Category Archives: Strategic policy advocacy

Teaching strategic advocacy

Following up on our workshop with Evergreen faculty last week, Roger Conner, Ted Whitesell and I are expanding and updating our website on teaching and learning how to be strategic. Here’s the text of the new home page:

About teaching strategic advocacy

How best can people learn to be effective change agents?  This website is for information about and discussion of teaching strategic thinking and action.

Policy advocates attempt to alter the arc of history, changing the course of events on matters important to the community. Some who engage in such advocacy are paid professionals. More are individual citizens and members of organized groups. Some are agency staff who find themselves in situations where they may affect outcomes.

Successful advocates know how to be strategic: They know what to do and when to act in complex situations with uncertain outcomes. Many courses and texts explain how to analyze a policy problem or explain why things unfolded the way they did, but few teach how to alter what is likely to happen in the future. People usually acquire that ability, if they do, through a process of long experience of observing others and trying (and often failing) themselves. In our experience, however, we have found that these skills can be taught, expediting learning them more quickly and completely. Curriculum for this teaching is a work in progress. We welcome your participation by replying on these pages or on the discussion page.

So far, this website includes

-Roger Conner, Ben Shaine and Ted Whitesell, project coordinators

An example of a useful exercise in seeing from the other’s perspective

How the Repubican base feels now, from the Greenberg, Carville and Siefert study
How the Repubican base feels now, from the Greenberg, Carville and Siefert study

See Edsall’s Opinionator  commentary today and the linked report by Greenberg,  Carville, and Seifert, “Inside the GOP: Report on focus groups with Evangelical, Tea Party, and moderate Republicans” for insights into perceptions underlying Republican animosity toward the federal government. I suspect few liberals are aware of these.

On a similar note, morning I enjoyed talking with a professional financial adviser this morning about his view that the Ryan budget provides a solution for most of the country’s problems.

Such views are quite different from mine, but I can see my own perceptions adjusting as I know these others better. How best to convey to students the benefits and power that come from an in-depth understanding of the other side that almost always changes your own perspective, as well as providing strategic insights into how to influence the situation?

The notion that your own position can be & should be adaptable/flexible seems key is often not understood, and that adaptability/flexibility is not the same as weakness/collapse.

I don’t yet know how to teach this, except through the physical analog of Aikido. How else can it be done well?

Engaged and detached

David Brooks
David Brooks
Josh Haner photo/NY Times

In his fine April 29 column, “Engaged or Detached?,” David Brooks says that the person who writes about politics and policy has a choice: She can be an engaged activist supporting a cause, who “provides arguments for the party faithful and builds community by reminding everyone of the errors and villainy of the opposing side.” Or she can be detached, more a teacher than an activist, “shaping people’s perceptions of underlying reality and hoping that she can provide a context in which other people can think.” Or somewhere on the continuum between these two. He concludes,

The detached writer understands that, at the top level, politics is a bipolar struggle for turf. But the real fun is down below, sparking conversations about underlying concepts, underlying reality and the underlying frame of debate.

Not fair! — Brooks is giving the detached writer all the fun. Engaged activists deserve it, too. In my experience, the strategic advocate frequently does this sparking and reframing, morphing and broadening her coalition, open to questioning assumptions. I saw Mo Udall, congressional leader of the historic Alaska lands act conservation effort in the 1970’s, do that with his Lincolnesque humor.* Similar to the writer, the engaged activist works within a continuum between mobilizing the faithful and exploring curiously for ways to blend with others and move in new ways.

* “A Lincolnesque leader is confident enough to be humble — to not feel the need to bluster or dominate, but to be sufficiently sure of one’s own judgment and self-worth to really listen and not be threatened by contrary advice.”
Evan Thomas and Richard Wolffe; Lincoln’s Obama; Newsweek (New York); Nov 24, 2008. cited at http://wordsmith.org/words/lincolnesque.html

An ongoing inquiry into change and stability in nature, politics and ourselves, by Ben Shaine