10 Steps to Build a Localized Movement for the Arts

Posted by Mr. Ryan Antony Nicotra, Mar 22, 2017 0 comments

Allow me to set the scene: while attending the 2016 Americans for the Arts Annual Convention in Boston, I received a text from a friend in my hometown stating that in a late-night meeting the day prior, the local Board of Education unexpectedly introduced and approved an unreasonably high new fee for all students wishing to participate in extracurricular drama programs. Today, after eight months of coordinating an aggressive advocacy campaign that succeeded in eliminating that same fee with the near-unanimous support of the same board members who introduced it, I aim to identify and share the 10 crucial steps and considerations that made this victory for the arts in Harford County, Maryland possible.

1. Investigate existing efforts before launching your own.
Before taking any action, it is important to recognize that the strength of an existing effort to organize advocates may be undermined by a new organization seeking to tackle the same immediate issue. Noble intentions are made irrelevant when they divide a movement and hinder progress. A cursory search online will not identify efforts which are currently being developed but that have not yet been made public: and so, making a phone call to the state captain and any other leaders of local advocacy groups is necessary prior to the launch of any new campaign. This is an important time to interrogate the impulses that prompt your own advocacy.

Fortunately for me, John Schratwieser of Maryland Citizens for the Arts and the Americans for the Arts team were within arms’ reach in Boston. A simple check-in allowed me to determine that it would be most ideal for local organizers to take on this issue. I contacted teachers, parents, students, and artists in the area and organized a protest before the next board meeting in just a few days, which happened to be their final meeting of the fiscal year and which required board members to pass their budget. The turnout was higher than expected, and attendees occupied the hall for hours to speak during the public commentary portion of the meeting. Someone turned off the air conditioning, and temperatures rose quickly with the packed crowds. Nobody left early. Though the fee remained intact that evening, I gathered names, email addresses, Twitter and Instagram handles, or any other way to contact attendees—and began building mailing lists. 

2. Stay in your lane.
Understanding where one stands as an organizer in the spectrum of stakeholders, decision-makers, influencers, and the larger public requires a frank self-assessment. In so doing, we are able to counter any opposing claims that ours is a contrived outside effort by not creating one in the first place.

In this instance, I could recognize that because I was not a student or parent of a student affected by this fee, my perspective and voice did not have the same importance as others. I did, however, have experience in arts advocacy, extensive knowledge of the benefits of arts participation, a broad network of existing community and media partners, and relationships with hundreds of direct stakeholders that stem from my years of teaching workshops in the schools affected. I invited media to every protest and hearing that we were involved in, and always found ways to connect reporters to parents or students who were willing to share.

3. Frame the larger cause, beyond the immediate issue.
Issues are resolved, issues morph, and issues are impermanent. The values that inform one’s advocacy existed prior to the emergence of an issue. A cause is ongoing: it is a personal and collective calling to improve a society. A cause is resilient, persistent, and values-driven.

My own experiences of childhood poverty developed empathy for those who would be most impacted by a significant cost barrier to arts participation, but also required that I check my own gut response in order to organize a campaign that considers other perspectives on the issue at hand. Community dialogue brought forth common stories of the importance of the arts, creative youth development, and overwhelmingly inclusive nature of high school theatre programs; these conversations explicitly identified the public desire to expand arts involvement to all young people regardless of their family’s ability to pay. No matter the outcomes, this community committed to continually advance this cause.

4. Unite the spectrum of stakeholders in pursuit of a common solution.
After confirming a larger cause (ours: equitable access to the arts) and a shared ideal resolution for our immediate issue (ours: the elimination of participation fees for drama programs), further conversations about the capacity of stakeholders to engage in advocacy are required.

In our case, drama teachers responsible for implementing the fee were largely unable to speak to press or appearing to take an activist role, but parents and students were free of those constraints and were eager to do both. The strength of every tactic we employed was based on collective effort and participatory strength. If the immediate stakeholders decided to walk away from the issue and accept this fee, I would have supported them in their decision, too.

5. Identify and empower leaders among the advocates.
While it may be a given that the voice of the stakeholder is the most valuable in the room, standout speakers and specialists will emerge. To be nimbler and more effective, one should equip and empower those individuals to take on larger tasks or components of the cause.

Our initial efforts were thrown together quickly: the fee was introduced without warning at a late-night hearing on a Monday night, and a week prior to the budget’s final confirmation. Though I was able to organize a protest with a few hundred individuals and provide several hours of testimony at a public hearing, there was no way of knowing who would actually attend or what they would share. I created a Facebook page that picked up almost five-hundred followers in its first two weeks, and began a mailing list for advocates. Short online surveys were especially useful in identifying specialists among the advocates: after one mother self-identified as an attorney, she became an important partner in navigating relevant state regulations that would inform our platform.

6. Call upon the larger field to help.
Local issues and local movements are not contained within a local community: policy decisions frame the ways in which individuals operate within a larger society, and reframes the ways in which the larger society understand the systems around them (for better and for worse).

While we were alarmed by what was happening in Harford County, our cause was made more urgent by fears that other school boards in Maryland (and beyond) might adopt similar policies. State, regional, and national leaders agreed and intervened. Notably, Jeff Poulin (Arts Education Program Manager, Americans for the Arts) and John Schratwieser (Maryland Citizens for the Arts) supplemented advocacy training over conference calls. Lori Snyder and Mary Ann Mears, respectively the current and founding leaders of the Arts Education in Maryland Schools (AEMS) Alliance, were trusted consultants throughout the campaign. Dorothy DeLucchi, Maryland Chapter Director of the International Thespian Society, served as an incredible connector for our cause and secured additional support from the Educational Theatre Association. The issue exploded into a greater awareness because we called for advice and support from our larger counterparts, and asked them for additional contacts of likely allies.

7. Provide bulletproof data, every time.
Trust is your currency: provide false data, and your movement will be discredited by even your closest allies.

I gathered extensive data to track how students were impacted by the fee from its implementation, and updated that information when possible. When it became clear that our cause was initially being dismissed by the school board, I went public with a file that showed exactly how many students had been removed from their drama program since the fee was implemented and compared participation with the previous year’s numbers. These claims were dismissed by the school board, as the numbers were not reported directly by the school to the board. My play worked: the school board, in seeking to discredit our cause, conducted their own survey and found that our claims were factual. Now armed with the school board’s own reporting, we could demonstrate that the fee would fail to raise more than forty-percent of what its supporters promised, and that the exclusionary rate was significantly higher than they claimed. When our campaign was proven to be informed by accurate and current data, we found new support among board members who would later vote in favor of eliminating the fee.

8. Apply pressure where it hurts.
Understanding the dynamics between the elected officials and their decision-making process is key to developing a communications strategy that will maximize impact.

I discovered that most communication between members of our school board happened in the hours prior to each meeting via email, and often with the intention of swaying votes at the last minute. Knowing this, I called upon our advocates to be relentless in sending emails in the hours prior to each meeting to the board members in order to disrupt our detractors. I provided templates which could easily be personalized, or sent as-is, and those emails were distributed on social media to our followers. In the hour before each meeting, we held protests on the busiest street of the county, which were broadcast live on social media with a call to join other advocates. We waited to share new findings until the day before each meeting, so that our detractors would not have time to coordinate their responses. Anonymous Baltimore theatre critic The Bad Oracle wrote a damning article covering the cause, and Howard Sherman followed suit with a similar, lengthy article that was then shared thousands of times across the country on social media. The longer board members delayed action on rescinding the fee, the more their own reputations hurt.

9. Provide the ladder for the opposition to climb back down.
Whenever possible, leave the door open for reconciliation: letting an elected official know that their support for a change in policy, even one that they put forward, would be welcomed and acknowledged among your supporters. There are no benefits to a burnt bridge.

When the fee was first introduced, it was passed with eight members voting in support and one in opposition. When the fee was rescinded, it had the support of nine members and only two in opposition. We changed the minds of at least seven board members – through rhetoric and inarguable data, true—but we never had to resort to personal attacks or threatening their future candidacy. Likewise, we never took support for granted: board members were invited to attend performances and encouraged to talk with students, and we segmented our email blasts with language that reflected the receiving board member’s stance.

10. Ensure that the movement will continue to grow with the cause, not die with the issue.
One’s ability to raise the cause and not merely an issue becomes apparent in the days following a final outcome. No matter how the votes are cast, one should not take for granted the contributions of the individuals who made up the movement.

After the fee was eliminated, we thanked supportive board members for their affirmative vote and sent acknowledgements to the remaining members- that although we could not see eye-to-eye on this particular issue, we are grateful for their care and concern for their constituents, and that we hope to work more closely together in the future. We also thanked our partners, and we certainly celebrated our small victory. Now, our movement must and will be led by the savvy young leaders who made this resolution possible. After fighting for our seat at the table, they and their parents will certainly be keeping it. 

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