Adding Advocacy to Mission
Agency services to children and families should include giving them a voice
By Jennifer Michael and Ann Blake
Over the past five years, fewer and fewer Americans have been paying attention to children's issues. This year, just 2% of voters polled by Lake Research Partners labeled education and children's issues as a high priority, down from 7% in 2002. Most peoples' concerns lay instead with the war in Iraq, terrorism and national defense, the economy, high health care costs, and immigration and other social issues.
So how does one cut through the clutter? How do we convince the public and legislators to make children and families a priority? And how can agencies, many of them strapped for cash, find the time and money to organize an advocacy campaign?
Edgewood Center for Children and Families in San Francisco began tackling some of these questions by including advocacy in a newly redefined mission statement the agency adopted three years ago. Sandra Santana-Mora, Edgewood's Director of Government Relations, explains that making children and families a priority from the service perspective must not exclude supporting families' needs through advocacy work.
"It's our responsibility, as service providers, to give a voice to our clients who do not have one," she says.
Phil Sparks, Cofounder of the Communications Consortium Media Center, who spoke about advocacy strategies during CWLA's 2007 National Conference, adds, "What happens in the child advocacy arena does not happen by happenstance, it happens because child advocates are pushing for change."
With a grant from Generations United that was supported by the Pew Charitable Trusts, Edgewood Center launched a coalition-building, awareness-raising campaign around kinship care issues in 2005. The campaign has brought hundreds of caregivers together from across the state to make legislative visits to Sacramento and Washington, DC.
But even if funding is scarce, agencies can conduct low-cost activities and still make an impact on public policy. Something as simple as taking a local legislator to lunch to discuss the current needs of the children and families served by an agency, or organizing a phone tree to get calls into Washington, DC, can send a strong, memorable message and allow a greater number of people to feel empowered and committed to the advocacy process.
"At the very minimum, know your local government, and at the state level know who your [legislators] are," Santana-Mora says. "You can make a phone call and introduce yourself and make your issues relevant to them. When you do that, you position yourself as the go-to person for that legislator when they are working on an issue."
Capitalizing on Concerns
Lake Research Partners is one of the country's preeminent research and polling firms on children's issues, health care, and education. President Celinda Lake presented some of the firm's most recent findings during CWLA's 2007 National Conference. Their research has uncovered that many Americans recognize the challenges facing children today, but often overestimate these challenges. According to Lake Research:
Although many Americans may not understand or pay attention to children's issues, Lake Research's polls have found most believe the government should be doing more on certain issues, such as making children's health care more affordable. Most also view foster care services as important, including providing adequate educational opportunities and health care, keeping siblings together, and promoting adoption for children who can't go home.
- Nearly half of adults believe 30% of children are living in poverty, nearly twice the actual poverty rate.
- Roughly half of adults blame individual parents for impoverished children, whereas less than a third blame social and economic problems.
- Four in 10 adults incorrectly believe more children are now receiving welfare than before welfare reform was passed.
To capitalize on such concerns when developing an advocacy campaign, crafting the right message and attaching that message to the appropriate frame is important. Keeping a child-specific focus too narrow can be problematic, Lake points out. Health care for children, for example, is a widely supported cause, but voters tend to blame parents for a lack of health care. Not until they recognize the need for health care is due to the lack of funding and poor infrastructure, rather than individual fault, will they be motivated to put their full support behind this issue.
"If you really want to punch through on children's issues, the frame has to be broadened, and not only pertain to the frame of children," Lake says.
She suggests focusing on children's issues in terms of the future, family values, putting the United States first, or other broader issues--for example, most parents across the country want their children to be the first in the world in terms of financial success and education. Children's issues already appeal to and mobilize a certain progressive base and a contingent of swing voters, particularly married women and independent women voters, but if the importance of child welfare is attached to a larger agenda, such as family values, this issue has potential to attract a more conservative or religious demographic that highly regards the integrity of family values.
"The public tunes out if you can't lay the foundation on the big all-encompassing values," Sparks says. He also suggests presenting the big ideas and foundational values, then moving into more specific issue types, trends, and movements, and finally narrowing the focus into a singular specific policy proposal. He sites the following example:
Once a larger frame is chosen, then messages must be carefully crafted. "Words are important," Sparks explains. As an example, child care and day care are often disempowering because the public equates them with babysitting. But early care/education, school readiness, or preparation will receive a stronger backing from a public that is solidly behind the importance of education, social skills, and social interaction.
- Value: We want to strengthen families and empower parents to be able to provide early care/education to their children.
- Message: Every child deserves a home and a family in which to grow.
- Proposal: That's why we must support bill XYZ.
The Secrets to One Agency's Success
Edgewood Center for Children and Families has a long history in the western United States. Founded in 1851, the agency first served as a shelter for orphans of Gold Rush families. By the 1950s, the orphanage had evolved into a residential treatment center. In the 1980s the agency added a new focus on prevention and early intervention, with the ultimate goal of preventing children from needing intensive residential care and schooling. It did this by forming partnerships with public schools and school-based mental health services.
Today, Edgewood serves 5,000 children and families in more than 40 program areas each year in the San Francisco Bay Area. So when the agency adopted advocacy as one of four key elements of a new mission statement, finding a focus for its advocacy efforts was challenging, not because of an absence of worthy, urgent causes, but because of limited resources.
Edgewood decided to draw on its past success working on kinship care-related issues on both the program and the public policy front and adopted this as its main advocacy focus. Edgewood's Kinship Support Network was the country's first comprehensive public-private partnership to serve kin care families, and the model is now disseminated nationwide, according to Santana-Mora.
She says the agency's Kinship Care Advocacy Project has been a great success. Edgewood has organized caregiver training sessions in Northern and Southern California and taken a group of caregivers to Washington, DC, to attend the National Grand Rally and speak directly with Senators and Representatives. The project also organized the first statewide rally to raise awareness about kinship care, and it has taken more than 60 caregivers to testify before state legislators in Sacramento. All the while, aggressive media outreach has resulted in good media coverage of their activities.
Santana-Mora outlines several essential ingredients for a successful advocacy campaign:
Read in the next issue of Children's Voice about CWLA's new advocacy effort to revive the White House Conference on Children and Youth.
- Bring all stakeholders to the table, and give each a role or buy-in. Edgewood's kinship care project advocated for both formal and informal caregivers and involved all relevant stakeholders, including not only the caregivers, but also sister agencies, government bodies, advocacy groups, other kinship service providers, and trade associations. When an action plan was crafted, participants were given tasks that matched their skills.
- Media outreach. Advocacy campaigns need allies. Media outreach is crucial for conveying and sustaining messages, so relationships with local media are important.
- Solid materials to support the cause and good messaging. Many times, child advocates tell the public that families need help, but when asked, they cannot clarify exactly what kinds of help, or they cannot express the information in a way that is easily understood by their different audiences.
This is where strong data can support the cause, Santana-Mora says. During Edgewood's advocacy campaign, for example, the agency emphasized that more than one-third of children in California's foster care system are placed with relatives, and that more than 1 million grandparents and other relatives in the state are responsible for caring for children whose parents are unable to do so.
To support a message, it's important to know whom the constituents are in relation to the message and what they find important. Edgewood initially crafted a message that focused on the money-savings argument, which government audiences understand, but the message didn't test well with the general public. People cared less about saving money than about the well-being of children.
In response, using findings from a Generations United messaging study, Edgewood tailored its message to different constituencies. When addressing public opinion, the message focused on children's well-being and how children should not pay the consequences of unfortunate circumstances they can't control.
- Education of legislators and the community at large. California legislators have term limits, meaning, as Santana-Mora explains, "Knowledge expires." Advocates must be on a constant mission to educate and build relationships with local legislators.
- Empowering those for whom you're advocating. Families who need services are their own best advocates. Santana-Mora presents a basic advocacy course to the caregivers she works with, explaining how the legislative process works, and helping them make the connection between the services they receive and the public policy that influences those services.
- A bit of money. Solid funding for advocacy work is essential for conducting a large, national campaign. But on a local level, simply picking up the phone can go a long way toward initiating and developing a relationship with legislators.
- A considerable amount of luck. So many uncontrollable factors can drown out the issue one is working to promote, such as unexpected natural disasters of the magnitude of Hurricane Katrina. But this doesn't mean goals cannot be reached eventually. Advocacy efforts can't be conditioned to external factors over which one has no control.
- A daring imagination. "Don't censor yourself," Santana-Mora says. "It's okay to think big, and then reality takes charge and you do what you can."
Jennifer Michael is Editor-in-Chief of Children's Voice, and Ann Blake is a Contributing Editor.
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