Advocacy Veterans Talk Community Change
Humboldt Area Foundation Hosts Breakfast of Champions
By MALCOLM TERENCE, Two Rivers Tribune Contributing Writer
Troy Fletcher summarized his advice neatly to a room filled with North Coast community organizers who’d come to learn more about advocacy and lobbying: “We will never give up and we will persist with our issues,” he said. “We’re not going to go away.”
Fletcher, executive director of the Yurok Tribe, was one of four veteran organizers invited by the Humboldt Area Foundation (HAF) last week to talk over coffee and bagels to staffers from 25 non-profit groups that work on issues ranging from health care to food security.
Besides Fletcher, the other presenters were Connie Stewart from the California Center for Rural Policy; Allan Katz, who has organized community health organizations; and Zuretti Goosby, the senior field rep for State Senator Noreen Evans.
Their talk, officially sponsored by the HAF stepchild the Northern California Association of Nonprofits, billed the four as “Humboldt’s Advocacy Rock Stars,” but Fletcher and the others quickly shrugged off their title as a temporary embarrassment and got down to business.
Fletcher said the real rock stars are the people in the trenches organizing their communities, and he gestured to his audience.
He attributed his own path to being raised by a fearless mother in Pecwan with four sisters and a strong grandmother. He said, “I guess I like mixing it up, but also, let’s ask nice next time.”
The job for organizers is how to bring the message to the people, he said, and how to get them to listen. “With people struggling to get by on a daily basis, how do we engage them into a lofty discussion of how we change things?”
Goosby echoed Fletcher and said, “We see a lot of people saying what they’d like to see, but only a few who take steps to achieve things. You have to hone in on two, three, maybe four objectives and get those done. Typically this falls on staff people, but where do you find the time?”
All of the presenters emphasized that there was a distinction between advocacy, which they defined as supporting a cause and lobbying, which is supporting or opposing a specific piece of legislation. Both, they said, were allowed by the IRS for nonprofits.
What is not allowed is working for or against a candidate, coordinating activities with a candidate or giving money, staff time or facilities to a candidate. Katz said there were statutory limits on lobbying (20 percent of non-federal funding) but no limits on advocacy.
Stewart said only one group, the Sierra Club, had ever lost its nonprofit tax status for political action and Fletcher counseled, “If you have doubt, do it.”
All four also stressed the importance of building networks and alliances. Fletcher said, “The tribes aren’t approached as often as they could be in advocacy issues. The tribes work in every issue.”
Stewart, who has been a city council member and worked for a legislator, said it was important for constituents to tell their stories, but “I’ve heard every sad story. Yours isn’t even the saddest I will hear today. I needed to hear your story and ‘if this was changed…’ The training can’t end with sad stories.”
Goosby, who works in state government, said the recent cutbacks and others coming, were the worst in modern California history, but he said a standout success for rural California was the lobbying victory to recapture school bus funding, which had been slashed in the governor’s proposals.
He said the urban districts had said that they could live with the bus funding cuts but the rural districts realized that it could be a fatal blow to their schools where the transportation was needed to maintain needed attendance.
Stewart said that success was because the bussing cutbacks were a brand new issue. She gave another example of years earlier when community colleges mobilized to combat cuts in higher education more quickly than the UC’s or the state universities. It gave the community colleges an advantage for the next several funding cycles, she said.
An audience member asked how to better bring young people into the organizing work and Fletcher answered that the tribal communities were lucky in this regard because the generations are always integrated.
He said that one of the tribe’s strongest speakers was only 15 when he started in activism, a reference to Sammy Gensaw. He also mentioned Frankie Joe Meyers as an effective young organizer.
He told the crowd that the tactics depended on the goal and mentioned the crowds the tribes sent to Scotland, Omaha and Portland for “the big splash. If you want a news story, you need the optics. If you go to the legislature, they want to hear a solution.”
Goosby said the Yuroks and the other tribes have an effective tactic when they have a salmon roast for visiting officials.
Fletcher agreed and, laughing, said, “We take them on boat rides up the river and, if they don’t agree with us, we don’t bring them back.”
In his summary, Fletcher said he was surprised that no one had asked about using litigation for advocacy. “You have to be careful in how you use it—it’s nuclear—but it should be in the tool kit.”
HAF, the sponsor of the event, runs several programs to help nonprofits and it staff and board or directors includes tribal members. Paula (Pimm) Allen is chairwoman and Terry Supahan is also on the board. Geneva Wiki is the executive director of the Wild Rivers Community Foundation and Chag Lowry is program manager of the Native Cultures fund.
Some of the grant support HAF has provided to Native communities in the last year includes funding for acorn gathering and community canning in Weitchpec, the Wiyot Traditional Youth Project, Klamath River Early College of the Redwoods outreach in Smith River and Crescent City, UIHS Potawot Community Garden Internship Program, the Kin-tah-te Community Demonstration & Botanical Garden and, just this week, the Nor-Cal Native Print Center in Hoopa.
With a grant from The California Endowment, the Wild Rivers Community Foundation (Del Norte affiliate of HAF) is supporting community-led initiatives to improve health and wellbeing at a systems level, including in Native communities.
Initiated and led by Native peoples, the Native Cultures Fund’s mission is to support the renaissance of California Native American arts, culture, sacred sites, and cultural transmission between generations. The Native Cultures Fund (NCF) was established in 2000 and is a program of the Humboldt Area Foundation in partnership with the James Irvine Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and other foundations and individuals.
To date NCF has awarded over $800,000 to California Native American artists and cultural stewards in support of over 190 community projects. The fund has a 50-county service area within California that ranges from the southern Oregon border, stretching inland to the western Nevada border, and then south to the Santa Barbara area. Another service from HAF is 90 college scholarships that it presents high school seniors. The next round of applications can be filed after Jan. 15, 2013.