This is the first in a series of posts about my students’ organizing and advocacy projects this semester. They have graciously given me permission to post about their activities, their reported learning, and my response to their projects, and I am very grateful. I hope that these summaries might be helpful to other faculty engaged in the supervision of similar advocacy/organizing projects, to students contemplating how to weave together action and academics, and to practitioners who are considering utilizing student activists in their work. Students, PLEASE comment to correct any mischaracterizations on my part and/or to add your own analysis. I appreciate so much your openness to the learning experiences this past semester and your generosity in sharing your stories. You are a tremendous group of people!
I’m starting in no particular order, but I think everyone will agree that this first project was truly stellar. I was very excited about this project even before the semester started because I have very high regard for the host organization, Interhab, and their advocacy. They consistently involve constituents in very meaningful ways and, while they have not always been successful in advancing their ambitious legislative agenda of increased funding for services for those with developmental disabilities, they are absolutely always on the agenda, due to their lobbying, organizing, and media work, and that is no small feat.
The students’ experience ended up even more rewarding, I think, than I had dared to hope. Interhab involved the group of 5 students in their Invisible Kansans campaign, and they had opportunities to participate in event organizing, direct campus/peer organizing, policy research, and messaging work. They were also able to observe Interhab’s truly cutting-edge work related to paid advertising, lobbying, emerging technologies, and constituent empowerment. (You should seriously check out their website, because their use of YouTube videos and Facebook and consumer testimonials is really outstanding). Some of the students’ specific activities included:
The students expressed some challenges, particularly related to distance (Interhab is about an hour away from the campus where these students have class) and to some communication difficulties, particularly as their primary contact at Interhab (Matt Fletcher–a great person to know if you want to learn about how to mobilize and do media work, particularly) was extremely busy during the legislative session. They also missed Interhab’s Lobby Day, because it was very early in the session. In all, though, it was a pretty smooth collaboration, and the students identified a few key learnings that I think apply to other students engaging in advocacy for the first time, too:
At the end of the semester, HB2094 still hadn’t even been voted out of the House Appropriations Committee, evidence that even stellar organizing does not guarantee legislative progress, particularly in a budget year like this one. While the students were frustrated by this, they also felt that they had been able to see some steps in the process through to completion, which helped their overall feelings of accomplishment. As their instructor, one of my biggest learnings here was that it is important to choose projects not just based on my relationships (I had really had very little interaction with Interhab before) but primarily based on the organization’s own track record for advocacy and organizing. Interhab provided the students with a superior experience, and I have built some new contacts that will help other students in the future. I also think it’s important to provide some of the context for organizing and advocacy work in class, since the ‘big picture’ easily gets lost in the field when students and their hosts are busy moving towards a set of goals.
The students involved in this project were: Adam Timberlake, Susila Gabbert, Anna Giles, Anna Gude, and Alicia Jones. What questions do you have for them? Or for me? Students, what did I leave out, or what do you want to say about your experience this semester? Interhab folks, is there anything that you want to add?