Category Archives: Tips and How-Tos

Making a difference with what you have

I facilitated a workshop on nonprofit advocacy last spring, and the School videotaped it, so that practitioners who couldn’t be there with us for the 1.5 hours could use the conversation as a resource to figure out how to integrate social change strategies into their organizations and their work.

I really try to focus on leveraging the existing assets and capacities of nonprofit social service agencies for social change, and giving social workers tools to help them make small shifts that can yield big dividends. It’s the main area of my practice now, so it was fun to get to try out some of what I use with my consulting clients, among an all-social work crowd.

Here is the link.

I’d love to hear your comments; we had great engagement during the session, but nothing is more rewarding and challenging for me than the discussions we have here.

Influence is our goal, and other reminders for the home stretch

In Kansas, our state legislature comes back from the recess next week, and May promises to be a long month for social work advocates, as we battle over major budget and tax cuts, with significant implications for vulnerable populations in our state.

And so it seemed like a good time to gear ourselves up, with a little refresher on lobbying.

And what works.

I hope that my fellow policy advocates will weigh in, too, with their best advice, for how to break through to policymakers, how to sustain ourselves, and how to stay grounded in the realities of our clients and the perspectives of the world outside the dome.

  • We give elected officials reason for being. We cannot ever forget that, without our phone calls, and our pleading, and our presentations, policymakers would not have a legitimate role in government. They are our representatives. So don’t ever let them make you feel bad, when you’re chasing them down in the hallways or calling them on a Saturday morning or sending them another email.
  • Stories may not convince, but they do increase investment, and getting policymakers and allies invested in our policy issues is our greatest challenge. If we can get others to take on our fights as their own, we have essentially one.
  • If you can only inform or influence, don’t forget that influence is our goal. We know a lot about our work, and we have so many things that we want to say, but information overload can reduce our effectiveness, and we can’t afford that. A personal connection with a policymaker can bring you much more influence than all the information in the world, and swaying policymakers is the reason we’re in this work.
  • Don’t forget to pack your social work skills and values for the trip to your capital. The humor and collegiality and value base that sustain us in the most difficult social work will sustain and serve you in policy advocacy, too, but it can be too easy to slip into another persona, in the halls of the capitol, instead of wrapping ourselves in our social work-ness.

What gets you through to June or July or whenever your ‘break’ in the policy advocacy world comes? What advice would you share with those who are just beginning in this journey?

Take an ‘advocacy day’: Social change as an employee benefit

Earlier this week, I wrote about different strategies that nonprofit organizations can use to fully deploy all of our organizational resources, especially in pursuit of our advocacy aims; and also about how we can create more complete ‘buy-in’ to our missions by bringing our entire staff (and our volunteers and donors) into our collective advocacy work.

Much of this was inspired by Zilch, and trying to figure out how to leverage the resources that nonprofit organizations do have, in order to accomplish the challenges that face us.

But I’m very cognizant, especially in my role as a consultant, of how much easier it is to say stuff like “make sure that you’re fully engaging your Board in advocacy”, than it is to actually do that.

So, today, I’m thinking about what it would mean to use advocacy, and opportunities to shape advocacy within an organization, to create and sustain passion in employees and connect them to the vision of social change that animates the organization, in nonprofit organizations where front-line staff are often anxious for these kinds of opportunities, and where retaining staff (and keeping them passionate) can be one of our greatest barriers to long-term mission success.

And, in the interest of being a little less esoteric and a little more grounded in the realities of nonprofit administration, I’m sharing not my grand ideas of what this could look like, but some examples from the agencies with which I have worked, about what it does look like.

  • Write into employees’ contracts a specific number of ‘comp’ hours they’ll have to engage in mission-consistent social change work, on company time. One organization gives everyone 8 hours to do nonpartisan voter outreach work during election cycles, for example (if they are employees on company time, it has to be nonpartisan!). At El Centro, Inc., we used to get substitutes in our early childhood education program so that teachers could accompany me to our state capitol for legislative work.
  • Provide advocacy-related training (or the money to seek it out) for direct-service employees. One organization I consult for regularly sends front-line staff to policy-related conferences, with specific goals about the policy content they are to bring back to inform their work. Another specifically asked employees what skills and knowledge they needed in order to be effective in advocacy, and set out to fill those gaps with agency-sponsored training.
  • Emphasize the impact of the work, more than the job description, when soliciting new employees. I routinely talk with my students about what attracts them to specific jobs (or internships), and they almost always talk about the area of work, and the impact they hope to have, rather than the types of activities they would be doing. We need to play to that; we should highlight our organization’s vision statements (and they should be good) when advertising for new positions. We need to sell people on the change that they will make, and help them see from the very beginning how their piece of the puzzle fits into that larger whole.
  • Divide up responsibilities to represent the organization in community collaborations. The agencies that are smartest about how to weave advocacy throughout the entire organization intentionally select a diverse set of representatives to engage with various community partners, and they accompany these coalition tasks with opportunities to strategize how to leverage these relationships for advocacy objectives. No one should be the ‘face’ of the organization, and no one should be stuck within its walls, either. Everyone should be able to speak to the mission, and everyone should be on the lookout for powerful alliances. One organization I know has a chart on the wall of all of the key community initiatives in their network, and they are careful about how they allocate representation among their staff leadership.
  • Recruit for mission congruence. It works both ways, of course; employees should know that the organization will take their commitment to social change seriously, and foster it, but organizations also need to expect that their employees will embrace the advocacy needed to advance the mission. Skills can be taught, but passion must be sought.
  • Reward courage and innovation. One of the most inspiring nonprofit leaders I’ve ever worked with regularly asked all of his employees for help working out a particular policy advocacy challenge. And then he took their advice seriously. It’s how we ended up sponsoring a rally of thousands of immigrants all dressed in their work clothes (to illustrate their contributions to the economy, suggested by one of our preschool teachers) and hosting an advocacy fundraising dance where one of our janitors’ band played. They got the credit, too, in ways that transcended their official titles, and it not only increased their allegiance to the organization but also served as a model for others.

Now, I hope you’ll share your examples, too. How do you integrate advocacy and social change work into your agency’s operations? How do you capitalize on the passions of your direct staff to invigorate your root cause work? How do you ‘sell’ your potential employees on the impact they’ll have, not just the kinds of activities in which they’ll engage?

Vote: All the cool kids are doing it

I KNEW it.

In this case, that’s surprisingly unsatisfying.

See, I have felt for years that trying to guilt people into voting by emphasizing how few people vote, and how important it is, and how they’re really bad people if they (like all of those other degenerates) don’t vote…is really, completely ineffective.

And, here, research discussed in Nudge that confirms my practice experience, culled from hundreds of hours spent doing voter registration and Get-Out-the-Vote work, that telling people to vote because not very many other people do is exactly the wrong way to approach increasing voter turnout.

If we want to increase voter turnout (and, from the perspective of nonprofit organizations working with marginalized communities, we do!), what we need to do is channel people into voting, prime them for the voting experience, and, if we can…

make it sound like other people ARE voting, so they should, too.

I thought about this a few weeks ago in class when, despite the oncoming spring, 9 out of the 15 women in my class were wearing the exact same boots.

I mean, in marketing, no company would ever try to convince someone to buy something by stressing its unpopularity (“you should wear boots like these because only 35% of other young women wore them last season”? Not effective.).

We get people to do things, especially things they may have never done before, or may even be reluctant to do, by normalizing the experience, creating a like-minded community, and taking away as much of the uncertainty as we can, in order to make it really, really easy to make the behavior change.

So, what does this look like in the realm of voter engagement, since we want people to shape our electorate, not wear matching footwear?

What if we…

  • Had high school seniors register to vote as part of the classroom experience, when they turn 18, so that they’re registering as a group?
  • Used voter data to target those who are not engaged in the electoral process, by highlighting others within their social networks/peer groups who are? (“Can I register you to vote today? Your neighbors have really high voter participation, so I figured you would probably want to get registered, too.”)
  • Presented examples of reference peers voting, in a sort of micro-targeted ‘Rock-the-Vote’ way?
  • Implemented more user-friendly voting procedures, so that voting wasn’t such an extraordinary experience (like allowing online voting, or allowing people to vote in places they frequent (their own schools/colleges, for example) rather than the church down the street they only go in once every two/four years?
  • Invested in marketing campaigns that underscore not only the civic importance of voting but, indeed, its centrality to our understanding of what it means to be an American…a sort of, “everyone’s doing this, so we’d love you to join us” message?
  • Reached out to underrepresented communities year-round, instead of expecting that they’ll make a big behavior shift right around election time?

What kinds of approaches do you think would ‘nudge’ unlikely voters to civic engagement? How are you shifting from a ‘thou shalt’ to a ‘wouldn’t you like to, too?’ message?

How can we make claiming our civic right as ubiquitous as those boots?

The “how” matters. A lot.

My consulting work will has slowed down, a lot, over the past two months, as I stepped back to spend some time with my growing family. I don’t miss the stress of trying to make work phone calls while kids are clamoring for fruit snacks, but I do miss, very much, the opportunity to play at least a small part in the work of some really inspiring social service and civic organizations.

I’m ready to get back to “normal”, or at least my version of it.

Getting ready for some of my fall work, though, and making plans for the future, has prompted me to reflect more on the impact that I have on those with whom I work, and on how this phase of my career builds on my past experiences, and some other thoughts that may quite honestly be more insomnia-provoked than truly interesting.

But this insight, I think, means something, to me and to the organizations with which I’ve worked over the past couple of years.

HOW we do advocacy matters, especially in adverse political and economic times like these.

That’s one of the primary lessons that I’ve tried to share with organizations, especially those just beginning to integrate advocacy into their services. I don’t mean the sort of standard “there are no permanent enemies” advice (which, okay, I’ve never been all that good at anyway).

Instead, what I try to help clients understand is that, when we lose SO OFTEN, we have to build our campaigns so that there are real, tangible victories that can be salvaged, celebrated, and, most crucially, built upon, from the wreckage of the failures (that always hurt anyway).

And people, be they advocacy-averse Board members of a large social service agency, or social justice advocates assembled at a progressive church, usually start to nod when I mention those losses. Because they know them; they’re what they fear. So talking about them openly, from the very beginning, helps to take some of the “sting” out. And, with the inevitability of failure, at least to some degree, on the table, then we can talk about how you build “loss-proof” campaigns, the kind literally guaranteed to bring your organization significant benefit, regardless of the ultimate outcome.

To some extent, this means thinking carefully about how you’ll measure success, and building in the kinds of interim measures (increasing your membership base, attracting new donors, raising your profile) that, while not empirically demonstrated to lead to later advocacy success, matter on their own rights.

But what I push organizations to plan for, and what I mean by the “how”, is the need to construct strategy and choose tactics that are designed to build the power of individual leaders within your organization and to strengthen the relationships among them.

This means that, when you have the choice between going alone to a meeting with the Mayor or spending the time to prepare community members to facilitate it, you choose the latter. You hold regular meetings with your leadership to let them make the decisions about how to proceed, especially at difficult junctures. You encourage them to collect postcards or petitions, even if you doubt they’ll influence the decision-makers, because you want them to practice their messages and build their base. And you utilize reflections to help them name their advances and process their grief about the loss, rather than buying into the “winner takes all” logic of our current political system.

It means that you recognize that, while falling short of your ultimate policy goal is virtually a given, irredeemable failure is unacceptable. And so you plan to prevent it.

And that way, you win. Even when you lose.

And that makes all the difference.

So you want to have a ‘marcha’?

*I’m aching for a really good marcha these days–it’s been awhile! I’m reviving this post in the hopes that there are some plans in the work; certainly we’ll have plenty to bring us to our feet!

photo credit lannadelarosa, via Flickr

Really good political rallies, demonstrations/protests, or marches (they’re a little different, but they all serve the same general purpose as part of an advocacy or organizing campaign, and they have many overlapping considerations) can energize your leadership, bring mass followers in to build a movement, and attract the kind of public, policymaker, and media attention that you can only dream of with more traditional policy activities. Poorly planned or overdone or lackluster events, though, can drain your leadership, antagonize potential sympathizers, and earn you disdain or ridicule in the public. What separates the two?

I have had the experience of planning and executing 6 mass action-type events and of consulting in the planning of about 5 others. I’ve attended countless, as a participant/activist. Certainly other organizers have more demonstration experience, but my memories of these events have given me a few lessons to pass on. I’d love to hear others’ thoughts about what makes a march or rally really impressive and invigorating. Likewise, if you’ve been involved in one (or more!) that were less than what you had hoped, please share those experiences so that we can all learn. Because they are public activities, some of the results of a demonstration are admittedly beyond the organizer’s control, but I think that you can bring a lot more of it within your sphere of influence through good planning and great community organizing. There are several handbooks/textbooks on the market that address at least some of the logistics of organizing mass protests, some of which have inevitably informed my thinking on this, but the following ideas come from having learned (often, the hard way) from the experience of mobilization.

  • Be clear about what it is that you want to accomplish with the mass action, and that a demonstration is, indeed, the best way to accomplish those goals. Nothing attracts the kind of attention that a well-attended mass mobilization will, but it can also alienate some aspects of your target population and distract your core leadership from other work. I’ve seen, often, how rallies can become seen as ‘ends in themselves’ rather than means to your desired end (some kind of policy or social change), and you have to be clear from the beginning about how this mass mobilization is part of a larger strategy, because, otherwise, the details can suck you (and your leadership) in. They might not be as ‘sexy’, but there are many more efficient ways, sometimes, to get from point A to point B.
  • Control your message, as much as possible, while recognizing that it will be impossible to totally control. It’s almost an axiom that the one message that you REALLY don’t want to get out as a part of your demonstration will, in fact, be represented on someone’s t-shirt or poster or chant, and that WILL be what the media and your targets pick up–the youth wrapped in Mexican flags at the comprehensive immigration reform rallies are testament to that. You can’t prevent this, so you have to be ready to neutralize it as much as possible. An important first step is, really, making sure that you have a compelling message and that your participants clearly understand how this message is connected to their own enlightened self-interest. If people are just coming to ‘protest’, you’re more likely to have some highly dissonant messages. Some other suggestions that have helped me with this:
    1. Plan your agenda carefully, and no one gets the microphone/bullhorn who isn’t supposed to have it. Meet with all of your speakers in advance, and get a commitment from them about the general tone and substance of their remarks (recognizing, of course, that there will be fluidity in the actual delivery). Yes, this might mean that you have to tell a politician or the Executive Director of an organization that, no, they can’t have the floor for just a few minutes. Make sure that you’re clear on this in advance, and be prepared to back it up.
    2. “Plant” your message. For every rally I was in charge of, I created dozens of posters with the messages that I wanted to convey and brought them with me to the demonstration. Inevitably, people had forgotten to bring something to carry, and they were happy to grab some that I had made–instant message diffusion. Every year, some of my posters showed up in the media coverage. I used American flags in the same way; we purchased hundreds (sometimes thousands) of them, and I had volunteers hand them out from the back of my car. People wanted something to wave, and now they were waving American flags. Instant “Kodak moment.”
    3. Police your message, to an extent. No, hopefully we are not going to ask people to change their shirts or put down their signs, I guess unless they are inciting violence or something, but we can and should make an effort to connect with the media in advance and funnel them to some of our leaders who are ready with the core messages. Your leaders need to be ready to answer the most common questions: “What are you demanding (and of whom?)? Who do you represent? What is your response to (insert the most common counterargument here)?”

  • Logistics don’t make your event, but they can ruin it. You need to think about where you want to have your event (messaging can tie in here, too, but it also needs to be a feasible location), how people will get there, permissions, parking (if applicable), restrooms, security, sound system, traffic flow (as people leave), weather back-up plans, and countless other details. I found that it was usually best to have a committee of my grassroots leadership oversee this, as they inevitably thought of things that I did not–like making sure that we weren’t in a place that required photo ID, having room for strollers, putting up a barrier between the rally and the street (kids run, I now know!), and, on one particularly hot day, having free water to give out and a nurse on-hand for anyone needing medical attention.
  • Related to the above, think for a moment about the way in which one of the primary goals of any mass action–making powerful targets uncomfortable–is, necessarily, a bit risky for participants. And then have some real conversations with your leadership about how much risk people are willing to take. Marches require getting permission to close down streets or a willingness to risk arrest for being there. Stationary demonstrations are more or less risky depending on the location, the communication in advance with police, and the participants’ adherence to any agreements with officials. Sometimes you need civil disobedience as a part of your strategy; other times, as with the undocumented immigrants with whom I often worked, an arrest would have been devastating. Be strategic about this, and ensure that at least your core leaders give informed consent, and are clear about the risks as they do turnout work.
  • Don’t rely on mass appeals alone for your turnout. Of course you need to use the media to get people to come to your event–before most of our rallies, I did a series of on-air interviews on Spanish radio as well as newspaper announcements. But mass communication for mass mobilization works best if the media coverage serves to remind people of the event and give them the details, not to invite them for the first time; that’s best done by someone with whom they have a relationship. That’s why you need a team of influential leaders in your constituency to work on turnout for you; they each need to be asking their friends, colleagues, family members, and others in their social circles to participate. While it wasn’t the biggest rally I ever organized, one of which I’m particularly proud was when we got more than 400 people to come to Topeka from Kansas City. I had 8 team captains/family leaders each responsible for recruiting and turning out 40 people, and those folks represented the vast majority of those who ended up coming (which required taking a day off work!). Relationships move people.
  • Recognize that, with mass actions, no matter how many people show up, it will never seem like enough. Seriously, I wonder if the organizers of the Million Man March were wondering why they didn’t have 2 million? At least I’ve always felt this way, and I know it’s not just me. An organizer I know in Los Angeles, where they had literally a MILLION people come to their immigrant rights march in March 2006, told me that she couldn’t believe that some of her colleagues didn’t come (she had to ask them, of course, since the line of people marching stretched for blocks!). This is, again, why it’s so important to be clear about your goal. Trust me, the million people got the attention of the policymakers and forced Senate action on the comprehensive immigration reform bill which, while ultimately unsuccessful, was the main goal. We can’t waste energy mourning the 1,000,001st person who didn’t show up.

    I hope that, at least once in your life as an advocate/activist, every one of you has the opportunity to look out over a crowd of faces, known and unknown, who have come together because they’re passionate about the same issue(s) you are. I hope that you have a chance to hear them chanting, in unison, for justice and dignity and safety and equality. I hope that you have a moment of falling in bed, late at night, completely exhausted of body and mind, with those chants still echoing in your ears. It is a beautiful, beautiful thing, and, on many occasions throughout history, it has changed the world.

  • On being a megaphone

    *I’m still on maternity leave this month and, so, revising and republishing some of my favorite posts over the past two years. This whole idea of “advocacy on behalf of” instead of “alongside” is still one of my obsessions, and so I thought we could all use a chance to think anew about the kinds of megaphones we want to be.

    People would often make comments about how my work was ‘giving voice to the voiceless’. This might sound romantic, of sorts, but I usually found it offensive. The people with whom I had the honor to work are not/were not voiceless. They may not have spoken much English, or always known exactly the ‘right’ words to say, and they may not have had the kind of power that ensured that they were always listened to, but they are far from voiceless. I would usually respond that my job was really to be a megaphone, to amplify the voices of those with whom I was working so that they would be heard, and really listened to.

    You, too, can be a megaphone.

    In advising social workers about how to do advocacy alongside those with whom we work (our ‘clients’), I almost inevitably hear at least a couple, “our clients can’t be expected to…” objections. Without trying to sound too outraged, I point out that most of my advocacy work was with limited English proficient, largely undocumented, Latino immigrants with very limited formal education, many of whom were also underage. Honestly, if they could be effective and articulate spokespeople on their own behalf in a political system overtly hostile to their interests, it’s hard to imagine a client population group that is completely incapable of participating in their own advocacy! Conversely, however, I react strongly when I see organizations shoving their participants out in the spotlight with little preparation.. What we need is an approach that is neither paternalistic nor exploitative, but that seeks to provide people with informed consent as we assist them to develop advocacy roles that meet their own goals for personal empowerment and, to the greatest extent possible, also fit within our campaigns. I’ve done a lot of thinking about this, from an ethical and a strategic standpoint, because I have had the horrible experience of having clients experience negative consequences of their advocacy, and I’ve also had clients push back because they didn’t feel that they were being given enough control over the advocacy that affected them.

    If you are currently engaged in a strategy to amplify the voices of those with whom you work, what’s working for you? What resistance are you encountering from your colleagues and allies? What are you witnessing in terms of the impact on those you serve? What advice do you wish to share?

    The following lessons learned apply to work involving service participants/affected populations in legislative advocacy, community organizing, and/or media work–anytime that you’re asking people to take on public roles that reveal something substantial about their own experience of a social problem. We cannot possibly (nor should we try to) sterilize this experience, stripping it of all vulnerability and risk, but neither should we blithely assume that our clients are as capable of absorbing these costs as we might be from a position of privilege. Advocacy can and should be transformative for all involved, but that transformation can be scary, and we have an ethical responsibility to walk with people on this journey.

  • Make no promises. You cannot possibly predict what the outcome of an individual’s courageous leap into advocacy will be, so don’t pretend to–people need to make the decisions associated with personal advocacy with a full understanding of the potential risks, and they can’t do that if the social worker they trust is busy glossing over them.
  • On the flip side, don’t try to protect people. We get into big trouble, ethically and in terms of promoting empowerment, when we make decisions ‘for (people’s) own good.’ You can’t know that your clients are too busy or too ill or too scared or too confused to participate in advocacy activities; your job is to raise their consciousness about how collective action could improve their lives, give them the tools they need to participate, and then let them make their own decisions about their involvement.
  • Model respect for your clients, and it’s more likely that others will respect them. The language that you use to describe people, the kinds of questions you’re willing to answer from reporters, the types of relationships you build with lawmakers will set a tone that can create a sort of ‘safe zone’, in which people know that you will not tolerate abuse of those with whom you’re working.
  • Remember that anonymity is never guaranteed, and comes with its own problems. I remember one reporter who wanted me to find an undocumented immigrant to put on the news, talking about his/her ‘decision to come to the U.S. illegally.’ He said that he knew that the immigrant would be afraid of being revealed, so he was ‘willing to use a voice distorter and to put the person in the shadows.’ I couldn’t really think of a worse way in which to portray undocumented immigrants–as shadowy, scary-sounding people who just willy-nilly ‘decide’ to come into the U.S. illegally. I told the reporter that I found that objectionable on many levels and that I couldn’t accommodate his request. Conversely, against my recommendation, I once had a client who wanted to use his full name and photo in a story about undocumented immigrants who can’t get driver’s licenses; he said that he wanted to show that undocumented people are ‘just like everyone else, except they don’t have papers,’ and he thought that hiding his name would suggest that he had ‘something to be ashamed of.’
  • Whenever possible, practice with people. It’s better if you ask the ugly/hard questions first, before the reporter or lawmaker. Give people a chance to experience a little bit of what it will feel like to be challenged. I worked with a young woman once who did several roleplays with me before her legislative testimony. The actual testimony experience was, in my eyes, horrible–she was accused of being a terrorist, interrupted several times, and told that she ‘wouldn’t be able to get a job anyway, so why bother (with college)?’ I hugged her afterwards and asked if she was okay. She smiled and said, ‘of course’ and pointed out that some of the committee members and one reporter were quite receptive to her testimony. And she was very proud of the fact that she had not cried!
  • Try to cultivate a habit of never speaking for people when they can speak for themselves. Sometimes media representatives and elected officials may prefer to talk to you, as a professional, than deal with people who can be emotional, hard to get a hold of, or (in my case) need an interpreter. If you consistently defer to those who are experts in their own lives, people will eventually get the message.
  • But, finally, don’t expect anyone to be a spokesperson for an entire group. It’s offensive and it can lead us down a very treacherous path of policymaking by anecdote; we all deserve better.

    One final story to bring this point home:
    I had been battling several members of one committee over our instate tuition bill; some were overtly hostile, and others were just very confused–they kept asking how students who don’t speak English would be able to go to college and whether these students would ever be able to fit in with U.S.-born peers. I was giving them facts and statistics and trying to answer all of their questions, but I was drowning. Then came the day of the first hearing. About 12 immigrant students, all of whom would be affected by this legislation, were there, some to give testimony and some just to watch. As the committee members filed in, the students were being teenagers–texting on their phones, talking with their friends, (in one case) doing their hair. The committee vice-chair turned to me and said, “so none of the students who would actually be affected by this legislation were able to be here today?” Confused, I answered, “No, they’re here–they’re sitting right there.” Her mouth dropped open. “But, Melinda,” she stammered, “they seem just like American kids.” Um, yeah, that’s the point. Those kids are far from voiceless, but they didn’t even have to really open their mouths to make a far greater impact that day than I had over the past several weeks. They just had to be themselves, and my job was just to give them a platform on which to do that–a megaphone, so to speak.

  • Building a Better Frame

    *I’m still on maternity leave, and, so, reposting some of my favorite posts from the last two years of Classroom to Capitol. I’ve tried to pick out a mix of those that attracted a lot of attention at the time and those that are just personally meaningful to me (and, I hope, to some of you!), and I’ve also updated them, in some cases, with some new questions and information. Thank you for your patience as I dedicate myself to full-time motherhood for a few more weeks!

    Speaking two languages has been very helpful to me in many aspects of my life, and my social work practice. Certainly I could have never been an organizer and advocate within the Latino immigrant community without being fluent in Spanish. And now, even removed from that community on a daily basis, I find abundant opportunities to use my Spanish, not just to interpret while waiting in line at the pharmacy to pick up medicine for a sick kid (although that happens quite regularly), but also because there are so many things that can be said more eloquently or emphatically in one language than another. My husband, who doesn’t speak much Spanish, has fully accepted these idioms in our family life.

    But speaking another language has also been helpful for me in my thinking about language itself, how we communicate, and how messages gain resonance and power. It helps me to think about how people are excluded from power by virtue of what their history or social place hasn’t provided them in terms of context. And it helps me to think about how we can use language to accomplish the kinds of shifts in public opinion and understanding that we need in order to push forward a social agenda more consistent with social work values.

    A few months ago, I participated in an advocacy training session on media and messaging. While they are connected for the sake of calendar simplicity, they’re of course quite separate exercises (or should be!). In order to succeed in messaging, we must learn to see media coverage as just what it is–the media through which our established frames can seek dominance in the realm of ideas. Those health care advocates, and, indeed, many of us, are sometimes baffled by the ways in which our accepted frames fail to gain real traction in the common discourse about a certain issue. Often, it’s because we haven’t paid enough attention to how people are already talking about something, or because our messages aren’t framed in such a way as to resonate beyond our own circles. I strongly believe that we have to get better at this. Those of us who are committed to redressing such ills as growing income inequality, rising child poverty, sustained pockets of economic desperation, entrenched injustices for women, people of color, and other groups in society are still not winning the critically important battle for ideas, and this is where we need to focus our energy, in the same way that those opposed to our interests have invested decades and millions of dollars in shaping the way that we think, and talk, about the social problems we face.

    An example to convince you of the importance, and then some lessons on framing.

    If I would have mentioned ‘the death tax’ 20 years ago, you would have had no idea what I was talking about. “Taxing death?” “Who would do that, and why?” “What on earth do you mean?” Here again, if you were not familiar with English, you would be similarly confused–trying to translate ‘the death tax’ into Spanish is an unsatisfactory exercise. But, indeed, ‘the death tax’ is precisely how the conversation was shaped about the tax on the largest U.S. inheritances, giving this very rational, and modestly progressive, public policy a taint that suggests that the long arm of the U.S. government is reaching into the pocketbooks of the dead and grabbing their last dimes in a final insult. A truly successful adventure in framing, and one that should serve as a challenge for us–how can we ensure that social work values similarly pervade public discourse on a host of issues, from tax policy to economic support for low-income families to child welfare to health care to HIV/AIDS to immigration?

    Some of my thoughts, some of which have been sparked by my reading of expert framers like George Lakoff:

    1. Don’t use the ‘other side’s’ language—it picks a frame
    2. Framing=using language that fits your worldview (so you have to know what this worldview is)
    3. Framing has to be about ideas, not just words (if not, you’re just coming up with soundbites, and that’s always going to come up short–our challenge is to use words to shape how people think, not just how they talk–although changing how they talk is a good place to start)
    4. People think in frames, not facts—if your facts don’t fit your frame, they won’t believe your facts, but once your frame is accepted, everything you say within that is ‘just common sense’—the battle is won!
    5. With framing, your goal is to activate your model/frame among those in the middle (you’ll never convince your extreme opponent, and with your nearest allies, all you need is media to carry your message to them–they’re already predisposed to believe it!)
    6. When we lack a clear frame (especially progressives), we overcompensate with extra words—this is a sign of weakness and partially explains why we lose; social workers are particularly notorious for this, because we can always ‘see all sides of an issue’–that’s nice, but framing is not the time or the place for nuances; we need to pick a frame and stick with it!
    7. We win when we talk about values and connect with others’ core values without having to sacrifice our own frame in pursuit of common ground. If they get you to abandon your frame, they will have won even if you win the tangible victory (b/c frames shift thinking and attitudes, which is what wins over the long term)
    8. Start with values, not facts or issues–we have to find a place to connect (family, liberty, justice…and then how does your particular frame on this issue fit those values?)
    9. Repetition, repetition, repetition—people won’t remember where they heard it, but they’ll remember it! (Think of the Doublemint Gum commercials or any parallel from your youth–in framing as in marketing, you get no bonus points for innovation, only for dominance)
    10. When interacting with media, always reframe to your perspective before answering—if you answer in their frame, you won’t even have a chance to communicate your real message. Midwesterners have a particularly hard time with this, so you may need to practice this so that it doesn’t feel rude or unduly awkward. Remember, they have to print/quote/use something, so if you only say things that are consistent with your frame, then that will come through by default!
    11. Build stocks of effective stories with your frame built in, and work them into every opportunity to talk about the issue–every example you give and every picture you paint with your words needs to be pulling people towards the same, common frame.

    I want to hear–what, in your opinion, are the most important frames in public discourse about the social problem(s) that are your particular focus? Who is responsible for driving them? How might you reframe where needed? Do you have a social problem with which you’re especially struggling with a frame? Leave it in the comments and we’ll think together about how you might frame it!

    Yes, everywhere: “real-life” applications for community organizing skills

    What does Vacation Church School have to do with community organizing, you ask?

    Um, in my world, a lot.

    Over and over again, I find that I apply my community organizing experience to all kinds of situations, and that that perspective shapes how I approach so much of my life, from how I parent to my engagement with nonprofit boards, to my neighboring to my volunteer service. In some respects, that can be problematic: I’m sure that some of my friends wish that I’d stop including “have you talked with your senator about immigration reform?” at the end of an email to them, and my husband has wondered aloud why we still send Christmas cards to several current and former elected officials as well as a scattering of immigrant advocates around the state.

    But, for the most part, I find that almost all of life’s challenges are more successfully conquered through community organizing tactics, and I’m continually struck by how amazed people are at what one can accomplish by leveraging the tremendous power of organized people.

  • I ask people to do things that fit their passions and skills, instead of putting out a “I’m sure everyone is too busy for this, but could someone please?” plea. It makes it much easier to recruit volunteers for Vacation Church School, yes, and it also gets parents to testify at a PTA legislative forum and neighbors to take on planning a block party, too. People want to be valued, and that’s not just true for major campaigns for social justice.
  • I make relationships part of my to-do list. People are more likely to say yes, not just if the ask fits with their lives, but if the asker is someone they trust and care about. That’s why I make it a point to send notes, or make calls, fairly regularly to a wide spectrum of people–those with whom I serve on Boards, other advocates, even some of my kids’ friends’ parents. Some would say that relationships are cheapened, somehow, if there’s the potential for an ask to enter the equation at some point. I counter that organizers legitimately care about people as people, absolutely, but also see relationships as our single greatest asset. And assets deserve continual investment.
  • I’m short on protocol but don’t skimp on process. I have very, very little patience for formality; committee rules and complicated chains of command tend to discourage new participation and stifle real accomplishment. But I absolutely believe in giving people an opportunity to voice their experiences, on the PTA and at the conclusion of last week’s Vacation Church School and after my son’s class end-of-year celebration.
  • I believe in multiple entry points; I want to give everyone a way to say “yes”. So, okay, maybe this sometimes looks like persistence bordering on stalking, but, when someone says no to my first ask, I follow it up with another. A good friend of mine, Jake Lowen, who is also an awesome organizer, talks about jumping ahead to a huge ask and then dialing it back to something that seems, in comparison, modest, and I guess that’s what I do. I found a role for everyone in Vacation Church School, including the folks who initially told me no. Because I want people in the door.

    So none of this work is going to change the world, right? I mean, I hope that building a better community for my kids and for others’ kids plays some small role in making a better society, but it’s not like I’m organizing a revolution. But what approaching all of life like an organizer means for me (in addition to the fact that I couldn’t turn it off if I tried) is a chance to keep my skills sharp. I also truly believe that it exposes more people to the real possibilities within themselves, when they join with others. And, that, of course, is precisely where revolutions come from.

    I want to hear from you about how organizing spills into your “regular” life, and about how applying organizing skills in other contexts has made a difference for your work. And what are you facing that could benefit from some organizing energy?

  • Dodging futility: USING Community Needs Assessments

    One of my contracts this year has been to conduct a community needs assessment for a consortium of nonprofit social service organizations in a community near where I live. There is a lot about the project that has been rewarding for me; I get a kick out of statistical analysis and probing to see what data can tell us.

    But I’m committed to making sure that my consulting practice is way more about meeting the needs of the organizations and communities I serve than it is about satisfying my own intellectual curiosities. So I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how to make this process really work for the organizations and their constituencies, and I’ve been reflecting over the past few weeks about what I’ve learned, and about what lessons those experiences might hold for others undertaking community needs assessments. Unless your history with needs assessments has been much different than mine, you’ve seen how they can sometimes be exercises in futility–things we have to do because some grant requires them, or things we do because we’re not sure where else to start, but things that end up being a whole lot of input and not much in terms of insight.

    And we were intent on avoiding that.

    It’s certainly too soon to tell exactly how successful we’ve been, really. The true test of the impact of this or any research endeavor will be in how people change what they do to respond to what they now know, and, while we’re seeing some evidence of that, the real measure will be over the next few years. But I think it has been a better-than-average effort that avoided some of the common mistakes. Here’s my list of what made some difference:

  • Involve participating organizations in crafting the questions. In some cases, this meant taking some of my $100 words out of the instrument (we field-tested all of the items). But, more than wordsmithing, we solicited ideas from organizations about the kinds of questions to include–what do they wish they knew about the people they serve? What information would help them plan services? What do their donors want to know? This not only improved the quality of the information we collected, but it also helped the process, by engaging organizations more in the work.
  • Turn results around quickly. Too often, we ask service providers to participate in research and then deliver them data 18 months later. That’s a timeline that works in academia (where I spend half of my working life), but it doesn’t work in the field. At all. So, we committed to a timeline that delivered analysis quickly. Yes, it meant that I did a lot of data entry on the weekends (A LOT), but I’d rather work really hard to turn around information that people can use than work pretty hard and deliver something that has lost its relevance. We got preliminary results to nonprofit partners within about 4 weeks of the end of the data collection period.
  • Plan for dissemination from the beginning. We scheduled a community meeting to share the results before we even started to collect data. We included, in an online survey instrument that was completed by more than 500 social service staff and community stakeholders, questions about the formats in which they would most like to receive information resulting from this assessment. And we developed personalized materials for each agency that highlighted the data in which they were most interested, in formats that they said would work for them. Honestly, this didn’t take a lot more work than producing one standard report–it just required planning for it from the start.
  • Cast a wide net. One of the points of analysis that most fascinated me was the discrepancy, in many cases, between what service providers and other “experts” viewed as the most pressing needs for the community and what those reportedly experiencing those needs were really living. In order to test this more fully, we asked many of the same measures about trends in need over the past 12 months, and about the single greatest priority in the community, to both the sample of organizational leaders and to clients of the group of nonprofits. At first, some were skeptical about both aspects of the design: we had some of the traditional push back that “clients won’t want to fill out the survey” and raised eyebrows about whether United Way donors, school district personnel, and government employees were really invested enough in their communities to participate meaningfully. We ended up with a sample of more than 1300 respondents, not maybe as large as my research training would hope but large enough to provide some new guidance in these areas, and we were able to pinpoint places of divergence between conventional wisdom and lived reality: in particular, clients saw their situations as far more stable, if still undesirable, than did the larger community sample of respondents, and they were much less likely to focus attention on their own particular need/niche, as a community priority, than were representatives of that particular constituency (so a parent with young children in need of childcare was more aware of how broader job creation strategies were essential than an employee of an early childhood education organization, who tended to focus more narrowly on that service). We couldn’t have learned this without thinking a bit more loosely about who our “community” is, and who should have a voice.
  • Process matters. I already knew, from my participatory research experiences, that how we ask people to participate in research makes a huge difference for the response (and, then, the ultimate product) we get. Because this community needs assessment involved the participation of many different agencies (and we had relatively little control over how they actually administered the survey, despite our instructions) it ended up providing some rich data for a process evaluation. We found, not surprisingly, that organizations that explained to clients what the assessment was, how it would be used, and how they could access the subsequent results, had far greater participation than those that took participation for granted or, even, implied some coercion. People will share information about their lives, even if it’s sensitive, if they think that it will advance efforts to meet their needs and the needs of others. Otherwise, they’d rather not. Respecting those who share themselves with us, as clients and as research participants, is not just ethical practice, it’s good methodology, too.

    I’d love to hear from others who have conducted community needs assessments about what worked for you–how were your data used, and what did you do to increase their relevance? What lessons can you share about what to do (or not)? What should be the goals of community needs assessments, and how can we structure the processes so these goals are met?