The ACLU’s Hanna Johnson on How Communications Drives Social Change

Editor’s note: This interview is part of Mission North’s Communications Pathfinders series, an ongoing forum with communications leaders who are sharing their perspectives about adapting to a new reality.

It would be an understatement to say the past year has been busy at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Employees at the 100-year-old organization that tackles civil liberties issues like racial justice, immigration, free speech, LGBTQ+ rights and voting rights – just to name a few – have had their work cut out for them.

One of those dedicated employees is Communications Strategist Hanna Johnson, who has used her media and writing prowess to catalyze change on criminal justice reform, ending the death penalty and immigrant detention since 2018. We at Mission North are proud to call Hanna one of our own – before the ACLU, she helped lead media relations for our Future of Work practice. That included spearheading communications for Code2040, which advocates for racial equity in the tech industry.

Hanna recently shared with me her perspective on how communications gives us a shared language for social movements, why she transitioned from tech PR to social justice comms and what she’s hopeful about for the next four years.  

You've worked in various journalism, communications and marketing roles for many years. What drew you to the ACLU and a focus on criminal justice reform?

Working at the ACLU was my dream job for many years, and my passion for social justice goes back a long way. 

In college, I organized for undocumented students’ rights and wrote about that issue for the school paper. My mom migrated from Palestine when she was seventeen, so my work on immigration issues feels very personal.

Criminal justice reform has also been on my radar since I was young. In high school, I had a friend who got wrapped up in the criminal legal system and spent two and a half years in San Quentin prison for a relatively minor drug offense. We wrote letters to each other while he was there. The experience turned him into a completely different person. It was an early and powerful lesson about how broken our legal system is, and the way it destroys people.

What did you learn doing tech PR that prepared you for criminal justice reform communications?

Working at Mission North was great preparation. Our leaders understood my goals and supported my passion for social justice issues. When the company took on Code2040 as a pro bono client, I raised my hand to work on it. Diversity and inclusion in tech was just becoming a mainstream conversation, and we helped drive that forward.

Moving into the ACLU, I started to understand how important the fundamentals I learned at Mission North are. It sounds obvious, but things like setting an agenda for every meeting, story mining and the softer skills you learn through client services are so valuable. I’m a more creative person than a structured one, so those processes empowered me to be successful at a big — and often unwieldy — organization.

The past year brought a monumental shift in how many Americans think about systemic inequity and injustice. What is the role of communications in achieving impactful and lasting social change?

The last year has been incredible. I think about these moments as beats: COVID showed us how interconnected we are and highlighted the racial disparities in health, housing and employment. George Floyd’s murder catalyzed an incredible movement against police brutality and systemic racism more broadly. Then, the election showed us how powerful the organizing of Black women was.

A lot of work went into building these movements long before they became red button moments. Activists have been organizing, capacity building and developing policy demands for years. This work laid the foundation so that the messaging, energy and people were already in place. 

Communications gives us a shared language for these movements. The best thing about working at the ACLU is that when you get the messaging right, you start to see it resonate around the internet – on your friend’s Instagram or on Twitter. I’ve heard language from my pitches on NPR. The lawyers I work with agonize over finding the perfect language, but our job as comms professionals is to make it accessible. Something that’s accurate, inclusive and that people can rally around. We set the narrative for this movement.

Communications gives us a shared language for these movements... that's accurate, inclusive and that people can rally around.

Can you share some examples of leaders or organizations that are effective at driving this kind of change?

The most effective ones have a both a strong narrative and a clear vision. The Squad, and especially Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, are experts at this. AOC doesn’t just call out people and say what she’s against. That’s easy to do, but to catalyze sustainable change, you need a vision of how things could be.

Creating that vision comes from building trust with the communities you work with. If you’re trying to drive change in a community that isn’t yours, you always need members of that community at the table. They need to know who you are and what you’re about long before you ask them to do something.

If you’re trying to drive change in a community that isn’t yours, you always need members of that community at the table.

Other effective communicators in this space are The Marshall Project and Humans of New York. The Marshall Project does great reporting from the perspective of incarcerated people, and Humans of New York drives empathy and compassion by making personal stories connect. Those posts make me emotional!

How did COVID-19 change your communication strategies and tactics? Do you think these changes are permanent?

Since my work focuses on prisons and detention centers, the stakes were very high from the beginning. It was clear that COVID would hit those spaces hardest, and that the people in them would have the least protection. 

When the shutdown hit, all of my work went digital and the boundaries between work and home eroded. It was an urgent moment for us to fight and raise awareness, because this impacted everyone — when COVID is spreading in a prison, it puts the surrounding community at risk too. Emphasizing that everyone’s health and safety was at risk became an opportunity to invite people to advocate for incarcerated people. 

Before COVID, remote work wasn’t common or encouraged at the ACLU. But the changes have modernized our culture and brought us closer together. Our lives will be different after it’s over, but I hope we can keep some of the flexibility and creativity this period has forced us to develop. 

With a new administration in the White House, how do you see your work changing?

We have an opportunity for the first time in four years to think about what we want and how to build it.

We have an opportunity for the first time in four years to think about what we want and how to build it.

For the last four years, we’ve been playing defense. President Trump would release something damaging at 5:30pm on the Friday before a long weekend, and we’d spend a late Friday night responding to federal executions or a new immigration ban.

For all of his flaws, I truly believe we now have a leader who’s empathetic and compassionate, and who wants to be just and humane. We’ll hold President Biden accountable, and there are plenty of things that we’ll take him to task for. But on Inauguration Day, I was on a Zoom call with colleagues and everyone kept saying, “I feel like I can breathe again.” For many, that’s deeply personal. Our communities are no longer under attack.

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