This essay originally appeared on Education Post.
Over the past two years, 1,300 people applied for just 10 spots in 50CAN’s Education Advocacy Fellowship. The extraordinary response is a reflection of the deep hunger in our country for better schools. People want to speak out, get involved and make a difference and we are proud to provide a platform for dedicated, principled individuals to do this work.
We’re also proud to work side by side with strong partners like StudentsFirst, who have been driving policy changes in states all across the country since their founding in 2010. Last week we announced that 50CAN and StudentsFirst are joining to create a new and better advocacy organization with deeper roots in the communities we serve.
For us, this is a big step forward, 11 years in the making. The CAN model got its start in New Haven, Connecticut, in 2005 when a small group of would-be advocates sought to shine a light on the state’s worst-in-the-nation achievement gap and demanded bold policy changes to make a difference for all kids. As our campaigns began to secure real victories, we created 50CAN as an independent nonprofit with a new mission to bring together diverse local advocates from communities across the country to share and grow together.
Around the same time, Michelle Rhee was announcing her intentions to advocate for big education changes, after leading a dramatic educational transformation as chancellor of D.C. Public Schools. StudentsFirst was launched, and has played a role in changing 220 policies across 18 states over the past five years.
In this merger 50CAN will keep its national name, but we will tap into the StudentsFirst network of thinkers, advocates and community leaders. We will welcome local teams that have been hard at work under the StudentsFirst banner, helping expand the reach of this growing network. And we will streamline our work to focus more resources on recruiting, training and elevating passionate local voices.
Our hope is that this merger not only creates a stronger combined network of state campaigns, but also helps define a future for education advocacy that is more creative, collaborative and open.
We are taking up the 21st-century challenge of ensuring a universally high-quality education, regardless of address, for all students. This is ultimately a creative enterprise that rejects the one-size-fits-all solutions of the past. Therefore, it is essential that we not let the initial ideas of the past decade cement into an orthodoxy that rigidly defines how we advocate and what we advocate for.
We aim to embrace and amplify new initiatives like Education Reimagined to help inject fresh thinking into our movement to ensure we continue to grow based on pioneering new voices.
Our country is so big, so diverse and so dynamic, it would be foolish to think that any one organization could ever achieve the goal of educational transformation working alone. Advocacy is a team sport and we aim for this combined network to earn a reputation for not only being a vital member of local coalitions across a wide variety of goals, but also a catalyst for a nationwide collaboration that reaches thousands of advocates from all walks of life.
We will continue to invest in organizing everything we are learning in our campaigns into guidebooks and online courses that are free for all, and we will shine a spotlight on the great work of partner organizations to ensure they find the broader audience they deserve.
While professional advocacy campaigns are often associated with secret plans and behind-the-scenes maneuvers, we believe that when advocates embrace an open approach to building campaigns—where goals and strategies are developed in public—it strengthens accountability, accelerates learning and promotes trust. It also lowers the barriers for more people to join in, so that the people most affected by the changes—teachers, parents and students—have the opportunity to lead.
In the months and years ahead, we aim to hold ourselves to a “double bottom line.” In the business world, this means not only paying attention to the traditional bottom line of profits but to a second bottom line that measures the social impact of the work.
For this new merger, we believe the double bottom line should mean measuring our success not simply by the number of policy and political wins secured by this combined network but also by how effective we are in contributing to a more creative, collaborative and open movement that empowers local advocates in and outside of our organization to lead us all into the more just future our children deserve.