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The Case for Connecting (as a Model)

Date: March 28, 2023

Ted Lempert

President, Children Now

Alexander Matias

Vice President of Operations and Engagement, Children Now

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There’s no lack of visual models for organizing people to get stuff done. Bottom up (think: pyramid). Top down (inverted pyramid). Groundswell (maybe the image of an ocean comes to mind?). Flat (you get the idea).

What comes to mind when you see this word? Connected.

It’s trickier to visualize. But we’d like to make the case that connecting — not just as a tactic, but as a model — is an essential approach for advancing social change, especially when it comes to advocacy.

The strongest interest groups call on a single, massive membership to take advocacy action at the right time. At Children Now, the social change that we work on is building power for kids’ issues in California through advocacy. But the children’s field doesn’t have a single membership-based group that other strong interest groups have. That’s why we must connect across parent, student, faith, civil rights, and other community-based groups, and business, labor, and direct-service organizations, to put pressure on policymakers to prioritize children’s health, education, and well-being. At Children Now, we employ the connector model to coordinate the voices of thousands of diverse organizations to get wins for kids.

Beyond the kids’ field, this “connector model” could be used across issue areas and geographies where there isn’t one unified group — or even where there is, but additional voices add power, as well as crucial knowledge and nuance, to a movement. With that in mind, we wanted to share more about how, here in California, the Pro-Kid connector model has led to tangible wins that have benefitted millions of children, especially Black and brown kids, kids in poverty, and youth in foster care.

Here’s how we’ve approached the work:

  1. Unite under one umbrella. Similar to many other issue areas, “children’s advocacy” has traditionally been siloed, with various groups trying to address disparate pieces (teacher training, mental health, child care, youth homelessness, etc.). With a “whole child,” “Pro-Kid” frame, we launched The Children’s Movement of California to unite the voices of the thousands of organizations that care about kids. We’ve found that bringing people together under a simple but compelling Pro-Kid umbrella has helped overcome the scarcity mindset that fosters the faulty notion that investing more in one area of children’s wellbeing means divesting in another. The strongest interest groups unite under one umbrella, and they “keep the base together.” That focus is needed in all advocacy efforts.
  2. Invite folks to the party who don’t typically hang out together. What do a brewing company, community church, a nonprofit called BANANAS, and The Los Angeles Trust for Children’s Health have in common? They are some of our more active Pro-Kid supporters — we have over 5,000 organizations in the network so far — signing on to letters urging our state and local leaders to take a variety of actions to support kids. This united front is incredibly effective due to its diversity. When an elected official receives a letter from hundreds of organizations representing a range of sectors, it conveys the sense that just about everybody supports the issue. And it least when it comes to kids, that’s the point. There is tremendous support for children’s well-being; it just usually isn’t coalesced and connected to demonstrate the depth and breadth of that support. This strategy could hold true, and increase the effectiveness of advocacy efforts, across issues like public health, the environment, and more.
  3. Honor folks’ time and their advocacy capital. Social change deals in many currencies — advocacy capital is one of them. You want your issue to be prioritized among the hundreds of other issues that are being raised with policymakers. Established interests hire full time government relations staff who know the personalities, the political agendas, the scheduling, and the intricacies of policymaking. While communities should dictate the policy agenda, most people don’t have the capacity to spend several days a week in the state capitol. To honor people’s time, the government relations team at Children Now only asks Children’s Movement members to sign on to a letter when the issue is ripe for action — when key legislation is before committee or on the floor, or the governor’s desk for signature, so that act of advocacy takes less than one minute, but has significant, timely impact. A strong advocacy structure in any field should be guided by community, or “outside” voice, coupled with “inside” government relations.

By leveraging diverse connections and critical mass through this connector model, we’ve helped create big wins for kids, such as securing state funding for home visiting, eliminating Medi-Cal premiums, significantly increasing dollars for childcare, establishing an historic equitable school funding model, and creating a 24/7 hotline for youth in foster care and their guardians to access trauma-informed supports. There remains much work to be done, but we’re proud of the progress made possible by coordinating across so many groups that care about kids and our collective future.

To create the change we seek — in our case transforming children’s advocacy to be more effective so that all children can thrive — connections are essential and driven by design. How might a connector model benefit your advocacy work?

And if you still find yourself craving a simple image (like the top-down/bottom-up models) to bring this together, consider adrienne maree brown’s metaphor of the Fibonacci spiral in her 2017 book “Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds.” Think of a spiral, shell, or unfurling fern and the way each part connects with the rest. As brown reminds us, “this may be the most important element to understand — that what we practice at the small scale sets patterns for the entire system.”

Ted Lempert is President of Children Now. Follow him on Twitter at @tedlempert and find him on LinkedIn. Alexander Matias is Vice President of Operations and Engagement. Find him on LinkedIn.

Editor’s Note: CEP publishes a range of perspectives. The views expressed here are those of the authors, not necessarily those of CEP.

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