How do we secure more policy wins and long-lasting change? This was the question posed at a national convening for advocacy and grassroots organizing groups concerned about child care reform. The event was hosted by the National Women’s Law Center and the Food and Labor Research Center at UC Berkeley.
The answer: work more closely together, more often, more strategically.
At the convening we learned about the definitions and differences between advocacy and organizing. They overlap, but generally differ in their tactics and “north star”. For example, advocacy groups often celebrate incremental policy wins. Organizing groups really want full scale systems change. Consequently, these groups have different ways of existing, collaborate minimally and can experience tension. However, by taking full advantage of our strengths we can do more good, together.
What are those strengths and shortcomings? Advocacy organizations are, as I like to say, hard core policy nerds. We have immense historical knowledge of the ins and outs of policy and have dedicated resources to making recommendations that align with our goals (at the League, our goal is economic security for all). Advocacy organizations don’t typically have many boots on the ground, but their relationships with other groups, legislators and intimate knowledge of the state budget and law making process is a huge advantage.
Organizing groups do more than mobilize people: they have a renewable base of support and leadership. Unions are a well-known example, though organizers vary in formality, geographic range and area of concern. Organizing groups have an expert lived experience related to their issue that advocacy organizations lack, and are typically more diverse and locally based. This local base of constituents is a huge advantage in influencing decision makers. Even more, organizers utilize a variety of tactics to meet their goals, even those that are controversial.
Consider the civil rights movement—sustained, large scale organizing that impacts large swaths of society is a social movement. While Martin Luther King Jr. and many others organized to stage sit-ins, marches and economic boycotts, lawyers like Thurgood Marshall were bringing cases like Brown v. Board of Education to court. These efforts were different but very complementary—and necessary. In his role, Marshall wouldn’t be an organizer, but he would coordinate and work closely with organizers looking to achieve the same goal of ending racial discrimination and gaining equal rights under the law.
Looking back, it’s easy to see that knowledge of policy making and organizing were both key to the civil rights victory. Still today though, these types of groups remain complementary. As the philosopher r&b artist Ne-Yo reminds us: I’m a movement by myself, but I’m a force when we’re together. That’s advocacy and organizing: a force when they work together.
In 2018 the League worked with a group of advocacy organizations, nonprofits and the organizing group Mothering Justice to disseminate information about child care policy opportunities. With help from the strength of grassroots, there were a number of child care wins in the 2018 budget: Michigan improved payments to childcare providers who accept subsidies and increased entry and exit eligibility for families (this stopped those who are technically above poverty but struggling to make ends meet from accessing benefits and small pay raises from kicking folks off).
Many advocacy groups recognize the value of being close to people and community. However, as explained during the convening, advocacy groups are not organizing groups —and shouldn’t try to be. It’s important for both groups to maintain their independent decision-making within the midst of collaboration (like MLK Jr. and Thurgood Marshall). A more modern example is when a nonprofit I worked with started a parent advocacy group. Eventually, concerns arose about what parents might say to local leaders and media—traditional allies to the nonprofit. This was a legitimate concern, but threatening to parents as they grew their base, voice and power. This example illustrates how valuable it is for advocacy and organizing groups to own their expertise and tactics while working in partnership.
As someone with a background in grassroots mobilization who now works in Lansing for the League, I believe in the power of collaboration. The benefits of knowing policy intimately. And the power of organizing. Though it can take more time and resources to build these relationships, the rewards are great and worth considering. This convening was a reminder for all of us to reconsider our tactics, reassess who is at the table with us and how we can strategically complement our respective work.
I encourage organizations to find a grassroots group, and eventually an organizing group, with whom you can partner on common policy targets. To organizers, invite us to share tools with you to support your work. As we discussed in this nation-wide convening, this is likely one of the most effective ways to enhance all our efforts and secure incremental policy wins and systems change. Just look at the game changing strategy of the civil rights movement.
In the coming months, the Food and Labor Research Center at UC Berkeley will publish a paper on this subject where you can learn more about what organizing is, isn’t and how to use it as part of your winning strategy.