Building Healthy Coalitions: Wisdom from the Network
May 19, 2017

A riddle: what can be spread widely without diminishing its value and often gives back more in return?

If you’re a Midwestern gardener like me, you probably thought rhubarb, but there’s a better answer. Read through this post to get to it.

The Art of Coalition Building

As the reform movement grows, there’s often more than one organization in most states advancing reform in their state capitol. (Visit our member map to see who’s working where.) That’s a positive trend: the line at the microphone lobbying against the status quo is even longer.

Because that’s true, most advocates find themselves working in coalitions, or in partnership with other organizations, to advance shared goals. A win is far more likely when working in coalitions than going it alone.

At the same time, working in coalition is fraught with occasion for fumbles and missteps, giving partners abundant opportunity to secure relationships with humble amends and gracious acknowledgement that even best of intentions can easily go awry.

Because all this is true, effective coalition work is a regular topic when the Network comes together. Seasoned advocates are eager to offer their lessons-learned to help make the work easier for colleagues in other states. In fact, when we asked for insights for a playbook of lessons-learned to spread across the Network, more than twenty organizations volunteered with wisdom to share.

The Most Important Investment

We heard so much robust advice that this is a two-part series. In our next coalitions post, we’ll highlight wisdom about leadership and operations. Today, we start with the most dominant advice we hear from seasoned advocates: invest in relationshipsLeaders couldn’t stress this enough.

to build healthy coalitions, invest in relationships and tend to them regularly

Don’t believe leading advocates from across the country? Then check Merriam Webster: the first definition of “coalition” is a verb. It’s active. Relationships require ongoing attention (and an occasional adult beverage).

Here’s a quick summary of some wisdom and investments Network leaders said built healthier coalition partnerships:

  • Common ground has to be established: work to understand interests more broadly than the issue at hand.
  • Trust is earned. And once earned, still fragile. Respect that.
  • If someone comes to the table reluctantly, there’s a good reason and it likely has to do with their past experiences. Give trust time.
  • Egos are real, and they flare. Stay humble and get past it (which is easier if we keep in mind we’ve all done it).
  • Conflict is not only inevitable; it can be helpful. If there’s conflict in the broader community (and there is), then it’s useful to surface and resolve it among coalition partners.
  • Stay above the clouds: steer the focus back to shared beliefs around fundamental education issues that can help disagreeing coalition members find their way around smaller conflicts.
  • When a coalition starts to become too like-minded (or, in other words, when the going finally gets a little easier), that can mean important feedback from the community is missing. It’s probably time to add more members who bring diverse points of view.

Finally, the answer to our opening riddle is also an ongoing challenge as advocates work to manage strong coalition relationships.

What can be spread widely without diminishing its value and often gives back more in return? Credit.

Who reports what to funders, the press, and the broader community is too often the ultimate bugaboo of coalitions. Grabbing too much individual credit can be the fastest way to unravel the cohesion built through a team victory.

The solution? When in doubt, spread credit broadly. There’s little downside: gracious partners usually give back in return. And when it feels especially hard to give credit to a partner (or policymaker) late to the party, seasoned advocates know the smart play is to applaud the latecomers the loudest, and in the process let the public know where that individual now stands on the issue.

Recent Big Wins By Coalitions

Advocates across the Network are deep in coalition work this legislative season, and some have recently experienced big wins. In Colorado, a coalition of partners, including PIE Network members Democrats for Education Reform Colorado and Colorado Succeeds, worked to support a bill that calls for districts to develop a plan by 2019-20 to equitably share voter-approved tax increases with charter schools. This historic legislation makes Colorado the first state in the nation to provide public charter schools with equitable access to tax revenue.

In Louisiana, advocates including PIE Network members Stand for Children Louisiana and Democrats for Education Reform Louisiana were part of a large, diverse coalition that worked to ensure strong accountability in the state’s ESSA plan. Their coalition met monthly with the Louisiana State Superintendent to provide feedback and also raised public awareness on the importance of a transparent system. They successfully advocated to move away from the existing curve on school grades, worked to include parents in the planning, offered recommendations on a redesigned school report card, and ensured a school could not be rated an A if they are failing a specific subgroup.

In Tennessee, advocates in coalition, including PIE Network members the State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE), TennesseeCAN, and the Campaign for School Equity, worked in collaboration with the Tennessee Department of Education to support sweeping charter legislation covering everything from charter facilities, enrollment, and authorizing. This legislation is the largest change since the passage of the initial law in 2002.

In our next piece, we’ll dig into Network wisdom about establishing coalition leadership and operations. Meanwhile, Network members can find additional details in the Coalitions Playbook or from additional coalition blogs on our website.

 


Suzanne Tacheny Kubach

Suzanne is PIE Network's Executive Director


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