In today’s Social Velocity interview, I’m talking with Michael Crawford, Director of Digital and Creative at Freedom to Marry, one of the organizations instrumental in the movement to legalize same-sex marriage. Michael Crawford led Freedom to Marry’s in-house creative team and directed its award-winning digital program. He led the Freedom to Marry’s shift to a storytelling-centered content strategy and worked with a team of content creators and digital organizers to build an online supporter base of 1.5 million people, produce award-winning video content, and revolutionize the national conversation about gay people and marriage.
With the Supreme Court’s recent decision legalizing same-sex marriage, Freedom to Marry’s work is now done. However, they have turned their website into a repository of tools, case studies and examples from which other movements seeking social change can learn.
You can read past interviews in the Social Velocity social changemaker interview series here.
Nell: The June Supreme court decision legalizing gay marriage was a huge victory to organizations like Freedom to Marry that had been working on this issue for decades. How did multiple organizations and entities collaborate to make this victory a reality? Who were some of your collaborators and what did you learn about forging effective collaborations to create social change?
Michael: Freedom to Marry was one of many organizations who worked to win marriage nationwide for same-sex couples. Our organizational partners included national, state and local groups, and we advised groups working in other countries on marriage campaigns.
Our national partners included organizations like Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, Lambda Legal, ACLU, National Center for Lesbian Rights and Human Rights Campaign. At the state level, we worked with dozens of groups in states across every region of the country.
Our work was especially intensive at the state level. In dozens of states, we worked with national and state partners to create coalition campaigns to advance marriage in the respective state. Depending on the state and its anticipated path to marriage — legislative, ballot or legal — that work included creating effective public education campaigns, growing grassroots support, engaging elected officials, getting out the vote for ballot campaigns, earned media, and digital work.
Our Digital Action Center, which became the central hub for digital organizing in the marriage movement, is one example of how Freedom to Marry worked with state campaigns to win marriage. Through the Digital Action Center, Freedom to Marry established a full-service digital shop that built winning campaigns from the ground up, led digital strategy day in and day out, and delivered concrete results to help secure game-changing victories at the ballot box and state legislatures nationwide.
What made our coalition work successful was that throughout we were not hands-off or operating at arms-length. Freedom to Marry was deeply involved as a partner in the work and campaigns, apart from our role as fiscal sponsor or funding engine. We actively looked for opportunities where we could add value without duplicating existing efforts.
Nell: How big a role did technology play in this victory? Obviously it was a multi-pronged approach (legal, political, public awareness, etc.) but how did technology contribute and what do you think other social movements can learn from what you did?
Michael: Freedom to Marry’s use of digital played a critical role in the organization’s work and the implementation of its national strategy, the Roadmap to Victory. The digital team supported the campaign’s focus on rapidly accelerating the growth in public support for marriage, mobilizing supporters into an effective movement, and making the case for marriage in the court of public opinion.
Telling emotionally powerful, authentic stories in compelling ways was a key tactic in achieving a crucial element of our strategy, building a critical mass of public support for the freedom to marry (ultimately, we grew support from 27% in 1996 to 63% in 2015).
Much of Freedom to Marry’s storytelling work was concentrated, or originated, online. Through written online profiles, videos and advertisements, placements in traditional media outlets, and social media, Freedom to Marry consistently and authentically showcased the faces of people from all across the country who needed to be able to say “I do,” marry in any state they chose, and be sure their marriages would be respected by the all states and the federal government. Our central goal was to spark and frame the millions of conversations needed to change hearts and minds and build momentum and a critical mass of support.
The focus on storytelling was at the core of our digital program. We made extensive use of online video, social media and email.
The digital team was its own department within the organization, and we collaborated with all of the programming areas to achieve our joint goals and to amplify the work of the respective programming areas. For example, we partnered closely with our communications team to find and elevate the best stories of couples, supporters and unlikely messengers. The digital team built a database of couples and other potential messengers with compelling stories that we widely shared on our website, through social media and in videos. We worked with the communications team to pitch the best of these stories to news outlets, and then we used social media to push out those earned media stories.
Here are a few takeaways for other movements:
- Integrate digital into the fabric of the organization’s work: Your digital staff should be included when all critical decisions are being made for the organization regarding messaging, strategy and campaigning.
- Place storytelling at the center of your digital work: People are hard-wired to connect to stories and stories can help others to better understand the how and why of your work.
- Prepare content in advance for big decisions: This will enable you to move quickly once the decisions like court rulings or legislative outcomes are announced giving you the best possible chance to shape the narrative around those decisions.
- Leverage social media to scale your outreach and advance your narrative: People are increasingly getting their news via platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Developing and executing smart strategies for disseminating your perspective on the news helps you to be seen as a trusted news source, and it gets your message out more widely.
Nell: One of the reasons this victory happened was because it was a state-by-state strategy, instead of a nationwide strategy. How and why was the decision to go state-by-state made and what can other social change efforts learn from that approach? Why does it work and why now?
Michael: Our Roadmap to Victory was the national strategy to win the freedom to marry. The three tracks of the Roadmap included winning marriage in more states, growing public support and ending federal marriage discrimination all with an eye towards creating the climate for a Supreme Court decision. The state-by-state tactic was in service to the national strategy of winning at the Supreme Court.
The idea was not to focus just on one court case or one legislative battle or lurch from crisis to crisis. Rather, like every other successful civil rights movement, the marriage movement needed to see itself as a long-term campaign with a focused, affirmative goal and a sustained strategy, and needed to build momentum, foster collaboration, enlist new allies, identify new resources, fill in the gaps, and stay the course to victory.
It’s crucial to first identify the overarching goal, then develop a strategy or roadmap to achieve that, then develop the right programs or tactics to implement the strategy and then to provide supporters clear and effective ways that they can help implement the strategy to achieve the goal.
Nell: What’s next for Freedom to Marry and other organizations that won this victory? Where do your efforts go now? Is there other social change you all would like to see?
Michael: Freedom to Marry is in the process of winding down. Most of our staff has moved on to other causes, and we will soon be shutting our doors. The next big fight for the LGBT community is advancing effective legislation to prevent discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity or expression. One of the organizations leading that effort is Freedom For All Americans.
Over the last year especially, we have been talking with leaders in other movements sharing what we have learned working on the freedom to marry. We hope that our experiences will benefit others seeking to make the world a better place.