Spring is always a busy time at 50CAN, but never more so than this year. We are supporting ambitious local advocacy campaigns in seven states, running an online policy course for 40 policy wonks in training, helping our first class of Education Advocacy Fellows craft their policy visions and strategic plans in five new states and reviewing the nearly 800 applications received for the second class of the fellowship.
What ties all this work together is a desire to help grow the education advocacy movement by removing the barriers for aspiring local advocates to get involved. After nearly ten years of work in support of more than 100 policy campaigns, what we have never done, until now, is to publicly document what we have learned along the way.
Our hope is to explain through a series of posts how we help local leaders develop policy goals, how we support them in crafting their advocacy plans and how we work together to secure lasting changes. We want to inspire more people to get involved in education advocacy and make it a little easier to successfully navigate this challenging terrain.
50CAN isn’t a national advocacy group, but instead a network of local advocates learning from and supporting each other. We got our start in 2005 as a small nonprofit in Connecticut working to shine a light on the state’s worst-in-the-nation achievement gap and build support for policy reforms that could make a difference for kids. We hoped that other local advocates could benefit from what we had learned on the ground and that we could in turn learn more from them. In January 2011, we launched 50CAN as a learning community where we are all sharing and growing together.
Making the most of this new network of local advocates meant doing things a little differently. We had to organize our knowledge in a way that could be accessed across the network, create common tools and platforms that would be useful in communities across the country and figure out a common vocabulary to quickly share what we we’re learning with each other.
My own advocacy journey started not by working in a social movement, but by studying them as a Ph.D student at Duke (Go Blue Devils!). My graduate advisor was the sociologist Nan Lin, who wrote an influential book on the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and is a leading researcher on social networks and social capital. My five years serving as his research assistant was an incredible education, but the more I researched these concepts, the more restless I became to get more involved in the issues and causes we were studying. Since completing my dissertation in 2002, I have had the opportunity to work on dozens of campaigns on behalf of national service, government reform and education. But I’ve never lost interest in researching how advocacy works and learning from great local advocates how to make it more successful.
You don’t have to spend much time as an education advocate before it dawns on you what an enormous challenge lies before us. There are so many things that need to be done right to build an education system that can provide every child with a high-quality education. Yet, there is no one-size-fits-all solution that can be applied across the country.
Each community and each state must find an approach that builds off of what they have already created and meets the unique needs of their children. That requires local leaders with deep policy know-how.
At the same time, it’s clear that policy knowledge alone isn’t enough. The history of education in America shows us that good ideas need strong and persistent advocates to survive the pushback from the status quo. And just like in policy, this work must be driven forward at the community level by advocates with the local understanding, relationships and long-term commitment to ensure these changes take root.
Building upon our courses, workshops, fellowships and support services for local campaigns, we hope the blog posts in this series can provide another avenue for removing the barriers to local education advocacy.
While I sometimes play the role of teacher of advocacy, I am still very much a student. I have ideas of key things I’m excited to share, but I hope you will also reach out by email or join the conversation on Twitter and Facebook with your own thoughts on how we can contribute to a more open movement. By sharing what we are learning, we hope you will also help us see ways we might be wrong, or approaches that will help our local leaders better reach the goal of a high-quality education for all kids, regardless of their address.