Crowdsourcing Week: How do you teach advocates history?

It’s summer.

I’m dividing my time between the pool with my 4 kids, shuttling said children to dozens of activities, teaching intense summer courses, and managing my nonprofit consulting responsibilities, which honestly get a little more challenging in the summer, since coordinating with several agencies’ vacation schedules is a bit difficult.

All of which is a long introduction to this week’s theme:


I love crowdsourcing, it is well-established. I love the idea of it, since I believe that people already possess much of what we, collectively, need to know. It’s just a matter of harnessing it.

I love it in practicality, since it is a really terrific way to get good ideas without having to do a lot of work. See above, re: it’s summer.

And I love it here, since I learn something from my readers and our conversations every single day.

So, this week, I’m turning the tables. I don’t have much to bring to these posts. I mostly have my hands out, hoping for some pearls of wisdom.

Just like Ms. Crystal Smith says in the best. podcast. ever: “I appreciate you in advance.”

A few months ago, I read this great article about the women’s suffrage movement. What is so powerful about it is that it isn’t just a history lesson, in the ‘what happened, to whom, and when’ vein. It is, instead, several lessons from history, applied to struggles for social justice today.

But, without the historical context, an article like this would have been just another list of pieces of advocacy advice–helpful, but not with the same weight and resonance. Because the truth is, we need to learn our history, as advocates for social justice, if we are to root our efforts today in the collective wisdom and experiences of movements past.

And yet, I see, with my students and with my colleagues, a relative lack of historical perspective. In some ways, this advocacy ‘amnesia’ reflects the uncritical teaching of history in our formal education system, and the ways in which marginalized voices have been excised from much of the historical record. And it’s also, I think, partly our own faults. It is easy to think that this particular time is so unique that the past cannot possibly hold any truths relevant for today. Especially with the ascendance of technology in organizing, it seems like organizations’ campaigns from a century ago can’t possibly inform our actions tomorrow.

But. We need to learn our history. It is part of who we are, and it shapes the context in which we advocate today. As this year’s inaugural address reminded us, we are still a part of the thread of continual striving for perfection of democracy, a thread that has Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall woven through it.

So, the crowdsourcing.

How do we incorporate social justice history into nonprofit advocacy? Given that I can’t pack up a group of advocates against child abuse, or for ending the stigma of mental illness, or campaigning against hunger, for a semester-long course on movement history, how do we approach their work today with an eye towards yesterday’s victories and defeats? Where do you get inspiration from the past? What are your favorite sources of historical perspective? How do you weave them into your life in small-enough doses to be manageable? What tactics work best, for taking this long view?

How do you teach advocates history, so that we can repeat the lessons we should be learning and avoid the mistakes from which we must have already learned?

What does the crowd say?

2 responses to “Crowdsourcing Week: How do you teach advocates history?

  1. Excellent article. This resonated with me because my BA is in history and I feel helped me as an MSW student when it came to policy and social justice course work. I always felt that Howard Zinn’s, grandfather of US social history, writings would fit in nicely within a social work curriculum.

    • One of our faculty is Howard Zinn’s nephew, and I felt like I was meeting a celebrity when I found that out! It pains me so much when our BSW and MSW students report that they had uninspired history/government courses–such a lost opportunity! Thank you for sharing your experience!

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