Finding hope in the darkness may be Taylor Maxwell’s greatest strength. Galvanized by the Sandy Hook shooting, she has worked to end gun violence for the past decade. Taylor now works to change the narrative around guns and gun culture as Director of Marketing and Communications for Project Unloaded. Hear from this passionate nonprofit communicator who will not stop until the job is done.
Taylor Maxwell is Director of Marketing and Communications at Project Unloaded. At Project Unloaded, Taylor works closely on the organizations’ culture change campaigns and drives its media and branding strategy. Taylor began working in gun violence prevention six months after the Sandy Hook shooting, eventually becoming communications director for Moms Demand Action and Students Demand Action. She’s worked on a host of political and cultural change campaigns related to ending gun violence. She’s served as a spokesperson for gun safety campaigns in outlets ranging from Associated Press to Keeping Up with the Kardashians and has trained hundreds of volunteers, gun violence survivors and experts on how to engage with press and public speaking. Her writing has appeared in outlets including the New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today and more.
[00:00:29] Brian Crawford: Today I’m excited to welcome Taylor Maxwell to the Create Good Podcast and she was nice enough to do our webinars back during the “hot times” of the Pandemic, and so we’re having her back for the podcast. Welcome.
[00:00:45] Taylor Maxwell: Thank you. Glad to be here.
[00:00:47] Brian Crawford: So first question can you tell me a little bit about yourself? How did you get into nonprofits and communications in particular?
[00:00:55] Taylor Maxwell: So I started out trying to figure out the right path. I, I thought I was going to go into a for-profit career after college and ended up going to Burning Man that fall instead. Lovely, lovely fall. But the result of that was that I ended up moving to New York, trying to figure out what to do next after college and ended up interviewing at a firm called Berlin Rosen, which is one of the — now one of the biggest, progressive PR firms in the country.
[00:01:24] At the time it was 50 people. I interviewed, they liked me, but not enough told me to keep calling and so I called every week until they hired me. And that is how I, I started doing nonprofit PR. Since then I’ve held a lot of different roles, so I worked on a lot of different clients in the progressive communications sphere early on for digital work, but also for earned media.
[00:01:49] Went to every town for gun safety, was there for many years. Now I am at a very new organization working to change gun culture through working primarily with teenagers. So a different version of a problem that I’ve spent a lot of my career working on, which is exciting and, and challenging and gets my brain going every day.
[00:02:10] So that’s where I am now.
[00:02:13] Brian Crawford: Awesome. Yeah so, all in all, how long have you been in the nonprofit world?
[00:02:17] Taylor Maxwell: A decade. A little over a decade. Yes.
[00:02:20] Brian Crawford: It’s always amazing when you reflect back and you’re like, God, it’s been that long? What?
[00:02:24] Taylor Maxwell: Yes, yes, it is. Yeah. I will be coming up on a decade of involvement, specifically in gun violence prevention in about May. So that’ll be, it’s a marker in my head for where I am and how far we still have to go.
[00:02:40] Brian Crawford: Yeah. Speaking of that you had mentioned calling the the PR firm — your persistence. How would you say that persistence applies to what you’re doing now and you know specifically this, the gun violence and the gun safety work you’re doing?
[00:02:55] Taylor Maxwell: When I was in college for…a lot of reasons of it just being the easiest thing to get into, I took on a lot of fundraising roles for political campaigns. Which means I spent a lot of summers with giant call sheets and every day I was just calling through people who didn’t know me and 90, 95% of the time they were telling me no.
[00:03:17] That was a really useful experience because it meant that when my career turned into, “Okay, you need to call an assignment editor at a local TV station,” they’re probably gonna tell you no. I was very comfortable being told no, and I was also very comfortable learning how to push back, learning how to make note of the people’s names so that next time I would call them, I would have a better chance, right?
[00:03:41] All of those sort of little things that applied to the fundraising work I did in college ended up really applicable to the communications work I did after college. The other thing I did early on that I think really shifted who I am in the work that I do is I went through a two to three year program in improv when I lived in New York. And learning how to do improv, get up on stage, basically taught me to figure out, okay, what is the unusual thing and what is most likely to come next from this unusual thing? Right?
[00:04:15] And that’s really what the news is, is identifying what’s going to be the next news hook? So how can I insert the work that I’m trying to elevate into it? And being able to sense that and use that skillset, I think has been really valuable in, in the work that I do.
[00:04:31] Brian Crawford: That’s really cool. It’s not often you hear improv in the nonprofit world, you know?
[00:04:37] Taylor Maxwell: Comedy makes a huge difference in learning that skillset is, is so relevant to what we do.
[00:04:42] Brian Crawford: Kind of being able to pivot.
[00:04:43] Taylor Maxwell: Mm-hmm.
[00:04:45] Brian Crawford: Looking ahead, you know, it’s, this is, as we’re recording, it’s middle of January, 2023. Right? This is always kind of the big time for little bit of reflection on the year that’s passed, but also, you know, what’s coming up. So with with that being said, like what do you think’s the biggest challenges facing communicators say this year, next year?
[00:05:05] I feel like we have to like really make our chunk to time short these days. You know, I’m not sure if very many people are thinking five, 10 years out right now, but yeah. So what do you think gets the biggest challenge?
[00:05:17] Taylor Maxwell: So the thing that scares me the most is how information and, and getting new information has really shifted. So people are, are much more likely to, to trust their next door neighbor than they are an expert with a doctorate and what they’re talking about. Right? And, and that makes sense and has always been true.
[00:05:36] But in today’s media environment, what that means is that it’s much more difficult to create the type of groundswell moment that you need to cause political change or cultural change. So that fragmenting of information fragmenting of where we get our facts and, and what we believe I think is, is really dangerous and has really shifted the industry in the last 10 years.
[00:05:58] I used to pitch outlets that I would, would no longer really pitch very often because the tone has just changed so much. That’s a, a hard thing to, to deal with when you do want to really reach people across the aisle. You want to reach people who are interested in keeping their kids safe wherever they get the news, which is my goal.
[00:06:19] And that has gotten more difficult in the past few years and I think will continue to get more difficult.
[00:06:24] Brian Crawford: So in that pitching certain places, are you seeing that more as like a kind of a, a hardening of positions or kind of a hardening of you know, their stance on certain things so they’re not open to anything? Or is there another reason for that?
[00:06:38] Taylor Maxwell: I think it’s the storylines that people want to hear are what people want to sell them, right? And so it’s more difficult to — so for the work I do now, for example, our whole role and the reason we exist is to take on a myth. 20 years ago, most people believed that having a gun made them less safe. Household gun ownership was on the decline.
[00:07:03] Today, most people believe that having a gun makes them safer, and that’s the number one reason people buy guns. It’s also one of the reasons that gun violence is now the largest killer of children and teens in the US. So my job is to take on that myth through the work I’m doing, the Project Unloaded.
[00:07:21] To do that, we need to think about A) who is reachable, right? Who, who is going to be willing to listen to the facts and shift their views based on a lot of data that exists to show that guns make us less safe? And where can that story be told? Right? And so what we’ve learned is that really, it’s hard to get adults to change their views on anything. They’re unlikely to change their coffee order, much less their views on guns. And so our work is really geared towards reaching young people before they’ve made up their minds. And to do that, it’s largely on social media which is always — has always been part of communication since I’ve been involved in this world, but not to the degree that it is now.
[00:08:02] So a lot of the work that I do now is, is thinking about what will this look like on TikTok? What will this look like on Instagram or on YouTube and bringing in platforms that aren’t traditional media, but maybe where persuadable audiences now exist.
[00:08:17] Brian Crawford: That’s interesting. You, you’re really trying to change the narrative or kind of seed a new narrative there. If you don’t mind sharing, what’s the sort of model, like what’s the horizon, right? Like what you’re doing today will have impacts in a year, two years, five years?
[00:08:35] Taylor Maxwell: Yeah. The, the goal is to, is to shift views and in doing so save lives, right? So if fewer people believed the myth that guns made them safer, which we’ve seen that when we put out to young people, the, the basic facts of gun risks through those mediums like TikTok, like Snapchat, and using influencer voices that they may trust, we’re able to reach them in in a way that doesn’t turn them off. That doesn’t make it feel like too much of a hot topic to pay attention, right?
[00:09:08] And we see about between 15 and 20% of young people shift their views through exposure to the facts. That’s not something you see in adult audiences, right? Like 15% of adults are not going to change their views based on the facts for most issues, particularly something that’s as deeply ingrained as the one that I work on.
[00:09:28] So, going to young people, being able to have that conversation directly on platforms where they are really comfortable, and where they are used to getting a lot of the information that influences them has been an effective tactic.
[00:09:41] Brian Crawford: That’s really interesting. I was listening to another, a different podcast the other day and they were talking about how teens — I guess you know, maybe Gen Z, if we’re gonna put a big label on it — are really even more information seeking and a little more critical, like I, it feels like maybe some of that media literacy, critical eye stuff is sinking in a bit and that they don’t necessarily believe the first thing they read.
[00:10:08] Taylor Maxwell: Right.
[00:10:09] Brian Crawford: Or the first — know, they kind of question a lot of stuff, so it’s very interesting. Yeah.
[00:10:13] Taylor Maxwell: It’s certainly about hearing the message over and over and having the facts to back it up. But with that combination, then they are willing to shift their views.
[00:10:23] Brian Crawford: So obviously gun violence and the gun safety area is highly fraught. Especially if you dive into any online spaces. So how do you avoid burnout? How do you not check out and just run away? Like how do you keep with it, especially, you know, nearly a decade in?
[00:10:46] Taylor Maxwell: Yeah, it’s a great question and I’ve definitely had moments where I’ve felt really burnt out doing this work. My husband used to talk about my vacation personality being different than my normal personality because I just got so much goofier when I got away from the work. I don’t think that’s the case anymore.
[00:11:04] And, and it’s in part because t he work that I’m doing now is really exciting and making a difference. I’ve spent a lot of time working on political solutions to this issue, and a lot of people have, and it’s so important for people to do that work.
[00:11:18] In doing this work through a culture lens, there’s this whole other avenue of creativity that opens up and approaching a problem that I’ve spent so much time working on in a way that is, is new and fresh and data-backed is really exciting and, and keeps me going. I also have gotten a lot better at boundaries. I’m much better at taking my dogs out when I need to take a break.
[00:11:45] I am much better at being aware of when there’s a rapid response moment, and something really awful has happened, how that’s going to affect me and how I can kind of know how it’ll affect me and see that as it happens. I think that’s really helpful. And then the other thing I would say is that it’s hard to get fully burnt out on this issue or want to give up working on this issue when I work so closely with gun violence survivors who will always be part of this work, right? And so if they can’t quit it, it feels like, why should I?
[00:12:20] Brian Crawford: So, I saw — Oof, I listened to another podcast with you, and I’m blanking on the name, so I apologize for whoever made the podcast. But it was about — part of it was about talking to people, talking to your family, talking to friends who maybe are on the other side. And I was curious…you know, we’ve just left holiday season and family gatherings and all of that entails. So for anyone who may have struggled with kind of quote unquote “the conversation” do you have any tips? Do you have any thoughts on maybe making next Thanksgiving and next holiday season better?
[00:13:00] Taylor Maxwell: My biggest tip would just be to think about if this is really a conversation that can go somewhere because sometimes it can’t. Right? Sometimes your uncle who holds certain views is always going to hold those views, right? And there’s not a lot you can do about it.
[00:13:17] And the emotional energy of trying to shift that person’s view just really not — might not be worth it. Right? That might be a lot on the person trying to help them, and it might not be worth it. Right? So that would be my first advice is think about who you’re having those conversations with and if it’s really worth the energy that you’re investing in it.
[00:13:36] The other piece, which I think is, is broader communications advice in general is shared values are really important to why we do this work. Right? The work that I do is about keeping kids safe, keeping families safe, keeping loved ones alive. We all want that, right? We all want our loved ones to be healthy and safe and protected in this world.
[00:13:57] That is a really hard thing to actually get done, and it doesn’t work out that way for a lot of people. But we all want that. And so when you start a conversation with that value that is, why you do the work. And you can ground the conversation and: “Look, I really care about this issue because I’m worried about gun violence being the number one killer of children and teens in the US. I want my kids to be safe in our communities, in our playgrounds and school, all of those places.” Right? So when you ground the conversation in those shared values, it tends to change the tone of it in a way that is helpful to have a meaningful dialogue.
[00:14:36] But again, I mean, don’t have a dialogue with someone is who isn’t persuadable. It’s not worth it. It’s gonna hurt your relationship with that person. Just decide if you want them in their house and maybe ask them if they are bringing a gun to Thanksgiving dinner.
[00:14:51] Brian Crawford: Yes. That’s — that is a good question. Yeah, I think that’s, that’s a good one too for people to think about is I think sometimes we get very caught up and very excited and very fired up and we don’t stop to sometimes think about, “Is this a conversation worth having?”
[00:15:09] Taylor Maxwell: Yeah.
[00:15:10] Is it worth having? And, and what is the, like, how exhausting is it for the person who’s trying to have that conversation? Right? Is it going to ruin your evening if it doesn’t go well? Can you be at that table comfortably without having that conversation? And if the answer is no, maybe don’t be at that table to, to start with, right?
[00:15:29] Brian Crawford: That’s true.
[00:16:08] Brian Crawford: Okay. So moving on kind of different direction here. So you’ve been in communications for a while. I was curious if you have any kind of a communications hack or tip or anything that maybe — maybe was an aha moment for you at some point.
[00:16:23] Taylor Maxwell: Yes. So one thing that comes to mind is if you are writing a quote or writing an opinion piece, essay, any of that cut your first paragraph. If you are writing a quote, cut your first sentence. Everything you put before like the, said so and so in the middle of a quote, cut everything that comes before that.
[00:16:44] It’s most likely fluff. It’s most likely just you’re getting your ideas out and not the, the meat of what you want to say. And same thing with essays, right? It is often the case that everyone has to get some sort of flow going before they say the thing that matters. And so getting those things to be at the top of your quote, getting those things to be at the top of your essay is going to help pieces pop, and that means that you likely have to cut your beautiful first sentence or beautiful first paragraph that you feel so proud of.
[00:17:14] So don’t be afraid to cut the the things you like best to get your main point to be clearer.
[00:17:21] Brian Crawford: That’s great. I love it. That’s such a English or journalism thought. Did you go to J School or anything?
[00:17:28] Taylor Maxwell: I didn’t I learned from a lot of editors and I think I really benefited from working with — particularly when I was at firms — I was working with a lot of folks who had been journalists and then came over to do nonprofit communications work as well. And that was such a useful experience and frankly, being rejected having opinion pieces I’d written for, for other folks be rejected and having editors say why they were rejecting them is also a really valuable experience.
[00:17:59] Brian Crawford: Yeah, it’s something we do too. It’s like, cool, this is great. Make it shorter.
[00:18:03] Taylor Maxwell: Yeah. Right.
[00:18:05] Brian Crawford: Okay, so along these lines, for someone who’s maybe new starting out in nonprofits or moving over, coming from corporate do you have any advice for them?
[00:18:14] Taylor Maxwell: Relevant to what you just asked me, my advice would be don’t go to grad school for communications. I do not think it is a useful investment for most people because the most important thing is going to be the connections you build in doing this work and the experience you get from the hands-on work itself. Right?
[00:18:35] So it is much more valuable to do internships. Say yes to, the roles that you can get, say yes to volunteer work, if you can fit that into your life. Whatever you can do to get real world experience is going to be much more pitchable to get you into the job that you want to do than school experience that may not teach you how to build a press list, right?
[00:19:00] There’s, there’s gonna be basic things of just how to read the news, that you learn from doing this work that will stay with you and help you continue to grow.
[00:19:10] Brian Crawford: Absolutely. Yes. Just gotta get in, get dirty.
[00:19:15] Taylor Maxwell: Yeah. To have to do the work. Yeah.
[00:19:18] Brian Crawford: Alright, I got a few questions before we get to our rapid fire section. So what what keeps you up at night? This could be literal, could be kids, but it could also be big issues, could be work, it could be whatever, but what keeps you up at night?
[00:19:33] Taylor Maxwell: Yeah, I think it’s both, right? I am, you’re talking to me when I’m very pregnant. So part of what keeps me up at night is the fact that I’m very pregnant. And I worry a lot about keeping my kids safe. I, worry a lot about the world that they will inherit, right? And so the thing that that drives me to do the work that I do now, probably all the work that I do in the future, is that simple question, right? Of how can we build a world that is safer for, for my kids, but my kids are gonna come in with a fair amount of privilege, right? And so how can we make the world safer for them, but also kids who, who have less privilege than they do, and how can we make it a sustainable planet for them to live on for a long time to come?
[00:20:18] So that keeps me up and also my to-do list , but I’m trying to get better at the, the to-do list part.
[00:20:23] Brian Crawford: And then what gives you hope?
[00:20:27] Taylor Maxwell: The thing that gives me hope more than anything else is, is actually being in the room with people taking early steps into activism or speaking out and using their voice. So about two weeks ago I was in Houston with the Project Unloaded Youth Council, and they were meeting for the first time.
[00:20:46] And these were all teenagers. They, some of them are gun violence survivors. A lot of them just care about this issue because it’s something that’s been scaring them or on their mind for years. They’d never met before in person. Within 24 hours, they’d formed a group chat and removed the adults. They had made plans for how they would use their time in the next six months to change gun culture.
[00:21:08] They’d brainstormed big ideas. They’d given us little nuanced feedback that I think will be really effective and helpful for us to implement. That sort of work, right, of the, the bravery of a 15-year-old willing to fly halfway across the country to sit in a room of strangers and talk about their ideas and their views on this issue is so humbling to me.
[00:21:30] Like the, the strength that that takes, the bravery that takes that teenagers have is really humbling. And I’ve seen that in the work that I do now. I’ve also seen that when I was working really closely at Mom’s Demand Action with volunteers, and I would go to Arkansas and watch women take off from their jobs to stand up to the gun lobby in hearings that most likely weren’t going to go their way.
[00:21:56] And, and that type of bravery is so inspiring and gives me hope for the future.
[00:22:02] Brian Crawford: That’s great. That’s fantastic. Oh, man. Yeah, I know. We, we do some work with kids, you know, off and on you know, over our 12, 13 year history now. And it’s always so inspiring to see, you know, that — I think you put a great, the, their bravery right, and their activism. It’s amazing.
[00:22:24] Taylor Maxwell: Yeah.
[00:22:25] Brian Crawford: I have one more question before we get to our rapid fire.
[00:22:29] So this is a big one. So if you’ve thought about it, when it’s all said and done, what would you want your legacy to be? What do you want to achieve?
[00:22:40] Taylor Maxwell: The word that comes to mind is kindness. I really care about creating a kinder, gentler world. And I think that means one where people are listening to each other and understanding that they’re coming from different backgrounds and different experiences, and the latter of success isn’t set up the same for everyone, right?
[00:23:05] And helping people understand that I think is really important. But mostly I think it’s about, it’s about that big question, right? Of how do we build a world that is safer for everyone? And that will probably continue to drive me because it, it did before I was a mom, and now that I’m a mom, the timeline and the way that I think about change has, has shifted and gotten a little bit more long term.
[00:23:36] So it’ll certainly stay on my mind.
[00:23:38] Brian Crawford: Rapid fire question section. So this one, as much as you can, one word phrase, that sort of thing. All right. What’s your favorite word?
[00:23:49] Taylor Maxwell: Uh, story.
[00:23:51] Brian Crawford: Nice. What’s your least favorite word?
[00:23:55] Taylor Maxwell: Unspeakable. I am very tired of hearing that any tragedy is unspeakable. We have to talk about the awful things that happen in the world to make them better. I am so done with unspeakable.
[00:24:07] Brian Crawford: Oh, that’s great. Yeah. I’d say along those lines, the, the phrases, “this is not us,” or something to that effect is another one where I was like, “oh, come on.”
[00:24:17] Taylor Maxwell: Mm-hmm.
[00:24:18] Brian Crawford: What’s your favorite cuss word?
[00:24:22] Taylor Maxwell: I am trying to not curse as much as I did when I worked in politics. Now that I have a, a toddler who is repeating everything. I do have an appreciation for the F word when it is appropriate. Which is…it sometimes is, but I’m trying to moderate that given the toddler presence.
[00:24:39] Brian Crawford: That’s a good point. Former political operative here. Yeah I — yeah, that’s right.
[00:24:45] Taylor Maxwell: Yeah. The language you learn to use in an office filled with politics is very different than most other places.
[00:24:51] Brian Crawford: The full gamut.
[00:24:53] Taylor Maxwell: Mm-hmm.
[00:24:53] Brian Crawford: And who else would you like to hear on this podcast?
[00:24:57] Taylor Maxwell: So the thing that always interests me most is state-level activism, fighting tough fights. Right? There’s a lot that we can do at big national level organizations, but the, the truth is that most of it gets done at the local level. And so folks who have won local fights in tough spots or, you know, use creativity to solve a problem locally, I think is so important.
[00:25:22] And those of us who work at national-level organizations, those that work at state-level or local-level, all benefit from that type of ingenuity that’s out there.
[00:25:31] Brian Crawford: And lastly, what’s something you think people don’t understand about the gun issue?
[00:25:37] Taylor Maxwell: The, the big one, is the, the issue that I work on, right? That most people believe the myth that a gun makes them safer. And that’s just not true. We know that households with guns have more homicides, more suicides, more unintentional shootings. So that’s the big one. Right? But I think the other thing is that people don’t believe that this issue is solvable anymore.
[00:25:55] It’s really easy after tragedy and tragedy that you just can’t imagine that worse things could happen, right? It’s really easy to believe that this problem doesn’t have a solution, that it will always be with us. That it is — gun culture is a, a part of American culture that can’t change, and that’s just not true.
[00:26:14] Gun culture has changed dramatically in the last 20 years. It can change again, and, and we have to believe that to be able to do this work, and continue to make progress on it. A lot of people don’t. They’re just resigned to the idea that this is a problem. It’s part of America. It doesn’t have to be. And if we approach it with that mindset there, there’s a lot of data to back it up and, and show that we really can make a difference in this fight.
[00:26:40] Brian Crawford: That was fantastic. That, if nothing else, gave me a lot of hope for the future. So thank you for that. And thank you Taylor —
[00:26:49] Taylor Maxwell: I’m glad! I like to be a source of hope.
[00:26:51] Brian Crawford: And thank you Taylor for — yes. And thanks for being on. I really appreciate it. You always have this like quiet passion about you. I really appreciate. I know you’re like, you’re very knowledgeable, but you always like, you’re ready.
[00:27:08] You’re ready to dig in at any moment. So I love it.
[00:27:11] Taylor Maxwell: Thank you. I appreciate that. It’s been enjoyable talking to you, so thanks for doing this.