Advocacy in hard times: Lessons from the Occupy movement

As the Legislature struggles with budget issues, people need to speak up for protecting the services that many people rely upon. An expert offers advice, drawing on Occupy Wall Street's tactics.

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Despite the looming government shutdown, not much happened in Olympia over the weekend.

As the Legislature struggles with budget issues, people need to speak up for protecting the services that many people rely upon. An expert offers advice, drawing on Occupy Wall Street's tactics.

These are telling snippets of conversations I have had with human service providers about the recession, the shredding social safety net, and local help for people in need:

“For the most youth, the streets are the safest choice … and I think that’s a pretty reasonable choice given the circumstances.”

“For many of our seniors, we’re giving them their only hot meal of the day.”

 “We see a lot more people living out of their cars.”

“We check the jail registry, the morgue … no news is good news.”

I heard these comments because, in trying to think about how government and society should respond to hard times, I wanted to know how much the recession had affected the capabilities and the need for services of organizations that help people get what they need to live (i.e. food, shelter) and live well (organic food, green space). Were they able to keep up with demand for services? If not, were they demanding help? Had Occupy Wall Street inspired them to organize? I met with directors of six local human service agencies to find out. 

It’s not pretty out there. Executive Director Kristine Cunningham of ROOTS, which provides shelter for young adults, said more college students need shelter, more people are sleeping in their cars, and more people are newly homeless. Rare is the night that ROOTS doesn't turn away people seeking a place to sleep.

Teen Feed, which provides teens with meals and case management, is not seeing more youth, according to Executive Director Megan Hibbard. But the teens it serves now have a harder time finding jobs and housing. Hibbard says, “They are more depressed and more inclined to use drugs. … Our working is changing … now we’re helping kids hang on.” Kathleen Crompton, who runs the Wallingford Senior Center said that her agency’s services have shifted in focus — less attention to bridge games, and more attention to hot meals and job programs.

For the past few years, our elected leaders have been saying we must “sacrifice,” “tighten our belts,” “take a haircut,” and “do our part.” It's Beaver Cleaver-speak for imposing draconian cuts to services for people who have already sacrificed.

When releasing her 2011-2013 budget, which called for eliminating Basic Health and Disability Lifeline, Gov. Chris Gregoire said, “For the functions that government no longer will be able to provide, we must turn to neighbors, private charities, faith-based organizations and other local programs. Our communities, more than ever, will be asked to step up.”

How? The nonprofit directors I met said that finding the resources they need to meet the demand for services has always been a struggle, recession or not.  For many nonprofits it’s getting harder: Government has radically cut or eliminated funding to the very organizations that poor people turn to when they cannot get unemployment insurance, subsidized health insurance, food stamps, or other governmental aid. Individual donors have less to donate; foundations give fewer grants; communities have fewer foundations. The state Senate’s adoption of a draconian budget proposal  adds to this mix the prospect of more cuts before the Legislature’s special session ends. To whom or to what do charities turn to protect current funding levels (never mind the “extra” funding needed to “step up”)?

Occupiers? Perhaps, they could turn to the Occupy movement. The grassroots activists' community organizing has re-focused our national analysis of the economy (from reducing the deficit to reducing the income gap); inspired people across the U.S. to engage in activism, and pressured banks and corporations to change how they do business.

What if, in 2012, safety net providers take a cue from OWS and utilize protests to demand that the 1 percent “do their part” for the public good? That would be a big departure from what most service providers currently do. Media coverage of protests in Olympia over the past year suggests that they were for the most part, the work of unions, Occupy groups, and some nonprofit advocacy organizations. This is consistent with my 25 years of experience in the nonprofit sector. Few direct service providers engage in ongoing advocacy; almost none engage in organizing.

I asked the executive directors if their organizations engaged in social change activity, like advocacy or organizing. Some of what I heard:

  • “We don’t engage in advocacy. We look for common ground. We focus on service.”
  • “It’s not a fit.”
  • “If I have to choose between an advocacy activity and opening the center because my one staff person is out with a sick child, it’s a no-brainer. I am going to open the agency.”

Of the six direct service organizations, three do not engage in any advocacy or organizing. Two participate in a lobby day or two per year, and occasional meetings with electeds. One, Seattle Tilth (which helps people grow organic food, conserve natural resources and support local food systems), just established a board advocacy committee, charged with developing a proactive approach with which to influence public policy.

John Fox, executive director of the Seattle Displacement Coalition, which organizes grassroots campaigns for more  affordable housing, is not surprised. He says that not only are nonprofit housing developers and managers reluctant to participate in SDC’s organizing, some actively oppose it (perhaps believing the perfect to be the enemy of the better-than-nothing).

There are understandable reasons for service providers’ reluctance to more actively engage in advocacy, organizing, and lobbying. One, they lack the capacity. Capacity takes money, and funding for organizing and advocacy can be among the hardest to come by. Two, organizing and advocacy may alienate staff of agencies whose support they need  (i.e., organizing to pressure a governmental agency to restore funding). Three, few people in direct service agencies have staff with relevant training or experience in advocating or organizing for policy change.

According to Fox, at one time in Seattle there was more overlap between activism and direct services, but that dynamic is changing. He says, “The activists are retiring. Their jobs are being filled by  professional managers,” people coming out of  graduate school management programs, but without organizing experience.

My own experience as a consultant to non-profit organizations suggests that, lobbyists, advocates, or policy specialists don’t necessarily know what community organizers do, and vice versa. No wonder human service providers explain their reluctance to join protests with these dubious claims:

  • We can’t get involved in policy work or we’ll lose our nonprofit status.
  • Organizing is okay for kids. We’re too old/professional/polite/sophisticated for that.
  • We don’t want to wreck our good relationship with [fill in the blank], who always takes our calls.
  • If we go to Lobby Day and a couple City Council meetings each year, that’s good enough.
  • We did a protest and it didn’t work.
  • Organizing is adversarial, and that’s not who we are.
  • Organizing/advocacy is too time-consuming.

Inaccurate information about grassroots organizing can impede efforts to defend the safety net. Take the second claim — that organizing is for kids, hippies, attention-seekers, boors, and the like. An organizing action that is not a part of a longer-term strategy, without a clear message backed by evidence, can look like a pointless spectacle. But a spectacle that is well-executed, makes the target’s position look ridiculous, and is part of a strategy of coordinated actions can be very effective in advancing an organization’s policy agenda. And for groups that cannot otherwise get a meeting with the local paper’s editorial board or a meeting with their senator, in-your-face protesting may be the only way to go.

So where does this leave the social safety net? If we want to more effectively defend the safety net, we need to mount advocacy and organizing campaigns that are:

  1. bolder,
  2. based on accurate information about social change methods;
  3. supported with funding based on realistic assessments of needs and costs;
  4. and supported by more people willing to call their electeds, participate in a protest, and  invite their friends and neighbors to join their activist efforts.

Social service providers cannot be expected to do this advocacy and organizing work alone. They need and deserve the involvement of the communities they serve, particularly in this era of austerity.

In March, state Sen. Ed Murray, chair of the Senate Budget Committee, called for Washingtonians to contact their legislators about state programs that they want to preserve. Although budget differences could force another legislative session, this is the last full week of the 2012 special session, so time is of the essence.


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