By: Barbara Franklin
This summer, the Association of Junior Leagues International (AJLI) offered a virtual course, Partisan vs. Political. The course gave an overview of Junior Leagues’ history of advocacy and suggestions for becoming a successful Junior League advocate.
The course distinguished between prohibited ‘political’ action and permitted civic advocacy. Prohibited political action is best defined as anything that supports or opposes candidates for elected office at any level of government. For example, a Junior League cannot endorse a candidate, cannot ‘grade’ a candidate, and cannot host only one candidate for an election forum. A Junior League can, however, host a candidate night in which all candidates participate.
When considering advocacy, the focus should be issues based. Neither issues nor solutions are partisan. Advocacy seeks solutions to root issues, rather than simply treating the symptoms.
Alice Glenn, Junior League of New Orleans and AJLI Board Member, shared a parable: A Junior League woman sees a baby floating in the river and saves the baby. Other Junior League women notice that there are a lot of babies floating in the river. They form a committee to rescue babies from the river and they become rescue experts. However, babies should never be floating in the river. The women instead need to focus on stopping babies from floating in the river. This parable demonstrates how advocacy is often necessary to achieve greater solutions.
As an example, at the turn of the last century, Junior League women flipped the script on the historical noblesse oblige, when the upper classes gave charity to ‘worthy poor’ and committed to projects they deemed worthy – rather than engaging the community to determine need. Working in the Settlement Houses on the Lower East Side of New York City, they strived to act in the best interests of the communities they served, not simply in their own best interests. Their first ‘Signature Project’ was a playground suggested to them by women in the community. This required members to raise funds to buy the property, work with local government to secure permits, advocate for the project in the press and wider community, and supervise the building of the playground. This is the first of many times Junior Leagues’ advocated for their communities and engaged with state, local, and federal governments. Advocacy seems to be part of the Junior League’s DNA.
Steps to Advocacy
When a Junior League wants to engage in issue-based advocacy there are several steps. A League needs to consider its capacity, especially with annual turnover, and consider external influences. Then, the League needs to decide what issues/policies on which to focus using its mission/vision/values/programs as a guide. The League must determine: whether it has standing to engage with an awareness of the issue, the scope of the problem, or whether it has a unique perspective to add. Then the League must identify partners and others working and advocating on the issue. Finally, the League must set the strategy.
Before diving completely into the advocacy space, a League wanting to work on advocacy issues could introduce itself to elected officials. The League could invite them to see programs in action, see in real time what the League is doing to support the community, and educate officials about its issues. The League could also engage community partners and support them, perhaps through advocacy work for a community partner, or educating its members about relevant issues. IndividualLeague members can use their voices to reach out to government entities.
To this day, rather than asking a community about its needs, many charities give the community what they deem is best, which is a return to the noblesse oblige model that the first Junior League rejected. The best way Leagues can avoid this trap is to collaborate with community partners on the ground who are the experts on the issues. Embedding diversity, equity, and inclusion into processes also helps keep an organization’s focus on what a community really needs, not what the organization wants to provide to the community.
Please note, if you work for the federal government, a government contractor, the judiciary branch, or a member of Congress, you should not engage in any advocacy activity, on your own behalf or on behalf of a Junior League, until you check with your human resources department or designated ethics official to ensure the activity is permitted and get approval in writing.
The Partisan v. Political course was very enlightening and combined AJLI-produced materials, articles from non-profit sector journals, news articles, and virtual round table discussions. While advocacy can be an effective tool, there are certain sectors and activities that Leagues and individual members should not engage in without prior approval from the League or their employer. While discussing the issues, the course taught that issue based advocacy is not wholly prohibited and that sometimes, it is the only way to make meaningful change.