Saturday, January 16, 2016

Does Your Institution Have an Advocacy Policy?

In October of 2015, I got a call from a community partner. The Beach Flats Community Garden was under threat, and this friend of the garden wanted our help. The garden, which had operated for 20 years in a predominately low-income Latino neighborhood near the beach, was losing its lease with a private property owner. The City proposed moving the garden to a nearby plot of City-owned land, but gardeners felt that this disruption would literally uproot an essential community place. Garden supporters and partners were putting together a petition to try to push the City and the property owner to find a long-term solution to allow the garden to remain in place. And so the collaborator on the phone asked: would I sign the petition on behalf of our museum?

The outside partner wasn't the only one asking. Several museum staff members had gotten involved in the political action personally outside of work, and they wanted to know if we could sign on organizationally. This wasn't just a question of what was moral or politically useful in the abstract. It was a question about our commitment to our partners, to local sites of cultural importance, and to the Latino families with whom we have been working intensely to build stronger relationships.

I watched as other partner organizations signed on, uncertain what to do. I didn't know how likely the petition was to have influence, but I knew that signing on was important to the people asking.

Ultimately, I decided we couldn't sign - not because it was the necessarily the wrong thing to do, but because we didn't have any kind of policy beyond directorial discretion to decide when it might be appropriate to take a political stand as an institution.

I took the issue to the board, and we agreed that we need to develop some kind of advocacy policy to be able to answer these phone calls with confidence. Our board/staff advocacy task force is meeting this Friday to get the work started, and so I'm curious: has your organization tackled this question? How have you addressed the challenges and opportunities to raise your institutional voice on local issues?

I'm going into this meeting with a strong feeling that our policy can't be to always say no. Our museum has a growing advocacy component to our work. Our theory of change focuses on an intended impact of building a stronger, more connected community. We already embrace the reality that manifesting that impact requires work beyond our building, beyond traditional museum activities. We are proud of our wide-ranging community partnerships, proud to amplify unsung voices and stories, proud to tackle issues of equity and social justice through our programming.

But that's all work we do on our terms. What good are we as a partner if we can't step up and support our partners on their terms, too? I'd hate to be the kind of organization that embraces partners when we need them but not when they need us.

I don't have an opinion about whether our eventual policy should have enabled us to sign that particular petition. But I do want to see us develop a policy that enables us to address these opportunities thoughtfully, with our mission, theory of change, and community values at heart.

How have you, or would you, go about this? What resources might be helpful as we embark on this work?

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