Wednesday, August 04, 2010

'Is this our issue?'

In my job, I hear this question a lot. 'Delia Christina, should we respond to this? Is this our issue?'

Most of the time, an issue is 'ours.'  Whether the issue is about women, violence, assault, child care, or economic stability, it could definitely find itself in our sweet spot and we'll talk about it.  But what about Prop 8? What about the move to alter the 14th Amendment? Would these be issues in our organizational sweet spot?

Absolutely.  Those issues give us an opportunity to share our values. Because we're an organization with a history, vision and mission statement that puts racial, gender and social justice front and center (they're on our business cards, for Pete's sake) then yes, civil rights and equal protection for all is 'our' issue.

I understand organizations are leery of mission drift. One minute you're a hard core youth violence organization and then the next you're advocating for green grocers in the neighborhood - your board, staff and supporters are confused. But if being a voice for better health outcomes in under-resourced neighborhoods through better access to local produce is a reflection of your deep set desire to transform local communities and the people in them, then what's the problem? 

They may not be what you do, but your values should reflect what you stand for.

Years ago, after the reelection of George W. Bush, I was in a strategy meeting with some Chicago area bloggers and advocates; a leading progressive blogger was there to flog his book and he said the problem with the left at that time was that it failed to 'lead with its values.' His words stuck with me. And when I look at the Right, I have to agree. No matter the issue (immigration, mammograms, paid family leave, gay marriage or contraception), they lead with their values. They don't care about the issue. That's a silly little detail.

What matters is using the issue to talk about what you believe in and your transformative wish for the world.

Of course, I am assuming an organization is comfortable with the values it says it has.  I have to admit that I have a problem when I sense that people in an organization want to shy away from an issue because it makes them afraid.  I'm not saying that one shouldn't be pragmatic about the reality of oppositional word of mouth. When anti-choicers framed American Girl's support for a girls' empowerment program as 'pro-abortion', my organization (also a girls' empowerment org) became nervous. As well we should have been; some attention is just not worth it, especially when it's ... less than rational. 

But if you're willing to tout your work back in the 60s as a social justice organization then you better be comfortable today speaking truth to power and pointing out when social justice has been kicked to the curb. You can't suddenly rear back and say, 'Well...'

That's cowardly.  Which is a value! 
But is that the value you want to have associated with your organization?

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