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Guest blog: Advice for advocates of afterschool

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Guest blog: Advice for advocates of afterschool

By Chris Neitzey, Policy Director for New York’s statewide afterschool network, the New York State Network for Youth Success. Chris can be reached at chris@networkforyouthsuccess.org.

As a follow up to my January 12 guest blog on New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s afterschool proposal, I’m happy to report that the New York State budget, which was passed on April 9, includes $35 million in new funding to expand afterschool programming to 22,000 students across the state beginning in September 2017.

At a time when uncertainty surrounds the future of the 21st Century Community Learning Center Program, New York has begun to see the importance of directly investing in high-quality afterschool programs. The $35 million investment represents the largest annual increase the state of New York has ever made in afterschool programs, and with the funding targeted at cities and school districts in high-need areas, it’s a welcome acknowledgement of the role afterschool programs can play in addressing the needs of low-income families.

The end result of this year’s state budget may have been an overwhelming success for afterschool, but New York’s three month “budget session” was anything but easy for advocates. This was not the first time a large proposal to fund afterschool programs was put on the table by the governor, and advocates knew there would be a long battle ahead to secure this funding in the final budget.

Below are a few ways we kept the pressure on the governor and legislature to ensure this proposal became a reality:

Grow a grassroots base 

By holding advocacy trainings throughout the state over the last six months, we’ve directly equipped program providers and parents with the skills to effectively advocate for afterschool and developed a core group of grassroots supporters who can be incorporated into our advocacy efforts moving forward. With the announcement of the new proposal for $35 million, we quickly began activating these new advocates beginning in January and extending through the budget session.

Leverage an advocacy day

We held an advocacy day at the state capitol in January where partners from all across the state, including students and staff, participated in meetings and shared their afterschool stories with legislators. Holding this Advocacy Day early in the legislative session worked as a launching point and provided some needed motivation to partners for continued advocacy over the next two months of the budget session.

Streamline creative outreach 

With more than 200 state legislators between the Senate and the Assembly, our two-person advocacy team has to be as efficient as possible in our legislative outreach. Meeting with legislators that have particular influence, especially those who sit on or chair certain committees, is incredibly important, and maintaining consistent contact with their staff through phone, email, and regular in-person meetings is crucial. Tip: If you can, try to get coffee with staffers in more informal settings. Getting out of the office helps people relax and be more open—and in this business, any bit of information helps!

Take direct action

Take a look at any article that’s been published recently on how to effectively reach out to your elected officials and you’ll find a common theme – calling your elected officials directly is necessary. Email and social media are convenient, but unless you can get a critical mass of participants, the likelihood that your message makes its way to the member is low, especially since these offices receive many, many emails over the course of a day.

The message is being taken to heart: this year, we’ve found that some of our partners organized multiple call-in days for their program staff and parents to take part in these efforts. We also held a call-in hour during our Day of Action in March where advocates could use a sample call script to call their legislators directly and share the need for these programs. Combined with a social media hour and a small advocacy day in Albany, we reinforced our message to the legislature and governor at the end of the budget session.

Connect with legislators and staff

Political success takes time and a lot of hard work, and you’re constantly learning something new or adjusting your strategy along the way. But if there’s one thing to take away, it’s that the core of every good advocacy plan is an emphasis on relationships.

Developing relationships with legislators and their staff takes time, but it’s necessary in this field: having the ability to pick up the phone and call an office about a particular issue is extremely useful. Remember to greet to staffers and members when you see them in the halls and reintroduce yourself until you’re sure they remember you. Share news with them about exciting developments in programs in their districts -- they appreciate knowing what their constituents are doing and how they might be able to help them directly. Also, be sure to thank them when they’ve been helpful; sending along hand-written notes and personal emails are sometimes time-consuming, but always necessary.

Lastly, remember that there’s always something new to learn. Try to pick the brains of partners (or lobbyists) who have been in the field for a while. They have a wealth of knowledge to pass along, and are often happy to help out. And when you find yourself in their position in the future, don’t forget to pass along your knowledge to the next generation of advocates. 

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