So What?

Learning to Listen

August 9, 2018  • Aspen Planning and Evaluation Program

The biweekly ‘So What?’ guide highlights advice, events, and tips — mostly from the advocacy and evaluation worlds, selected by the Aspen Planning and Evaluation Program.

Who speaks to whom? Who speaks for whom?

As readers of recent editions know, the APEP team behind “So What?” is exploring how advocates listen to and connect with the people they hope to benefit through their advocacy and policy change efforts. It’s part of a landscape scan to inform the Fund for Shared Insight and the advocacy field more broadly. We are interviewing a few advocacy funders and grantees. A survey will add breadth. And we are collecting examples of tools or processes. We invite our cool “So What?” readers to suggest more by sending suggestions to because, y’know, youse guys are smart about stuff. But today we are sharing a couple of early observations:

One nonprofit organization interviewee in the education policy field named “state education officials” as the group whose work they seek to benefit because the advocates are helping policymakers make and implement good policy on a pretty technical issue. Feedback from those officials helps the advocates know if they are providing sound advice and options. Implicitly, all of this is aimed at helping school systems and ultimately (we assume) the students in those schools. But it is interesting that these constituencies remain implicit.

In contrast — and perhaps unsurprisingly — an advocate with a community organizing approach who seeks to mobilize youth leaders, especially marginalized youth, sees them as “members” of the advocacy effort. (They are most definitely not “beneficiaries.”) But those whose lives would be improved by their advocacy extend well beyond those members:

“We look at this more from a systems perspective. We want to improve the lives of folks who are in our communities, and we do that through the public education system…. [W]e’re listening to the students that are our members, that’s how we land on those issues, but I think what we’re trying to change and advocate around is the levers in the system we think can have a big [statewide] ripple effect and impact.”

Each aims at statewide education policy change. Each relies on multiple “listening” mechanisms to set and revise policy objectives and advocacy strategy in consultation with their “audiences” or “members.” But the centers of gravity are poles apart.

Advocates may listen to citizens. But do those in power hear?

This  NY Times opinion piece about the value of trade unions pointed us to a Vox article exploring a controversial 2014 study by political scientists Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page that seems to show that “average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence” on policy choices.  Vox nicely summarizes the authors’ conclusions as well as some counter-arguments.

So What?
How to Turn Learning Habits into Routines
July 27, 2018 • Aspen Planning and Evaluation Program