Category Archives: Inspiration and Examples

Always worth a try

In Kansas these days, there’s a lot of resignation.

Our tax system has been denounced from all corners as the worst in the nation.

Nonprofit advocates perceive swift retribution from the Administration when they criticize state policy actions.

Our Attorney General has requested more than $1 million in supplemental appropriations to finance the defense of the unconstitutional bills (opting out of federal gun laws, anyone?) passed by the legislature last session.

I have heard more than a few times in the past few months:

“What’s the use?”

And, you know, I get it.

We have really important work to do, helping kids get ready for kindergarten and seniors find housing and parents get back to work.

If advocacy increasingly feels like yelling into the wind, maybe it’s a waste of our (very) precious time.

Until I read Auschwitz: A New History this summer and figured out that we have a lot to learn about seemingly-hopeless situations and how they aren’t, after all, so hopeless.

The book included several examples (see, for example, p. 139) of when Nazis were vulnerable to public protest, which begs the question: if more people and more governments had protested deportations and decried cruel treatment of Jews, what would have happened?

What are we missing out on, because we have convinced ourselves that it’s foolish to even try?

The book also relates stories of those who protested their own role in the killing but were seldom punished, reminding us that we often exaggerate the negative consequences for ourselves and minimize the likelihood of our advocacy success.

Again, if those lessons are true even in one of the darkest periods in all of human history, surely it’s true today, when what we’re dealing with is a failed economic policy and zealously ideological policymakers.

Righting wrongs is always, always worth a try.

And even yelling into the wind is better than nothing.

If it’s true in the shadow of Auschwitz, it’s true everywhere.

Fearlessness and Humility: Assets in Inquiry and Advocacy

Just when you thought you were done with cholera.

Almost, I promise.

There is one more passage, describing the way that Dr. John Snow worked, that I just really want to share. I’ll quote it at some length:

“Here we have a man who had reached the very pinnacle of Victorian medial practice–attending on the queen of England with a procedure that he himself had pioneered–who was nonetheless willing to spend every spare moment away from his practice knocking on hundreds of doors in some of London’s most dangerous neighborhoods, seeking out specifically those houses that had been attacked by the most dread disease of the age. But without that tenacity, that fearlessness, without that readiness to leave behind the safety of professional success and royal patronage, and venture into the streets, his “grand experiment”…would have gone nowhere” (p. 108).

I spend quite a bit of time reflecting on what makes advocates succeed, sometimes because I’m looking for inspiration to share, and sometimes in the hope that there are specific pieces of advice to pass on.

And while I think that tenacity is widely-regarded as an essential quality in an advocate, because we suffer so many more setbacks than victories, these other aspects of Snow–his fearlessness and his willingness to disregard and even endanger the professional reputation he had built–were just as important. For him, and for us.

Most of the time, our advocacy requires that we convince people to do something different, or at least differently. That means that we have to be willing to be wrong, even spectacularly so, or else we’re probably not reaching far enough. We have to ask questions to which we don’t know the answers. We have to be willing to reach beyond the realm of what we know we do well–direct service, program administration, supervision–and do something that we fear we might not be as good at, because that’s where we are needed.

We have to be not just tenacious, which could be accomplished by doing the same thing over and over again, but also fearless, ready to take on bigger risks or try less-sure things. We have to be fearless for our own sake and also for those we hope to inspire; Snow only got other public health leaders to investigate cholera at its source by first going in himself.

What else would you add to the list of imperative advocate characteristics? What does fearlessness and humility look like in your social change work?

Just for inspiration

It’s spring break. I’m actually writing this in advance, before I leave for 10 days of travel with my family (yes, we always take trips together; no, it’s not really relaxing, but if your six-year-old was as enamored of the National Park System as mine is, you couldn’t bear to ever leave him behind, either) to the Grand Canyon and points in between, including a rented RV (the twins’ dream, because they love fold-out beds).

So this is an intentionally uplifting post, even though it’s still pulled from inspiration from A Problem from Hell, and even though genocide is certainly the world’s least inspiring topic, under most circumstances.

But two of the most enduring portraits from the book, that I still think of pretty frequently, especially during this legislative session, are those of an advocate and an elected official, both using their respective roles and talents to combat one of the world’s greatest evils.

The author provides these two incredibly compelling images. First, Raphael Lemkin lobbying at the United Nations, and at the Nuremberg trials, working night and day to convince world powers of the need to specifically commit themselves to eradicating genocide. Those who saw him in that capacity “…recall the horror of many a correspondent and diplomat when the wild-eyed professor with steel-rimmed glasses and a relentless appetite for rejection began sprinting after them in the corridors, saying, “You and I, we must change the world”” (p. 51). Apparently, many UN delegates would eventually agree to vote for the genocide convention simply to stop Lemkin from cornering them for a long recitation of horror stories of genocide from history, in his attempts to persuade.

He was derided by many, who said that he was “doing his own cause harm” by not following supposed protocol…essentially, for believing that genocide was so horrific as to deserve priority attention, and refusing to bow to others’ protestations that he was moving too fast, or expecting too much, or being ‘uncouth’ in his insistence that others join him in this crusade.

After the UN adopted the genocide convention (but, of course, long before U.S. ratification), Lemkin was described in the New York Times as “that exceedingly patient and totally unofficial man” (p. 76).

We have similar, ‘unofficial’ advocates working for justice today–in environmental defense, anti-poverty policy, child welfare, and mental health–and their faithful witness to our collective failures is an indispensable part of the campaign for a better tomorrow.

Can anyone think of a better way to be remembered, than as a completely unreasonable champion of the greatest good?

The other profile is of a very different man, who nonetheless relief on similar tenacity and single-mindedness to leave a mark on public policy. Senator William Proxmire gave 3,211 speeches in the Senate every workday over 19 years urging ratification of the UN genocide convention. He used his speeches to educate and exhort, and his legacy is testimony to the fact that not all elected officials are just in it for power and prestige.

Politics is still an arena of social change and social action, and I need reminding of that about now, every year.

Proxmire spoke compellingly about the Cambodian genocide, using vivid language to make real the terror that Americans largely could not comprehend. He did it not because any of his constituents were demanding it, or because any interest group pressured him. Indeed, he ultimately lost his seat to a challenger who argued that he should spend more time working for the people of his state than for those whose lives were in danger around the world. He did it because it was right, and because he had the opportunity to use his position for good.

When the convention was finally ratified, Senator Patrick Moynihan said, “…I would like to salute the Senator, and say to him that he has enlarged the quality of this body, and certainly has made this Senator prouder still to be a member of it” (p. 167).

As a nonprofit lobbyist, I have often joked with elected officials that the only thing I can offer them (nonprofits aren’t much in for free concert tickets or fancy dinners out) is the satisfaction that comes from knowing they’re on the right side of history, and the opportunity to do a great thing.

Senator Proxmire serves as a reminder that, for some policymakers, that’s a powerful incentive, indeed.

If anyone has any other inspiring stories to share, of advocates or elected officials, in particular, whose stories have moved you, I’ll have Internet service at least sporadically in the mountains and the canyons, and I would love to be uplifted as I prepare to return.

We can all use a little inspiration.

What would it take to make ‘never’ mean ‘never’?

It has become a sort of ritual, I think, judging by past year’s content here.

I spend all of Christmas break reading what I don’t have time to read during the school year (this year, genocide and the American South in the cotton economy and global conflict and the Renaissance), and, then, around March, I get around to going back through the sticky notes that I stuck in the pages I wanted to remember…and I pull out some insights that I want to share here.

And you humor me, which I really appreciate.

The book that occupied most of my time over Christmas break (and, based on the posts I’ve started to sketch out for the coming weeks, will appear in various form here for awhile), is A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide.

I know, I really let loose on break, hunh?

I’m starting, here, with what I guess should be the end. Because, really, you can only deal with this kind of history by resolving:

Never again.

But, yet…

The book begins with the story of one girl killed in the Bosnian “ethnic cleansing” (word we use because it sounds less horrible than genocide–more on that soon), but, shortly after, has this quote. Jimmy Carter said in 1979, “we must forge an unshakable oath with all civilized people that never again will the world stand silent, never again will the world fail to act in time to prevent this terrible crime of genocide” (p. xxi).

It’s not giving away the rest of the book to state the obvious.

Of course, we did.

And so that’s my main question, from all 500+ pages, many of which have horrific narrative (I also read a novel about the Cambodian genocide, specifically, so, you know, I do fiction, too).

Since American policymakers know a tremendous amount about what’s happening in genocidal situations, and since some Americans risk a lot to push for action…what would happen if there was real outrage that policymakers are letting this happen ‘on our watch’?

I was thinking about this when, today, I met with a woman who has run a childcare and family support center for families in poverty for decades. Her passion is infectious, and she is a skilled and tenacious advocate.

She said that her advocacy goal is to “get people really, really mad, so that they just won’t tolerate it anymore, that children in our city don’t have a place to live or enough to eat”.

The question, of course, is how to do that.

There has to be ‘hell to pay’ for politicians who ignore or tolerate injustice. The change has to come from people outraged that passivity would be counseled in our names, that problems would be swept under the rug, that children would suffer because our priorities are elsewhere.

We have to make never mean never.

Or it won’t.

This advocate leaned across the table and said, “I believe most people know. They have the information. What they don’t do is act.”

And, how often, does that describe me, too?

Now we have unfettered access to images and stories. But we also have much more content to sort through, and we have to seek out the information. We have many arguments at our disposal, whether our cause is resisting genocide or easing the benefit cliff that sentences low-wage working moms to perpetual poverty. We can couch our appeals in history or in the future consequences. We know what happens when this goes unchecked, and we can project the costs if we do nothing. We can turn to morality, because many people want to do the right thing, and to have right be on their side. We can rely on policymakers’ instinct not to be the ones who let injustice rage on our watch.

We can use cost-benefit analyses, and heart-wrenching photographs, and celebrity endorsements.

We can, as the Sister said today, “give every poor kid a puppy, because then maybe people would grab their telephones to yell about it.”

It doesn’t matter, so much, the why, but the what, and the how.

The study of U.S. response to genocide makes it clear: U.S. officials make ‘potent political calculations about what the U.S. public would abide” (p. 373).

I think this is true in domestic policy issues, too, and it’s why there’s so much attention paid to framing, as it helps to tamp down dissent.

We need to change that equation.

We have to make policymakers fear the consequences for sins of omission.

We have to get outraged, and let our outrage be felt.

We have to make never really, really, really mean never.

An easy ask: Including advocacy in volunteer orientations

Boys Telling Secrets
Just ask–and pass it on!

As part of my consulting work, helping nonprofit social service organizations integrate advocacy into their operations, I am working with some agencies in 2013 that have HUGE volunteer operations.

As in ‘the equivalent of an 86-person full-time workforce, year-round’ volunteer operations.

It’s an awesome thing.

Kids are having their birthday parties packing food for pantries and shelters. Older adults are spending their time reading in classrooms to children in poverty. Families have a tradition of hosting birthday parties for children in foster care.

These organizations have figured out that, while working with volunteers is never easy, it brings huge dividends, not just in terms of any actual labor completed, but also in creating ambassadors, of sorts, for the organizations and their causes. When people come and have a meaningful and invigorating experience at the organization, they are much more likely to donate their money, encourage others to help, and champion the organization.

Which is exactly why we’re totally missing a golden opportunity when we don’t invite our volunteers to advocate alongside us.

I had the benefit of having volunteered in some of these organizations before starting the advocacy technical assistance process, so I knew that, at least in my case, I was never provided with information about the organizations’ advocacy priorities, the targets who needed to hear from us, or how writing a letter or making a phone call could be just as valuable–if not more so–than sorting through school supplies to fill a backpack.

My early assessment and planning work with the organizations confirmed this. For the most part, nonprofit social services don’t do a great job of asking one of their most dedicated constituencies–their regular volunteers–to join them in advocacy.

So that is one of the first pieces I’m working on with these organizations. We’re doing things like:

  • Including a write-up of the advocacy agenda in all volunteer orientations
  • Integrating root cause discussions, even briefly, in volunteer training and debriefing sessions (this can be as simple as, “Why do you think people are hungry in the United States? What kinds of policies would need to change to make it better?” as a starting point)
  • Weaving advocacy asks into the “How You Can Help” sections on organizations’ websites, where they offer volunteer opportunities
  • Providing letter-writing materials to groups of volunteers, as a continuation of their service
  • Signing volunteers up for agency newsletters, and including advocacy information and calls to action
  • Crafting job descriptions for more extensive advocacy roles (everything from 3 hours/month to 20 hours/week–students need internships!)

This isn’t just about roping another group of stakeholders into advocacy (although, of course, I’ve got nothing against that). It’s also about showing volunteers that we value them, completely, which is the same reason why we need to be inviting our donors to advocate, too. It’s about helping people to make sense of the need with which they are confronted, and providing them with the tools they will need to keep from feeling accusatory or hopeless or myopic.

It’s about creating a stronger, more accurate, more whole volunteer experience…while changing the conversation around the issues, too, by including these voices policymakers wouldn’t necessarily expect to hear from.

What experiences do others have in crafting advocacy ‘asks’ for volunteers? What works, and what doesn’t? Does anyone have any stories to share?

“That’s not my experience…” You already know enough.

At the Kansas Coalition for School Readiness‘ advocacy day today, I met a young mother of two who made the trip to Topeka, on her own, to express her support for her children’s Early Head Start program. She listened to the presentation of the Coalition’s key policy issues–supporting the Governor’s recommendation for $51.5 million in Children’s Initiative Funds for FY2014 and FY2015 and restoring the Child and Dependent Care Credit. She soaked up the advice on how to approach legislator visits and how to begin a relationship with an elected official.

Then she got on a bus with dozens of advocates, most of whom were there as part of their official job duties, and headed to the state capitol building.

When I met her, in the capitol rotunda after her two legislative visits, she was somewhat shaken. The visits, in her opinion, hadn’t gone too well. The very new, pretty young, legislators with whom she met were very open about their disagreement with her position, and I don’t think that she was totally prepared for a policymaker’s only slightly tempered hostility.

She told me that one of the representatives had declared that he doesn’t support Head Start because it’s ‘just daycare’ and that parents should be the ones teaching their children everything they need to know. She asked me how a policymaker who, after all, isn’t a parent, could presume to be such an expert on parenting.

I asked her how she responded.

Hesitating, she said, “Well, I just told him that that’s not my experience. I kept my son home with me until he was ready for preschool, and then I enrolled him in Head Start so that he could get ready for Kindergarten. And I know that he is going to succeed in school because he got the preparation he needs. I can teach him a lot, but part of my responsibility as a parent is to select a good school for my child, too, and that’s what Head Start makes possible.”

And that’s what has stuck with me today. That, as parents and as advocates and as citizens, we can’t always sway the opinions of our policymakers. But we can share our experiences, and those cannot be refuted. We cannot be shaken, in sharing our own stories. We must not be deterred.

We don’t need to know every statistic. We can’t prepare for every eventuality. We can’t speak to every argument.

But we owe it to ourselves, to our children, to our clients, and to our policymakers–who depend on us for their legitimacy as elected officials, after all–to share, “In my experience…”

And when we got back to the hotel for lunch, and the speaker asked who was headed back to the capitol for more visits that afternoon, that young mom raised her hand.

Her children, I know, are lucky to have her in their lives. And so are those policymakers.

So are we.

Inspiration for 2013 (and good holiday reading)

For my final post of 2012, I want to share the case studies that we did at the conclusion of the first phase of advocacy technical assistance with the four initial grantees. All of this work was made possible by the incredible efforts of the staff, Board, volunteers, and clients of these organizations, and also by the financial support and driving vision of the Health Care Foundation of Greater Kansas City and the REACH Healthcare Foundation. The foundations’ role in this technical assistance project is really inspiring. Yes, they write the checks that pay me, but they also came up with the idea that organizations need more than just admonishment to “do advocacy”, guidance about the lobbying limits that govern nonprofits, or even money to put advocacy activities into place (although the foundations provided cash grants to the organizations, too).

They also need help, an infusion of energy and attention, opportunities to connect with other organizations going through some of the same struggles, and some extra people-power to build some momentum.

I am honored to get to be part of this work, and I am so looking forward to the chance to work with 5 more organizations in 2013.

Enjoy! See you next year!

El Centro case study

ReDiscover case study

Wyandot case study

reStart case study

Going out with a bang: Some good news to end 2012!

If you’re anything like me, you, too, are in sore need of some good news, as we head into 2013.

This year has been rough around here–a massive tax cut turned our Kansas half-a-billion dollar ending balance into deficits as far as the eye can see.

I’m buying reams of paper for my kid’s public school. Things are depressing.

But we have to gear up for the year to come. We have a lot to do and reasons to believe that we can do much.

So, a list of some good news (not exhaustive, certainly) about which we should get excited.

I’m crowdsourcing this one, because, quite honestly, my list isn’t long enough and I need some help here. Please share your good news–encouraging progress with a client, progressive policy changes I missed, social movements that we should be excited about, even just random acts of kindness worth sharing.

As we inoculate ourselves for the year to come, we can use all the good news we can get.

  • DACA Scholarships: I love it when people get it, that immigrant students are one of the best things we have going for us, and then are willing to put their money behind supporting their dreams. This rocks.
  • The economy has improved: I don’t know if it will last, and it certainly doesn’t erase the hardship, but every new job opening means an opportunity for someone who needs one, and we need to celebrate that, even while working harder to build an economy that will really work for working people.
  • $500 can mean the difference between a kid going to college or not: Think about it. Seriously. For less than the cost of a fancy new television, we can dramatically alter a student’s educational prospects, just by providing them with seed money to orient them towards college. And, hurray! Research works, too!
  • Advocacy works, and people want to help us do it better: I’ll have more next year about the findings of this report, but, for now, I’m rejoicing that there were so many successful advocacy campaigns and advocacy organizations for them to profile. Advocacy can make a difference.
  • People are still welcoming: I love Welcoming America, and I love Welcoming Week, and I love that people–teenagers and church women and city council people and librarians and business owners–are coming together to reject anti-immigrant rhetoric and build welcoming communities that are prosperous and harmonious.
  • Scholarships to assist people with mental illness in completing higher education: I have been enriched by my opportunities to learn from my students who have mental illnesses, and I am grateful for efforts to reduce some of the barriers that these potential students face in their education.
  • Half the Sky: I really, really needed that this year. Are these women the most amazing and inspiring people? Yes. Do I appreciate even more their apparent averageness, because it challenges me to do more, instead of just putting them on a pedestal? Also yes.

What else? What good news are you sitting on that you just have to share?

“I Am Kansas.” When the Advocacy Goal is just: Change the Conversation

I would be delighted to be wrong on this one, but I think we’re going to lose, quite a bit, in 2013.

On the immigrant rights front, from which I cannot extricate myself even if I try–I know the stories too well to be a dispassionate observer to the injustices on those front lines–it could be a very, very ugly year.

But that doesn’t mean that our only option is to bang our heads against the wall, or–heaven forbid–just to sit down and take it.

If we think about the entire framework of advocacy, and all of the different avenues that are available to us, then new arenas for change open up.

Maybe the Kansas Legislature won’t be a very fruitful venue for progressive change in 2013 (THAT was as nice a way of saying that as I can possibly muster!), but we can still think about engagement with the public, media advocacy, research and policy design, and community mobilization, among others, as paths we might take.

It may even be that, sometimes, direct policy change isn’t even the ‘end’ towards which our means are directed, at least not in the short-term.

It may be that what we need to do, and the ends towards which we are aimed, is to change the conversation, to begin to bring a fuller complement of ‘our’ issues into the dialogue, and to include a better representation of the voices that matter to us.

That’s essentially the thinking behind the “I Am Kansas” campaign, launched by an organization with which I’ve worked over the years, as part of a ‘welcoming’ initiative.

It’s about highlighting the contributions of immigrants, normalizing their experiences, and counteracting some of the negative and misleading information that is pumped into the debate, in order to artificially set the parameters of acceptable policy approaches.

This isn’t just ‘loosey-goosey’ touchy-feely stuff about helping people get to know each other better.

I tend not to get too into that.

It’s intentional, and it’s linked to a theory of change and a whole psychology of policymaking decisions, that holds that people are more inclined to be comfortable harming, through policy, those who they consider to be the ‘other’.

If immigrants are ‘us’, though, then our policy options are a bit more limited.

If we can change the conversation, and change the tone, then we change the context in which policies are enacted, and stopped.

And, then,

we can start winning again.

We can all use a little inspiration.

It was a long, hot summer.

And it’s going to be a rough few years, at least here in Kansas.

So, if you’re like me, you can use a little inspiration.

Think of this post as a sort of ‘chicken soup for the advocate’s soul’…if I was that sentimental.

And, please, add your inspirations.

We can all use some more.

  • Bill Clinton’s nomination speech at the Democratic National Convention: No, not really anything that he said, although I was fairly dumbstruck, listening to it from my phone the next day, at how he really can make complicated policy issues seem so easy. Can he teach my policy class? Or do my eulogy? But, no, what I think I was most inspired by was the redemptive story of his presence. How, really, we can make mistakes–even really significant ones, on a major world stage–and, if we hang in there and do enough good, we can come back. There is hope for all of us.
  • Awesome direct practitioners making social change happen: There are many examples of this, I know, but my favorite is probably my friend Vanessa, wife of my friend Jake, and all-around terrific person. She used to be a medical assistant at Planned Parenthood, and when, because of the perennial funding cuts and legislative attacks leveled against Planned Parenthood, prices for procedures and exams would increase, Vanessa would answer the frustrated patients’ angry questions with something like, “The valuable services you just received are threatened by politics. If you want to have a voice in that, I’ll register you to vote, right now.” One day, she registered 12 patients. She rarely averaged fewer than 6. She rocks.
  • Amazing students moving mountains in order to dedicate themselves to our profession: I have not one, but TWO mothers whose husbands are deployed in my foundation policy course. They’re raising children on their own, worrying about their partners, and still studying social work with all their dedication. One is also trying to get her Parents-as-Teachers chapter to engage in more advocacy, too. Wow.
  • Zach Wahls: My friend Melanie knows Zach and posted a picture on her blog of them playing piano together. For me, it’s better than a celebrity sighting. Can you imagine being the moms who raised this tremendous young man? Also inspiring: my own kids, who, when told that their nanny was marrying her partner, paused just a minute before nodding and asking if they could have Sprite at the wedding. Love knows no boundary, as long as there is special-treat drink.

Please share: what inspires you?