Too often, the legislature in Albany is controlled by people and institutions with the most money—ignoring or paying lip service to the concerns of everyday people, especially low-income communities and people of color. Grassroots communities can galvanize enough "people power" to overcome the influence of well-resourced corporations. But before they can win policy victories, these grassroots groups are faced with challenges like navigating the maze of government bureaucracy and understanding the political actors within the landscape. They need the grassroots activist’s toolkit, including tools to carry out effective advocacy campaigns.
The Advocacy Institute was born after Maggie Williams, its founder and co-director, returned from working for the New York State Senate. As a longtime social justice advocate and North Star Fund board member, Williams believed in sharing lessons she learned firsthand with grassroots organizations in New York City. It started small, with a two-hour workshop, but North Star Fund recognized how valuable the information could be to its grantees, and thus became the Advocacy Institute’s first foundation partner. Since then, the Institute has grown to a five-week intensive course with year-round support for participants and has trained over 55 organizations.
Over the past three years, North Star Fund grantees have benefitted greatly from the Institute. According to cori parrish, Deputy Director at North Star Fund, “The Advocacy Institute is one of our most effective capacity building programs. I knew it worked during my second site visit to the New York State Youth Leadership Council. This enthusiastic group of ‘Dreamers’ knew they wanted a state Dream Act to expand access to college for undocumented youth. The first year they had a dream with no idea how to make it a reality. Then they went through the Advocacy Institute. The next year, they had a list of co-sponsors on the wall, and a list of legislators they were targeting to become co-sponsors next. They had a plan.”
In addition to trainings, the Institute also provides critical tools for legislative advocacy, including a primer on how staffing of legislative offices work. Armed with an up-to-date directory of legislative staffers, grassroots organizers can better focus their time and outreach efforts.
“Success can be hard to measure when talking about legislative campaigns, but for any group working on a statewide issue, it can reasonably take three to five years,” explains Williams, “so it’s important to build longterm relationships with legislators and their staffers that will have an effect beyond one campaign or one session.”
In the Justice for Job Seekers campaign, New Immigrant Community Empowerment (NICE) sought to pass a bill that would provide better protections for low-income New Yorkers exploited by fraudulent business practices. The bill passed through the State Assembly, but NICE’s efforts were halted within the more conservative Senate. During their time in the Advocacy Institute, NICE realized that to be successful, they needed to begin lobbying before the legislative session even began. They turned to North Star Fund for a rapid response grant to ramp up these efforts. As a result, NICE won a victory: Governor Andrew Cuomo included a reform package to protect low-wage workers from abusive tactics in his 2015 Opportunity Agenda.
Adhikaar, also a North Star Fund grantee, won a tremendous victory in their decade-long fight for better working conditions for nail salon workers. Once the seminal New York Times investigative piece on nail salon abuses broke, Public Advocate Leticia James introduced legislation to improve health, safety, and inspections standards in the city’s nail salons. The Advocacy Institute equipped Adhikaar with the knowledge and tools to get a seat at the negotiation table. Now serving on the governor’s Nail Salon Industry Enforcement Task Force, Adhikaar and its allies have moved to curb unlawful practices and recover the stolen wages of its workers.
“With the right information and tools, and a stronger understanding of the process, people can make real progress. They’re jubilant when they come back having done something differently and observing how the change makes an impact,” says Williams.
Until Albany is more accountable to low-income communities and communities of color, North Star Fund will continue to support our grantees and pair them with knowledgeable advocates like the Advocacy Institute.