Advocate for Art

It’s the holiday season—give thanks for Advocacy! Shelia Smith, Executive Director of Minnesota Citizens for the Arts, provides a 101 and reminds us that we DO have the power to make a change (and honestly, who’s not down for that!)

Art Advocacy Day 2005

Advocacy 101

The Four Principles of Advocacy
Let’s get organized
You’ve Got What You Need, Now Organize Some More
Build Your Support Vote By Vote
Darn It! We lost the vote
OR: Woo Hoo! We Won!
Man, that’s way too much work for me. What can I do that would be way less effort?

I was surprised when I took my job at MCA to find out how little Americans know about their power in the public sector. A real, practical, civic education is missing in our schools. We seem to learn about our government mainly through the media and come to believe that the public sector is made up of people we call “they” instead of people we recognize as “us.” By extension, many Americans have given up on participating in public policy beyond their annual vote, and many Americans don’t even bother to do that. This country is built upon the principles of “government by the people, for the people,” yet because so many of us choose to check out, it is increasingly be “government by the powerful, for the powerful.” You need to know that you have the power to make change.

Why does this matter, and who really cares?

Well, it matters because the people we elect and the government we create touches every part of our lives, from how much student aid we can get to what our civil rights are to whether or not there is any support for the arts. In our democracy, we have power that people in other parts of the world envy. And that power is in our own hands, to be used simply by exercising our rights as public citizens and as voters. Beyond voting, which is truly the most important thing; there is a whole arena of action in the public sector that includes advocating for the issues and ideas we care about, and convincing decision makers to support our issues.

You can learn this. Remember, when we give up, we’ve already lost.

Public sector issue advocacy is something you can learn, just like you learn to drive a car or run your VCR. The fact that you haven’t been taught these skills doesn’t mean you can’t pick them up today. So let’s run through an Advocacy 101, and see if we can’t give you a few new tools to advocate for the arts in your community. This is an effective process whether you are working on an issue at a city council, neighborhood organization, non-profit board, school board, legislature or other decision making body. For the purposes of this article, we will talk about advocating for the arts to a city council.

The Four Principles of Advocacy

SIMPLIFY – While you must understand your issue as thoroughly as possible, you need to be able to describe what you want in a single sentence. There’s a reason advertising is full of jingles and slogans. They are short, deliver messages efficiently, and people remember them. Decision makers may have only five minutes to devote to your issue, and you need to get to the point ASAP. A fifty page report may never get read, but a one-pager that can be summed up in one sentence will be remembered. You need a much more detailed understanding of your issue, but you really have to get to the point.

TARGET – You can’t convince the whole world that you are right and that what you want is a good thing. (Well, maybe you could, but it would take a very long time). Right now you just need to convince the decision makers who have power over your issue. The legislature has 201 members, but we’ll focus most of our effort on the 25 or so legislators who sit on the committee that funds the arts. This allows us make efficient use of the resources we have. You should do the same.

UNITE – “Many hands make light the work.” “The people, united, will never be defeated.” “If we do not hang together, surely we will hang separately” (Ben Franklin). The larger your coalition, the more likely your success.

Be NICE – Approach decision makers calmly and engage them in conversation. Your job is to educate the decision maker. Screaming at people only creates opposition to your cause.

Okay, now that we have these Principles in mind…

Let’s get organized
At the start of organizing advocacy for any issue, you need to prepare a little bit. First of all, what exactly are you advocating for? “I want more people in my community to appreciate the arts” is not specific enough. “I want my city council to appropriate $1000 for children’s summer art programs” is more specific, and something you can actually work on. You need to focus your advocacy on a SPECIFIC thing from a SPECIFIC decision-making body.

Who makes the decisions?

When you want a new streetlight put in, your targets are your city council and Mayor. When you want more state arts funding, your targets are your legislators and the Governor. When you want the country to spend more or less on the military, you would need to advocate to your member of the U.S. Congress or the President. Knowing who makes the decision makes your advocacy job easier, because instead of talking to everyone you can just talk to the ones who actually have power over your issue.

Can’t figure it out? Call any elected official’s office and ask them who makes decisions on your issue. Once you’ve figured out who makes the decisions, get their contact information (snail mail, email, phone).

How do they make the decisions?

People who work with the legislature like me know that we cannot take any vacations between January and May when the legislative session is on. We also know it’s not too smart to make airplane reservations in June or July because our legislature has a habit of going into special sessions in those months.

When you want to be a part of a group’s decision-making process, you need to understand the schedule and process for making those decisions. If it’s the city council you’re working on, it would be helpful to find out some basic information. When does the process begin? What meeting do I need to attend to make sure they vote on my issue? When do they vote on their budget? Does the Mayor do the first draft, so you need to talk to her first? The more you know about the process, the more you will understand when and how to act. Nothing is worse than approaching a decision maker for help only to be told “we voted on that issue last week, so you are too late.” Knowledge is power.

You’ve Got What You Need,
Now Organize Some More

The One-Pager
Draft a one-page case statement/fact sheet on your issue. It should be easy to understand and to the point. Simplify and clarify your issue so people who don’t know anything about it can easily understand it. Describe what you want, why you want it, and why it’s a good idea for the decision makers to support the issue. Include your own contact information. Then use this one-pager when you meet with your coalition, when you talk to media, and leave it behind with decision makers when you have meetings.

Gather Your Friends Together
Invite everyone you can think of to support your cause. In the arts, you could talk to art teachers, staff, artists and volunteers at local arts organizations, people from local businesses who benefit from arts activity, local political leaders who have already showed support for your issue, and so on. Get on the phone, tell them what you are contemplating, and see if they will join in. Educate them so they want be part of your coalition.

Meet With Your Friends

Get everyone together and look over the draft one-pager. Can everyone agree with what it says? Stick to things you agree on instead of spending time arguing over your differences. (If you can’t agree with each other, why should public officials agree with you?) Once you’ve agreed to your one-pager, keep a unified front with the public and with decision makers. Give everyone in your group a copy of the one-pager and stick to it.

Also at this meeting, figure out how to keep all members of the coalition informed about what’s happening. If you have one meeting and then you don’t ever speak again, you do not have a coalition. Email is generally an easy way to give people updates. You can also use a phone tree, or periodic mailings.

Build Your Support Vote By Vote:

At your coalition meeting, sit down with your list of decision makers and talk about who is the best person to talk to each of them. At the very least, you want to set up a one-to-one meeting with each decision maker to talk about what you want…and you want to get all of the meetings finished before the council is scheduled to take a vote on your issue. Does anybody know one of the decision makers personally? If so, they should be the leader in that meeting. Make sure someone from your coalition who is very knowledgeable about the details of your proposal attends each meeting so that they can answer questions.

Keep Track of Your Conversations
As you meet with each person, keep a list of who agrees to support you, who doesn’t agree with you, and who is evasive or says they don’t have enough information. Count your votes; did the majority of the decision makers agree to support your issue? Did one of the members support your issue so strongly that they said they’d be willing to lobby the other members of the city council? If so, keep that member very informed on your progress with the other decision makers. Keeping notes on your meetings will help you and the other members of your coalition understand how you are doing in gathering votes from the committee. You can also use your notes to remember what questions decision makers had so that you can try to answer them. If anyone needs follow up, target your energies on the undecided.

You have the majority!

More than half of the decision makers said yes, they’d support your issue. But don’t stop now! You never know when a decision maker may have a conversation with someone else and change his or her mind. Go into the vote with more votes than you need in case you lose one or two.

Attend the meeting when the vote will be taken with as many members of your coalition as possible. It will be much harder for decision makers to vote against your issue when you are there at the meeting in force, watching them. Make sure your friendly council people know you are there. Thank them and show them how nice you are.

Oh, No! We don’t have enough votes!
Time to “hog pile with love.” Contact everyone in your coalition and ask him or her to contact the decision makers again and urge them, nicely, to vote for your issue. Keep the process and meeting dates in mind: make sure your friends know these important dates are the deadline for their calls. Get people talking! Take students to meet with decision makers. Write a letter to the editor. Hog pile the decision maker with people who believe in your cause. Think creatively. Who else might be willing to contact the decision maker for you?

Peer to Peer Contact is Important

Check in again with the decision makers who support your issue. Do they have any advice on how you can reach the undecideds? Can you testify at the meeting in favor of your issue? Do they need any more information before the vote? See if the constituent contact is helping. Take the advice from your helpful committee members about what else you can do to get more votes.

Darn It! We lost the vote.
Don’t let this be the end.

It may take a couple of tries to get the votes you need. Stay in contact with your friends and develop strategies so that the next time the council votes on your issue they will have a better idea of why it’s the right thing to do. Continue with friendly, educational contact with decision makers. Widen your coalition and use every opportunity to educate community members about the importance of your issue. At the next election ask each candidate to make a public statement in favor of your issue and to vote accordingly.

Celebrate How Far You’ve Come
Everyone likes a party. Celebrate the work you’ve done! Thank everyone who had a hand in your efforts. You’ve figured out what you wanted, learned who the decision makers were and what the process is. You’ve written a one page case statement, built a coalition and learned how to communicate with each other. You’ve met with the decision makers and learned a lot about them as they have learned about your issue. The fact that you don’t win on the first try is no reflection on all of the great things you have done.

OR: Woo Hoo! We Won!
Again, an excellent reason to throw a party. Thank everyone in a very public way. Send letters of thanks to everyone who voted with you, and to all the individuals and organizations who helped get it done. Give everyone credit. Bask in the glory.
And then get back to work! Today is the start of yet another year of decisions being made in the public arena, and your job is just starting all over again.

Man, that’s way too much work for me.
What can I do that would be way less effort?
1. Join MCA!. We’ll keep you updated so you only have to take action when it’s really important.
2. Use our Desktop Lobbyist to send your legislators letters about the arts.
3. Come to Arts Advocacy Day on March 9 and meet the decision makers yourself. MCA will have online signups for Advocacy Day again so keep an eye out for the signup time announcements.

Please copy this for any arts advocacy use. For any other use, permission must be sought in writing from the author.