Tag Archives: community organizing

Can advocacy be taught? We try.

This semester, I am back teaching a class that has, over the years, been one of the most rewarding experiences in my academic career: Advanced Advocacy and Community Practice.

It’s controversial, I know, this idea that advocacy can be ‘taught’. I view social work practice the same way, though. Can we really ‘teach’ practice? Absent the context in which to apply the skills and the knowledge?

I view this class, then, as part building blocks–exposing students to some of the components of advocacy practice and, perhaps even more importantly, the resources to which they can turn when they need guidance and assistance in navigating advocacy–and part semester-long pep talk, since I see reluctance to tackle advocacy as, itself, one of the biggest reasons that more social workers haven’t successfully integrated advocacy into their work.

What I love about this course is the moment–maybe as part of practicum, maybe as part of a class assignment, maybe in the course of a class discussion or online discussion board–when students begin to identify as advocates.

Their language begins to change, often, as advocacy becomes ‘something that I do, as part of being a social worker’, instead of something vague and foreign and threatening.

To get there, we do fairly traditional academic exercises: readings, discussions, guest speakers, written assignments.

But I also do a lot of mentoring, even more than I do in my policy courses, and certainly more than students would normally see, as part of graduate study. It is my hope that, as a result of the semester, they not only have a better sense of what needs to go into an advocacy practice, and how to do those things, but also at least one real example of what trying to be an advocate, as a social worker, looks like…as part of their journey to figure out what it could, and should, look like for them.

My plan for this semester is:

  • Help students craft their own definition of ‘advocacy’, so that they can begin to articulate where and how it fits into their social work practice. There’s a real benefit in having these conversations at this point in their nascent careers, when their overall practice is, itself, an evolving work in progress.
  • Critically examine the realities of nonprofit social service agencies as locations for advocacy, so that students have as few illusions as possible about the advantages and disadvantages of their organizations as venues for social change.
  • Encourage self-awareness, one of an organizer’s greatest tools in the long slog that is working for justice.
  • Articulate how being a ‘social work advocate’ is different than other professions’ pursuit of social change, with particular emphasis on helping students navigate the ethical dilemmas that often arise for macro practitioners.
  • Sharpen students’ skills in social problem analysis and, especially, ‘cutting’ issues–while we teach problem analysis from an academic perspective in other courses, students usually have little experience translating their concerns into issues that have a real chance of making it onto the public agenda. This is certainly as much art as science, but we need to help them see that problems aren’t necessarily ‘problems’, just because we think they are bad.
  • Confront power–our own, our clients’, systems’, our targets’…I spend time in just about every class I teach helping my students become more comfortable with power, and power analyses, because no one wins when we pretend that our power doesn’t exist…or, conversely, that it is sufficient.
  • Expose students to real examples of what community organizing and mobilization looks like, which, admittedly, is the hardest piece to replicate in an artificial classroom environment. I try through using readings that bring in different perspectives, copious use of very generous guest speakers, and some film representations.
  • Build frames, because so much of advocacy rests in how we communicate about what our communities need, and why it is in our collective interest to deliver it. This is usually students’ favorite part of the semester, because it’s fascinating to learn new things about how we think about what we think we know…and why.
  • Prepare students for participation in coalitions, often their first opportunity to experience community efforts in action and, unfortunately, often a rather disappointing one.
  • Engage in legislative advocacy, which I intentionally put towards the end of the course, because it’s often the first (and sometimes only) way that students think about ‘advocacy’, and I want to break them out of that more narrow conception of the forms social change can take.
  • Discuss and experience electronic advocacy and the influence of the rise of social media on how people identify as ‘community’ and how they organize themselves.
  • Make plans for integrating advocacy into practice, including (new this semester) assessing students’ current organizations’ advocacy capacity.

Ultimately, the proof is in the pudding, so to speak. While most of the students I’ve taught in this course in the past 5 years have not gone on to be full-time advocates, I believe that they are more politically and macro-engaged than most, although that certainly cannot be causally inferred from their time in my class, since they have to identify as interested in advocacy in order to opt in (and they’re awesome, it should be said, especially since many of them are regular readers!). At some point, it would be cool to do some research about the impact of academic offerings like this. For now, it’s a bit of a walk of faith; I build the best experience I can, promise to walk beside them, and hope that the journey is a fruitful one.

From the outline above, what do you think is missing? What do you wish you had known as you had embarked on your advocacy career, that could have been taught in class? What kinds of experiences are most important for new social workers who hope to have a macro impact? Where would you like to see instructors build these in?

Don’t go right to tactics

It is an axiom in organizing.

You need a strategy before you can craft tactics.

And, yet, we all have an impulse to go straight to tactics. They’re fun. When we’re talking tactics, we can argue about fun things like what time the protest should start and how many buses we’ll need. Instead of agonizing over really hard questions, like what it will really take to get policymakers to prioritize child nutrition, or what kinds of policy changes will best combat obesity.

But this post isn’t about why campaigns fall apart if we skip straight to tactics. There are really great books about organizing–and YouTube videos and TedTalks and smart organizers willing to answer questions–that provide ample evidence (and great stories) to that effect.

It’s a reminder that there’s another reason why we can’t afford to go right to the tactics.

We need to bring our stakeholders along with us.

I see it often, when social work advocates are trying to get their Boards of Directors or CEOs or colleagues to get behind an advocacy initiative. We want to talk about the actions that we have planned, the tactics that we’ll implement. Sometimes it’s because we know that advocacy won’t seem so scary once people know what we really have in mind–we’re not necessarily going to be standing on a street corner in a chicken suit–or because we want to make something that sounds sort of ephemeral–‘advocacy’–really concrete.

But that’s an error, on our part. It creates the very real possibility that quibbles about tactics become reasons not to do advocacy at all, because we haven’t first come to agreement on the goals. It expects that people will leap ahead with us, when they deserve to understand the vision–and have an opportunity to shape it–rather than just being asked to show up.

If we want people to share our excitement, to buy into our plan, then we need to articulate the goals, instead of immediately thinking about how we’re going to make XYZ happen.

We need to paint a picture for how the world will look different if we pull this off.

It invites people to think about the value of this advocacy for your organization, as well as the real possibility for abiding social change. It allows you to craft, together, metrics for success that measure things that really matter.

It answers the question, “Why should they care?”

And, then, they’ll want to help you figure out the slogan for those t-shirts you need to print up.

I promise.

Make sure they know what to do: Clarity combats exhaustion, which can look like apathy

My husband and I have a sort of running joke (well, several, but only one relevant here). Whenever he asks me what I’m doing, or what’s going on, I say “advocacy”.

See, the thing is, I talk about advocacy ALL THE TIME.

Shocking, I know.

My preoccupation with the term is evident from my job titles. I am an advocacy technical assistance provider. A public policy advocate. An advisor to the Advocacy Fellows.

And, of course, in my free time, just a regular ‘advocate’.

But the reason that it’s funny, too, is that it’s a word that doesn’t necessarily tell someone much. I mean, what’s ‘advocacy’ to me may not be ‘advocacy’ to someone else. So I can throw it around (and, guilty as charged, sometimes do) without having to really articulate what in the world it is that I mean by it.

And, you know, that’s not too helpful, not when we really want people to advocate.

And not when, by that, what we mean is “organize your friends and neighbors” or “call your legislator” or “write a letter to the editor” or “speak up at the next meeting”.

My favorite part of Switch is this section with studies about how having to make a lot of decisions actually exhausts us, to the point to which it can look like we don’t care. They say that explains why we’re so tired after going shopping (and here I thought it was just because I really don’t like to buy things).

That means that, sometimes, what looks like apathy can really just be exhaustion; people can be literally too tired to do what it is that we want/need them to do, after the effort of figuring out what it is that we want/need them to do, even if they really want/need to do it, too.

This is a big problem, especially since we’re much more likely to spend our energy trying to convince people that they should “advocate”, instead of explaining exactly what that means, what it will look like, and how they can do it.

When they don’t do anything, we call it resistance. Or apathy. Instead of fatigue. Because, to us, how can they be tired? They didn’t do anything! Except they really did–they tried to figure out what to do, and that effort can wear us out.

My favorite part within this favorite part, then, is an experiment where researchers identified those within a college dorm most likely to give to a food drive (they called them ‘saints’) and those least likely to give (‘jerks’). Then they asked both groups to give, except they gave the ‘jerks’ explicit instructions about what to take, and where, even with a map. The saints just got the appeal.

Who gave more?

Those who knew exactly what they needed to do.

And this, people, is really, really, really awesome news. Because, as the authors of Switch conclude, it means that we don’t need to spend our time searching for saints, or trying to cultivate saintliness from mere mortals.

We don’t necessarily need more saints, because jerks with maps will do just fine.

And we can do maps.

What would be super-clear look like in your work? Where can we replace ‘advocacy’ with something that means a whole lot more, to more people? How can we resist our temptation to call it apathy, instead of figuring out if people know exactly what we need them to do? And where do you see this in your own life? And, dare I say it, in your own advocacy?

Third-order Engagement: Friends don’t let friends advocate alone

While I admit that I’m slow to getting around to try out all of the really exciting tools that I learn about on Beth Kanter’s blog, it’s a very fertile place for new ideas about revolutionizing nonprofits, and it’s the first blog I make a point to check in on when I want to be challenged and reconnected to the field.

Often, posts about technology in nonprofit organizations lead me to think, also, about offline applications of the same concepts, which is exactly the case with this post from this archived post about “third-order engagement.”

The idea, after all, isn’t very high-tech: People are more likely to get excited about something that their friends are excited about. And they’re more likely to be receptive to messages that are conveyed by those with whom they already have a strong relationship.

As the blog post describes, this makes sense for for-profit companies that are learning to facilitate consumers sharing information about products with friends who might want to buy them, too, as well as for nonprofit organizations that can see big dividends when they make it easy for donors and others to find out how their friends are engaged with the same organization, too.

And, of course, it has important advocacy implications.

Are our advocacy efforts set up to make it easy for people to “invite” friends to take a stand with them (with talking points that someone new to the effort can relate to, and engaging actions that people will find enjoyable, and explicit assistance to help people approach friends about the cause)?

Are we investing heavily in our strongest advocates’ potential to bring in new activists, rather than pushing out all of the asks ourselves? Are we moving people from engagement to leadership, and encouraging them to bring their friends along with them? Are we recognizing advocates’ successes in enlarging the pool of the committed, as a “win” in itself? Do we actively solicit new contacts from our current cadre, and do we use technology (databases, social networks) that allow advocates to find other friends and to connect relationally with other activists?

Do we spend at least as much time cultivating a grassroots base as we do trying to mobilize that base towards specific targets?

And, as advocates ourselves, do we make sure that our friends understand why we’re engaged in specific causes, and what that work means for their own lives, and how they can play a part in the effort with us? Do they know that they are welcome, and needed, and valued?

The explosion of social media, and their expansion into every aspect of life, illustrates the fundamental truth that we are relational beings.

That’s true in our social change work, too.

No one should be advocating alone, especially not in this connected age, when so many messages and issues are competing for attention.

After all, when we take a stand, wouldn’t we rather not stand alone?

Can we ever applaud too much?

Note: Next week is spring break, and I have made the executive decision that I’m taking the week off from blogging. I’ll spend the extra time hanging out with my kiddos, no doubt giving them A LOT of positive feedback.

I swear; I don’t know how I ever managed to be an organizer before I was a parent.

It seems like nearly every day I have an insight, related to life with my young children, that has relevance for my social change work.
Lately, it has been this: we can absolutely never, ever applaud too much the actions we want to see continue.

We’ve been working on this with our kids, especially my oldest son. It sounds ridiculous to us, “Hey, way to go taking your plate to the kitchen.” “Did you notice he just came right upstairs when I asked?” “Boys, great job playing kindly with each other!” “I hear friendly talking—I love it!”

But it never gets old to them. In fact, if we recognize one of them, the others will try to outdo each other, pointing out their own good behavior, seeking the same accolades. And it becomes a positive cycle—they improve their behavior in order to get more positive feedback, which prompts more of it from our end, in turn.

And nonprofit organizations have gotten this message on the donor cultivation side; when we make a financial contribution, we expect to receive a thank-you note, our annual reports list our donors, and we often publicly recognize those whose contributions have made investments in our organizations.

But do we recognize our advocates enough?

Do we send out “success alerts” or “thank-you alerts” as frequently as “take action” ones? Do we invest in tools that can tell us when people have responded to our alerts, so that we can directly and personally honor their commitment? Do we spend as much time talking about what went well, as dissecting what went wrong? Do we recognize the kinds of actions that we want to see repeated, even when the outcome falls short—so that every phone call to a legislator or grassroots member recruited is celebrated, even long before we achieve the policy changes that are our goals? Do we use the pages of our websites, newsletters, and annual reports to highlight “star advocates” the same way that we call out donors? Do we recognize and appreciate and reward advocacy intent and activist activity over and over and over again?

If not, isn’t it worth trying?

Because, really, if a tactic is powerful enough to get my boys to stay in their beds until their fishtank light switches on at 6:45AM, it’s powerful enough to motivate people to overcome our own reservations about collective action and join together to push for social change.

If incessant applause can get my daughter to stop taking off her shoes and leaving them all around the house, it can change the world.

Acting from identity

I’ve written before about what doesn’t motivate people to take action, to become part of movements larger than themselves—it’s not about the cookies. We know that relationships move people, and that’s why grassroots organizing works, and has worked, throughout history.

But in Switch, (which is super worth reading) there was a really fascinating insight into why people come to advocacy and collective action, and it has added a new layer to my thinking about how to connect to people’s values. The authors make the distinction between decisions made based on consequences—what are the costs and benefits of a particular action—and decisions made based on identity—what kind of person am I, and what kinds of actions does that kind of person take. And they present findings from psychological studies that suggest that people make these advocacy-type decisions primarily from an identity perspective.

What we have to do, then, is help people forge identities as advocates, because, once they see themselves as the kind of people who take actions like this, then they will. And they’ll be consistently committed to activism, even when the stakes are high, the costs are huge, and the benefits are elusive and in the distant future. Because, well, it’s who they are.

But the most exciting part of what the authors present in Switch is the evidence that identities can be forged. People can be primed to begin to see themselves as advocates, and we can help them to incorporate advocacy into their sense of self. It requires helping people to take actions that are small, at first, to bring them into a network of advocates in ways that are fairly comfortable for where they see themselves today, in a process of expanding their identities to encompass advocacy. Where that starts will be different for different issues and different constituencies, but the process is essentially the same…we stop trying to convince people to do something that’s a considerable stretch for them, and instead work to help people see themselves as the kind of people for whom advocacy is completely natural.

I had just finished reading Switch when I was on a conference call talking about advocacy in the anti-immigrant climate. Two of the people on the call identified their affiliations, as they were, as “community activist” or “community leader.” With this idea of identity-based decision-making fresh in my mind, it sparked a realization: people who define themselves as “activists” are of course going to behave very differently, when presented with advocacy opportunities, than those who lack this identity. But the evidence suggests that people don’t even need to have embraced the advocate identity that thoroughly in order to shift how they see themselves operating within a political context. Even relatively small acts, like signing a petition or putting a sign in one’s window can be the priming that people need to move seamlessly to much larger actions.

I think, really, that we’re part of the reason why this apparently natural psychological transformation gets messed up sometimes, honestly. We make a mistake when we try to talk someone into taking a small advocacy action by prefacing the request with all kinds of disclaimers, about how it’s “not a big deal,” or it’s “just this one little thing,” or “I know you might not have time for this,” because such caveats can push the activity to a sort of marginalized place in one’s sense of self, such that it doesn’t really become integrated into how we see ourselves. They might still do it, but it would be more as a favor to you, or to get you to go away, and that doesn’t shape the way we think about ourselves.

At least, to my non-psychologist’s brain, that makes sense.

I think we facilitate this identity formation when we, instead, invite people warmly and comfortably into a relatively small action, connecting it to the values we know they hold, and making that linkage explicit by saying things like, “I thought that you’d want to sign this petition because you care so much about kids’ access to education.” Or “we’re asking everyone who is committed to ending poverty to come to this forum, so I wanted to make sure you had the information.” Because then they see themselves as, yes, exactly the kind of person who cares about kids’ education or wants to end poverty, and, well, next month, if people like them are writing letters to Congress or attending a house party for a candidate, well, then…

you know us…that’s what we do.

I thought you’d feel that way.

They’re not apathetic; we’re off-base

It’s almost an axiom among those of us who consider ourselves activists, right?

They (read: those who didn’t come to our meeting, or won’t share our links on Facebook, or don’t have a sign in their yard) just don’t care.

They’re apathetic. Or ignorant. Or confused.

Except, most probably, they’re not.

I’ve long believed that the real answer to getting people engaged with social change struggles is to find an issue that really connects with them. You can’t tell me that people who will take a day of work with no pay to stand in the snow for 5 hours, because they’re so mad that the law changed and they can’t get driver’s licenses are apathetic. I won’t believe you.

So, when people don’t show up to whatever we, in good faith, organize, I argue that it’s probably our fault.

Maybe we’re the ones who really wanted to have that meeting, and there wasn’t an authentic demand for action from people. Maybe we haven’t made a clear connection between the action we want people to take and the change that they can expect to result. Maybe we haven’t helped them to claim their own power, so they have a hard time understanding why it makes any difference if they show up or not. Maybe the issues that we think matter the most aren’t those that most immediately resonate.

Or maybe all of the above.

That’s why I love this story from iconic organizer Shel Trapp, co-founded of the National Training and Information Center (that’s old-school Chicago-style organizing, for us social work types). You should read the excerpt, because I doubt I can do it justice, but the essence is this:

An organizer goes door-to-door in a neighborhood trying to get people excited about working on school reform, because the local school was woefully overcrowded and neglected. No one was anything more than polite, and he was discouraged. He switched tactics, then, and started asking people what their greatest concerns were. It took awhile, but, finally, one woman expressed her frustration with the shopping carts that people took from the local supermarket and left all around the neighborhood. She felt they were a blight and a nuisance. The organizer was perplexed, at first, then incredulous–with everything going on around them, how could they identify the shopping carts as the greatest priority?

Still, a growing number of people kept coming to the meetings to talk about what to do about the shopping carts, and an action at the grocery store resulted in a victory: poles in front of the store to keep the carts from leaving the property.

At the celebration, a woman turned the conversation to the overcrowding at the school. Emboldened, empowered, and heard for the first time, they were ready to tackle the next fight.

So low turnout, or lack of enthusiasm among those we are seeking to organize, should cause us to look in the mirror. Could it be that we’re trying to sell issues that they’re not interested in buying, at least not right now? Could it be that we’re guilty of the same sins of which we accuse our targets–taking our communities for granted, expecting them to acquiesce to someone else’s agenda, and blaming them for acting in completely understandable ways?

Does anyone have a “shopping cart story” of their own to share? A moment when shifting your perspective helped you to connect more meaningfully with those with whom you were working? An anecdote of when apathy was revealed to be something else entirely?