similarly misunderstood. To this, I propose a new partnership for the twenty-first century—that of the communications and evaluations people. There is much to recommend this marriage. For starters, both evaluations and communications people should be alongside the program folks at the very beginning of a strategy, helping set achievable goals and the best ways to measure them. If you are a communications person, make friends with the evaluators and vice versa. I know you will each learn from each other.

5. The people in this business are really, really nice.

When I started at my job, there was no shortage of people who took me to lunch, took me under their wings, and who shared every bit of communications advice freely and incredibly generously. Chris DeCardy at Packard; Matt James, then at the Kaiser Family Foundation; and David Morse, then at Robert Wood Johnson, were among the first, but there are way too many to count. As they say at the Oscars, you know who you are. To the extent that I have ever been successful in my work, it is because I have been able to bounce most ideas (the good, the bad, and the oh-so-ugly) off my colleagues, and I have always gotten loving but candid feedback. If you are interested in communications (even if you are a program person, an evaluator, or anything else), the Communications Network is a good place to find your brethren and sistren. If you have other interests, there is most certainly a professional support group for you. I urge you to take advantage of the true generosity that our field offers.

Okay, I learned more than that, but I think this is a pretty good start. To recap – start with strategy, which really means start with good goals; the tactics are always changing, so you’ve got to be on your toes; training is great, but follow up is just as important; evaluating communications may seem like a dark art, but you have to try anyway; find some friends who will help make you better.

LobsterCon: Valuable Lessons About Crustaceans, Education, and Deeper Learning 

At the Hewlett Foundation, our communications team spent a great deal of time working with the foundation’s Education Program. It’s amazing what you can learn when you spend a lot of time with very smart people.

As President Obama prepares to reauthorize the federal Education bill, I thought back to what may be one of the most interesting conferences I’ve ever attended, which taught me a lot about education, conferences, and lobsters, and not necessarily in that order.

I also learned a lot about how we can and must do a better job of teaching our children.

Learning about lobsters at High Tech High.

Learning about lobsters at High Tech High.

Let me explain: the conference was funded by Hewlett’s education program in collaboration with the Raikes Foundation, and it was organized by one of Hewlett’s grantees, a public charter school in San Diego called High Tech High. It brought together teachers, administrators, and students from around the U.S. and elsewhere to exchange ideas about “deeper learning”—which is an entirely different way to educate our kids. Rather than list the various characteristics of deeper learning, let me explain how I spent my day at this deeper learning conference, in a session devoted almost entirely to learning about lobsters, and why that was a great thing. Then you’ll know what deeper learning is and why it’s so important that every child receives this kind of education.

The session, which lasted seven hours (yes, you read that right), took place in a classroom at High Tech High. There were thirty or so participants in the session, called “A Deep Dive into the World of Lobsters.” Other sessions included, among many others, “Parkitecture: Using Design and Technology to Support Deeper Learning”, and “Thinking BIG With Kids Who Are Small: A Deep Dive into Engineering and Literacy for All Ages”. Our session on lobsters was led by Ron Berger and Steven Levy of Expeditionary Learning, an organization that partners with public district and charter schools across the country. Seven hours seemed like a rather long time for a conference session. Having been in many one-hour conference sessions that felt like seven, I was nervous. I shouldn’t have been.

The chairs in the room were arranged in groups of five or six. We were invited over to a tank of lobsters, and asked to get with our partners and select a live lobster, which we placed in a small plastic container filled with cold water on our desk.

Ron then asked the group to conduct a set of scientific measurements. We had to measure the length and width of the lobster’s crusher and cutter claws, measure the length of the carapace, and then weigh the creature. Unsurprisingly, this raised a bunch of questions. What’s a carapace? Which claw is the crusher and which is the cutter? To what decimal place should we record the weight? Should we use ounces or grams? Millimeters or centimeters? And so on. Some of the answers were found in the set of materials we received; others required agreement among the entire class. Agreement was necessary, though, if we were going to be able to compare our data with other groups.

After a certain amount of negotiating, once we agreed on our standards, we recorded our measurements and added them to a large sheet of paper at the front of the class. With the data from all seven lobsters collected and shared, we were then asked to analyze one pair of data.

Our lobster gathering worksheet

Our lobster gathering worksheet

Our group chose to see if there was a correlation between the width of the two claws. We also found out that lobsters can be lefties or righties—some lobsters’ crushers are on the left, but most are on the right. We then graphed our results on large posters. Ron pointed out how often students working together in the classroom come up with questions that even the experts miss. Even better, these classes are occasionally even tasked with conducting some of the research!

Then we were given pencils, paper, markers, and watercolors and asked to do what Ron called a “scientific” drawing of our lobster. I consider myself a truly wretched artist, so this was particularly tough for me. After spending more time erasing than drawing, I finally produced something that was at least recognizably a lobster. This exercise required me to examine our lobster very carefully and I learned a lot about lobsters just by looking closely. I also learned that if I stuck with it, I could achieve more than I thought. This is part of what educators call an “academic mindset,” which also includes a student’s sense that they belong in an academic community, can succeed at a given task, and that the work has value for them. How much do we miss out on when we just give up because we don’t consider ourselves good at drawing—or math or science? Lots, I’m sure.

 

 


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