In the 50CAN Guide to Building Advocacy Campaigns we introduced the concept of a tactics toolbox. Like tools, there is no one tactic that is best for every situation. The key is to select the right tactics to help you accomplish the job at hand. Our first two posts in this “Inside the Toolbox” series took an in-depth look at microtargeting and negotiation. In this post, we explore the tactic of peer networking.
When building an advocacy campaign, selecting a tactic should come only after you have clarified your goals and matched your strategy to your environment. Peer networking is a tactic you should consider if you have chosen the emergent networks strategy, which is one of the four top strategies you can select when building an advocacy campaign.
This strategy relies on change emerging through trial and error, with good ideas being tested and refined by practitioners. The best of those ideas become common practices and through dialogue with policymakers, they eventually become law.
So, what is peer networking? Simply put, it’s the process of developing and maintaining relationships with people who share a common passion for solving a particular set of problems. While we all live in a world of relationships, what makes peer networking a tactic in an advocacy campaign is the discipline you bring to the effort to drive the emergent networks strategy forward by building a community of practitioners committed to discovering innovative solutions together.
First, draw a map
The quoteable environmentalist Aidan Ricketts explained the importance of peer networking best when he wrote, “Social change is by nature a social endeavor; there is support out there but you need to find it.”
Let’s say you are a teacher, looking to advance blended learning efforts in your school and district. An emerging networks strategy would work well because blended learning is a well-defined area in which numerous practitioners are engaged in testing out innovative approaches to technology-supported learning. Teachers and school leaders working on blended learning have connected together to share best practices. And increasingly, policymakers are looking to these examples to help inform policy.
The first step in building out your peer network is sitting down to draw a social map. To make your efforts easier to track, start by organizing these contacts into three columns—supportive, neutral and unsupportive—and rank the people in each column from most influential on your issues to least influential.
Don’t limit yourself to just one type of person in this initial brainstorming, consider not only other teachers, but principals, parents, students, district staff, elected officials and anyone else who might have a stake in the change you are seeking.
Make more friends
Next step: make more friends! You might think friendship is unpredictable, but as the New York Times has pointed out, sociologists since the 1950s have consistently found a three-part formula that explains new friendships: “proximity; repeated, unplanned interactions; and a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in each other.”
Using your map as a guide, start by focusing in on the people you already know who you think might be supportive and with whom you spend a lot of time during the day: teachers in your schools, your principal and the parents of your students. Make the most of unplanned interactions to start conversations about your passion for blended learning. And look for opportunities to further develop these conversations in more informal settings—at the park, dinners after work, house parties—anywhere where people don’t feel the need to closely watch everything they say.
As your effort to build ties among people who share your natural support for blended learning picks up steam, consider branching out to the most influential people in your neutral column. Look for ways to bring yourself into closer proximity such as volunteering to serve on a working group with an influential member of the district central staff. Make the most of unplanned time together at gatherings outside of the official settings. Find opportunities to confide about why you think things need to change in your school.
Create a sense of belonging
Next step: turning this loose network of friendships into a cohesive force for change! Don’t feel apprehensive about asking people to join a group. As Barry Schwartz writes in The Paradox of Choice “the most important factor in providing happiness is close social relations.” People crave a sense of belonging.
The key to building a cohesive group is figuring out the unique ways that each person can contribute to a collective effort. At 50CAN we give every team member a nickname that serves as a reminder of the unique contribution they are making to our work. Consider doing the same for each of the supporters on your social map. As you start to develop your campaign in support of blended learning, think about what task you could give to each of them that plays to their unique interests and strengths.
Embrace a spirit of adventure
Advocacy can be so serious that it’s easy to believe you have to go through your work with a scowl. But in peer networking, nothing could be more detrimental to the cause. As Aidan Ricketts (there he is again!) reminds us, “If activists themselves appear stressed, negative or overworked, its not very tempting for others to join in … activism needs to be made fun.”
Don’t forget to share your joy for the work you do with the people around you. The spirit of adventure that you feel in charting a new course is infectious, and taking the time to celebrate small victories on your journey to better outcomes for students will help ensure your cause never lacks for enthusiastic supporters.
We hope you have found this third look inside the tactics toolbox helpful. Please don’t hesitate to reach out with questions, comments and ideas and join us in the conversation about education advocacy on Twitter and Facebook.