I have probably put the most time into reflecting on this student advocacy project, both because of my disappointment in how it turned out for these students, but also because of the really powerful lesson that it ended up teaching them (and all of us), albeit somewhat inadvertently.
A group of four students decided to work together with El Centro, Inc. on a Lobby Day for the Latino community, planned for February 2009. Their tasks were to include outreach in advance of the day and a considerable amount of assistance to participants during the Lobby Day, including accompanying people on visits to legislators, developing lobbying materials, registering people for the Latino Policy Network, and serving as resources for those new to the state capitol. These students all had a particular interest in hands-on lobbying, so this was a good fit for them despite a lack of previous experience with the Latino community.
Their contact person at El Centro, Inc. was Kara Lineweber, now the Director of Policy Advocacy (a variation on my old title–the job no longer includes the community research piece that I did nor some of the grassroots organizing). Aside from her role as the students’ host for the advocacy project, Kara and I were in fairly regular communication as the legislative session began, as we were during the 2008 session. Fairly early, concerns arose related to Lobby Day. The other organizations cosponsoring it with El Centro had different ideas about the format and direction for the day, and Kara was justifiably worried that the target participants’ needs were not paramount in the planning. She became more alarmed when it was decided by one of her coalition partners to invite Lance Kinzer, the sponsor of the anti-immigrant legislation in the House, to speak to the assembled group. The rationale was that it would allow people to ask him questions and make him justify his views, but Kara determined (correctly, in my opinion) that it would just give him a stage for his attacks and send the message to these new advocates that, before their voices could be heard, they would have to sit through listening to someone berate and belittle them. After much deliberation (but in a very quick turnaround, due to time pressures), Kara decided to withdraw El Centro, Inc. from the Lobby Day altogether.
These students–Lesa (Patterson-Kinsey), Megan (Endres), Alissa (Shull), and Linda (Siemens) were, of course, panicked. Their entire project revolved around work for this day, and now, while the day still technically existed, they had no role. This, for me, is where the real learning moment occurred. They learned, as graduate students, the very difficult lesson that sometimes doing the right thing for the people we serve runs contrary to our organization’s interests. And that, in those circumstances, the only morally-justifiable thing to do is to side with our clients and figure out how to deal with the fallout.
Scrambling a bit, they ended up helping with the initial phases of the development of the Latino Policy Network, a rather loose database of sorts of people across the state who are interested in policy issues affecting the Latino community. The goal is to enhance communication in order to facilitate a more effective and, ultimately, more powerful, grassroots lobbying effort. It is still in the very early stages and so, as such, the students struggled along with Kara in figuring out the target population, the best vehicles for communication, the right messages to carry. They helped with outreach, data management, and document development. They also worked to try to obtain biographies of Latino members of the legislature but found this totally frustrated by the members’ busy schedules during the session and their lack of prior relationship (both also important lessons).
The way in which this group came together and stuck together was really wonderful, and, in the end, they had some very concrete things to show for their work. But their most important lesson, I believe, was that sometimes what we don’t do, what we give up on, what we’re willing to let go of, is a contribution even more significant than what we do. Those actions speak very loudly, and these students (and Kara and El Centro) told their constituents that they would not go along just to get along. And that’s a message that every aspiring advocate needs to take to heart.