National Network Strategy Conversation: “Communications, Messaging, and Storytelling”

On August 25, Transitioners from across the nation participated in the second of an ongoing series of National Network Strategy conversations, part of the new campaign “From What Is to What If: Reimagining and Rebuilding Our World.” 

The goal of these conversations? To draw upon the knowledge and experience of those who have been doing the work of Transition out in community in order to inform and refine the strategic direction of Transition US. 

This session, entitled “Communications, Messaging, and Storytelling,” was cofacilitated by Leslie MacKenzie, founder of Transition Longfellow (MN) and a marketing writer, and Ratih Sutrisno, Transition US Communications & Outreach Coordinator.

Background & Context

This communication-focused conversation emerged from a 2019 survey undertaken by the Transition US Board of Directors with more than 60 Transition stakeholders. Key themes from that survey became part of a Strategic Planning Input Paper. To focus this national network strategy conversation, participants were asked to review pages 18-24 of that paper. 

The conversation facilitators reviewed survey comments and grouped them into a few topic areas:

  • The need for greater message clarity: 
    • “Many Transitioners don’t know how to talk about Transition. It’s so wide-ranging, deep, and multi-faceted that it’s hard to craft a statement that’s comprehensive enough and yet readily understandable.”
    • “Public speaking – public writing – getting on conference panels – guerilla art – music – videos. This is a culture war and we have been far too timid! The culture war is not left against right – the culture war is life versus death. Find strong voices among Democrats, Republicans and Independents and push women, including older women [and people of color] to the forefront.”
  • The opportunity to share a Transition systems perspective and values:
    • “We need to keep speaking to the underlying problems, the mindset that created this crisis, and gently but firmly point to the possibility of a new mindset that would serve us in creating a better future… Changing the conversation from cynicism to hope, from division to commonality, from greed and competition to sharing and cooperation. Communicating what we’re about is key.”
  • The opportunity to share Transition solutions
    • “We need to keep our eye on the mission of resilient communities and post-carbon local economies.”
    • “For many people, this is the first time they have thought seriously about building resilience. Since TUS has been doing this work for years, we have an opportunity to be a leading voice in articulating what’s next.”
  • The need to enhance messaging to maintain relevance
    • “Transition’s positive vision was not sufficiently truthful about the realities of our situation, and made it sound like transitioning would be easy. Thus, the low morale and sense of disappointment that we have not achieved our goal: transforming our communities and political/economic/cultural systems – with very little resources and limited training and skill-building.”

These quotes are only a few of those shared on the strategy call. We invite you to read the entire strategy paper to learn more. 

What is clear from the survey responses is that Transition remains a critical endeavor and we need to rethink how we communicate. That’s why the facilitators for this conversation chose to explore some of the deeper strategic questions – not simply what we say, but why. They drew upon the book “Primal Branding: Create Zealots for Your Brand, Your Company and Your Future,” by Patrick Hanlon.  

Why Organizations Communicate

First, we communicate to define who we are to ourselves, as well as to the world. We stand for something — a core set of beliefs or actions. Participants weighed in with defining features of Transition. Several focused on moving from and to:

  • From a culture of fossil fuel use and consumerism to a culture of renewable and productive
  • From a degenerative world to a regenerative world 

Others raised the values of sharing, trust, collaboration, interdependence, and providing for ourselves. TUS Board Member and Transition Milwaukee Co-founder, Erik Lindberg, emphasized the value of “being the person and neighbor you want to be during a time of crisis and disruption.”

TUS National Network Organizer, Marissa Mommaerts, shared that what has worked well for her when talking with young people is to share her personal story of finding a sense of purpose in Transition. “Many people don’t have a strong sense of purpose and that’s extremely valuable today, especially for young people who feel overwhelmed.”

Second, organizations communicate to attract people. They do so by creating a sense of community and belonging. You attract people not because you converted them to your way of thinking, but because you connected with them and with their values:

  • This is the kind of person I am, so I want to be involved with this.
  • These are my concerns and fears, too. These are people who think and feel the way I do.
  • I can belong here.

Participants shared stories of ways that their groups communicate to create a sense of welcome and belonging. 

  • Don Hall, TUS Interim Executive Director and founder of Transition Sarasota, spoke of tabling at a downtown farmers’ market in Sarasota, Florida, and talking to shoppers about how Transition supports local farmers and local food and helps the local economy. When he talks to Rotarians, he connects to their concern about food insecurity. 
  • Sari Steuber, from Transition Town Media (PA), said that her group hosts a popular “Gratitude Potluck” for local nonprofit leaders. Each person can talk about their work for 2-3 minutes. It reinforces the fact that everyone is working together to build a better community. 
  • Linda Currie, from Transition Berkeley, shared a story of her group’s work with Green the Church and their engagement in community healing circles. 

Lastly, we communicate to inspire! We want people to take action. Whether we want people to attend an event, start a project, talk to a legislator, or step up to take a leadership role, this can be one of the easiest messages but sometimes we forget to actually do the “ask.” 

Next, participants broke into small groups to dig deeper into two questions. 

Question #1: Who are we and what binds us together? 

Transition attracts doers, not just talkers and dreamers. Those doers are active in gardening, permablitzes, repair cafes, skillshare events, clean-up days, Transition Streets… the list goes on. The kind of work we do sends a message about who we are. We are building resilience from the ground up.

Because we are doers, it’s important that we SHOW, DON’T TELL. Our stories need to show that we have an impact on the ground.

We are a social network. We enjoy being with others and look forward to doing things together. Everyone has a role. We also share a community of like-minded people all over the country and across the world.

We share a common view that:

  • Things are unsustainable as they are and need to change. 
  • We have a systems view that allows us to make connections across many sectors
  • We are trying to create a better world, not just a more sustainable one. 
  • Even if the problem is big, it’s worth trying. Lots of small actions can add up to an impact.
  • Being involved in Transition leads to a more satisfying, rich, meaningful and creative life.

We share a set of 8 guiding principles

Many of us share a commitment to permaculture. Permaculture ethics hardwire social justice into the Transition movement with its emphasis on earth care, people care, and fair share.  

We are brave. We are willing to talk about things no one else is willing to talk about – things like the truth about fossil fuels and climate change, things like death, elderhood, what it means to be a good neighbor or a good ancestor. 

For all that Transitioners share, there are ways in which they are different. One key question that arose was this: Is Transition a leftist political movement? Some groups are; others define themselves as non-partisan. The focus on practical action allows them to reach people of varying political beliefs.  

Cooperation Humboldt is decidedly left and they believe that they have attracted their large member base because they are very clear about who they are: unabashed peaceful revolutionaries who aim to restructure society, and have fun doing it. 

Question #2: Who are you (the people we want to reach), and why would you feel welcome in this community?

Because the issues of Transition are both so diverse, and so universal, it was hard for participants to define their audience. They are people who care about food, the environment, climate, business, energy, renewables, justice… 

Participants spoke, instead, about how to reach people. 

  • Of course, they focused on action – inviting people to take part in an activity. 
  • They talked about passion: finding out what fires people up and connecting with that. 
  • They talked about recognizing people’s gifts, drawing upon them, and the importance of supporting people so that they become and stay engaged.

David Cobb, from Cooperation Humboldt, talked about what his group does to develop new (often young) leaders. Anyone can participate in the activities of this very large Transition group, but in order to become part of the leadership team, a member has to participate in a study group to grapple with the big issues. They enter a leadership cohort. 

One of the greatest challenges Transition groups have is to reach “beyond their bubble.” Youth (people 35 and under) and people of color want to know that they will see people like themselves at meetings, before they even attend. It’s a dilemma! Participants shared that their largely untrained and unpaid volunteers often don’t have the capacity to do cross-cultural work. 

Another challenge is adopting language that resonates with business and government leaders. 

In summary, talking about Transition is not an easy task, but participants shared many useful strategies for communicating to define ourselves and grow our movement. Transition is based on relationships, and this conversation made clear the importance of connecting with our audience–whether an individual or a group–and sharing a message about Transition that resonates with their specific interests, passions, and concerns.

Refining our communication strategy and messaging is ongoing work for Transition US and local Transition leaders across the country. If you have communication ideas or resources to share, feel free to contact our National Network Organizer, Marissa Mommaerts, at marissa@transitionus.org.

Transition US is also excited to launch our new website and visual brand identity. With our new materials, we aim to strike a balance between urgency and inspiration, encouraging immediate action without overwhelming users. We hope that our new brand communicates a clear invitation to participate in Transition’s solution-oriented approach, and make anyone’s first steps in Transition just a little bit easier.