I’ve found my people–Building Movement

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.

  • Social workers and other professionals have to confront, and resolve, our discomfort with lay personnel and professional turf, given that authentic constituent engagement is an essential element in initial organizing.
  • Organizations are most successful when they can move beyond only talking about systemic issues within the context of specific action projects; service and justice work should be mutually-reinforcing, and this kind of radical micro practice connects best with where clients’ realities are.
  • Related to this, we can’t wait until people are “better” to organize. The most vibrant constituent organizing efforts alternate between direct service and grassroots leadership development, incorporating support into the work of the core organizing team, and recognizing people’s complexities and layers of strength and need. Minnesota Family and Children Services frames it this way–helping people solve their problems, helping people prevent problems (for themselves and others), and helping people change community conditions. This work happens fluidly.
  • One of the most thought-provoking quotes in the document, for me, came from a neighborhood organization in Queens whose mission statement is to “cultivate the dreams and power of the people.” Staff from that organization articulated a core challenge in this work: how can we be sure that our work does both–helps people to meet their dreams through processes that place the power firmly within their grasp? In our eagerness to help, how often do we sacrifice progress for ownership, and what are the long-term costs in how people see themselves in their communities? How do we increase our comfort with ambiguity and develop structures that not only solicit leadership but institutionalize our willingness to be driven by it?
  • On a less profound but perhaps more urgent matter, many of the organizations reflected some angst around the question, “to what extent should advocacy focus on policies that impact the agency’s bottom line, rather than those more broadly related to the social justice goals of clients?” This is something that I struggled with somewhat at El Centro, Inc., where most of my work did not impact our financial status at all (except negatively, when donors were angered by our controversial stance), but where, with our growing success and reputation, some stakeholders wanted us to leverage those relationships with power players for more help to the agency’s bottom line. What does this do your credibility with allies and targets? If your organization does, in fact, serve justice, is the community not better served as you thrive?
  • Perhaps seen as opposite to this, the Minnesota Children and Families organization profiled stated that they specifically fundraise based on the community’s priorities–basically, they let the organizing work drive the programming work and, therefore, the fundraising for that programming work. Seemingly a dramatic departure, I guess, but wouldn’t it be exciting to a donor to know that an agency was so in touch with its constituents that they were originating all of its substantive work?
  • One of the themes that I have often raised with organizations I have helped to think through an advocacy and organizing practice relates to the structures needed to channel direct staff’s roles in this macro work–advisory committees with real authority, job descriptions and evaluations that include justice goals, a case-to-cause process that funnels client concerns into organizing work, and cross-program organizing that links issues from different areas. Basically, if you only do lip service to direct service staff’s involvement in advocacy, don’t be surprised if they only give you superficial commitment back.
  • The need to root organizing and advocacy efforts in core values was reiterated in several ways, although the organizations certainly do not share a common definition of the value of ‘justice’. But, as some of the executives pointed out, if organizing, advocacy, and community-building are not rooted in this core understanding, they are really just additional programs or methodologies of ‘service’, rather than tools that have the power to fundamentally restructure our society. We need a policy agenda and a new way of thinking about our clients, not just improvement projects that give clients work to do.

    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.

  • 2 responses to “I’ve found my people–Building Movement

    1. Thanks for sharing this, Melinda! I’m going to check it out now. Reminds me of things I wrestle with putting into practice from my exposure to participatory action research.

    2. Pingback: RISE Round-up: Urban Ag, the Gates arrest, Building Movement, and more « RISE: Social Work in an Era of Change

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