Last week, the Sunflower Foundation Advocacy Fellowship had our session on grassroots organizing. Its inclusion in the year-long advocacy development program is one of my very favorite things about the initiative and, indeed, one of the distinguishing characteristics of the Sunflower Foundation’s approach to nonprofit advocacy.
I love, love, love that the Foundation understands that organized constituencies are our most vital resource, and that the Fellows are encouraged to think critically about how their organizations can meaningfully connect with those they serve, so that, together, they can create the future we so desperately need.
There’s something incredibly hopeful about starting an intense discussion about nonprofit advocacy with a focus on those we serve–and how we can win victories for justice only by releasing their full participation and their latent power. We start with strategies and the tactics that should flow from them, and think about how to organize so that those tactics work. Only after we’ve built plans to engage our grassroots do we turn to legislative advocacy and message development and even organizational capacity-building.
It’s “begin where our clients are”, translated for macro practice and supported by Foundation resources. And that’s pretty awesome.
But it’s one particular moment from last year’s grassroots organizing session that reverberated in my mind during these past several days, making it clear that it had a tremendous effect on me.
And so I’m repeating it here, and figuring out how I might weave it into my work with social service organizations trying to develop grassroots strategies, and with social workers who are struggling to understand why power is so essential to the realization of our visions, and how we can not only get comfortable with it, but, indeed, embrace it and its pursuit.
The trainer was Rudy Lopez, from the Center for Community Change, and the exercise was this:
Rudy had us close our eyes and think about the one person in our lives that we care about the most–the person whom we most can’t stand to think about being harmed. (This is part of the reason that this exchange sticks in my mind, I think, because I immediately thought about my oldest son, and it’s kind of odd that he’d so quickly come to mind, more than my other kids.) He then prompted us to think about something bad happening to that person, which, for me and for others, was a terribly difficult assignment, even for a few hypothetical seconds.
And then the kicker:
Rudy asked us to imagine that we had the power to stop that pain from happening to the special person in our minds. What would we do with that power?
It sounds simple, I know, but what ran through my mind instantly was this, “I need that power, to keep Sam safe.”
And what I didn’t realize, I guess, without the advantage of months of mental simmering, was that this moment catapulted me into not just being comfortable with power but really craving it, for the “right” reason of wanting to help someone else. Yes, it’s on a very personal level, and, yes, maybe it’s easier to relate when it’s a child you love instead of a community of strangers…but maybe not.
The next step, of course, is to build relationships so that we love, even deeply, beyond our more intimate circles. Then, we’ll reach for the power that would let us protect and serve and support them, too.
Because, the truth is, there is real pain threatening those we love, every day.
And we seldom have the power we need to do much about it.
But it doesn’t have to be like that.