More stories to light our path: integrating services and advocacy

I have a new favorite quote. So the first question for this post is, who knows how to make a bumper sticker?

“To do service work without organizing for justice is a form of paternalism. To organize for justice without having a visceral connection to the people can lead to vanity,” Scott Douglass, Greater Birmingham Ministries.

Yeah, what he said.

And the second quote, when does my job at Building Movement start?

Seriously, I took so many notes when reading this (short–I promise!) report that I nearly copied the entire thing. It’s awesome. I’m so excited.

Essentially, it is an effort to profile how organizations around the country are combining direct services and organizing, mostly starting with organizing and layering on services, kind of the “opposite” of some of Building Movement’s other work. I have actually worked with some of the organizations profiled, CASA de Maryland and PCUN, and they are really, totally cool.

Some of the highlights, with my own social work-y reflections:

  • Most of these organizations are using a membership system, with some kind of dues, to establish eligibility for services and form the power base for the organizing work. I know, social workers and paying dues, but, think about it–what better way to eradicate stigma and the whole “charity” thing within our organizations than by making the people we serve full, entitled, ‘members’? Significantly, these organizations also set aside big chunks of Board membership (sometimes the entire Board) for their members, too.
  • Integrating staff who provide these direct services (which, by the way, include transportation, adult education, tutoring, case management, legal advocacy, housing, public benefit help, and job training) and those who organize is key. Um, sound familiar? Most of the organizations accomplish this by conducting joint meetings and cross-training; they emphasize the need for “shared values and critical analysis” and highlight that organizing staff need to be rooted in people’s direct experiences just as direct staff need the political consciousness. I’ve lived that particular divide, and it can be ugly and totally counterproductive. I was thrilled to see them address it, and so ably.
  • Many of these organizations, all of which are 501(c)3s, are also forming (c)4s, so that they can do more lobbying and some, targeted electoral work. This is where we all need to be moving, I believe, especially given the January Supreme Court decision that will likely greatly escalate the corporate influence in politics.
  • While I think that there is still a need for more discussion of the potential for co-optation when organizations engaged in social change work are receiving government money for their direct services, the Building Movement folks do address the issue head on. Some of the organizations are actually becoming providers within the context of privatization, and they view this as a way of asserting control and maintaining accountability to their members. The ED of Casa de Maryland states clearly that they never organize their community around the organization’s own funding, although he also acknowledges a connection that I wish more nonprofits saw: building a strong base enhances the government’s perception of an organization’s power, which can yield increased funding in the right political climate.
  • Finally, in the best endorsement of “case to cause” that I can imagine, some of the organizations discuss their processes for using individuals’ cases as the basis for collective action or even entire organizing campaigns.

    Can you imagine if we had tons of these organizations, scaled to really move on some of the terrible injustices that our clients present to us everyday? And clients who viewed that they have a right to such action because, after all, they’re members of this place,? And organizing staff who spent the morning talking with social workers providing direct services, and social workers who won’t be in the office tomorrow because they’ll be at a mass rally with their organizer colleagues (and some of their clients)?

    Alliance for Change ends with a series of questions to guide our organizations’ evolution towards these goals, and I would LOVE to hear where any of your organizations are along this continuum, and how I can help you as you figure out how and where to move.

    With a nod to my friends at PCUN (They have their own radio station! They’re rock stars!), Sí se puede!

    Alliances For Change Report

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