The Art of Advocacy: Lessons from Leaders Across the Network
July 28, 2017

As states grapple with newfound flexibility, control, and opportunity under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the role of state-level advocates in advancing and defending state policy is more pivotal than ever before.

However, advocacy isn’t a blunt instrument or a precisely measured recipe that guarantees perfection. It’s an art, learned from practice and in some cases, watching others get it both right and wrong.

The third cohort of the PIE Network Leadership Institute, an opportunity designed to connect senior leaders from member organizations across the Network and sharpen their abilities as strategists and influencers, recently met for its third and final gathering. Here several Leadership Institute alums share insights related to the complex, dynamic arts of advocacy, whether in the halls of a state capitol or a parent meeting in a high school library. This is the first in a two-part series focusing on the art of influence. 

UNDERSTANDING THE “WHY” ALLOWS ME TO UNDERSTAND WHAT’S WITHIN MY SPHERE OF CONTROL.

Jeani Frickey Saito, executive director of Stand for Children Colorado, explains how she analyzes a new problem: “I seek to understand the “why” behind a challenge. Is the challenge created by systems or by unintended consequences of a system? Why are the people in the system reacting a certain way? Understanding the “why” also allows me to understand what’s within my sphere of control and what factors are going to be there, regardless of the circumstance.”

Constantly returning to our values and mission helps us address the vast majority of challenges.

Sanford Johnson, deputy director of Mississippi First, describes how the values and mission of his organization provide an anchor when making critical leadership decisions: “The first thing to consider is how each challenge relates to the values and mission of our organization. We’re very clear about who we are, what we do, and how we operate. Constantly returning to our values and mission helps us address the vast majority of challenges.”

REGARDLESS OF BACKGROUND OR POLITICAL PERSUASION, WE CAN OFTEN FIND A GOAL OR VISION TO WHICH WE CAN AGREE.

Brigitte Blom Ramsey, executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, describes how she approaches building and sustaining relationships: “Finding common ground is my number one guiding principle.  Regardless of background or political persuasion, we can often find a goal or vision to which we can agree.  It’s in the strategies desired to achieve the vision where disagreement takes hold.  Knowing our common ground, and reminding ourselves when necessary, allows us to navigate changing dynamics, and wrestle with the competing policy strategies, in a way that can prove most advantageous.

ADVOCACY REQUIRES PASSION, BUT IT ALSO REQUIRES A COMMAND OF THE FACTS.

Peter Franzen, associate executive director at Children’s Education Alliance of Missouri (CEAM), describes how advocates must be passionate, articulate, and resilient: “Advocacy requires a certain amount of passion that, unfortunately not everyone shares. Understanding that all people must balance their lives with the demands of home, work and civic participation means being prepared for a lukewarm reception. Yes, advocacy requires passion, but it also requires a command of the facts, a willingness to see the world from a different point of view, and the ability to articulate the value of your idea or solution.”

IF WE CAN PRACTICE ACTIVE LISTENING WE CAN BETTER UNDERSTAND OTHERS’ PERSPECTIVES, DIAGNOSE MISUNDERSTANDINGS, AND FIND COMMON GROUND. 

Erin Hart, interim president & CEO and chief operating officer at Expect More Arizona, articulates what she believes could be an advocate’s best asset: “Listening is the most important tool in our advocacy toolbox. If we can practice active listening we can better understand others’ perspectives, diagnose misunderstandings, and find common ground.”

WE MUST BE ABLE TO TOLERATE – PERHAPS EVEN EMBRACE – CONFLICT.

America Succeeds Vice President of Policy and Operations Dale Chu reminds leaders that some disagreements can be productive: “Henry Kissinger once said that America has no permanent friends or enemies, only interests. As advocates, we would do well to consider these words in our daily work. We must be able to tolerate – perhaps even embrace – conflict. Still, it’s worth remembering that getting people to nod their heads is not the same as getting them to move their feet. If we care about the kids that are too often marginalized in this country, we must always be fighting on their behalf.”

We know every advocate has a trove of lessons they can share about the art of influence. Reach out with yours.  Interested in applying for Leadership Institute? The application window for the fourth cohort of the Leadership Institute will open in early September.

Stay tuned for our second piece in this series on the art of influence.


    Sarah Grunewald

    Sarah is PIE Network's Deputy Executive Director, Program Strategy


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