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Example 1: Increasing participation by taking other committments into consideration

When Charlie began working with a teen violence prevention program in a community that was largely made up of African American people, he set up several town meetings on Sunday mornings, figuring that time would be good for people who work during the week. When few people showed up for the meetings, he was perplexed--he had advertised them in the papers, had PSA's run on local radio stations, and put up flyers in the neighborhoods; why were so few people attending?

After working in the community for some time and becoming more familiar with the people there, Charlie realized his mistake--religious faith is very important to many African Americans, and he'd scheduled his meetings right in the middle of the time for most church services!

When he changed the meeting times to Saturday afternoons and made sure that announcements about them were distributed to the churches, Charlie saw a big rise in attendance, and a lot more people got involved.

Example 2: Interview with Phil Rabinowitz

Phil Rabinowitz is the chair of the public policy committee and a board member of the Massachusetts Coalition for Adult Education (MCAE). He spoke with the Community Tool Box about his experiences in getting people affected by a problem involved in its solution.

"The U.S. Department of Education had a team traveling to several cities around the country to collect testimony about the refunding of the Adult Education Act, which is the major federal source of money for adult literacy, English as a Second or Other Language (ESOL), and Adult Basic Education (ABE). When we at the MCAE heard they were coming to Boston, we decided to put on a proper show, especially since we'd heard that the turnout in other places had been pathetic--as few as 3 or 4 people testifying in some places. Since there were only about 8 stops, we felt these kinds of numbers were inexcusable.

"We fired up the communication network to alert programs around New England, and, in addition, I wrote up an information sheet for students. I aimed it at about 4th grade level so that most could read it, but tried to word it so that it didn't talk down to anyone. It explained what the meeting was about, how it would affect us in Massachusetts if the Act wasn't refunded, exactly how much of the state funding was dependent on federal spending, etc. One assumption behind this information sheet was that people couldn't be effective advocates unless they understood exactly what they were advocating for.

"The meeting was scheduled to last for a morning, with an optional afternoon session in case there were more people waiting. Two hundred showed up to testify, most of them students, and the students were by far the most articulate and powerful, talking about how their lives had changed as a result of the opportunity to learn to read or to speak English.

"People talked about feeling like less than nothing, and thinking they were the only ones in the world who couldn't read and write well, or who didn't have a high school diploma. They talked about their own kids turning their school performance around when they realized how serious their parents were about education. Some displayed transcripts of the college courses they had taken since graduating from an adult ed. program. Students came in buses from Maine and New Hampshire, leaving at three in the morning and not getting home till after midnight, because they wanted to tell their stories.

"The Department of Education people were blown away. They stayed two extra days so they could hear everyone who wanted to testify, and later wrote to the state administrator about how impressed they were with what they had seen and heard, and how much it had swayed their opinions. They were tremendously respectful to the students who testified and to those who came to support them, and some of the stories had them in tears. All in all, a terrific example of what can happen when you get participants involved in advocacy.

"Another time, a group of students in my program who were on welfare were tremendously concerned about what Massachusetts welfare reform would do to their chances for completing the program and continuing with their education. The proposal called for welfare recipients to receive benefits for two years and then they'd be taken off, never to be put back on again. They would have to work 20 hours--either paid or volunteer--to stay on even for the two years, and there was no support for education or training.

"On their own initiative, the students met and drafted a list of questions about the reform regulations: Where was child care going to come from for those who did community service? Wouldn't it make more sense for the administration to support education and training if they wanted people to be self-supporting after they got off welfare? Why were welfare recipients themselves not involved in the planning of reform? And so on.

"They took 100 copies of these questions to a public meeting and made a presentation to a group including a couple of state senators and the head of the Department of Transitional Assistance (a position that corresponds with the state commissioner of welfare in most states). Nothing much, except lots of local support, came of all this, but the group of women involved went on to other things. The experience served to show them that they had a right to be listened to, and the feedback they got from others at the meeting confirmed that what they had to say was intelligent and necessary. I've never felt prouder of a group of people."

Contributor 
Chris Hampton
Eric Wadud
Phil Rabinowitz