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“Making the Case” for Advocacy in DC

November 1, 2010


By Daniel Solomon, trustee of the Naomi and Nehemiah Cohen Foundation, a co-founder of DC Vote, and a Community Foundation donor 

How Can Community Organizers, Advocacy Groups, and Funders Improve DC? 

Recently, The Hill-Snowdon Foundation brought together local and national funders for a discussion of their new report, Making the Case: Supporting Community Organizing in the Nation’s Capital. The focus was on how advocacy and community organizing has already helped create fundamental change affecting the social, economic and political life of the District, and what can yet be achieved. 

Sandra Brock Jibrell of the Washington Area Women’s Foundation told of how community organizers can help people stuck on the “beltway” of social services find an “off ramp” Most foundations, she argued, are hard-wired to provide dollars for direct services. But she learned from the consumers of those services how they are often trapped in a cycle of dependency on those very systems of services. As a former program officer at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, she was most impressed with the integrity of community organizers, who made it clear that they would not accept Casey money if it would mean changing their social justice approach. 

Peter Edelman, law professor at Georgetown, chair of the board of the Public Welfare Foundation, and stalwart of numerous progressive social and political movements, noted that the strongest advocates are those who have the legitimacy of broad community support. “You need to show who’s backing you.” And while direct service can make a difference at the individual’s level, systemic progress requires advocacy for social change.

Elizabeth Snowdon, President of the Hill-Snowdon Foundation, asked and answered the questions of why funders should support organizing, and why they should support it in DC. Highlighting the report’s documentation of the District’s abysmal status on poverty, income inequality, affordable housing, education, unemployment and healthcare, Elizabeth discussed the special opportunities the District affords organizers to address some of these issues. One reason national advocacy and policy groups should be attracted to work in DC is that we are among the most progressive electorates in the nation, and our elected officials reflect that political vision. While such innovative social change legislation as inclusionary zoning, paid sick days, gay marriage, and a living wage, may not have much of a shot at being passed by the US Congress anytime soon, they have all been adopted by the District government, which has often been the first major jurisdiction to do so. Once implemented here, these programs then serve as a model for the nation. 

I would also argue that national organizations concerned about building political power should focus on helping the District gain full voting representation in Congress. How different would the US Senate look if, to paraphrase our dearly missed champion Sen. Edward Kennedy, we had two more senators forever dedicated to progressive, urban and minority issues? 

I encourage you to read Making the Case for yourself (see I hope you will join us in supporting advocacy and community organizing efforts to bring about meaningful change for the residents of the District and the nation.

One Comment leave one →
  1. November 14, 2010 9:22 pm

    Very well said! I had the opportunity to meet a Tanzanian community activitist who was here in Washington on a Wilson Fellowship to study community advocacy in the National Capital area. Dar es Salaam, the Tanzanian capital had gone through an episode with a “Financial Control Board” administered by their national govermemnt, just like D.C (at the time) had. He concluded that American non-profits in general, and especially those in the District of Columbia, are hamstrung by IRS rules that inhibit them (at least to a degree) from being heavily engaged in advocacy. He encouraged local non-profit organizations to push the envelope in this matter, and cited examples of profound changes that small groups in Tanzania had achieved by demanding change (instead of funding) from their government(s).

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