All last week, I spent most of my children’s sleeping moments devouring these case studies of social service organizations’ efforts to integrate direct practice and community-building/advocacy/organizing/civic engagement, in pursuit of a seamless, dynamic, progressive organization that both attends to people’s concrete and immediate needs and engages them as actors in pursuit of greater community power. The report is very clear that the organizations selected are not ‘done’ in terms of resolving the myriad issues that arise in this transformation process, nor are they ‘perfect’ examples of how to negotiate these questions. They are, however, really honest and tremendously inspiring glimpses of how weaving advocacy and organizing into social service work can result in a hybrid that is a much stronger force for community/systems change and individual liberation than either a “purely” macro-level approach or an exclusively clinical/individual methodology. Building Movement, and several of the profiled organizations, see advocacy and client involvement as a continuum for organizations, with each social service agency striking its own best balance of these not-so-disparate elements.
I want to go to work for all of them (of course!) and for the Building Movement project that profiled them, but, considering that I don’t think we’re relocating the kids anytime soon, I’ll content myself for now with delighting in this new resource (check out the materials you can download, directly from the organizations–and I’ll be uploading some more of Building Movement’s materials in the weeks to come) and communicating back and forth with these folks as I continue to explore how I can help nonprofit organizations in this area navigate these journeys.
Here are some of my reflections on these five organizations’ stories, some of which represent some new thinking on my part and some of which reinforce my convictions, forged in several years of trying to fit advocacy and organizing into a primarily direct service organization myself.
I would encourage you to read the case studies, or at least a couple of them. Building Movement has also created a discussion guide at the end that asks critical questions: what do social service organizations stand to gain from really engaging their constituents? What skills do staff need to acquire to succeed in this work, and this new way of framing their work? What do organizations need in terms of funding to support the integration of services and organizing? Around what values will you shape your advocacy?
All of these profiled organizations indicated a willingness to help other agencies in their walk towards a fuller engagement of their constituents, and most are actively sharing their progress with their coalitions and other allies–again, not as a model, but as hope and inspiration and a call to action. We can’t look at these examples as “how nice that they’re doing that;” we have to immediately ask what it means for us and for our work and for how we are called to engage the people with whom we have the honor to work.