Tag Archives: community organizing

Stuff I Love

It’s Valentine’s Day.

And, you know, I’ll admit that it’s not much of a holiday around here–we fall into the “it’s a commercialized ploy that doesn’t capture our feelings for each other” camp.

But, perhaps in an effort to demonstrate that I, too, can pour forth my feelings on February 14th, here is some stuff I totally love.

What are you loving this Valentine’s Day?

There’s a lot of love to go around, folks.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Making Social Justice Personal

Last week, the Sunflower Foundation Advocacy Fellowship had our session on grassroots organizing. Its inclusion in the year-long advocacy development program is one of my very favorite things about the initiative and, indeed, one of the distinguishing characteristics of the Sunflower Foundation’s approach to nonprofit advocacy.

I love, love, love that the Foundation understands that organized constituencies are our most vital resource, and that the Fellows are encouraged to think critically about how their organizations can meaningfully connect with those they serve, so that, together, they can create the future we so desperately need.

There’s something incredibly hopeful about starting an intense discussion about nonprofit advocacy with a focus on those we serve–and how we can win victories for justice only by releasing their full participation and their latent power. We start with strategies and the tactics that should flow from them, and think about how to organize so that those tactics work. Only after we’ve built plans to engage our grassroots do we turn to legislative advocacy and message development and even organizational capacity-building.

It’s “begin where our clients are”, translated for macro practice and supported by Foundation resources. And that’s pretty awesome.

But it’s one particular moment from last year’s grassroots organizing session that reverberated in my mind during these past several days, making it clear that it had a tremendous effect on me.

And so I’m repeating it here, and figuring out how I might weave it into my work with social service organizations trying to develop grassroots strategies, and with social workers who are struggling to understand why power is so essential to the realization of our visions, and how we can not only get comfortable with it, but, indeed, embrace it and its pursuit.

The trainer was Rudy Lopez, from the Center for Community Change, and the exercise was this:

Rudy had us close our eyes and think about the one person in our lives that we care about the most–the person whom we most can’t stand to think about being harmed. (This is part of the reason that this exchange sticks in my mind, I think, because I immediately thought about my oldest son, and it’s kind of odd that he’d so quickly come to mind, more than my other kids.) He then prompted us to think about something bad happening to that person, which, for me and for others, was a terribly difficult assignment, even for a few hypothetical seconds.

And then the kicker:

Rudy asked us to imagine that we had the power to stop that pain from happening to the special person in our minds. What would we do with that power?

It sounds simple, I know, but what ran through my mind instantly was this, “I need that power, to keep Sam safe.”

And what I didn’t realize, I guess, without the advantage of months of mental simmering, was that this moment catapulted me into not just being comfortable with power but really craving it, for the “right” reason of wanting to help someone else. Yes, it’s on a very personal level, and, yes, maybe it’s easier to relate when it’s a child you love instead of a community of strangers…but maybe not.

The next step, of course, is to build relationships so that we love, even deeply, beyond our more intimate circles. Then, we’ll reach for the power that would let us protect and serve and support them, too.

Because, the truth is, there is real pain threatening those we love, every day.

And we seldom have the power we need to do much about it.

But it doesn’t have to be like that.

Parenting Resolutions and Social Justice

I have 3-year-old twins.

So, yeah, I hear “I do it!” dozens of times a day.

While my gut reaction, at 6:45AM when I’m just really, really wishing I could sit down with a glass of iced tea (no one wants to see me on coffee-strength caffeine!) and scan the headlines, is often, “Seriously, let me spread the butter on your pancake, sweetheart,” this year I’m vowing to think differently about this.

Because, really, if I’m going to live empowerment, it needs to even start first thing in the morning.

What is “I do it myself!” anyway, if not an expression of our universal need to demonstrate our abilities, and to control our own worlds, and to define our own interactions? What else explains the look of utter triumph on my daughter’s face when she gets her own shoes on, or my son’s glee when he tells his father that he put his own underwear on?

Small victories become not so small when we’re conquering helplessness and overcoming others’ limited expectations of us.

In 2012, I promise to offer my kids more chances to do for themselves, and more understanding of why that matters so much. The same way that, as an organizer, I try to default to others’ own efforts on their own behalf, to accept and celebrate their attempts to do for themselves, rather than taking the easy way out–making breakfast before the kids get up, or just getting the agenda done on my own, or striking a deal with the city councilmember when we see each other at a committee meeting.

When we’re building capacity and helping people to claim their own power, “easy” isn’t what matters. There’s no extra credit for shortcuts. Instead, people should authentically own their own experiences and have room to try on their own.

Whether they’re 3 or 43.


Connected Citizens in the New Year

I read the Knight Foundation’s Connected Citizens report (subtitled, “The Power, Potential, and Peril of Networks”) a few months ago (it came out in late April, I think, but, giving birth kind of put me behind in my reading this year), and I’ve been thinking about it more lately as I look to the future, especially since the report is, itself, in part an effort to predict where and how networks may change our lives and our efforts for social change, in the years to come.

I expect that some of the questions the report poses, and some of the hypotheses it suggests, will filter into my thinking and writing about advocacy (especially in the online context) and community organizing over the coming year, but here are my reactions as we straddle this period between the past and the future, at the (almost) dawn of 2012.

  • Do we truly have greater transparency today? Or does the proliferation of information mean that it’s that much easier to hide the important stuff, in the midst of a lot that doesn’t matter? I’m torn about this, really–on the one hand, there’s the demise of traditional investigative journalism, with all that that means for our ability to uncover the truth and publicize it; on the other, there’s the rise of citizen-supported journalism and independent cataloguing of so much that happens in our world. I know it sounds clichéd, but it’s like “the truth is out there,” but will we be able to find and recognize it, in the middle of so much…stuff? And what does that mean for our efforts to be megaphones for the voices that are so often silenced, as we know we must, in order to truly empower those whose stories need to become part of our policy narratives? Since policymakers are vulnerable to this same information overload, how do we push past the noise to be heard?
  • Will technology enable us to turn ever-more inward, or seek and build alliances with unlikely partners? Or both? How do we resist the tendency towards silos, or, indeed, is such homogeneity all bad, in terms of building strong identity? Since, again, policymakers are people, too, how will their increasing reliance on what their “friends” prefer, in terms of policy approaches, and, indeed, even what their social networks hold as “truth” and “information” impact our ability to construct policy solutions that can cross rigid ideological lines? I’m not too optimistic, really.
  • How can we engage our crowds so that the barrier to participation is minimal but still meaningful? As the default for “participation” becomes quick engagement, how do we invest in the deeper relationships that are truly transformational?
  • Social workers know how to “design for serendipity.” From our direct practice experiences, we get the idea that we cannot predict outcomes flawlessly but must, instead, create the spaces (physically and, more importantly socially and psychologically) for real magic to happen in people’s lives. This makes us, I believe, champion “network weavers”, if we can leverage those clinical skills into social change work.
  • Anyone who has ever read the comments on an online newspaper article about immigration policy knows the link between anonymity and the deterioration of dialogue in a public sphere. The challenge here, as we increasingly shift to broader conversations detached from a local, identified context, is to figure out how to cultivate relationships that breed accountability while taking advantage of the boundary-less nature of online networks.
  • We can all get excited about the rise of mutual support and the tremendous potential of networks to address real, pressing need. But we should also be very afraid of the parallel risk that such indigenous resource provision becomes an excuse for abdication of our collective (read: public) (read: we still need taxes) responsibility to uphold the social contract and provide for the needs of those without strong networks in the first place (because such network resources are, like nearly everything else in this world, not evenly distributed).

    Again, there’s more there than what I’ve captured here, including some thoughts relevant to my work with the Sunflower Foundation, particularly this question of whether measuring network health and strength can tell you how close you’re getting to a desired change, given that networks are, by definition, rather uncontrollable and certainly dynamic entities. But, in chiming in so late on the conversation, I’m partly hoping to restart it a bit, since we know that we’ll be dealing, increasingly, with networks in our work in the years to come–indeed, they may become the default way of approaching our shared concerns–and we need to understand how to engage them effectively, how to critically evaluate their roles and their shortcomings, and how their existence will shape ours.

  • Is it time to up the ante?

    I know, things are hard enough these days, without going out and looking for trouble, right?

    And, yet, here we are.

    Here’s the problem: there’s increasing evidence, I believe, that the kinds of online advocacy about which we were so excited just a few years ago are, in fact, too easy.

    Because we’re not the only ones who know that it doesn’t take much to get people to sign an online petition or click to send an email to their member of Congress (I know, it’s sometimes not as easy as it sounds, but that, unfortunately, usually has more to do with the nature of our relationships with those we’re trying to get to advocate than with the actual, technical difficulty of taking that particular action, and that’s an entirely different problem.)

    A relatively recent survey of nonprofit activity on Facebook, for example, found that, while only 40% of organizations were able to convert their Facebook fans into donors or volunteers, about 66% saw an increase in people taking an advocacy action. And while that sounds great, because we can always use more activists, it makes me wonder:

    If it’s known that people would rather sign a petition than give you a dollar, how much is that signature really worth?

    This is related, too, to the common wisdom (enforced by our own experiences) that there’s just SO MUCH out there, and that it can be hard to sort through all of that information. Certainly policymakers feel that way, too, which contributes to their desire to wade through the noise and find that which most resonates with them. Since we can’t count on always aligning with their way of seeing the world, or having their trusted advisors lend us their voices, that means that we need to either make a compelling case related to their constituency (harder to do, somewhat ironically, in the context of online global networking, because of difficulties precisely locating advocates’ geographies) or develop powerful actions that can rise above the chatter…or both.

    This question, and the doubt it reflects, matters not just in the short-term, when we really want people to listen to what our advocates are saying. Ultimately, key to building strong movements is people’s recognition that their individual contributions are, collectively, part of something far greater. And, so, if that’s not really the case–if me calling my member of Congress on my own would really make a bigger impact than joining with others to sign a petition or click “like”, then am I really part of a movement after all?

    Are we authentically inviting people to transcend themselves and transform their lives, with the sacrifices that such affiliation entails? Or are we selling them the idea of advocacy, in a way that may forever distort their understanding of the real thing? If it’s the latter, what will that mean for the times when we have a really big “ask” of our advocates, if we haven’t been building, at all, but rather engaging in a sort of pseudo-organizing?

    Lest we start off the last month of this year with a complete downer, I think that there are some real opportunities to utilize some of the same utilities on which we currently rely to leverage advocacy with real impact. Here are some of my ideas, and I’d love to hear yours, both in your reaction to this whole “time for a game-changer” proposition, and for ways to maximize the power of our online advocacy strategies and dodge the impotent, as we continually react to how our successes raise the stakes.

  • One of the most promising findings from the Idealware Facebook survey was the more than 70% of organizations who attracted new attendees to their events using social media. If we’re building advocacy into all of our events, as well as using social networking to recuit new participants to advocacy-focused events, there’s obvious potential to build momentum for our work using “new” technologies to drive the oldest of organizing axioms: turnout matters.
  • There are some really inspiring and exciting examples of organizations (and, indeed, individuals, who are perhaps naturally better at this than our fortresses!) using online networks to implement completely nontraditional campaigns. There’s no law that says that your online “ask” has to be a petition or an email. Again, sometimes we make the mistake of requesting relatively little, because we think that’s all we can get, when digging deeper, and inviting our advocates to do the same, can both strengthen our relationship and amplify our voice.
  • Those online petitions or social media “fans” don’t have to be THE campaign, and, indeed, they often are not. But when we organize an event to deliver a stack of letters to a policymaker (complete with compelling personal testimonies, appropriate media pressure, and the inclusion of unlikely allies) are we making sure that that effort echoes with those who originally took the online action, so that they see how it fits into the larger strategy and see how they might, in the future, play an expanded role?

    What do you think? What should be the measures by which we judge the effectiveness of our online advocacy strategies–number of participants, or vigor of engagement, or tangible policy changes? Is what we’re doing working, or is it time to push forward?

  • 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.

    Ethics and Advocacy, de nuevo

    We're held to the same Code of Ethics, even with the "holes"

    It’s “update” week at Classroom to Capitol.

    As I read through previous posts for my summer maternity break hiatus, I found a few that I really wanted to revisit, rather than repost. This is the first of the three that I have chosen for this week, with new thoughts and, of course, new questions.

    One of the first twenty or so posts that I wrote for this blog, back in June 2009, dealt with the ethical challenges faced by advocates, organizers, and other macro practitioners. I outlined some of the biggest holes, as I see them, in the NASW Code of Ethics, and how vague, contradictory, or rather unworkable guidance there can cause problems for those of us whose social work practice doesn’t really conform to the traditional, agency-based, more direct interaction model.

    I continue to weave content on ethics into all of my classes, and I continue to struggle, at times, with some doubt about whether what feels like natural and “good” community or advocacy practice is really the most defensible, based on my social work Code of Ethics. And I continue to be frustrated by the relative paucity of dialogue about those gaps in our ethical guidance, and especially about the self-doubt that creeps into my practice, and, I know, into the minds of my students, too.

    So, I’m revisiting this topic in the hopes of enlisting other social workers in not only offering some of their consultation, but also joining in the conversation about what may need to be added to our NASW Code of Ethics, or perhaps tweaked a bit, for we macro social workers, who, after all, deserve clear ethical guidance just as much as our clinical colleagues–just as our clients deserve just as clear an understanding of the ethical rules that shape us.

    In class, I raise a lot of different questions about ethics in advocacy and organizing: means v. ends, informed consent, competency, loyalty to employing agency…but below I’ve tried to distill those thorniest areas that truly vex me, with some examples of how these issues manifest themselves in practice. I’d really appreciate other macro social workers willing to share some of their own ethical dilemmas, or any social work professionals willing to offer some insights from their perspective as people committed to living our Code. Ethics are, after all, about protecting those we serve and the reputation of our profession, both causes of critical importance to me as an advocate. So we have to get this right.

  • The dual relationship thing always gets me: So, our Code of Ethics doesn’t have an absolute prohibition on dual relationships, but we are instructed to avoid dual relationships where they could harm the client. Sounds reasonable. Except, in community practice, this is often pretty tough. Do I keep someone out of a community organizing effort because we also go to church together? I can’t. Yet when they get somewhat confused about how I relate to them differently as an organizer than as a fellow parishioner, is that introducing the potential for harm? What about when someone I’ve been developing as a leader asks me to come to her high school graduation. To not go would seem to deny the power that that diploma has for her, but, when I do go, I’m inevitably asked to come to dinner at her parents’ house, and they want to talk about my kids, and…where do you draw those lines?
  • Boundaries v. “whole person” organizing: I can talk on and on about how we need to integrate organizing into this full sense of self, and I totally believe that, but then, I have to live it, too. I mean, my own children are a big part of the reason that I work for the social justice causes I do, and, yet, if I’m supposed to maintain boundaries around a professional relationship, I have to be careful about how much I divulge. It feels awkward, and it is awkward, and sometimes a little disingenous. But I don’t want to be responsible for someone being confused about whether we’re “friends” or not.
  • Dignity of every person in nasty advocacy fights: So I do immigration advocacy, right? And I know that my Code of Ethics means that truly underhanded tactics are off the table, then–I wouldn’t want to be that kind of lobbyist, anyway. But to what extent do I need to uphold the dignity and worth of those who would seek to, say, shoot members of my community from helicopters like feral pigs?
  • Informed consent and compromise: I struggle with this one a lot; we can never truly say that we “represent” any community (which is why I’m a proponent of advocacy with instead of advocacy on behalf of), but, even when we’re practicing empowerment and maximum participation, there are going to be those who would be affected by the policies we promote (or oppose) who haven’t been consulted in any meaningful way. And, when it comes to the inevitable compromises, coalitions can fall apart and even those with whom you have been working closely can feel that their interests were not well-represented by those who were at the table. How can I ethically work as their “social worker” knowing that I can’t get their informed consent for every possible outcome of the policy change process?

    There are other issues that have cropped up–Can I work ethically in coalition with organizations whose values are not perfectly aligned with social work’s? Can I advance the interests of one group of clients over another, in pursuit of incremental policy change? Can I represent an issue as being worse than I can prove it is (if I really believe it to be so)? The list above, though, represents my kind of perennial ethical challenges, the ones that I feel really torn about, and the ones where I feel that I’ve probably made some missteps, in both directions–sometimes not practicing great social work out of an abundance of caution, and sometimes walking in a gray ethical area.

    A favorite social work instructor of mine once said that some of what we call ethical dilemmas are really just crises of conscience–where we know what to do and just need to muster the courage to do it. And that’s the case, sometimes, with advocacy: we know when we should stand up and speak out, and, in fact, our Code of Ethics demands it.

    I’m glad every day that I belong to a profession that expects people to take real risks in order to bring about a more just society.

    But I do wish that I had a Code that defined “client” more the way it is in my practice, that offered more guidance for my greatest dilemmas, and that created a more standard and workable ethical framework so that my macro practitioners would feel as compelled as our clinical colleagues to follow it.

    Our clients, whether they make a 50-minute appointment and sit down across a desk from us, or march side-by-side on the institutions of power that shape our lives, deserve no less.