Tag Archives: organizing

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





  • TechSoup for the Nonprofit Advocate’s Soul

    Once a week or so, I get this fantastic email from TechSoup, a website resource for nonprofits trying to get a better handle on how to maximize their use of technology. I love these people! This week’s included a blog post on Facebook for Nonprofits that has links to all of these other resources–how-tos on developing your Facebook presence and building your fan base, and promoting your Cause (Facebook lingo). It’s full of great advice that I’ve already started pouring through, and it’s representative of the information I get from TechSoup every week–last week had a piece on using Google Maps that included advocacy applications! You can subscribe for free to get the digest, like I do, or just peruse the site for helpful guidance and lots of good examples. They also have webinars and Meetups and other ways to get help with your organization’s technology needs–including those related to advocacy and community organizing! Check it out:

    TechSoup main page

    From today’s “Cup of TechSoup”: Facebook for Nonprofits from TechSoup