by Eliana Kaya, Advocacy Training Project Chair and NCJW|LA Board Member
Each time it begins with a conference call and a few names on a list, and before we know it the room is filling with people – energized, expectant, even a little nervous about what ‘developing advocacy skills’ really means.
The Advocacy Training Project, or ATP, as the group calls it, has been running every year for the past four years. It’s hosted by NCJW|LA, at its headquarters adjacent to West Hollywood, affectionately known by its members as ‘Council House’.
I have watched for the past five months, as grassroots leaders step in to or reclaim their power. They come from across the community: black, white, immigrant, queer. We are straight, transgender, Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Baha’i’, and non-religious. Seated at the tables are women in pantsuits, men in sweatsuits, seniors in high school, and beloved elders who have been around since before the Civil Rights movement. For three hours, one Sunday a month, we learn together.
We explore the details of the legislative process – what it takes to actually make a piece of policy into law. We learn how to interact with the media – how to be interviewed and be a savvy spokesperson for our issue or cause. We learn the basics in using Facebook and Twitter – we demystify social media and unpack often overwhelming tech terms by explaining them directly, with pictures, examples and funny stories that translate across age, language, gender, and race. We practice pitching our ideas to one another – we learn to succinctly share our next big campaign or event. And we begin the painstaking, but necessary process of identifying our own areas of power and expertise.
It is always a meaningful experience for me–bringing people together to learn from and with each another. People who would not otherwise encounter, much less dig deep with, one another – each a precious and outstanding example of resilience, success and inspiration. If they hadn’t walked in that day, they would simply be another soul walking down the street. To me, that’s the secret joy of community organizing. I’m addicted to that surge of energy I get whenever I see a face light up because they just saw something ordinary in an extraordinary way.
The workshops are solid material and amazingly affordable: each session is $15 for a half-day, with seriously good snacks (no, really) and a rockstar guest expert who specializes in the topic of each workshop. While NCJW|LA hosts the program, there are two other organizations whose co-sponsorship makes the Advocacy Training Project possible – an incredible example of coalition-building at its best: Planned Parenthood Los Angeles, and the City of West Hollywood’s Women’s Advisory Board.
Those who complete all six workshops are awarded an official, bone fide certificate from the City of West Hollywood, congratulating them on their newly acquired advocacy skills. ATP was launched at NCJW|LA in 2013 by Sandra Fluke, Social Justice Attorney and the first Chair of the program, with Maya Paley, NCJW|LA’s Director of Legislative and Community Engagement. It was created to expand the skills of local activists and broaden the pool of local leaders, but it has grown into much more. It has sparked friendships and budding organizational partnerships and ignited a sense of community.
This past Sunday, the workshop focused on writing OpEds – those pesky articles written by people with a bone to pick that have the annoying habit of grabbing the attention of powerful decision-makers. We had a fantastic expert come in, Tom Zoellner, a professor and successful author, who has written on a number of issues, including uranium, gun violence, and high speed rail. (Who says we can only be experts on one thing?) Zoellner walked us through the basic mechanics of writing and publishing an OpEd, or as the folks at The OpEd Project like to call them, “front door forums”.
OpEds get noticed and, more importantly, they spark public conversation. They act as entry ways for the general community to contribute their ideas for collective comment. Amazingly however, they are a diamond in plain sight: the vast majority of OpEd submissions come from the same “tiny sliver of the world’s population: mostly western, white, older, privileged and overwhelmingly (85%) male.” Consequently, most of the voices getting published in our global media only represent a fraction of our actual global community.
No offense to my older, western, white, male mentors, but we need more people to share their ideas and thoughts – we need the public conversation to sound a lot more like we look, like we think, like we live and experience the world. It will be more interesting, more robust, and certainly a lot richer if we read about the world – from the world.
The OpEd session includes an exercise where we practice being experts – it guides participants through the discomfort of our socialized and often-feigned humility, and encourages us to take out our “shiny baubles” and share them. We learn to self-identify with those things that make us outstanding resources and spokespeople for our issue. We claim our experience. We start to say our full names, with all the wisdom and work that they hold.
There is an intangible, but palpable power in watching a group of activists, begin to share their true expertise. People start paying attention. Eyebrows lift. Heads turn. And voices, once soft and shy, start to rise with surprised confidence and a sense of self-worth. We laugh – because just a few hours earlier, we were a bunch of grassroots community members, learning on a casual Sunday afternoon. Now, we’ve got award-winning, advanced-degree holding, multi-lingual, international, digital, cross-cultural translators, authors, and social change experts. Even the expert is impressed! And he’d better be – these advocates are out to change the world.
The founder of The OpEd Project, Catherine Orenstein, is a classic example of why OpEd writing makes an impact. She was working in Haiti as a cultural anthropologist and folklorist when she wrote about the political upheaval she was witnessing and her piece got published by a national media outlet. It caught the attention of President Bill Clinton, and before she knew it, Orenstein was flying to Washington, D.C. to advise the administration on U.S.-Haiti policy. Now, we don’t promise that all our ATP participants are going to end up as foreign policy experts, but you never know.
We like to say that Council is an organization inspired by Jewish values, but we serve the entire community. It’s one of the things that makes me proud to be a member of NCJW. But we also know that we need one another – even the eagle needs the wind to soar. So if you’re inclined or just plain inspired, please contribute something, and mention The Advocacy Training Project, so that (g!d willing and the river don’t rise) we’ll be here again next year, training the next generation of advocates.
The final session of this year’s series will be on Sept 25: How to Get on a Board or Commission, and will feature a panel of distinguished leaders who are currently serving on Boards and Commissions along with expert trainer Joanna Kabat of Liberty Hill. Click here to register online. And don’t forget to follow ATP via our hashtag, #AdvocacyTraining, or follow all of NCJW|LA’s community events on Twitter: @ncjwla or on Facebook: @NCJWLosAngeles.
Eliana Kaya is a member of the NCJW|LA Board of Directors, and serves as the Chair of the Advocacy Training Project. She can be reached on Twitter @kayathyme.