Researching Communication for Social Change: An Interview with Rachel Fishman

As I stated on Monday, this week’s blog posts will highlight student research. For this post, I interviewed Rachel Fishman, a PWR major with a minor in business administration and junior Honors Fellow.

RachelFDoing work that matters in the real world
Rachel knew that she wanted to do nonprofit work, so the PWR major was one that attracted her, especially grant writing, her first PWR course. As she continued her PWR education, she says she “learned more about rhetoric, what it used to be, what it can be, how broad it is, and how much an understanding of rhetorical strategies can help with communication.”

This is where her research came in.

“I am examining the rhetorical strategies that anti-human trafficking organiztions use to convey their messages to the public; specifically, I’m examining a supposed disconnect between messages that organizations are attempting to convey and the messages that the public are actually receiving.

So I’m going to be looking at it from a rhetorical perspective and trying to determine ways that an organization can improve its communication and strengthen areas that it’s doing well in with the goal of filling the gap in areas where the public isn’t perceiving issue as intended so that the communication can be more effective.”

A personal interest turned into research
Rachel has been interested in the issue of human trafficking for about 5 years, as once she learned about it, she says the issue “just kind of stuck.” She researched a lot on her own but also increased her knowledge of the topic while abroad in Copenhagen, as she took courses on prostitution and human trafficking. With this knowledge came the solidification of her research goal: to help a specific anti-trafficing organization understand the power of rhetorical strategies and help them get a stronger grasp on the way that the public is receiving their communication.

“Because [these organizations] know so much about the issue, there is some type of gap. So many people do not know about the issue or see it as something that can be fought against and improved, and if I can find a way to strengthen the communication [of these organizations] using rhetorical strategies or can show this organization to use more rhetorical strategies to do better with communication, than I’ll consider [the research a] success.”

The research
Rachel views research was something that should be “of value not only to yourself but to others.” She realized that engaging with her personal interest made sense when she recognized the tons of Word documents she already had where she’d been taking notes on articles and trying to educate herself about human trafficking.

“When I started out, it didn’t really begin as what I was going to do for my thesis. I realized I had a ton of documents and writing about human trafficking and realized that I might as well do what I’ve already been unintentionally writing about for years.”

Rachel’s research is split into three parts guided by the rhetorical triangle:

  1. Writer: An analysis of anti-trafficking organizations, interviewing one specific organization and interviewing leaders –  How do they believe the issue can be combated, and what are their intentions, materials and messages? How do they believe spreading awareness or persuing whatever their particular organizational goal is will make a difference? How are they doing that?
  2. Message: A textual rhetorical analysis of the materials of that organization focusing on their website and social media.
  3. Audience: Conducting focus groups to see what messages people are getting from the organization’s communication.

Rachel says that everything will be placed in a larger context of the human trafficking crisis with the goal of figuring out how to combat it.

Rhetoric as social change
Rachel says that rhetoric has always been linked to social change.

“Rhetoric has been founded in civic action since it began, and although the application of it in society has shifted over the years, the connection has always been there. Quintilian said that a good man skilled in speaking is who a rhetorician should be. It’s not that these organizations are not skilled in what they are doing but that they are not as skilled in speaking to certain populations as they could be with a greater knowledge in rhetorical strategies.”

So far, Rachel has learned and expects to continue to learn how big of an impact rhetoric and knowledge of rhetorical strategies can have on changing the world. She recognizes how important it is to social justice and to understanding the ways in which we as individuals can create social change, and as rhetoricians inspire other people to create social change.

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