Debt Free Justice is the only national campaign dedicated to ending the harmful and unjust fees and fines imposed on youth in the juvenile justice system and their families. They represent a coalition of national organizations pursuing research, impact litigation, and policy advocacy and serve as a leading voice for abolition of this practice. The coalition also coordinates and supports community-driven efforts at the local, state, and federal levels to advocate for change in the juvenile justice system. As a newly formed entity, Debt Free Justice approached Message Agency to help them establish a name, identity, and website to launch their initiative.
After the initial launch, we continued working with the Debt Free Justice campaign to develop a messaging toolkit, conduct audience research to inform digital strategy tactics and web content strategy, as well as complete website updates to optimize the site as the campaign grows and evolves.
Debt Free Justice faced an initial set of challenges that the brand strategy needed to address. As an emerging organization that needed to establish their role as a central partner in this national work, the brand needed to initially draw on the identities of the coalition’s partner organizations to lend credibility and build trust. Their ability to reach the ambitious goal of organizing and mobilizing advocates across the country was limited by their initial size and commitment to an inclusive process.
To succeed, the brand needed to quickly establish a collective voice for the movement and provide an adaptive framework that coalition partners could adopt and customize for their individual and localized needs. Most importantly, the issue of fines and fees levied on system-involved youth is not well known or understood; public education needed to be a component of the brand strategy to help raise awareness of this important but little-known issue.
Our Brand Approach
Message Agency helped Debt Free Justice formalize their working name, develop a brand strategy and story, craft a visual identity, and design and develop an initial website to serve as a hub for storytelling, provide resources, and connect organizers. At first, coalition members struggled with the name. Our team thought the working slogan "Debt Free Justice" was effective and advocated for its use as the campaign identity. We were able to align the coalition and our team by communicating that the name successfully signaled the desired impact: liberating youth from debt imposed by the system.
Our approach to the visual identity drew on that focus of breaking free, utilizing a graphic mark that represented a strengths-based perspective. We used negative space to depict a stylized youth symbol that breaks the background’s perimeter. This approach helped to provide movement and interest without complicating the composition of the mark. We rounded out the mark with colors and typography that emphasized strength and bold action, while applying variants of blue to project a calmer sense of confidence and to appeal to the legislators and legal advocates who would also serve as key audience members.
A Website for Advocacy and Storytelling
The website’s design needed to cater to two very different audiences: the general public, who needed to understand the issue; and advocates and professionals in the justice system, who needed to act on it.
To accommodate the needs of both, we tailored the public-facing site to users who are new to the issue and tailored a gated portal for advocates, who can share information and best practices, get updates on local legislative and policy efforts, network with one another, and contribute content and resources.
How Stories Can Change a System
Storytelling is a major component of the Debt Free Justice campaign, helping the general public to learn more about system-impacted youth and the advocates fighting alongside them. By conveying the real experiences of youth and their families who have been affected by the juvenile justice systems, more people can understand how fines and fees are harmful. The stories also are valuable for advocates to have able to use in their work to make change.
System-impacted individuals sharing their stories is a form of advocacy in itself, and we needed to understand how to effectively engage this group and what they need from advocates and organizations to feel comfortable to get involved. Also, we needed a deeper understanding of what advocates need to be able to do their work more effectively. Debt Free Justice asked us to assist with conducting audience research to help answer these important questions.
We developed surveys that were shared as part of Debt Free Justice’s community listening sessions to gather data and recruit youth and advocates to participate in research interviews. The findings enabled our team to uncover methods to help advocates better connect with Debt Free Justice and how the campaign could better support advocates across the county. Also, the research identified ways to strengthen the bridge between system-impacted youth and advocates, as well as learning how to support youth who want to cross the bridge themselves into advocacy work.
An Ongoing Partnership
We continue to work with Debt Free Justice's content creators to evaluate their analytics across web and social channels, refine their outreach strategies according to those metrics, and assist with data collection and management approaches that help them galvanize support for the campaign. As part of this work, we have identified a series of architecture updates that address the campaign's shifting needs as it evolves. They include a new strategy for state-level profiles and initiative pages that better feature the work happening across the country, as well as adjusting how gated content is exposed to allow advocates who are not yet a part of the campaign understand what is available to them if they join.