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Beyond Letter Writing & Phone Calls: Relationship-Based Arts Education Advocacy

Victoria Plettner-Saunders

Over the last few years, I’ve blogged here about our arts education advocacy efforts in San Diego with the San Diego Unified School District. I am the co-founding chair of the San Diego Alliance for Arts Education (SDAAE) which officially launched in May 2010 (although our collective grassroots advocacy work began a year earlier).

As chair of the SDAAE I have been very clear about the approach I want to take in leading the advocacy work that we do. While I believe that public comment and letter writing are important components of advocacy, I am also an evangelist for developing a working relationship with those to whom you are directing your efforts.

In this case, it’s our local school board. We have always carried the message to them that we want to be partners in supporting arts education and that we are available as a helpful resource for them. As a result, members have called when they have decisions to make or proposals to craft that they know will affect outcomes in the Visual and Performing Arts (VAPA) Department.

Most recently, the school board asked community members to assist with what they call “Tiger Teams.” These teams are essentially efforts to get new information and an outside perspective about way that various district departments do business.

The board thought that by having diverse perspectives from non-district staff, they might find new ways to save money, be more effective or create efficiencies. Tiger Team is a term the military uses when it creates similar groups to help address tough situations that require a fresh approach. The SDAAE stepped forward and offered to be the Tiger Team for the VAPA Department.

With our team, we gathered data from a wide range of stakeholders, teachers, administrators, community arts partners, and a few business folks and other non-district educators. Our report provided the board with its first ever overview of what the VAPA Department does and how it spends the budget that they have diligently supported over the years.

It also explained that arts education is more than a budget line-item, it is a whole ecosystem that uses community partners, discipline specific specialists, and standards-based curriculum among other things to ensure that students district wide have equal access to a quality education that includes the arts.

Our final report had several recommendations including: 1) hiring a business development coordinator who can support revenue enhancement (grants, partnerships, sponsorships) in support of arts education and 2) the commitment to establishing a task force on strategic planning and embarking on a district wide strategic plan for arts education.

Since we submitted our report, we’ve taken meetings with three of five board members to talk about the recommendations. I also took a meeting with the administrator who is charged with providing the district’s staff response to the report. He asked for assistance in crafting their recommendations because “he didn’t want to write his response in isolation.”

It took me a minute to realize that not only did the board ask us to provide them with policy recommendations, but then the staff asked us to help them with their response to our recommendations. Of course, I directed them to our suggestions and together we found a way for the staff to propose to the board what we wanted the board to propose themselves. Wild huh?

So what’s the advocacy lesson here?

Had we stopped at letter writing and public comment, we would have never been able to influence decision making at so many levels in the organization. We have carefully shown support of the district staff and board leadership throughout the year, whether it’s been getting behind a property tax measure that could have brought in additional money to the district, helping candidates who support arts education get elected, or donating dozens and dozens of billable consulting hours to engage in their arts education Tiger Team efforts, we have built a trusting relationship that has been deeply productive.

The focus for the SDAAE is on creating win-win outcomes that are always sensitive to their needs while being clear about ours.

How can you begin to build a relationship-based advocacy effort in your community? I’d love to hear your ideas.

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