On February 20, 2022, thousands of anti-gay activists filled the streets of Dakar to demand harsher punishments for LGBTQ+ people. Their fervid demonstrations were a response to the Senegalese Parliament’s recent rejection of a bill to increase prison sentences from 5 to 10 years for people accused of “indecent or unnatural acts between individuals of the same sex”. The rally was organised by And Samm Jikko Yi (translated to Together we protect our values), a collective of 125 local associations claiming to be the voice of Senegal’s 95% Muslim population, loudly proclaiming their hatred for LGBTQ+ people. The environment has become so bad that Drissa Traoré, the secretary-general of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), stated that LGBTQ+ people and their allies in Senegal “do not dare to publicly voice their opinions”.
This rally was not an isolated incident. It’s representative of a larger global trend against inclusivity, piling pressure on the most vulnerable communities by attacking their rights and civil liberties. While the backlash against the human rights of LGBTQ+ people and women is often expressed as nationalist discourse, the trend, ideological underpinnings and tactics are transnational. As authoritarianism rises and civic spaces shrink globally, anti-rights actors are gaining ground in international and domestic politics.
As a Nigerian communications professional and activist, living in Dakar and working for a London-based agency, seeing the rally prompted me to think about the complex balances of power in social impact communications and advocacy, especially as we enter Pride month.
Africa already suffers from dismal representation in global and popular media. For marginalised groups like the LGBTQ+ community, the lack of representation and inclusion is even more dire. Vulnerable communities are coming up against anti-rights actors that have strong campaigning, lobbying and organising abilities to replicate their brand around the world. Marginalised groups are overwhelmed by ultra-conservative voices that are extremely well-funded by private donors and conservative grant-makers. They undermine even the most laudable socio-political ethics. But despite the desperate need for more effective methods to overcome those barriers, traditional approaches to design and communications by external organisations on behalf of marginalised communities often fall flat. Extractive practices and processes, failing to account for the agency of affected communities have been pervasive in design and impact communications for too long.
AS ADVOCATES, DESIGNERS, AND COMMUNICATORS, IT IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN EVER THAT WE ENSURE THE VOICES, EXPERIENCES, AND KNOWLEDGE OF VULNERABLE COMMUNITIES ARE AT THE CORE OF OUR WORK. AS I SEE IT, THERE ARE FOUR MAIN REASONS WHY:
- Anti-rights groups, especially in the global south, rely on ultra-nationalist, colonialist rhetoric that presents the equality and inclusion of all genders and LGBT+ people as an imposition of foreign or ‘Western’ values.
During the rallies in Dakar, protesters decried that homosexuality was against Senegalese values. One protester said in an interview, “Westerners need to understand that this is Africa, this is Senegal, and they should keep their problems to themselves. We don’t want that here.” For new narratives to gain ground, they must come from local, affected people. Even well-thought-out communications will ultimately fall short in fully representing their experiences and persuasively challenging anti-rights, nationalist rhetoric if they are not rooted in and shaped by narratives of the vulnerable communities they aim to help.
- There are few spaces available for vulnerable groups to access mainstream discourse, representation, and circuits of power. Activists and organisers from minoritised groups at the grassroots level build power from the margins, creating alternative spaces for discourse and representation. But, by embedding participatory approaches in our processes, designers, advocates, and communications practitioners can use our work as a channel for minoritised groups to impact the mainstream.
- Local communities can often speak to the heart of issues in ways that even the best communicators who are outsiders can’t. They understand the nuances, complexities and shared values that characterise the spirit of their people. Tapping into that emotive, human element is vital. Our job is to help articulate that in the best way possible.
- They usually have hidden insights on the best ways to reach, connect and communicate with other vulnerable members of their community based on knowledge from experience. Those insights are especially important in high risk contexts and among groups that may be distrusting because of histories of violence or exploitation.
This is also an exciting opportunity to work with diverse groups of people to discover and co-create new ways of telling stories.
SO, HOW DO WE SHIFT POWER IN COMMUNICATIONS AND DESIGN
The Design Justice Network lays out a set of 10 principles to “uplift liberatory experiences, practices, and tools, and critically question the role of design and designers”. These principles can also help other communications practitioners.
I highly recommend reading through the full set, but the below 5 in particular stand out to me:
- Center the voices of those who are directly impacted. They are the ones with the greatest understanding of local context, the opposition, and the credibility to speak authentically and compellingly to the wider population. Recognise that there are entrenched histories that are often manipulated and act as barriers to change.
- See the role of the designer/communicator as a facilitator rather than an expert, and create a comfortable space for affected groups to share their experiences. Believe that everyone is an expert based on their own lived experience, and that we all have unique and brilliant contributions to bring to a process.
- View change as emergent from an accountable, accessible, and collaborative process, rather than as a point at the end of a process.
- Share design and communications knowledge and tools with our communities.
- Before seeking new solutions, look for what is already working at the community level. Honour and uplift traditional, indigenous, and local knowledge and practices.
Living these principles are just the beginning. Communications and design justice means deep listening, care and being proactive about how we meaningfully engage affected communities. Now is the time to radically rethink inclusion and participation in communications and design — the stakes are too high not to.