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5 Lessons from our 2024 Community Leader Award Winners

Each year the Clear Language Lab honors an organization who has shown a deep and meaningful commitment to equitable communication and plain language. 

In 2024, we’re honoring the Illinois team at Corporation for Supportive Housing (CSH) with the Clear Language Lab Community Leader Award. CSH's mission is to advance affordable housing aligned with services as an approach to help people thrive. They do this by advocating for effective policies and funding, equitably investing in communities, and strengthening the supportive housing field. 

To learn more about how they think about communication equity in their work, Melanie and I chatted with Julie Nelson, Stephanie Seidman, and Richard Rowe from the CHS team in Illinois.

Screenshot from our Zoom conversation. From the top left: Sarah Glazer is a white woman with brown hair, bangs, and glasses. Melanie is a white woman in a yellow sweater with curly brown hair. Stephanie is a white woman in a blue shirt with glasses. Richard is a bald black man in a blue shirt with glasses. Julie is a white woman in a cream sweater with short hair.

Throughout our conversation, I was struck by how intentionally CSH is about sharing complex information with varied audiences, and the high priority they place on working with folks who have lived experience. 

Here are 5 important lessons from their work.


1. Plain language is for everyone


CSH communicates with a very wide range of stakeholders. They’re sharing information about a complex system with folks who may already be housing experts, and folks who may be engaging with supportive housing for the first time. Plain language strategies have allowed them to successfully craft messages that make sense for many different groups of people.


As Julie said, “Plain language makes everything accessible at all levels for everyone. So why would we not want to do that? Why would I really only want to reach 10% of my prospective audience... if things aren't transparent to everyone…systems will keep working exactly how they are designed and how they're functioning today.”

CSH sees using plain language as a critical piece of their work advocating for systemic change in the housing sector.



2.   Plain language is a tool for systems change


Julie talked about how many challenges of the housing sector are “coming from the foundations of systemic racism and redlining and inequitable access to housing.” While housing resources are scarce, there are also many entities with their own rules and processes, making it difficult to know where to put efforts for change.


Part of what drives CSH’s commitment to plain language is making sure folks understand how these complex systems work to advocate for change. “If you want to move those levers in a way that’s going to work better… We also have to be really transparent and talk about, here's the money, here's how it works, who decides, here's how it gets decided.”


Providing clear, understandable explanations of how these systems work gives folks the information they need to push for change.


3.  Let lived expertise guide your work


Working closely with folks who have lived expertise is a core value of CSH, and it’s reflected both in who they hire and how they co-design with communities. Richard shared examples of replacing jargon with language suggested by participants and co-designing a leadership curriculum making “it easier for them to understand what we’re talking about and easier for them to articulate” their ideas.


Stephanie talked about how “you should put yourself closer to the solution by connecting with people who know it from experience. And that is truly the only way to know your way out of the problem.” Listening to the folks most affected by an issue and co-designing solutions is critical to making meaningful change.


4.   Slow down and fix what isn’t working


We all deal with urgency in our work. Just because we may have to create something quickly, that doesn’t mean we can’t revise it later. Stephanie encouraged other organizations, “to go back and turn [materials that aren’t working] into a product that you could put in anyone's hands with confidence… [It’s] nice to be proactive, but never too late to go back.”


Part of that process is building in time for reflection. “In order to change a system… to work for the people that it was built for… we have to pause at some point, in order to make sure that everybody is speaking the same way,” said Richard. “That way we can get to empowering the participants… allowing them a space to lead some of this work from their perspective.” But we need to make sure “providers and the system understand what they’re talking about.” If we rush forward without checking that everyone is on the same page, someone will be left behind.  


5.   It starts from the top


Leadership has a big role in making plain language part of CSH’s institutional culture. “[At CSH],” Richard shared, “this goes all the way to the top, and that’s one of the things that I enjoy. And it’s a must, that you have that buy in and support from leadership.”


Leadership support means creating space for reflection and materials review, investing in plain language training and resources, and upholding clear standards for communication.   

It was clear from our conversation that CSH considers plain language to be an integral part of their work at every level. If you want to learn more about their work, watch our full interview here.


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