Friday, July 14, 2006

Thoughts on Effective Advocacy

At Wednesday night's Special School Board meeting on school closures, 18 people spoke, the vast majority from Viewlands Elementary.

I continue to be disturbed by the recommendation to merge Viewlands into Greenwood, and the lack of details on what is going to happen with the John Marshall programs, so I spoke to those concerns as well as my concerns about Phase II of the closures. (see my previous post on this topic)

Several people presented the arguments that:
  • No school should be closed.
  • The closures unfairly impact non-white, lower-income children, and children in special education programs.

As I listened, I realized that these were the same arguments I started with back in May, but that I have changed my mind. I have also changed by tone --- I was definitely one of the "angry" presenters when I started speaking at the Town Meetings, and I was speaking mostly to the community trying to create community-wide opposition to the closure process. Now, I find myself speaking more directly to the School Board and district staff, with fewer angry statements and more concrete suggestions for change.

Is this because I have learned things during the process that have changed my mind? Or because I have gotten to know the School Board members a little, and I find it difficult to make inflammatory or aggressive statements to people once I have had honest, face-to-face discussions? Or because many of the decisions I thought were the most questionable (with the exception of Viewlands and John Marshall as noted above), have been changed?

And which style of advocacy is most effective? If we want to work together to improve Seattle Public Schools, will our requests be heard best when presented loudly, with much emotion? Or in a more reasoned tone? Or do we need a little bit of both?

Several audience members interrupted district staff during the agenda discussion later in the meeting with boos and shouted contradictions. It made me quite uncomfortable, although I respect the passion behind those actions.

Now, however, I feel unsure about how to proceed. The Seattle Schools need to improve. I just don't know what the most effective style of advocacy is to work to make that happen.

5 comments:

Charlie Mas said...

I have been active in School District issues for over five years and I have only seen two things ever be effective: bad press and the threat of litigation. Other than those two hammers, I am not aware of any style of advocacy that has been effective with Seattle Public Schools.

If you are kind and patient, they will just roll right over you.

If you are cool and rational, they will just lie to you and break their promises.

If you are angry, they will change the subject and make your anger the issue.

I have only seen people or groups effectively influence Seattle Public Schools by generating bad press or threatening litigation. When the Spectrum families got national press interest by threatening a WASL boycott, the Superintendent suddenly sent out a promise-filled letter (he didn't, however, keep the promises). When alternative school families threatened litigation over the progress report issue, the District suddenly changed tactics and bargained in good faith.

There are plenty of other examples of times that clear, rational discussion failed and plenty of other examples of the effectiveness of bad press and lawyeres.

So when they tell you that you'll be more effective if you contact them less or that you'll be more effective if you are less sarcastic, or that you'll be more effective if you're less angry, it's all a lie. You won't be effective no matter what you do. So you might as well be angry or sarcastic or rational, whichever pleases you the most.

The fact that all of your efforts are futile, however, does not excuse you from the obligation to make those efforts.

Charlie Mas said...

Just to make it clear how difficult it is to change Seattle Public Schools, please regard the four people voted onto the Board as part of a reform slate: Darlene Flynn, Brita Butler-Wall, Sally Soriano, and Irene Stewart. Together with Mary Bass they formed a majority on the Board. Yet even that action was not effective to bring about reform.

The Board can write policies, but they cannot enforce them. Without the ability to enforce policy, they do not have the ability to set policy. The Board is a policymaking body than cannot set policy. That makes them about as effective as nipples on a boar.

So if even the ultimate achievement of activism - getting a majority elected to the Board - is inadequate to effect reform, what in the world makes you think that it matters whether you are hot or cool at public hearings?

Melissa Westbrook said...

Charlie makes great points. It was such a disappointment to work to get rid of the "one voice" Olchefske Board only to find that this Board can't operate on compromise and consensus (which, to me, is the only way to move forward - no one gets everything they want).

What has worked for me is to do a lot of research (know what you are talking about, an admittedly hard task in a district that is information rich but data poor), also look at research in surrounding districts or nationwide (there's that element of shame if we look out-of-step with other districts especially if they are more successful)and, make contacts with the news media. Forget the tv people; they are probably bright but just want a bite and they never, ever get the basic facts right. But the education reporters and the editorial boards want to keep their fingers on the pulse of everyone who is impacted by education decisions. If you can give them information that helps them, they will listen to you. It doesn't mean they will print what you say but it helps round out their thinking.

On a personal level, it is almost impossible to get anything done or resolved. I had a problem at my son's high school recently (they had neglected to make clear to parents that ONLY a formal portrait taken by a studio could be used for the yearbook for seniors and thus about 50 seniors were AWOL from their senior yearbook). What I got from the District was blather about "site-based" management even though this is blatantly illegal (only people who can pay for formal portraits can be in their senior yearbook even though there's a formal ID picture taken at the beginning of the year?). Board members were sympathetic but that's the rub; they run from regions so you assume you can go to them for a problem but you would be wrong. They are not there as area reps; that's just their focus area. So, I went to the media and got a story in the paper. I got a letter of apology, finally, from the principal. But no real action was taken so I have no idea if this will happen to other families.

Finally, choose your words and tone carefully. There is a time for emotion (but not tears; sorry, there's no crying in baseball). I have a tendency to be sarcastic and that was not useful early on. Roscoe Bass, who addresses the Board frequently, gets angry. It just turns people off, viscerally, and makes them stop listening to you. A calm demeanor backed up by facts is your best weapon. Oh, and time that speech - 3 minutes is shorter than most people think. I practice my talk about 3 times. It makes me calmer when I do speak and more poised.

Of course, all bets are off if you are in a crowd of partisans and you are trying to whip up spirit. Then be loud and proud.

Beth Bakeman said...

Charlie's two comments here disheartened me so much, I have been unable to respond until now.

I felt like giving up when I read "all of your efforts are futile" and "what in the world makes you think that it matters whether you are hot or cool at public hearings?"

I am unwilling (and probably unable) to pursue education advocacy in Seattle if the only effective tactics are the threat of lawsuits and bad press.

Charlie may be completely right about all this, as he is about many things. But in order to keep advocating for better schools in Seattle, I have to assume he is wrong.

It's the only strategy that will work for me. I have to believe that pursuing respectful, fact-based communication, and working to organize and educate community members citywide will eventually result in some positive change in Seattle schools.

Charlie Mas said...

Here is some advice that you might find more actionable:

1. Always, always, always frame your statements from the perspective of what will benefit the students. You won't be effective speaking in support of programs, buildings, community good will, or policy. Your only chance is to speak in support of students.

2. Similarly, compel your oppopent to frame their remarks from the perspective of the students' benefit.

3. Do your research. If you have mistaken the facts about any element of your position it will discredit your whole position.

4. You can challenge people, but you cannot require them to accept your challenge, so do it very sparingly. The District staff do not like it when you point out their lies, contradictions, broken promises, and acts of bad faith. Calling them liars or cheats will make you appear rude or angry and will give them the opportunity to change the subject from what you are saying to how you are saying it. I believe that the two best ways to address these sorts of things are to disingenuously ask them to help you reconcile the gap between their words and the their actions (which I haven't seen work but at least doesn't create negatives for you) or apophasis - to mention something by saying that you won't discuss it i.e. "Your many broken promises to this community are not relevant to this discussion". About two years ago the Superintendent told me that he didn't appreciate being called a liar. I recommended that he stop telling lies. We haven't spoken since.

5. Consider how the position you advocate will indirectly impact other students and the District as a whole.