Tag Archives: organizing

Levels of campaign engagement


One of the moments when I’m talking with a group of nonprofit executives or Board members and heads start nodding (in a good way, people!) is when I talk about levels of engagement.

We often fall into thinking that all of our advocates have to act a certain way, or be at a certain ‘level’, when, really, we should be building campaigns such that there is room (and need) for all types of engagement. Indeed, when we get really sophisticated, we can incorporate explicit strategies for moving people along our ladders of engagement, such that we have a clear understanding of where someone is today and what it might take to get them to ‘step it up’ a bit. That’s far more successful than using the same pitch to everyone, or expecting everyone to engage in the same actions, and then throwing our hands up, despairing about ‘apathy’, when we don’t get an enthusiastic response to all of our appeals.

Community Organizer 2.0 had a post about levels of community leadership and what metrics we might look for to define that continuum in today’s online world. She stresses the importance of understanding how relationships and network centrality fit into leadership, and what that looks like in an increasingly networked world (sort of the ‘who you know’ variable, operationalized). And she has a ladder of engagement, so to speak, for online communities, from Lurkers to Opportunists to Contributors to Creators.

There are established models of ladders of campaign engagement in the offline world, but I have been thinking about how Debra’s translation of ‘community engagement’ to the online world would look in an advocacy context. Because we can really only move people to the extent to which we understand both where they are today and what it would look like if they moved to where we want them to be, we have to know how to recognize both of those ‘states’, and what indicators to look for.

So, this is my attempt to make that connection.

  • Lurkers: These are folks who are reading what you put out, reaping the benefits of what is happening in the campaign, but they may also be willing to make a minimal investment, especially if you structure it as a transaction. They sign up for your lists but may never take action. Certainly, if you don’t ask a lurker to do anything, he/she won’t, so I think that explicit asks are essential with this group, even though your uptake rate will probably be low. Lurkers can be thought of, I think, as ‘Coasters’, in advocacy, so if we can switch the default so that advocacy is nearly effortless, they may find themselves capable of being mobilized, after all. It’s tempting just to broadcast to these folks, but we need to try to find hooks that will bring them out of the woodwork, because that can become habit-forming too. Think: petition signatures, urgent calls to action that can break through the barrier, long-term attitude change, goals of seeding new ways of thinking
  • Opportunists: These folks may have stumbled on your effort, or may be lurkers who just happen to be moved by something you put out, at the particular time when they encountered it. They stay on your lists, occasionally ‘like’ blog posts, might check in at an event. Again, making things easy is key, but, so, too, I think, is creating the appearance of momentum, since opportunists want to go along for the ride. To the extent to which you can make it seem like others are already on board, these folks may hop on too, hence their ‘Tag-a-long’ title. Think: email letters, forwards, petitions
  • Contributors: I think one of our greatest failings as nonprofit advocates is not being quick enough to recognize those really ready to build something with us. Maybe it’s because we encounter so many more lurkers and opportunists (Debra puts them, collectively, at up to 80-90% of your community), or maybe because, inside, we have a hard time ceding control, but nothing turns a would-be contributor off like getting the implied message “your input really isn’t welcome here”. These folks want to contribute, after all, so we need to be asking for their feedback and really using it. They are already engaged, providing comments and responding to alerts and probably taking other action that we aren’t even capturing. These are your ‘Allies’, in that they are ready to stand with your cause, even if they don’t yet really see it as their own. Think: surveys, contests, opportunities to share
  • Creators: These are the folks who have really achieved ‘free agent’ status; while you might see them as still a part of your movement (and they may even be OK with that), you’re somewhat irrelevant to them at this point. This is their cause now. They are talking about it–which we’d know, if we listened to their online presence–and they want to be empowered to own the work. These are your ‘Champions’, off and running, if we don’t get in their way. Which, unfortunately, we do, all too often. These folks want to create video testimonies, recruit other leaders, merge their personal online presence with that of your organization, compose key messages, help design campaigns. We need to let them.

Building a ladder of engagement in your campaigns, then, means ensuring that we have ways for folks to join in, and move up, at any point along the continuum. Our online appeals, in particular, need to speak to all of these folks, variously, in targeted ways. The beautiful thing, of course, is that you don’t need a team of 100% champions, so that doesn’t need to be your goal. Instead, we need to think about how we are going to move our issue, who is positioned to carry the work forward, and who we need to bring on or push up, in order to get to our goals.

When you think about your advocacy work according to this framework, how are you reaching out to people at various points on the ladder? Are you setting the bar low enough, sometimes, that you can bring coasters and tag-a-longs with you? Are you unintentionally alienating your allies and champions, because they don’t see that their dedication is really valued or needed?

PS. I am TOTALLY open to different characterizations of these ‘levels’, different names, different ideas about how to approach people at each level. Basically, to critique and addition and dialogue about any and all of it. I appreciate you in advance.

Building your Vision

I came across an exercise in some popular education materials that really resonated with me. I’ve never been much into the long-term career planning: “where do you want to be 3, 5, 10 years from now?”, probably because I want to be wherever the big fight/action/fun is, and I don’t forecast well enough to know where that’s going to be. Honestly, I’ve never really had a career plan at all; I find work that is challenging and interesting (and, okay, try to avoid big bureaucracies as much as possible; I’m not super-big on rule-following!) and do that.

But this exercise is different. The authors asked participants to write an imaginary newspaper heading of their work 5 years from now (not their job, but their organization/community’s activism), and then to start thinking about what it would take along the way (those interim benchmarks again!) to get there.

And that got me thinking about all of the times that I’ve mentally rewritten headlines for articles featuring my organizing or advocacy work (because I’m almost never happy with the ones I get), or optimistically labeled my press releases with the headline I’d really like to see the next morning. It’s a good exercise, really–how do you want others to be talking about your work in 5 years, and what kinds of assumptions are you making, then, about where you’ll be at that point?

Please post your headlines and/or your reflection on whether this is a helpful exercise for you/your colleagues/your grassroots leaders. And it’s okay if you have more than one headline–maybe one that would run locally and one in a national paper? One for your work on each issue area?

Strangers make the best allies

Sometimes the strangest sources prompt my thinking about advocacy and organizing. I guess that’s what happens when you almost always have them on your mind, hunh?

I was reading an excerpt of an interview with the music critic for Rolling Stone (funny, I know, since I don’t listen to music (!), but I subscribe for their political coverage, muddle through missed references to popular culture, and end up having heard of enough bands to impress my husband over dinner conversation). I can’t remember now exactly where I read the interview excerpt, but I think it was on a blog created by the woman who started the fun website Epic Change. He was bemoaning the fact that most people are using social networking applications (he mentioned Twitter, specifically) to keep up with their interests, their friends, their (in his case) favorite music, rather than to connect with disparate interests and new figures beyond our normal networks. Basically, that we’re social networking with the same folks we would normally email and call and talk to, making the technology an interesting way to communicate and a nice addition to our repertoire, but not a revolutionary tool for linking new people and new ideas.

His point in regards to music was that this has the tendency to create a mass effect, where technology drives people to the lowest common denominator of sorts–I think his quote was something like the music that the most people can stand, rather than the music that this person or this person like the most (I’m sorry that I can’t find the link to the actual post anymore; that’s what happens when you scan blogs while building Duplo blimps and keeping twins from crawling under the couch).

And that got me thinking about a conversation that I had with some students last spring about organizing in Second Life. One student raised a pretty vigorous objection, claiming that the ‘kind of people’ who spend a lot of time in a virtual world probably aren’t going to be core activists in this actual reality. And I think that she has a solid point, but, as I argued then, the point of organizing in Second Life is not to convert our current allies into avatars but to engage people, even in a limited or highly unorthodox way, with whom we would never normally have any kind of relationship.

And so, when I read this interview, I started to think about how most nonprofit organizations, and the social workers who work in them, are currently thinking about emerging technologies. From my conversations and the reading I’ve been doing, I’d venture that it’s primarily about how to communicate their message through them and how to engage their supporters (and maybe likely but not yet supporters) in a new, ‘hip’ way, but less about how to reach totally new populations, untouched by their other outreach strategies, and how to engage in a dynamic conversation with those folks, rather than a primarily one-way flow of information.

But, really, if we’re going to change the world, we need more than our current allies, or even our current allies plus their friends. We need to connect with issues that we don’t think we could really care less about, but then find out that we do, and we need to think carefully about how our issues connect to those. We need to talk with, not just at, people we’d usually walk right past on the street, find out what really matters to them, and craft messages about our causes that resonate. We need to engage those who care deeply about life and justice and peace but have never found a home in the nonprofit sector; and we need to engage those who don’t think that their interests align with our causes at all (but, of course, they really do).

And that’s the real power of social networking and other emerging technologies, and, more importantly, the organizing ideologies behind them. While it would be very difficult and very expensive to find and connect with and listen to all of those distant and diverse voices using our traditional methodologies, it really is possible, and not even too technically difficult today. The challenge is really one of will–we have to be willing to open ourselves up, to expand our ideas, to, well, to listen to music we normally wouldn’t. If we do, we just might be able to build a network that’s truly a force for good.

I’ve found my people–Building Movement

All last week, I spent most of my children’s sleeping moments devouring these case studies of social service organizations’ efforts to integrate direct practice and community-building/advocacy/organizing/civic engagement, in pursuit of a seamless, dynamic, progressive organization that both attends to people’s concrete and immediate needs and engages them as actors in pursuit of greater community power. The report is very clear that the organizations selected are not ‘done’ in terms of resolving the myriad issues that arise in this transformation process, nor are they ‘perfect’ examples of how to negotiate these questions. They are, however, really honest and tremendously inspiring glimpses of how weaving advocacy and organizing into social service work can result in a hybrid that is a much stronger force for community/systems change and individual liberation than either a “purely” macro-level approach or an exclusively clinical/individual methodology. Building Movement, and several of the profiled organizations, see advocacy and client involvement as a continuum for organizations, with each social service agency striking its own best balance of these not-so-disparate elements.

I want to go to work for all of them (of course!) and for the Building Movement project that profiled them, but, considering that I don’t think we’re relocating the kids anytime soon, I’ll content myself for now with delighting in this new resource (check out the materials you can download, directly from the organizations–and I’ll be uploading some more of Building Movement’s materials in the weeks to come) and communicating back and forth with these folks as I continue to explore how I can help nonprofit organizations in this area navigate these journeys.

Here are some of my reflections on these five organizations’ stories, some of which represent some new thinking on my part and some of which reinforce my convictions, forged in several years of trying to fit advocacy and organizing into a primarily direct service organization myself.

  • Social workers and other professionals have to confront, and resolve, our discomfort with lay personnel and professional turf, given that authentic constituent engagement is an essential element in initial organizing.
  • Organizations are most successful when they can move beyond only talking about systemic issues within the context of specific action projects; service and justice work should be mutually-reinforcing, and this kind of radical micro practice connects best with where clients’ realities are.
  • Related to this, we can’t wait until people are “better” to organize. The most vibrant constituent organizing efforts alternate between direct service and grassroots leadership development, incorporating support into the work of the core organizing team, and recognizing people’s complexities and layers of strength and need. Minnesota Family and Children Services frames it this way–helping people solve their problems, helping people prevent problems (for themselves and others), and helping people change community conditions. This work happens fluidly.
  • One of the most thought-provoking quotes in the document, for me, came from a neighborhood organization in Queens whose mission statement is to “cultivate the dreams and power of the people.” Staff from that organization articulated a core challenge in this work: how can we be sure that our work does both–helps people to meet their dreams through processes that place the power firmly within their grasp? In our eagerness to help, how often do we sacrifice progress for ownership, and what are the long-term costs in how people see themselves in their communities? How do we increase our comfort with ambiguity and develop structures that not only solicit leadership but institutionalize our willingness to be driven by it?
  • On a less profound but perhaps more urgent matter, many of the organizations reflected some angst around the question, “to what extent should advocacy focus on policies that impact the agency’s bottom line, rather than those more broadly related to the social justice goals of clients?” This is something that I struggled with somewhat at El Centro, Inc., where most of my work did not impact our financial status at all (except negatively, when donors were angered by our controversial stance), but where, with our growing success and reputation, some stakeholders wanted us to leverage those relationships with power players for more help to the agency’s bottom line. What does this do your credibility with allies and targets? If your organization does, in fact, serve justice, is the community not better served as you thrive?
  • Perhaps seen as opposite to this, the Minnesota Children and Families organization profiled stated that they specifically fundraise based on the community’s priorities–basically, they let the organizing work drive the programming work and, therefore, the fundraising for that programming work. Seemingly a dramatic departure, I guess, but wouldn’t it be exciting to a donor to know that an agency was so in touch with its constituents that they were originating all of its substantive work?
  • One of the themes that I have often raised with organizations I have helped to think through an advocacy and organizing practice relates to the structures needed to channel direct staff’s roles in this macro work–advisory committees with real authority, job descriptions and evaluations that include justice goals, a case-to-cause process that funnels client concerns into organizing work, and cross-program organizing that links issues from different areas. Basically, if you only do lip service to direct service staff’s involvement in advocacy, don’t be surprised if they only give you superficial commitment back.
  • The need to root organizing and advocacy efforts in core values was reiterated in several ways, although the organizations certainly do not share a common definition of the value of ‘justice’. But, as some of the executives pointed out, if organizing, advocacy, and community-building are not rooted in this core understanding, they are really just additional programs or methodologies of ‘service’, rather than tools that have the power to fundamentally restructure our society. We need a policy agenda and a new way of thinking about our clients, not just improvement projects that give clients work to do.

    I would encourage you to read the case studies, or at least a couple of them. Building Movement has also created a discussion guide at the end that asks critical questions: what do social service organizations stand to gain from really engaging their constituents? What skills do staff need to acquire to succeed in this work, and this new way of framing their work? What do organizations need in terms of funding to support the integration of services and organizing? Around what values will you shape your advocacy?

    All of these profiled organizations indicated a willingness to help other agencies in their walk towards a fuller engagement of their constituents, and most are actively sharing their progress with their coalitions and other allies–again, not as a model, but as hope and inspiration and a call to action. We can’t look at these examples as “how nice that they’re doing that;” we have to immediately ask what it means for us and for our work and for how we are called to engage the people with whom we have the honor to work.

  • Independence Day, Women in Iran, and Thoughts on Democracy

    I’m going to be out of town some for the 4th of July, so I’m writing this the week before (my husband still loves to light stuff on fire, just as he’s done for the past 30 years…). It is my sincere hope that, by the time that this publishes, the situation in Iran will have dramatically improved and this will seem dated. But I fear that it will not.

    For now, I’m almost obsessed with the protests in Iran, particularly with the role that courageous women are playing in leading the call for greater transparency and democracy, an especially bold stance given the oppression women face on many levels in Iran. I do not claim to be an expert on Iran’s electoral process, or even on the irregularities and their alleged impact on the outcome. That’s not, really, what primarily interests me about Iran today, although I very much hope that the violent repression ceases and there is an open process to account for every vote and deliver a just electoral result to the people of the nation.

    What has really transfixed me, though, is this idea of ‘why don’t people get that excited about democracy here?’ I had this conversation, actually, with some of the students in my poverty and the global economy class a few weeks ago. We were talking about the protests across Latin America against the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas, and several of my students wondered aloud why, given what they are learning about the impact of these free trade agreements on workers and citizens in the U.S., there has not been a more mass uprising here. I pointed out that there has, in fact, been some significant mobilization on fair trade issues in the U.S., and we’ve seen people engage not only in more traditional street-type protests but also actions as consumers and shareholders, in ways that are creative and compelling. But it’s true that we have not seen the scope or scale of the demonstrations seen in other parts of the world, and I spend quite a bit of time asking myself questions like that too.

    I think we need to be careful not to fall into the ‘Americans don’t care’/apathy argument–I believe, in fact, that there is considerable evidence that Americans are quite engaged in the work of charitable nonprofit organizations and that people are connecting with each other in new, albeit often less deep, ways in the global economy. Besides, there is an abundance of evidence that, while the U.S. may not have as rich a tradition of social protest as some countries, our history certainly has its share–including the founding of the nation and the struggles for some of our most valuable and precious victories: women’s suffrage, abolition, and the women’s liberation and civil rights movements. I myself have had the extraordinary opportunity to be involved in the immigrant ‘uprising’ of 2006 that saw more than two million people around the country, at various points, engage in peaceful street protest.

    No, my thoughts do not turn to a lament over some perceived inertia on the part of the American ‘public’ (the extent to which this sense of ‘we-ness’ is elusive is a related discussion, but one that I’ll return to in an organizing context in another post) but, rather, to a wonder about how organizers can take better advantage of the protections, the space, so to speak, in which we can agitate. I know that people in the U.S. were very, very angry about the outcome of the 2000 Presidential election, for example, yet we certainly did not see the same kind of mobilization we’ve seen in Iran these past two weeks, despite the assurance that the consequences for such activism would have been less deadly here. I truly believe that the difference in response has more to do with differences in organizing, differences in the culture of collective action, than in differences in passion about issues or injustices.

    I wish that there was more news coming out of Iran about the how of these demonstrations, instead of just the why and the what and even, although I find their stories tremendously inspiring, the who. I want to know what it takes to mobilize such mass action in the face of tremendous oppression. I mean, one person’s incredible commitment to courage is noteworthy, but the overwhelming courage of conviction of hundreds of thousands of people cannot be accidental, nor do I believe it to be genetic–it’s a triumph of organizing and, if we are to live up to those pieces of our nation’s history which are its most noble (and claim the future that we would want for ourselves), we’ve got to learn from it, capture it somehow, and make it resonate here.

    PS. So, obviously, I’m not the only person asking these same questions. Good Washington Post article on Arab activists’ own analysis.

    Social Networking–the Counter-Organizing Challenge

    The Center for New Community’s Building Democracy Initiative is a leading source for information about organized hate groups operating in the United States–their leaders, their donors, their messages, their tactics. When I was working actively in the immigrant rights movement, I consulted them frequently for help discrediting the anti-immigrant organizations that descended on Kansas to fight our legislative agenda or counter-protest our events.

    Today, while I’m no longer on the front lines of immigrant rights advocacy, I still receive the Building Democracy reports and alerts, including content from their relatively new Imagine 2050 blog (2050 being the year that Caucasians will no longer be a majority in the U.S.–I don’t like the name, because you know how I feel about the whole ‘demographic imperative’ argument). This recent post really caught my attention–a review of the use policies of social networking sites, their penetration by white nationalist and other hate groups, and the implications of the adoption by organized bigots of this new technology.

    It makes a lot of sense, really, that anti-Semite and racist organizations would have success recruiting members on social networking sites; their relatively anonymity and ability to spread an uncontested ideology play into the strategies of these groups. For more details on how sites are trying to prevent being used as tools of racist propaganda, you should read the post. But my thoughts immediately turned to concern that progressive organizations and causes may be ‘out-organized’ in the social networking arena, and worry about the long-term consequences if we don’t adequately exploit these technologies to advance our agendas.

    I know that time is limited for every social work advocate working on any cause critical to the well-being of vulnerable populations. I know that there’s always more to do than we can possibly do. And yet here I am urging us to all add more to our plates. But the truth is that news like this should serve as wake-up calls or, for those who are already tuned in to the organizing potential of social networking, more of a gentle reminder prod. We can’t ignore these new avenues, and we can’t cross our fingers and hope that those who stand opposed to every value we hold dear haven’t caught on to them either. We have to present a strong, coherent, progressive, alternative in every arena, and we have to expose organized hatred for what it is, everywhere and every time. And that means we’ve got to be there, making sure we have more ‘friends’ than they do.

    Social Networking: A Place for Hate (from Imagine 2050)

    Student Advocacy Projects–Postpartum Resource Center

    For the SW846 class the past two years, I have worked with some of my former colleagues and organizational allies to identify a couple of potential student advocacy/organizing projects in advance of the spring semester. I present these as options to students through the Blackboard virtual classroom and in the second week of class, but I also encourage students to bring ideas from their own work or practicum sites to offer to their classmates as project options.

    This year, I had several student groups who identified and developed their own projects, and it was exciting to see how those played out, particularly as they complemented the students’ existing work in the field. It is also an important part of the learning process to present one’s ‘pitch’ for a project and attempt to recruit other students to that particular cause. In many ways, it’s a kind of organizing in itself–figuring out how to talk about what it is that you’re committed to in such a way that your colleagues will become committed to that same cause, and then finding roles for them to play in the effort that are meaningful to them and helpful to you.

    This project really exemplified that process; a student, Jen Stoll, raised her hand to suggest a project related to her work at the Postpartum Resource Center of Kansas. It was still in the early stages of development, and so Jen was a little vague as she talked it through, but her passion for women experiencing postpartum mood disorders, and their families, came through as always. Immediately, two students, neither of whom had ever done anything related to this population or issue, said that they wanted to work with her. She and I were both a little shocked, and she then faced the task of working with Hillary (Unrein) and Ashley (Marple) to define the project and carve out tasks within it.

    The crux of the project relates to birth trauma and how women who have been victims of abuse can be revictimized by standard procedures employed by medical professionals, particularly those that deny women control over their own birthing experiences. This is another social problem that I had really never thought about, and, at the end of the semester, I think the entire class was grateful to Jen, Hillary, and Ashley, for raising our consciousness. The project is very much ongoing, and it is truly multi-faceted, involving:

  • Advocating for Medicaid to reimburse for doula services, given that doulas’ presence at births is related to a more empowering experience for women
  • Development of a curriculum for providers to sensitize them to the problem of birth trauma
  • Organizing a core group of women to serve as consultants to the curriculum development process
  • Training women to become certified as doulas
  • Collaborating with organizations that serve survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault to identify program participants
  • Developing a list of recommended providers with a demonstrated commitment to protecting women from revictimization

    And I’m probably leaving something out–it’s a pretty massive undertaking! They spent considerable time just navigating the Medicaid system to figure out the steps involved with pursuing approval of a new reimbursable expense, and that process is just getting started. It is key, though, to the fulfillment of PRC’s goal that services be available to women across the socioeconomic spectrum, and I think it sends a strong statement that they’re going to make that a priority. I expect they will also find, though, that while the Medicaid process is cumbersome, it is at least more publicly accountable than private insurance companies, whose own rules about covered services are often even more opaque.

    The community organizing and coalition-building pieces are moving slowly, as PRC tries to establish itself with new partners and new constituencies, but the students see the value in building these relationships, and it seems that they’re definitely moving in the right direction. One of the more significant pieces of learning to come from this project, I think, was Jen’s process in explaining her work and her passion to two newcomers, a process that she’ll have to repeat dozens of times as she seeks allies around the community. Both Hillary and Ashley served as a sounding board, often, for Jen, and helped her to refine messages, an ongoing struggle for an organization dealing with an often-hidden and stigmatized social problem.

    At the conclusion of the semester, students present their accomplishments, their process, and some reflection on their learning to their classmates. The presentation for this group was probably the most impactful and controversial in my history of teaching this class. The students sought to challenge all of our ideas about mothering and childbirth and family formation in order to illustrate some of the difficulties in confronting postpartum mood disorders and organizing this population. I consider myself fairly sensitized to these concerns, with a family history of PPD, but I still found myself pausing a bit as I considered the powerful stereotypes that I, as a mother in this society, have absorbed.

    In the presentation, Hillary said (I’m paraphrasing, hopefully closely!) that she was just struck by Jen’s passion for women and their babies and that, even though she didn’t really have any idea what Jen even meant by ‘birth trauma’, she just had to be close to that kind of passion, and she knew that she would learn a lot from organizing and advocating in that environment. That really struck me, because I can’t think of a better measure of leadership than convincing someone to join with you in your cause just because they want to be close to the power and energy that you bring to it.

    Is there anything that you would like to add to this, Jen and Hillary and Ashley? Given that this project involved one student who had real background in the issue and two that did not, what could I have done as an instructor to better facilitate the process for you? Have other students or instructors had similar experiences? Does anyone have advice for PRC in dealing with Medicaid?

  • Student Advocacy Projects–CASA of Atchison

    This student project was very different from the others; it was much more strict ‘community practice’, rather than real organizing or advocacy. I was confident from the beginning, though, that it would be a valuable experience, largely because the students involved are really outstanding. In the end, I think that this project charted a bit of a new course for these student projects, because these students outlined how outreach, community relationship-building, and public education can be integral components of community practice.

    Rebecca Heatherman and Loren Whitehorn, the two students in this project, had a goal to assist Court-Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) in recruiting new advocates for the program in Atchison County. In practice, this meant building relationships with community-based organizations in a new geographic territory, learning about the relationships among the different players, presenting the organization so as to appeal to potential volunteers, and creating messages that would work for this particular context. It was challenging, particularly in a community like Atchison that is dominated by strong institutions, including a university and the Benedictine Sisters, but, as Loren said, the students’ awareness of the difficulties in organizing in an unfamiliar community, and their sensitivity to these dynamics, demonstrated their openness and improved their reception. It is an important lesson for all of us who organize outside of our own communities; asking questions and proceeding somewhat carefully and showing an abundance of respect are good ways to insert oneself into a new community without immediately being alienated as an ‘outsider’.

    Becky and Loren’s specific activities included creating a PowerPoint presentation about CASA and the work of advocates; building contacts at Benedictine College, with community leaders, and the Sisters; giving presentations about the need for volunteers; creating opportunities for CASA to continue to network with leaders in Atchison as the project proceeds; and establishing a reputation for the organization in a community largely unfamiliar with it (made more difficult by the fact that the staff member is still located in a different county). They also faced some resistance from some quarters, but, as all organizers learn to do, they worked around what they couldn’t work through!

    I am grateful to Becky for identifying this project and framing it in such a way that it worked for this class, because, again, I think that it really demonstrated that community organizing can take many forms. They were creative; a faculty member at the university will begin offering college credit to student advocates! They were so persuasive in their presentations, too, that some of their classmates were even considering volunteering! I was particularly impressed with how this pair worked together; they had a unity of purpose and really complemented each other’s strengths. As an instructor, I learned to think about advocacy and organizing a bit more broadly and to honor my own ‘rule’ that macro practice should authentically complement direct work with people in need. This project really did that.

    Stepping Out

    Last night, I was on my way to meet with a former student to help her prepare for a media interview later this week and listening to The World on NPR. I only caught the end of the program, but the part that I heard was fantastic–the host was interviewing a leader in the group Liberian Mass Action for Peace, a group of Liberian women largely credited with bringing down the horrifically corrupt regime of Charles Taylor (which I learned more about in a Rolling Stone article while pumping milk for the babies last fall!) in Liberia.

    What struck me most about the interview was the activist’s phrasing; several times she stated, ‘we (women) had to step out.’ In that understated way, what she was talking about was a conscious decision by more than 2500 women to risk their lives and protest the government. She explained this extraordinary courage away, stating that, since their lives were already threatened by the lawlessness and violence in the country, they felt that mass action was their only route to safety. And this makes sense, but it doesn’t explain the thousands who, while similarly threatened, did not ‘step out.’

    That’s the normal state of human beings, I think, to retreat when threatened and to seek self-preservation as the greatest good. And so that’s why her characterization of this extremely risky and immensely courageous action as simply ‘stepping out’, so captured me. After all, isn’t that what we’re all doing when we take up a cause? We just have to step out, out of our own comfortable lives, out of our preoccupation with ourselves, out of our fear and hesitation. And, while not often under threat of death or torture, we really have no less an imperative to do so–our well-being, at least, is threatened by the solitude we often impose on ourselves.

    Listening to her speak about the risks and the calculation they made–“we just had to step out”, I was struck by how little I ever had to give up to organize and agitate. At the worst, I risked the nasty phone calls, the dirty looks, the ugly name-calling…but I also received professional praise and considerable support, even from influential leaders. And these amazing women see themselves and what they risked as not amazing at all, but rather a natural response to intense suffering.

    By the time I arrived at the coffee shop, then, I was pretty fired up. If those who have so much to lose are so willing to lose it, how much more should I be willing to risk, I who really don’t have to risk much at all?

    We just have to step out.

    Liberian Mass Action for Peace on The WorldMay 18, 2009

    Profile in Courage Recipients, 2009

    Student Advocacy Project–Invisible Kansans

    This is the first in a series of posts about my students’ organizing and advocacy projects this semester. They have graciously given me permission to post about their activities, their reported learning, and my response to their projects, and I am very grateful. I hope that these summaries might be helpful to other faculty engaged in the supervision of similar advocacy/organizing projects, to students contemplating how to weave together action and academics, and to practitioners who are considering utilizing student activists in their work. Students, PLEASE comment to correct any mischaracterizations on my part and/or to add your own analysis. I appreciate so much your openness to the learning experiences this past semester and your generosity in sharing your stories. You are a tremendous group of people!

    I’m starting in no particular order, but I think everyone will agree that this first project was truly stellar. I was very excited about this project even before the semester started because I have very high regard for the host organization, Interhab, and their advocacy. They consistently involve constituents in very meaningful ways and, while they have not always been successful in advancing their ambitious legislative agenda of increased funding for services for those with developmental disabilities, they are absolutely always on the agenda, due to their lobbying, organizing, and media work, and that is no small feat.

    The students’ experience ended up even more rewarding, I think, than I had dared to hope. Interhab involved the group of 5 students in their Invisible Kansans campaign, and they had opportunities to participate in event organizing, direct campus/peer organizing, policy research, and messaging work. They were also able to observe Interhab’s truly cutting-edge work related to paid advertising, lobbying, emerging technologies, and constituent empowerment. (You should seriously check out their website, because their use of YouTube videos and Facebook and consumer testimonials is really outstanding). Some of the students’ specific activities included:

  • Collecting more than 100 signatures on postcards to legislators regarding legislation to increase funding for Medicaid waiver services (including those collected on campus at KU, as students canvassed in front of Wescoe Hall)
  • Helping with the organizing of a reception to honor providers and other leaders in the movement for justice and dignity for those with developmental disabilities, and the preparation of advocacy materials to be included there
  • Assisting with the creation of these excellent documents that detail the economic impact of HB2094, the “Invisible Kansans” bill–I was blown away by how slick these documents look (see links below), and how excellent the information was regarding the actual dollars that would be brought into each county if the bill passes; we all need to get a lot smarter about learning how to talk about our social service issues like this!
  • Identifying organizations at KU that could be recruited to endorse the legislation and participate in the campaign–hopefully some of these will become long-term partners of Interhab, as a major goal of theirs for this year was to expand their coalition beyond providers and consumers, and they identified college students as a possible target group

    The students expressed some challenges, particularly related to distance (Interhab is about an hour away from the campus where these students have class) and to some communication difficulties, particularly as their primary contact at Interhab (Matt Fletcher–a great person to know if you want to learn about how to mobilize and do media work, particularly) was extremely busy during the legislative session. They also missed Interhab’s Lobby Day, because it was very early in the session. In all, though, it was a pretty smooth collaboration, and the students identified a few key learnings that I think apply to other students engaging in advocacy for the first time, too:

  • Some of the strategies that were the most successful were also those that were the most uncomfortable initially; it was in getting beyond their comfort zone, so to speak, that they saw the most impact.
  • Dividing up work according to their areas of greatest interest and skill helped their group to function more effectively and maximized their enjoyment of the project–Adam did amazing things with the analysis and document preparation, and I wasn’t surprised, since his policy brief was terrific, also; Alicia is outgoing and determined, and she took the lead in the canvassing on campus.
  • Because they had little direct experience working with this population or these issues, it helped to work with an organization that is so focused on keeping the consumers at the center of the advocacy; however, it was still hard to feel totally connected, particularly to the legislative piece, so more frequent updates from Matt would have been helpful.

    At the end of the semester, HB2094 still hadn’t even been voted out of the House Appropriations Committee, evidence that even stellar organizing does not guarantee legislative progress, particularly in a budget year like this one. While the students were frustrated by this, they also felt that they had been able to see some steps in the process through to completion, which helped their overall feelings of accomplishment. As their instructor, one of my biggest learnings here was that it is important to choose projects not just based on my relationships (I had really had very little interaction with Interhab before) but primarily based on the organization’s own track record for advocacy and organizing. Interhab provided the students with a superior experience, and I have built some new contacts that will help other students in the future. I also think it’s important to provide some of the context for organizing and advocacy work in class, since the ‘big picture’ easily gets lost in the field when students and their hosts are busy moving towards a set of goals.

    The students involved in this project were: Adam Timberlake, Susila Gabbert, Anna Giles, Anna Gude, and Alicia Jones. What questions do you have for them? Or for me? Students, what did I leave out, or what do you want to say about your experience this semester? Interhab folks, is there anything that you want to add?

    politicallyDisabled_largeOne of the pieces the Invisible Kansas Campaign developed for their branding