Tag Archives: Kansas City area

Kansas City Equity Profile

I am excited to be collaborating with the folks working on the Kansas City Equity Profile, a data-driven examination of racial disparities in the Kansas City region.

I would encourage you to read the six-page summary, but I have some highlights and insights here. It really is an honor to be able to contribute to this critically-important work.

I was reflecting the other day on how lucky I have been to have my career dovetail with really significant demographic and social changes, allowing me to feel as though I’m practicing ‘on the leading edge’ of what society is dealing with. Hopefully every social work advocate feels this way, but I think that I have landed in particularly well-placed positions.

Like when I started my career advocating in aging, when organizations and policymakers were really taking notice of shifting demographics and the political and economic imperative to develop cost-effective responses to the needs of a growing older adult population. Or when I was getting into immigration policy around 2000, when new U.S. Census data opened many people’s eyes to the realities of an increasingly diverse U.S. population.

Or now, when the tremendous divide between rich and poor is the dominant imperative in many policymaking circles (and even mayoral campaigns), and my work on assets and poverty and inequality allows me to be part of those conversations.

It’s a wonderful life.

But we have a lot of work to do.

  • I appreciate how this Equity Profile starts out with demographics of population make-up, but not from a ‘numbers are destiny’ conceit, but, instead, in recognition that, with growing presence of people of color, the region ignores inequality at its own peril.
  • The Equity Profile doesn’t focus just on people in poverty, but it doesn’t ignore them either. It is critical that we talk about what’s happening to the middle class in the United States, but, if we only bemoan the threats to those previously economically-secure, we run the risk of missing the forces ravaging those long-mired in deprivation. The root causes are the same, and the fates are linked.
  • There is a connection to policy woven throughout the report, particularly related to the education and health disparities that are both cause and effect of the divides. Recognizing this mutual causation and committing to policy changes capable of disrupting these linkages is essential to building a more equitable society, and I am glad that the authors didn’t shy away from prescriptions.
  • The recommendations is where my work and interests intersect this effort. We need to build communities that facilitate relationships between young people of color and older white Americans–not constructed, programmatic relationships, but authentic connections, borne of shared spaces, that drive home the reality of a common destiny. We need good jobs and pathways that link people to them. We need investment in public infrastructure. And we are unlikely to get any of these things without a more diverse governing class, so we need broad representation among policymaking bodies.
  • Not reflected in the report, but critically important, is the accompanying action strategy, with organizations convening events and organizing campaigns and conducting 1:1s around these priorities and this vision of a more equitable region. This isn’t ‘just’ a report; it’s an example of trying to use information to outline the parameters for a movement. And I am thrilled to be part of it.

I would love to hear about other regions’ similar efforts to focus on equity, and I am very interested in responses to this one. What is on your equity agenda? What do you think needs to happen in order to galvanize a policy conversation about equity, in a way we have not yet?

The Allure of Stop Energy

A math problem, of sorts:

What’s the difference between this?

More than 750,000

and this?

Courageous and committed, but relatively few


There’s a central truth in organizing.

I don’t completely understand it, but I’ve certainly witnessed it.

And I know that we have to figure it out.

It’s far easier to get people involved in a movement to stop something they see as bad, or threatening, or offensive, than it is to bring people together to support something positive, encouraging, or hopeful. Even if the latter is something that they care about a lot, and even if it would make their lives very much better.

And so that’s the story those pictures tell.

In 2006, almost without even trying, pro-immigrant organizers had thousands of people showing up for nearly-spontaneous protests against H.R. 4437, a particularly draconian anti-immigrant bill, passed in the U.S. House of Representatives, that would have (among other things) criminalized assistance to undocumented immigrants (even by clergy! or social workers!).

It was ugly. And hateful. And scary.

And, so, literally MILLIONS of people turned out for those rallies.

In Kansas City, we had three within 2 months, each larger than the one before. People I’d never seen before were volunteering to be event marshals, and people I hadn’t seen in years were showing up with carfuls of friends they had convinced to come. I helped respond to community pressure for action in Garden City, Dodge City, Emporia, Hays, Pittsburg, Lawrence, and Topeka, too.

It was unprecedented, organic, and urgent.

And, so, we then started to try, in about summer of 2006 (once it became apparent that H.R. 4437 was, in fact, dead in the U.S. Senate and no longer a real, legislative worry) to translate some of that community momentum into pro-comprehensive immigration reform action.

We organized town halls on CIR. And maybe 100 people came. We organized rallies, thinking it was the type of action that had appealed to them. We maybe got 150.

And it became apparent: it’s just a lot harder for us to build a cohesive movement around support for this elusive, often ill-defined and very far off possibility, rather than some here-today, very real threat.

It hadn’t really occurred to me, though, that this was not a challenge unique to those of us in the immigrant rights world, but, instead, a more immutable law of community organizers and social change agents worldwide, until I read Clay Shirky’s essay in Rebooting America. He writes, the “usual stories of collective action have to do with short-term pressure brought upon existing institutions to try to stop them from doing something.” And I underlined “short-term” and “stop” them, and thought about 2006.

Because immigrants, the same ones who missed work and risked retaliation to oppose H.R. 4437, care very much about immigration reform. It’s not a question of generalized apathy. I even believe that if a similar threat emerged here today, we’d see similar response. We’re seeing that some in Arizona and elsewhere with more urgent battles.

The challenge, then, is this: how can we build movements with relationships and visions that will carry us through this more slogging work of articulating shared goals and building broad-based support for our message? How do we guard against the inevitable collapse of consensus? How do we charge forward when our best models, and most inspiring memories, are stop-energy focused?

How do we change the math, so that we can change the world?

What are nonprofits’ REAL barriers to advocacy?

photo credit, livcheng, hurdlers in the Beijing Olympics, 2008

I’m working right now with Nonprofit Connect on a project to address some of the issues that nonprofit leaders in the Kansas City area (and around Kansas and Missouri, to some extent) identify as some of their barriers to engaging in advocacy. The project includes providing some training, because lack of information and skills continues to make it harder for nonprofit executives to competently steer their organizations toward advocacy success, but both nonprofit participants and the folks at Nonprofit Connect are very clear that it has to go beyond that. Advocacy teaches us, early on, that information alone seldom changes minds, or lives.

And, in another lesson borrowed from advocacy work itself, we’re starting the project by listening to those who will participate in it–nonprofit leaders and would-be advocates–to help them think through the gaps and complications that currently separate them from the advocacy work that we (and, increasingly, they) know they need to be doing.

In my work during this phase of the project, I was glad to find the Listening Post, an effort by Johns Hopkins University to do much the same thing, on a broader scale: listen to nonprofit organizations and intermediary institutions, in order to better understand the forces impacting the work of nonprofits, and to better identify missing pieces that could make a real difference.

This particular Listening Post Comuniqué relates to nonprofit organizations and advocacy. What’s especially helpful about it is how it skips over the obvious–nonprofit organizations wish they had more money with which to conduct advocacy–and focuses instead of how nonprofit leaders can do more with the resources they do have, as well as some consideration of interventions that would actually create more resources.

I haven’t decided if it’s disheartening or encouraging that many of the barriers identified–reluctance on the part of Board members, resistance by donors, difficulty involving clients/patrons, lack of understanding about policy change, and the need for better outcomes and definition of ‘success’–are many of the same themes that I spend a lot of time talking about here.

There were a couple of new insights that I intend to carry into this work with nonprofits in the Kansas City area:

  • 88% of nonprofits that are engaged in advocacy seldom or never involve their clients/patrons in their advocacy work. Without this, of course, we lack the legitimacy that begets political power.
  • Nonprofit organizations struggling with Board attitudes about advocacy should seriously rethink their recruitment strategies. Why aren’t we recruiting Board members with advocacy/activism experience in the areas in which we work, rather than trying to convince the mostly corporate-minded members we have of the importance of social change?
  • Stability and flexibility in funding are even more important than the amount, particularly given the commitment, over years, that is necessary in order to build the relationships that foster advocacy success.
  • 90% of nonprofit organizations engaged in advocacy respond to requests from legislators, even while they admit that this is too late to shape the course of the policy. As in so many things, then, having a strategy and charting the agenda, early on, is significantly related to later influence.

    At the Philanthropy Midwest Conference last week, we began a more systematic process of bridging some of these gaps, in order to provide nonprofit leaders with the tools they need to step boldly, and well, into the advocacy struggles where we so need their presence.

    And, having listened to our collective articulations of precisely what those barriers are, our local sector will then also be able to hold ourselves accountable if we still fail to act with the determination, vision, and courage that these times, and the challenges we face, demand.

    We’re in the Heartland, after all.

    The buck stops here.

  • United Community Services Human Services Summit

    I’m attaching the registration form for the United Community Services Human Services Summit on June 9, 2009. It has actually been several years since I attended this, but I plan to this year (assuming, of course that I can get a babysitter, which is pretty much the story of my life!). I want to hear what agency executives are saying about the conditions they face and, of course, I relish an opportunity to suggest advocacy as the best adaptive strategy that nonprofit organizations can employ when facing constricted budgets and other adverse conditions. Too often, we tend to do the opposite; we contract in fear, hesitant to take on anything new, and this retrenchment seldom yields much except more retrenchment. I know that budgets are tight, but good advocacy is precisely the tool we need to push for greater funding from our state and federal government, to distinguish ourselves as indispensable during difficult times, and to build relationships that will bear fruit when times are not quite so tough.

    I’m looking forward to seeing lots of familiar faces (Ed O’Malley and I worked very closely together on some anti-poverty initiatives when he was in the state legislature) and to meeting some new people. I hope to see you there!

    Registration form for UCS Human Services Summit