Lessons for Successful Advocacy We Learned at the Prosperity Summit
The Prosperity Summit was not just a conference for learning, but for doing as well. Hundreds of attendees packed buses to Capitol Hill to educate their Members of Congress about issues in financial security that matter to their communities. But before they went, we had a group huddle during our Thursday lunch plenary, “Rallying the Troops”.
We were motivated by speakers Ellen Lazar (Prosperity Now Board of Directors), Ranye McLendon (NPower Baltimore) and Rashad Robinson (Color Of Change), each reminding us that our voices really do make a difference. And we need to speak up, because our challenges—such as the weakening of the Consumer Financial Protection bureau and the regressive Tax Cuts and Jobs Act—are too important to ignore.
But even if the idea of speaking up sounds appealing, there is often a doubt: as just one person, can I really make a difference? Ranye McLendon, a member of Prosperity Now’s Youth Council, laid that doubt to rest.
“I am one person, but I am one person in a family and in a community,” she said.
She explained that, when you start conversations with those around you, particularly when it’s a conversation they are not expecting, an idea starts to spread. It passes from your circle of friends and family to other circles that overlap with yours. Eventually, the idea no longer needs any one individual’s prompting to disseminate. This is when, as McLendon quoted Michelle Obama, “hope starts to take a life of its own.”
That’s why we should never underestimate the importance one person can have. If we are courageous enough to speak up as individuals, that courage can be contagious and effect the change we want to see in the world.
Once you muster the courage to speak up, you need strategy to make your voice stand out from the noise of information that defines the social media era. That’s where Rashad Robinson’s powerful speech was instructive.
Robinson’s first key point was that effective advocacy makes institutions nervous about disappointing a community. Research, legislation and technical solutions, while important, have a limited impact if those in power are indifferent to the concerns of those you are serving. Robinson called for movement-building and narrative change efforts that focus on making institutions care about their reputations among the communities we champion.
Once advocates enter the fray, Robinson emphasized that they shouldn’t mistake presence for power. Presence—such as representing your community in power centers, having conversations and getting retweets—aren’t enough to enact change. For real power, you need to change both the written rules of policy and the unwritten rules of culture: how people are treated, whose voices are heard in popular narratives and how policies are actually implemented. He argued that making institutions and corporations dissociate with actors we consider morally objectionable should be considered just as important as legislative victories.
Robinson also pointed out that we need to shift our thinking from seeing disadvantaged communities as being in an unfortunate situation to an unjust situation. Seeing someone as unfortunate will lead to sympathy and perhaps charity, but not action to change the rules that created the misfortune. If we see people as being in an unjust situation, we immediately connect their hardship with the systems it is rooted in, prompting us to turn our focus to changing the rules.
With these principles in mind, where do we go from here? Robinson stressed that we first need to invest our energy in enablers who are committed to change rather than people who have already decided our communities don’t matter. From there, we should set forth—whether at local gatherings or at on Capitol Hill—and have the important conversations. This is how we start building a society worthy of the communities we love.