Tag Archives: advocacy

Storytelling, advocacy, and social change

In my advocacy capacity building work with nonprofit direct service agencies, the tasks we tackle together are intentionally individualized.

Each organization gets to direct the work, based on its own assessment of the types of capacity most needed.

So the process ends up looking quite different, depending on the leadership and the landscape.

But nearly universal is an emphasis on storytelling, a sort of global recognition that nonprofit advocates need to get better at telling our own stories–about why this work resonates with us–and at identifying and deploying stories about the need and the impact (especially about the need and the impact, side-by-side).

So I end up doing a lot of storytelling workshops, helping nonprofit staff and clients ‘unpack’ their own stories and get more comfortable inserting them into the collective narrative about these issues and why they matter.

And, so, I’m always looking for new resources to help with that.

Recently, I found this Storytelling and Social Change guide, available for free download.

It’s part compilation, part how-to guide, part inspiration, and part theoretical foundation–bringing together how and why storytelling works, the different forms it can take (case studies, video testimonials, storybanks, theater, individual narratives), the purposes it can serve (learn, organize, educate, advocate), and the motivation we may need to prioritize story compilation and story deployment as part of our communications approaches.

It’s written primarily for grantmakers, but there is valuable content for nonprofit organizations, too, as well as the important advantage that comes from thinking about how your funders think.

The profiles included also reference the funder that supports them, which is a practice I wish more nonprofit publications would employ, as it helps to demystify the ‘advocacy funding’ world for nonprofits trying to break into it, as well as break down the power divide that separates foundation from grantee.

And it has examples of storytelling for social change today and throughout social movement history, in very brief snapshots, which may help reluctant Board members, employees, clients, or partners recognize how their own stories can be valuable.

It has already informed some of my storytelling training, particularly in brainstorming other story modalities and thinking about how I frame the ‘why’ of storytelling. I’d love to hear from anyone else who has reviewed or is using the guide, about what you find valuable, what you think is missing, and what role stories play in your advocacy.

We all have a story to tell, and we can all get better at telling it.

Increasingly, I am coming to believe that, if we want to change the world, then we must.

Not a fortress mom

Photo credit, alex ranaldi, via Flickr, Creative Commons license

Photo credit, alex ranaldi, via Flickr, Creative Commons license

I am not a ‘fortress mom’.

I mean, yes, I try to feed my kids healthy food, even though I can’t keep up with which plastics that I’m supposed to be worried about.

And I spend time working with Sam’s teacher and helping him pursue his education–we definitely fall into that category of upper-middle class parents using our resources for our children’s educational benefit.

What I mean is that I don’t consider it my job, or even desirable, to try to keep danger and threat and harm away from my children through sheer force of my will, or an abundance of cautious planning.

I’m not interested in trying to put up walls to keep out the world.

And I refuse to spend my energy policing their every move.

Instead, I feel called, as a parent and, I think, as a social worker, to care for my children–and, by extension–all children, through changing the systems that affect the world in which my children will grow up.

It is so tempting to revert to the individual sphere to cope with our fears and concerns, since, even on the household level, they are plenty overwhelming.

But I believe in the quote that is the header on this blog, that “The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life.”

It’s not that I don’t care–obviously, I hope–about my children’s well-being.

It’s just that I’m not too interested in trying to squeeze what I can for them, if that leaves less for everyone else, or in retreating inward as a way of protection, because it’s really not.

This ‘environment’ that parents are so concerned about–the influences on our children, the pressures, the pollution–isn’t some personified enemy to be vanquished or, at least, contained.

Instead, of course, it’s multiple and overlapping systems that can and must be manipulated to bring better outcomes.

The societal problems that I worry about for my kids:

  • Raising daughters in a gendered world, still rife with sexual violence, pay inequality, and unmanageable expectations of body image
  • The inability of public education to adequately meet the needs, most days, of an extremely bright child with simultaneous sensory concerns
  • The difficulty of navigating our food system for health and wholeness and the inundation of distorted messages about food and nutrition
  • Violence that stems in large part from marginalization and growing inequality and the intrusion of the same into our most sacred spheres

are not my problems, but, instead, our collective challenges, to confront…together.

I’m not spending much time helping my kids cope with injustices we should not tolerate.

I’m not taking on the stresses that come from prescribing individual lifestyle changes as the ‘cure’ for societal malaise.

As a family, we’re looking outward, as much as we can, and teaching the kids that it’s okay to question why structures are the way they are, and why outcomes are so often unequal.

I’m advocating for more funding and stronger supports for public schools, better nutrition in the lunchroom, a fairer criminal justice system, immigration laws that make sense for our future and affirm our shared past, and gender equity enshrined in laws and seared into our hearts.

And I’m showing the kids how we do this work together, rather than seal ourselves off.

Because there’s no wall high enough to keep out the world.

Even if I was trying to build it.

List o’ Inspiration

To close out Inspiration Week, here is a list of some tidbits that I’ve been hanging onto, which I’m hoping you might find uplifting, as we embrace (or at least, stumble through) this new year. Of course, I’m crowdsourcing, too–please share your inspirations (images, quotes, facts) for 2014, too!

  • Study finds that students learn more from non-tenure track professors–affirmation, for me, of my decision not to pursue my PhD and full-time academic life
  • From Bolder Advocacy, Lobbying Lessons from Diana Nyad (who is an inspiration herself)
  • Missouri advocates for tax and budget equity sustained Governor Nixon’s veto of a drastic tax cut bill last summer, and now they’re gearing up for campaigns for progressive revenue policies in Missouri, with messages about how we get the government (and services) we’re willing to fund–awesome.
  • Building Movement Project’s invigorated blog, mostly written by the dynamic (and generous and kind) Executive Director, Sean Thomas-Breitfeld, which had this post on direct service organizations using the implementation of the Affordable Care Act (and associated outreach) as an opportunity for movement-building. A thousand times, yes.
  • Bolder Advocacy’s continued, exemplary, essential efforts to support nonprofit advocacy, like this ‘checklist’ for community foundations to assess their support for advocacy
  • MomsRising’s incredible advocacy–here, there’s so much to love: the identification of a somewhat unlikely advocacy target (the Department of Labor, on pay gaps) and action request (better data with which to understand the scope of the pay gap problem)

Your inspirations?

We’re going to need them!

Borrowing from the kids: More Inspiration!

sarah

It’s still Inspiration Week here, before we turn our eyes to the serious challenges awaiting us in 2014 (and, yes, that’s coming–I’ve been working on posts for next week about inequality).

But, today, even though it’s not Thanksgiving and it’s not even Sarah Hale’s birthday, I’m writing about my favorite children’s book: Thank You, Sarah.

Because, see, I think we can all use some reminding in this new year, that these are not the first hard times. Instead, Sarah Hale did her advocacy during the period leading up to and during the Civil War–unarguably even more divisive than today’s budget battles.

And we are not the first to feel overburdened by life and inconvenienced by the need to advocate for our most cherished ideals. She had five children and no dishwasher, for crying out loud.

What she had was her ‘secret weapon’, a pen.

And being ‘bold and brave and stubborn and smart’, which I’m really, really hoping someone will put on my tombstone.

I love the pictures of Sarah writing letters by candlelight while her kids sleep.

And the part where my daughter always cheers, when “Lincoln said yes! Lincoln said yes!” (to making Thanksgiving a national holiday)

And how the book shows the waiting that is part of the advocacy process, too, an important reminder that we are not the first to struggle against our impatience, either.

If you need inspiration to face 2014’s problems, maybe it can be this: “never underestimate dainty little ladies”, with pens, and conviction.

Thank you, Sarah. We know we’re going to need it.

Inspiration Week!

So we started the year with a giveaway, and the love is still coming!

This week, I’m sharing posts on topics and resources that I find inspiring, in the sincere hope that you will, too.

First, the third report in the Building Movement Project’s 5% shift series. I was honored, last fall, to be part of a national webinar for Grassroots Grantmakers, with BMP, to talk about the 5% shift project and how nonprofit, direct service organizations, can make changes within the footprint of their current operations that help them to move towards a social change orientation.

This third report highlights organizations whose transformations are a bit more fundamental, though, in my assessment, since both integrated a social change orientation into multiple parts of their organizations’ operations, albeit in steps that, individually, were not radical.

What I love most about this effort from Building Movement Project is that it practices what it preaches, in essence–by approaching the work from a nonjudgmental and affirming perspective, it encourages organizations to find a way–any way–to weave advocacy and addressing root causes into their operations, rather than expecting agencies to pivot dramatically.

And it connects the dots, so that revising staff job descriptions to include advocacy, for example, is seen not as a token effort or a disconnected process, but as part of a larger effort to align organizational resources with a pursuit of transformational change.

In this way, lots of 5%s can really add up.

Advocacy Anytime Everywhere

book

Chapter 3 in Social Change Anytime Everywhere is really the heart of the book, I think, for many nonprofit practitioners. There are tons of great examples about organizations effectively using multichannel strategies (email, Facebook, text messaging) to engage and activate their constituencies around their causes.

And there are specific suggestions about how to make these tools work for you, which is why I can imagine some busy nonprofit communications/resource development/advocacy professionals skipping right to chapter 3 and making notes on a legal pad of things that they just have to try.

Among the ideas that were bookmarked in my copy:

  • Share progress on your interim goals–particularly when looking at long-term policy changes–with your online community.
  • Outline the specific actions you want people to take, but don’t oversimplify; if there’s no obvious alignment between the action and the seriousness of the problem, people won’t do anything, not because they don’t care or they’re too busy, but because you haven’t made the stakes explicit.
  • Choose your targets carefully–we are too quick, I think, in advocacy, to think that our targets have to be members of Congress, or state legislators, when there are valid reasons to identify non-governmental actors or, even, elected officials from other levels of government, as the targets. And you can use different approaches, different messages, and different appeals to different constituencies with these targets, which enlarges your potential sphere of activism.
  • Tailor your messages not just to your audience, but also to your channel. Yeah, we can’t just cut and paste our policy briefs into emails, but we shouldn’t have our Facebook feed into our Twitter, either. We can’t engage people through multiple channels if we are saying the same things across all platforms.
  • We are way, way, way underutilizing mobile technology; nonprofits in the developing world, by necessity, are considerably ahead of us on this, using missed calls, for example, as ‘petition signatures’ on campaigns, following up on advocacy alerts with brief texts, sharing data through QR codes, adding real value to our constituents with well-done mobile apps.

Question: What challenge, relating to online advocacy, is your organization grappling with right now? What questions do you think that you have to overcome, in order to move forward? What potential outcome excites you most, in thinking about the advocacy ‘pay off’ of multiple channel engagement? What question are you embarrassed to ask, that is keeping you up at night?

Principles for ‘Anytime Everywhere’ Advocacy

book

The five principles for ‘anytime everywhere’ social change identified in the book are:

1. Identify your community from the crowd
2. Focus on shared goals
3. Choose tools for discovery and distribution
4. Highlight personal stories
5. Build a movement

When I started reading, #5 stopped me.

I mean, ‘build a movement’ as an item on a to-do list? Sure, we would all like to have a movement around our issues, but I had a hard time seeing how instructing us to build one counts as a ‘principle’, as reminding us that we can’t get to engagement without leveraging personal stories is.

But the way that the authors talk about movement building, I get how this commandment is an important reminder about the way we need to work. It’s about co-creation, letting go of our imagined control so that people are working our issues alongside us, not ‘under’ or ‘for’ us. Most significantly, the book has several very concrete examples of how this movement-building can look, including what it ‘costs’ an organization, psychically, to commit to this style of engagement.

Movement building, understood in this space, requires identifying the collaborators who can help your organization ‘open up’, so that your next campaign is about the larger movement/cause, instead of about your organization. It means unbranding, to an extent, and getting out of the way. It focuses on impact, and rigorous assessment through metrics, so that ‘loose’ doesn’t devolve into ‘untraceable’.

It’s about more than crowdsourcing, because you’re not trying to get the ‘crowd’ to circle back to you. It’s more of a ‘send the dove forth from the ark’ sort of thing. When your movement leaders don’t come back, you rely on your measures to let you know that’s a very, very good thing.

Question: Who are your collaborators? Who would carry forth your cause, if you encouraged them? Who is already free-agenting for you? What shifts would it take within your organization to get more comfortable with these movement actors and their roles? How can you cultivate those?