JustUS Voices - Mothers Talk
Mothers Talk ~ Breaking Free
Living Library Gives Formerly Incarcerated Women Their Voice
Giving birth in shackles. Mother-daughter confidences whispered through a glass partition. Goodbye kisses to a toddler who, at reunification, is a 21 year-old man. Frayed safety nets. Disbanded family units. Twisted circle of child protective services and parenting without options.
For many women, this Mother’s Day will be yet another period of obstacles and absence. But for some, their trials and triumphs will mark a chorus of voices lifted in transformative storytelling.
JustUS Voices | Storytelling for Change℠ will officially launch on the eve of Mother’s Day, showcasing formerly incarcerated women who have been touched by the criminal justice system. The unveiling of the multimedia story project will also feature Susan Burton, executive director and founder of A New Way of Life (ANWOL) Reentry Project, and the debut of her book, Becoming Ms. Burton From Prison to Recovery to Leading the Fight for Incarcerated Women.
In this era of digital media, the Living Library is an innovative engagement through low-tech, high-touch in person encounters via the intimate medium of conversation. The JustUS Voices Living Library will host formerly incarcerated women, beginning with a panel discussion and followed by a rotating series of small group conversations.
Over the past 25 years, the rate of incarcerated women has increased 700 percent. More than 60 percent of women in state prisons are mothers of children under the age of 18. They are disproportionately Black and Latina.
“Storytelling is a powerful tool to give the world a window into the human condition,” says Gwen McKinney who designed the project in partnership with Susan Burton. “We are staunch advocates for change, but we understand that change only happens when people who are not directly affected realize the imperative for them as well. This starts on a basic human level that storytelling can achieve.”
The living library will explore questions, often unasked, that define the perverse and twisted path of formerly incarcerated women. How do they navigate a criminal justice system structured for men? What are the coping mechanisms in returning home after isolation in a cage? What securities and supports, challenges and crisis have defined reentry? And what are the collateral consequences on children and families? These realities, shared through the women’s lived experiences, can help inform national policy and the growing movement to end mass incarceration. The special needs of women are largely missing from the current public discourse.
The Living Library will animate the stories of formerly incarcerated women who, like human books, can be checked out by the library audience.
- A one-time lifer who completed her bachelor’s and master’s degree in the first five years of coming home, and now helps other formerly incarcerated students pursue their dreams through a scholarship and mentoring program.
- A sister and aunt who sought her own salvation from drug misuse, treatment, sobriety to now guide others toward rehabilitation.
- A self-described “disrupter” who calls for ‘eradicating the box’ at the same time she brings urban gardens to Los Angeles food deserts.
- A daughter of undocumented parents who emerged after three years in solitary confinement to build a new movement of the prison to college pipeline among “revolutionary scholars.”
- A grandmother who endured childhood trauma but found her creative spark in prison, and is now writing plays and leading a women’s self-help group.
JustUS Voices will embrace advocacy through the power of storytelling, interviews, testimonials and commentaries, blogs, video vignettes and social media. The project, which launches its website in early May, will also invite new storytellers – formerly incarcerated women who never knew they had a voice – to share through an online “Tell Your Story” function on the website.
A New Way of Life
Founded in 1998 by CNN Top Ten Hero Susan Burton, A New Way of Life provides housing and support to formerly incarcerated women for successful community re-entry, family reunification and individual healing. ANWOL also works to restore the civil rights of formerly incarcerated people and empowering, organizing and mobilizing advocates for social change, civic engagement and personal transformation.
McKinney & Associates
McKinney & Associates is the first Black woman-owned firm in the nation’s capital dedicated to social justice communications. For more than 25 years, the firm has promoted, marketed and advocated on behalf of progressive public policy including criminal justice reform, voting rights, health equity and racial justice by advancing authentic leaders and initiatives that embody those values.
VISION Analysis – A Brand Plan
A GPS for Brand Authenticity and Message Delivery
We believe the SWOT analysis has seen better days. For years, McKinney & Associates embraced the classic SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) approach to help our clients plot their institutional landscape. Over time, we realized that our approach to strategic planning had outstripped the SWOT’s utility. Too narrow. Too basic. One-dimensional. We went on a quest for something that fills gaps, connects dots and breathes greater nuance into the process.
Introducing our VISIONSM Analysis: an innovative tool that elevates strategic planning and message development to a whole new level. More than a clever acronym, VISION spells out
a roadmap to success.
McKinney’s proprietary VISION Analysis compels clients to own the VISION as the underpinning of their brand identity. It goes beyond the SWOT by probing and surfacing deeper questions and solutions.
Our findings surface the inherent communications challenges that accompany our clients’ work in the social justice arena, while also laying out a pathway to accomplishing their goals.
Think of it as a GPS for navigating brand authenticity and message delivery.
How It Works
Each VISION Analysis is shaped by a client’s unique brand.
It begins with a whiteboard. We chronicle words and sensibilities. We peel back layers that drive your goals and approach. How do you see yourself? How do others see you? How do you ultimately want to be seen? Who are your competitors? Your allies? Your audiences? What are your desired outcomes?
A word cloud later, we deliver an analysis with the most relevant and resonant messages, strategies and tactics. Through an iterative process we solicit your feedback and revisions. The end result reveals your voice, your values…your vision.
JustUS Voices - Storytelling for Change
W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Weingart Foundation Support Multi-Media Project
Storytelling Gives Voice to Women and Human Impact of Mass Incarceration
Few think of women as prisoners and even fewer imagine mothers or grandmothers behind bars. But the ranks of incarcerated women are expanding. Only Thailand jails more women than the United States. Sixty percent of imprisoned women have children under 18. Between 1980 and 2014, the women‘s prison population has increased more than 700 percent.
Susan Burton has lived the trauma behind those numbers. Founder of Los Angeles-based A New Way of Life Re-Entry Project (ANWOL), Burton cycled in and out of prison six times before finally receiving rehabilitation treatment for substance misuse. Thus, began her new path and an open door to other formerly incarcerated women. Over the past 18 years, ANWOL has provided residential and wrap-around reentry support uniquely supplemented with leadership development and civic engagement that also speaks to the special challenges of gender and justice. The next phase of the work is to build a bridge between the women and the larger society through the power of storytelling.
The W.K. Kellogg Foundation (WKKF) and the Weingart Foundation have awarded grants totaling $850,000 to support ANWOL’s launch of a storytelling initiative that transforms formerly incarcerated women from victims into public citizens. JustUS Voices | Storytelling for Change℠ intends to give voice and agency to women whose experiences paint the human face of mass incarceration.
Burton has joined with African American and woman-owned communications firm McKinney & Associates to launch the multimedia anthology that will feature authentic storytelling by women who have been touched by and triumphed over the tragedies of mass incarceration. The women’s experiences will be captured through an array of vehicles including presentation training, guided storytelling, videography, social media, live events and “Living Libraries.”
JustUS Voices will initially focus on Southern California and then expand statewide. California claims the nation’s largest prison population and is home to the largest women’s prison in the world. The project ultimately aims to reach advocates and women throughout the country.
“Telling your story is transformative,” says Burton, “For both the storyteller and their audience, a new bridge of understanding is created. The grants from the Kellogg Foundation and Weingart Foundation are timely and appreciated. This will create an opportunity for women, often missing from the conversation about mass incarceration, to be heard.”
The Kellogg Foundation grant of $600,000 is allocated over three years. The Weingart Foundation grant of $250,000 is for a one-year period. Both grants were awarded this month.
Through personal narratives and reflections, JustUS Voices will take aim at stigma and isolation faced by individual women at the same time it exposes the impact of mass incarceration on multiple generations of families and entire communities. They are submerged in a deep racial divide that disproportionately affect Black women. They make up 3 percent of California’s population but constitute approximately 27 percent of prisoners in the state’s criminal justice system. Latina women, make up 18.6 percent of California’s population but constitute 33 percent of women incarcerated in state prisons.
ANWOL and McKinney are planning a public launch for JustUS Voices in May in Los Angeles.
Gwen McKinney, the firm’s president, expressed gratitude for both Foundations’ support and welcomed the opportunity to continue a longstanding partnership with ANWOL. “Susan Burton is a force of nature,” says McKinney. “We are honored to collaborate with her to amplify the narratives of formerly incarcerated women and help them claim their voices. Each story is a building block in the tower of change.”
Upping the Prop 47 Ground Game
The California Endowment
Justice should make people and communities whole. Smart justice focuses on the underlying causes of crime and violence.
When California voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition 47 in November 2014, they cast an affirmative ballot for smart justice. By reclassifying low-level, nonviolent offenses as misdemeanors rather than felonies, Prop 47 takes aim at the soaring rates of incarceration. At the same time, the law reduces barriers to jobs, housing and education, reduces the prison population, and provides formerly and currently incarcerated people with a second chance.
Some might define Prop 47 as an outgrowth of the national movement to tackle mass incarceration. But The California Endowment (TCE) embraces the initiative as a path to healthy communities.
Savings from reduced incarceration will be redirected into drug and mental health treatment, education, job training and victim services.
What’s more, the initiative offers people who would otherwise face prison and the stigma of a felony conviction the opportunity to contribute to civil society—improving the quality of life for their families, their communities and the state.
But Prop 47 foes have gone into overdrive, stoking fears and blaming the new law for everything from illusory hikes in crime to cluttered court dockets.
Enter TCE, pledging to rewrite the narrative around health and justice. Recognizing that Prop 47’s success is central to building healthier communities, TCE engaged McKinney & Associates to provide communications training and guidance to the leaders of organizations working on the ground to implement the initiative, especially in underserved communities.
A New Way of Life Re-Entry Project (ANWOL), a McKinney client and TCE grantee, identified Southern California grassroots leaders who could translate the training into greater communications capacity to engage key constituencies. Our multi-tiered project began with market research to help us assess needs and design a training curriculum that would build greater cohesion and cultural competency in strategies and tactics.
McKinney led onsite sessions that helped participants craft resonant themes—the building blocks for clear, culturally relevant messages. Through role play and mock encounters, the leaders honed language to resonate with critical audiences ranging from formerly incarcerated people to community influencers.
In the weeks following the training sessions, we worked with TCE and ANWOL to finalize messaging and supporting arguments. That task was accompanied by a comprehensive Prop 47 communications toolkit that includes a nine-step strategic communications planning outline and tip sheets on event planning, media outreach and social media engagement. The “How To” package was supplemented with webinars on making the ground game successful.
This potentially game-changing initiative is poised to become a national model thanks to the vision of philanthropies like TCE, which applies resources to its slogan: “Health Happens Here.”
Our embrace of the power of storytelling has driven strategic communications campaigns for some of the nation’s most stellar documentarians.
Zooming in with the sharp racial-justice lens that defines our work, we promote films that capture the saga of rights and equality. More than mere exposure, we create conversations—engaging diverse audiences and expanding the national discourse about social justice.
Our partnership with California Newsreel and promotion of a trilogy of documentaries epitomizes our approach. To support Race—The Power of an Illusion, Newsreel’s evocative examination of the artificial construct of race, McKinney generated mass interest in a tight news cycle by enlisting columnists and writers who probed questions raised by the three-part film series. Race remains unsurpassed in its incisive treatment of the artificial construct; the film’s penetrating subject continues to be scrutinized by students of racial justice, human biology, anthropology, sociology and American history.
Race spurred a wider exploration of health disparities with a multi-tiered communications campaign promoting Newsreel’s second series, Unnatural Causes: Is Inequality Making Us Sick? The seven-part examination of the social determinants of health connects the dots between social inequities and health status, irrefutably linking physiology to the conditions in which we are born, live and work.
Recognizing the need to expand public engagement beyond the relatively small, well-informed audience of PBS viewers, we rolled out a six-month campaign that pushed health equity beyond the then-raging national debate about health care reform, asserting that where we live may also determine how long we live.
Unnatural Causes won critical acclaim, including the prestigious Alfred I. DuPont–Columbia Award. It has been screened by thousands of health, community and social justice activists across the country and is a trusted source for experts in the field.
McKinney currently works with Newsreel to elevate its third series, The Raising of America—a masterful investigation of early child development that grew directly out of the questions raised by Unnatural Causes about the root causes of racial inequities in health. The documentary series probes how conditions faced by young children and their families can literally alter the developing brain and affect a child’s later success—in school and in life.
Team McKinney partnered with Newsreel to develop messages, media kits and a social media campaign, as well as a communications guide for the film’s 600+ partner organizations. We also entreated influencers and public intellectuals to offer endorsements.
We continue to provide strategic communications counsel to Newsreel and its partners and conduct media outreach to promote The Raising of America and the solutions it offers.
McKinney’s insights and strategy have been pivotal to the success of California Newsreel’s essential entries in the centuries-long narrative of democracy and social justice.
Health Equity Advances Lives
How do people living in underserved neighborhoods access the quality health care they deserve? And what happens when they can’t?
As strategic communications counselor to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), we trained a bright spotlight on issues of health disparities while advancing RWJF’s mission to build a culture of health for all Americans.
Central to our work was an information gathering and placement project called HEAL (Health Equity Advances Lives). Designed to promote RWJF’s innovative programs, scholars and grantees, HEAL actively produced, repurposed and placed content about health policy trends, research and findings. HEAL engaged audiences outside RWJF’s reach in new ways and maximized the Foundation’s brand influence.
HEAL’s galvanizing effect was epitomized by The Invisible Man, an article and infographic highlighting the work of RWJF scholars Keon Gilbert and Keith Elder. Their research exposes the breadth and depth of Black men’s health issues from cradle to grave.
Consider the stunning health disparities experienced by Black men as compared to their white male counterparts, with death rates that are:
- 30 percent higher from heart disease
- 60 percent higher from stroke
- 200 percent higher from diabetes
- Over 200 percent higher from prostate cancer
Yet many Black men don’t readily access health care even when they are insured.
Through the evocative theme "The Invisible Man," McKinney gave Gilbert and Elder a platform from which to tell the story beyond scholarly journals to strategic audiences. As Elder explained, “Our published research is important, but the people we need to reach aren’t in the academic world. They are in the barbershop, on the basketball court, and in communities that are medically underserved.”
HEAL reached millions over a six-week span, deploying the research and a striking infographic. The content went viral, from weekly print publications in California to large websites and influential blogs across the country. Starting with a placement in The AFRO, which publishes a print edition and boasts nearly 600,000 Facebook followers, the piece was picked up by BlackHealthMatters.com, ZocDoc.com, BET.com, TheBlackManCan.org and ThinkProgress, among many other publications.
A Stone of Hope
UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education
When Dr. King spoke of his dream, he expressed hope that “we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.”
Yet his vision of workers’ rights as the next phase of the civil rights struggle, a fundamental message frame of Dr. King’s legacy, has yet to be fully articulated or realized.
McKinney & Associates was engaged by the UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education to lead the strategic communications planning and rollout of a policy brief produced by labor specialist Dr. Steven C. Pitts and his colleague Dr. William E. Spriggs, chair of the Howard University Department of Economics. Entitled Beyond the Mountaintop: King’s Prescription for Poverty, the brief marked the 40th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination. The document and attending public activities were to underscore his vision of workers’ rights.
Our involvement in the project began in October 2007 when Dr. Pitts, a renowned expert on low-wage workers, engaged the firm to provide strategic counsel and manage the development and execution of the multi-tier communications strategy. Operating within
a narrow window of time for execution, we shepherded a process of tactical planning, message development, report design, develop- ment and production, media outreach, data- base development, and report distribution.
McKinney played a major role in transforming the policy brief from a conceptual framework into a tangible, bound work of intellectual leadership by two noted, progressive economists. Our team planned and managed all aspects of the report production, including creative development, editorial services and distribution. We also provided editorial support in drafting the “Black Economists’ Statement.” Signed by 14 Black economists recruited by Dr. Spriggs, the statement urged policy action on the two-dimensional job crises of unemploy- ment and low-wage jobs.
The collaborative enterprise culminated in the release of the report at a news conference on April 2, 2008, which was captured on YouTube and traveled into online venues through a viral campaign. We paired new media with traditional pitching, op-ed placements in the Baltimore Sun and Philadelphia Inquirer, and distribution of the policy brief to key opinion leader venues—including The Washington Post, which excerpted data from the report. Team McKinney garnered additional mileage for the brief as other policy experts referenced, posted and distributed it through their networks and websites.
It Starts As A Dream
Summer Medical and Dental Education Program
“We need more underrepresented minority leaders in all aspects of health care delivery and scientific discovery. I think the more diverse we are, the better we are.”
Taison Bell, MD, is emblematic of the health professionals who’ve been given a leg up by the Summer Medical and Dental Education Program (SMDEP). For a quarter of a century, SMDEP has empowered aspiring health practitioners from underserved communities to realize their dreams.
Funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and administered by the Association of American Medical Colleges and the American Dental Education Association, the free, six-week “academic boot camp” has created a pathway to medicine, dentistry and other health professions for more than 22,000 participants from underrepresented populations.
The participants come from urban centers and rural towns. Middle-class neighborhoods, underserved reservations, and crumbling communities. While most have a clear destination, many have no roadmap for getting there.
At SMDEP, they find more than a path; they get a carefully calibrated GPS.
For SMDEP’s 25th anniversary, McKinney rolled out a year-long campaign to celebrate the program’s far-reaching impact and extend its reach.
The 25th anniversary was a prime opportunity to chronicle SMDEP’s phenomenal success in shaping careers and changing lives while expanding the cadre of messengers whose triumphs personify its life-changing impact.
McKinney established an outreach program through social media and built the campaign around personal stories—most notably Inspiring 25, a series showcasing 25 SMDEP “exemplars.” Profiles of these exceptional alumni, who conquered hardships to become beacons of hope in their communities, were the soul of the campaign and were featured on the SMDEP anniversary website and in a “memory book.” We coordinated content, placement and outreach for the 25 stories, which were featured on the SMDEP anniversary website and in a printed and online “memory book.” The memory book also included a historical essay, photos, and reminiscences from program directors and alumni.
The campaign culminated in a celebratory alumni reunion event that drew 150 to Washington, DC, to share experiences, swap anecdotes and catch up with old friends—exceeding expectations by 50 percent. McKinney’s outreach activities increased alumni engagement by 250 percent, expanding the pool of potential alumni mentors.
Most important, we helped bring attention to SMDEP’s greatest triumph: its multiplier effect. By shaping the careers of its more than 22,000 alumni, the program has also changed the lives of everyone they touch.
Save Our Postal Service
American Postal Workers Union
Imagine you’re 18 years old. For your birthday, you get a bill for every expense you might incur for the rest of your life. Payment due immediately.
A bad joke? No, a congressional imposition on the U.S. Postal Service.
The Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act of 2006 mandates that the USPS pay out nearly $104 billion by 2016 to cover future health benefits of retired postal workers for the next 75 years. This outlandish financial burden, which no other government or private organization is forced to shoulder, has caused the USPS’s financial woes. Without the mandate, the Postal Service would be in the black by now—to the tune of $1.9 billion. But under the guise of “saving” the Postal Service from insolvency, recent policy changes have slowed mail service, closed post offices and mail processing facilities, slashed hours of operation, and eliminated thousands of good jobs.
Pushing back against the threat to this vital public institution, the American Postal Workers Union (APWU) brought McKinney & Associates on board to help launch a public engagement campaign supporting its Grand Alliance to Save Our Postal Service.
From the days of the American Revolution to the age of Amazon.com, the U.S. Postal Service has kept us connected to the people and the businesses we value most. Throughout the campaign, our team built on that connection to frame the APWU’s vision of the Postal Service as an equitable, vibrant workplace that should remain a hub of community life well into the future.
Our work with APWU represented a return to our roots. McKinney has long supported the labor movement, beginning with our first retainer client, the Metropolitan Washington Council of the AFL-CIO. Over the course of 10 intense weeks, we provided APWU with message testing and brand development, video production, media strategy, a radio tour and sustained strategic counsel. Based on our market research with union members and labor allies, we established a theme and visual brand: Our Postal Service: Yesterday, Today, FOREVER…A Public Trust. A National Treasure.
The highlight of the campaign was a video we produced with actor and activist Danny Glover, whose parents and sibling were postal workers. The three-minute video shared Glover’s insights about the value of the Postal Service as a creator of jobs and services and a uniter of communities. He issued a stirring call to join the Grand Alliance to save our Postal Service.
Team McKinney mounted a traditional and social media blitz that took the video viral. Within a week, it had garnered hundreds of shares, likes, tweets and retweets, garnering a reach of more than 20 million. It was also seen by millions of television viewers during promos and intros for Glover’s appearances on Fox 5 DC and MSNBC’s The Ed Show.
Brown v. Board and the STPP
American Civil Liberties Union
No child should be locked in a room and interrogated by police because of his skin color.
Yet that’s exactly what happened to a Utah teen who was caught up in a gang sweep at his high school because he “looked Mexican.” And it happens every day to thousands of Black, Latino and American Indian kids in schools across America.
In the six decades since the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision compelled public schools to integrate, how much has really changed? According to the American Civil Liberties Union, not enough. Zero-tolerance policies now criminalize what used to be minor infractions of school rules, and the “school-to-prison pipeline” (STPP) funnels kids out of public schools and into the criminal justice system. Most are children color, many with learning disabilities or histories of poverty, abuse or neglect.
Sixty years after Brown, school policies continue to deny racial and ethnic minorities the right to an equal education.
Kids should be educated, not incarcerated. So when the ACLU asked us to elevate its brand as a leading champion of racial justice advocacy by highlighting the efforts of its Racial Justice Project (RJP) to reverse the STPP, we didn’t hesitate. Seizing on the milestone 60th anniversary of the Brown ruling, we strategically linked school segregation policies of the 1950s with their modern-day counterparts.
Our communications plan included message and content development, a full slate of social media activities, and an event at the National Archives—Brown at 60: Is Full Equality Within Our Grasp?—to mark the anniversary.
McKinney created and shaped content for a dedicated Brown at 60 portal on ACLU.org, which jumpstarted the conversation and linked the organization’s leadership with historic struggles in the post-Brown era. Using the hashtag #Brownat60, our team carried the word across social media platforms, including a Reddit AMA and an @EssenceDebate on Twitter. We also parlayed our longstanding relationship with the AFRO-American Newspapers into a media partnership, with extraordinary archival photographs that added visual power to the Brown at 60 Web portal.
Our live-streamed Brown at 60 event featured a conversation with Catherine Lhamon, assistant secretary for Civil Rights at the Department of Education, and RJP Director Dennis Parker. Well attended, it sparked a thoughtful exchange and introduced the ACLU to new audiences.We also generated extensive national media coverage, including the Associated Press, PBS NewsHour, The Washington Post and The Diane Rehm Show. In fact, our pitch to Rehm’s managing producer inspired the program to devote the entire two-hour broadcast to Brown.
The Brown at 60 campaign shed new light on the ACLU’s vital mission to ensure that “separate but equal” has no place in our schools.
Partners in Social Justice
NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund
When the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF) was founded in 1940, Black Americans lived under the oppressive specter of Jim Crow.
Anti-lynching laws were not enforced, and deep racial dividing lines were uncrossed in schools, in restaurants and in public accommodations throughout the nation. Even the graveyard was a sanctioned division, reflected by a Georgia decree: “The officer in charge shall not bury, or allow to be buried, any colored persons upon ground set apart or used for the burial of white persons.”
Not until 1965—25 years after LDF’s inception—would the last state-sanctioned segregation laws be struck down. And still, the vestiges of institutional racism remain.
Since the beginning, first under the leadership of Thurgood Marshall and later with Elaine R. Jones at the helm, LDF has fought for reforms in the American legal system. As agency of record from 1992 through 2006, McKinney & Associates stood alongside LDF in its struggle to secure and protect the rights of Blacks, other people of color, women and the poor.
Operating within the framework of LDF's extensive civil rights docket and other high-profile policy initiatives, we carried out sustained, intensive public education that upheld the highest tenets of equal justice under the law. Our communications strategies supported voting rights, fair administration of criminal justice, equal educational access, employment opportunity and affirmative action—and translated into frequent and prominent placements on national news broadcasts and in influential opinion journals.
A three-year public education campaign with LDF focused on the case of Kemba Smith, a Hampton University student wrongfully jailed under draconian drug sentencing policies. The case helped train a national spotlight on wrongheaded federal sentencing guidelines and their impact on first-time, nonviolent and women defendants. As a result of the LDF campaign, then-President Clinton granted Smith clemency in 2000.
During our 14 years as AOR, we sharpened our racial justice lens and solidified a coveted niche as a communications specialist for civil rights. Most important, we helped maintain LDF’s standing as a national force in social justice advocacy.
“No other public relations firm could have won the trust and confidence of LDF like McKinney. They were caretakers of our public image during a period when the unfinished business of civil rights was being waged relentlessly in the courts of law and public opinion.”
— Elaine R. Jones
LDF President and Director-Counsel (1993–2004)
Tragedy on the Tracks
Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689
When a Metro Red Line train packed with rush-hour commuters plowed into another train in June 2009, it claimed nine lives and injured 80 others. One of the fatalities was the train operator, Jeanice McMillan, a member of the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 689 and the mother of a college freshman.
The Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority (WMATA) insisted that the system was safe. The message was clear: If the system was safe, then the operator must be at fault. Immediately, the rumor mill hit overdrive; WMATA’s penchant for scapegoating workers fueled public speculation that McMillan had been texting or talking on her cellphone at the time of the crash.
McKinney stepped in with a full-throttle crisis communications plan for Local 689. Convening four news conferences in as many days, we peppered the media with evidence that continuously engaged the reporters and editors covering the story. We followed National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) findings and eyewitness reports and monitored WMATA’s public statements. The union stayed on full alert to deliver public reactions and rebuttals.
The NTSB’s investigation debunked the rumors about McMillan and confirmed that her cellphone was inside her backpack. Our reaction was swift and resounding: Not only was McMillan not the cause of the collision, but she bravely applied the brake with the full weight of her body, remaining at her post and placing the lives of her passengers above her own. In the span of a 24-hour news cycle, Team McKinney rewrote the fallen transit operator’s narrative, from blame to heroism.
The press embraced the union’s calls for scrutiny of WMATA’s safety standards. When the NTSB released its final report, more than a year after the crash, it cited equipment error as the cause of the accident.
Closing the Oral Health Gap
Robert Wood Johnson Foundation
How does a seemingly benign toothache kill a healthy young boy?
It’s a question people asked in disbelief after 12-year-old Deamonte Driver died in 2007, when an untreated abscess traveled to his brain. An $80 tooth extraction could have saved him...but his family, medically underserved, couldn’t afford dental care.
Fifteen years ago, then-Surgeon General David Satcher sounded the alarm about the “silent epidemic” of oral health disparities. McKinney joined with strategic partners at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) to help close those gaps.
Our communications support for RWJF’s Pipeline, Profession and Practice: Community-Based Dental Education Program (Dental Pipeline) and Dental Pipeline National Learning Institute (NLI) is part of a larger effort to eliminate disparities in health care, in part by increasing community-based practice and fostering diversity in the health care workforce.
McKinney drew from its suite of integrated tools to develop content that conveyed the severity of the crisis and practical solutions. Our social media campaign and overall media outreach garnered placements in Black and Latino outlets, extending the reach of our messages into the communities that suffer from gaps in oral care. And our project management support helped to shepherd a three-part educational video series from pre-production to final posting on RWJF platforms.
The work launched a conversation around oral health disparities that belongs squarely in the mainstream of the national health reform debate. Programs like NLI and the Dental Pipeline can make a difference by opening doors for minority students to careers in dentistry—bringing greater access to dental care into the communities that need it most.
Voting Rights = Human Rights
Amid the maelstrom of the Civil Rights Movement, everyday heroes took a stand for the right of Black Americans to vote.
They paid for it with their lives.
The right to vote is the lifeblood of our democracy—a fundamental freedom that the martyrs of the movement risked everything to secure.
And yet, 50 years after Selma’s voting rights activism—50 years after Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965—impediments to Black and Latino voters have gained a new foothold. Elimination of same-day voting. Strict voter ID laws. Truncated voting by mail. Suppression of third-party registration campaigns. Not surprisingly, the restrictions have emerged in states where voter participation among people of color, young voters and low-income populations were making a difference.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) approached McKinney & Associates in 2011 to help stave off the fresh assault on voting rights with a national campaign, Stand for Freedom.
The campaign launch was an ambitious six-week sprint, a creative swirl of strategy, messaging and media. Our centerpiece was a rally at the United Nations marking International Human Rights Day, along with the release of a report documenting the vote-blocking tactics of opponents. We strategically drew from polling data that debunked the measures put forward by opponents and conveyed a clear message that Voting Rights = Human Rights.
McKinney’s robust media outreach campaign garnered prominent and favorable coverage in national print, online and broadcast outlets. Our rollout of the report, Defending Democracy, resulted in placements spanning a six-day news cycle. Despite the short gestation period, we capitalized on the commanding brand of the NAACP as an ardent defender of democracy and voting rights.
The campaign, while important, was a testament to the need for sustained vigilance and activism to protect the rights of all Americans.
In November 2012, the DC Metro Chapter of the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) awarded the campaign its Silver Inkwell prize.