Civic Engagement in Social Services

In pulling together materials that highlight the integration of social services and advocacy/civic engagement, it occurred to me that I have never shared an analysis of El Centro, Inc’s work in this area through the New Voices at the Civic Table project. I found the report in my files and wanted to share it.

I take some issue with how our work is characterized, but, in the whole, I think that this provides some good additional inspirations for social service organizations seeking to layer organizing and advocacy work into their direct practice. Our work is described as mobilization, which they define as bringing large numbers of constituents together around specific policy priorities or shared interests, which they further contrast with organizing efforts, somewhat puzzlingly defined as including the use of a structured curriculum. I obviously don’t agree that organizing = leadership training, and I further believe that some of the work was organizing; a pure mobilization effort would not have yielded the core group of leaders that animated much of our subsequent mobilization work. In the whole, I remember that the discussion revolved too much around the idea of leadership curricula for my comfort. It makes me wonder if that’s still a focus of their work.

Still, the process of having our leaders interviewed by New Voices staff, receiving a small ($10,000, if I remember correctly–I can’t find the exact dollar amount in my files) grant to build our capacity in this area (it paid for transporting people to rallies, conducting skills trainings with leaders, hosting large community town halls, and other tangible advocacy and organizing costs), and connecting with other organizations engaged in similar work was very valuable. I wish that all social service organizations seeking to make this same ‘leap’ had that kind of support from external bodies.

The report has some very valuable content, too, which makes me sorry that it hasn’t occurred to me to share it earlier! I like the way that they include many voices from participants (here mostly called ‘constituents’) and that they work to give shape to a sort of theory of civic engagement within the social service context. And, perhaps most valuable of all, the New Voices project was one of the first voices calling for attention to this idea that social service organizations can and should play a leading role in engaging marginalized communities in their democracy, in altering political conversations about the issues that most affect those communities, and, in the process, in reshaping the relationship between ‘server’ and ‘served’ within nonprofit human services.

I am proud to have been a part of that effort, and it’s also instructive to look back at the report today, thinking about how El Centro’s work changed even in the several months between the publication of this report and my leaving, and also in light of what I now study and know about this larger movement towards integrating services and organizing, towards seeing that point of service as a catalyst for transformation of a more political, collective sort, and towards viewing that process as an opportunity to transform our sector at the same time.

I’d love to hear what you think, and I’d especially appreciate hearing from anyone who’s involved in this kind of work now, regarding the state of the field today and how case studies like this are helpful (or not!).

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