Report: Residents take steps to learn about progress through policy advocacy

August 28, 2014

I am glad to share this brief report—with more in later months—about brave residents who are taking the steps to learn about making social impact and social justice directly through policy advocacy. Some of you requested updates about what has been happening since the launch of the Micah Center’s Grassroots Leadership and Advocacy Training Program that I have put together. I work with the center in the Public Policy and Advocacy area of Progress Strategies+ First, it has been enjoyable. But you weren't asking about me!

 

Thank you for your interest in the program participants. In addition, thank you in advance for your best wishes of these individuals. Most of them are taking the first step to become educated, equipped and empowered in advocacy with their elected officials and policy-making process that often seems to them isolated or impossible to navigate.

 

The Micah Center is the leading social justice advocacy organization in Grand Rapids, Michigan and one of the best to partner with for an effort to equip new residents making the transition from community engagement to advocacy. The Micah Center focuses on educating people about the call to do justice and how they can respond to that call in their local community.

 

Such a non-partisan and faith-based (not proselyting) approach has equipped resident leaders to successfully work with elected officials to develop local policies against wage-theft and working with those officials to prevent the proliferation of payday lending. This is not my first advocacy training but it is the first to incorporate faith values. Along with my standard sessions there are also ones like Session Seven focusing on self-care.

 

Since the first of eight sessions that started on July 24, 2014 we have 17 individuals in two separate class tracks coming together as learners of social justice policy advocacy.  Beginning with Session One, Theory of Change:  Advocacy accountability 101, Micah Center 101 and Injustice Introduction, they are also learning group accountability, participatory planning and self-governance standards such as voting on their course schedule, group decisions on accepting new participants and other essentials.  As Grassroots Leadership Director retained by the Micah Center to conduct the training, I am simply their coach and guide on that journey. 

 

Here are some quick takeaways of this journey in this third month:

 

Diverse and dynamic people stepping up!: Seventeen committed residents who represent diverse backgrounds are coming together to create positive change by learning to work with elected officials. They are men, women, youth, African-American, Caucasian and Hispanic. They are individuals and those affiliated with other organizations such as Seeds of Promise, Grand Rapids Institute for Leaders and Proud Fathers. We have retirees, full-time workers, and those seeking employment who are giving of their time to learn. The educational backgrounds range from those with a GED to some who have their masters and PhD. There are three groups of families! In the face of static to low poll numbers of citizen confidence in politics and civic participation, these people want to learn how to engage in policy advocacy directly.

 

Those who thought themselves removed from policy and advocacy understand it quickly! Give people the true Theory of Change, break down policy, surround them with the people who are willing to share knowledge, connect them to elected officials who believe in authentic citizen collaboration and you have individuals who are understanding state, local and federal advocacy faster than they thought. In one exercise amid Session Three: Local Policy Advocacy, the group in Class One quickly came up with a pretty sound local public safety policy during a simulation that complemented the session overview on the difference between an ordinance and administrative rule.

 

As one participant admitted: They thought some policies to be high-level (and boring—their words not mine!) stuff until they put the training into applying policy to their everyday lives and aspirations for societal improvement and justice. The best among us can see prepared people beyond the prism of voting in elections. Patience added with knowing their inherent ability can lead them to crafting public policy in collaboration with those they vote for!

 

With group dynamics, community support and encouragement from leaders the program participants are quickly becoming confident. After Session Four: State Policy Advocacy—People, Process and Ballot Initiatives, one class participant told me that if they needed to testify in Lansing or create an idea for a statewide proposal, they feel that they could do it tomorrow! That confidence did not just come from the training or strategies, but also from the narratives of real people who successfully navigated the legislative process for some small victories. This newly confident participant---the Tomorrow Man! we'll call him now---was also empowered by the guest presenter who was a part of the statewide initiative to raise the minimum wage before the Michigan Legislature acted. Step-by-step, they heard a personal narrative from people not at all different from them who gave their time as volunteers to help enact a form of economic equity. The sharing and knowledge that everyday people are influencing policy matches perfectly with our technical information on such ballot initiatives.

 

More to come in the winter once sessions are completed and the participants choose their advocacy groups to put into practice what they are learning. Congratulations and appreciation to them and the Micah Center. As I continue to note in mentions and presentations to non-profit organizations, advocacy for policy change and administrative rule making at all levels of government is permissible. It is an obligation. Some groups are not aware of that or believe funders would frown upon such engagement---although some of them actually expect and encourage such work. One organizational leader took it in a more head-on way when they stated: “How would we not join in policy advocacy to solve the root causes, systems problems and pressures that force us to deliver many of our services in the first place?” Indeed.

 

The next thoughts from the ProgressPeeps+ Blog in September will be in the Corporate Social Responsibility area.

 

Eric Foster is Principal of Progress Strategies+, a project management consultancy specializing in five areas of social responsibility (Diversity and Inclusion, Community Engagement Strategies, Grant Writing & Project Management, Public Policy & Advocacy, and Corporate Social Responsibility).  In Public Policy and Advocacy he finds it exciting when everyday residents learn that the policy is not as confusing as some who wish to exclude them make it out to be.

 

 

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