Integrating Civic Engagement for Nonprofits


A Session with UndiosUS Affiliates

Written by Noelia Mann

On a snowy second-day of Spring, I facilitated a workshop with BMP Co-Director Sean Thomas-Breitfeld at the UnidosUS Leaders in Action Summit in Washington DC.

UnidosUS, formerly NCLR, was established in 1968 to serve the Hispanic community through research, policy analysis, and state and national advocacy efforts, as well as in program work in communities nationwide. UnidosUS partners with Affiliates across the country to serve millions of Latinos in the areas of civic engagement, civil rights and immigration, education, workforce and the economy, health, and housing. 80 leaders from the network of UnidosUS Affiliates attended our session on “Integrating Civic Engagement for Nonprofits.”

We began the session by offering a framework for exploring (or understanding) the range of ways that social service organizations integrate their social change principles into their everyday work, including constituent engagement and civic participation. Once we’d laid the framework for a shared vocabulary and lens, we guided participants through an assessment of their organization’s activities based on the “Scale of Client Voice and Engagement.” Some participants noticed that they had program activities that fell in each column of the scale — from staff initiated on the left, to client led/initiated on the other end of the scale. Others observed that their programs fell more heavily on the left side of the scale, indicating that there may be room to engage clients more directly in program development.

This self-assessment then led into our first panel discussion, during which we heard from two Affiliate leaders – Andrea Plaza (Executive Director of Encuentro in Albuquerque) and Mauricio Calvo (Executive Director of Latino Memphis) – about how their organizations engage constituents in meaningful and innovative ways. Andrea talked about her organization’s relationship with both an advocacy/organizing group and a legal services group, and how those partnerships facilitated the integration of constituent-led advocacy into Encuentro’s curriculum and programming. Mauricio shared some of Latino Memphis’ experiences supporting their constituents advocate for themselves, and the important role of DREAMers in driving that work forward. He went on to say, “My invitation to all of us is to make civic engagement part of the DNA of your organizations.”Addressing the importance of constituent engagement, especially with young people, Mauricio talked about Latino Memphis’ college access program, saying “the academic part of going college is just not enough. Civic engagement and leadership has to be a part of everything we do with the students. It’s the work of today, it’s the promise of tomorrow.”

Hearing from Andrea and Mauricio served as inspiration for the next portion of the workshop, which involved some visionary planning about activities Affiliates could be engaging in, that would fall further towards the “client initiated” end of the scale. Acknowledging the common concerns that arise when organizations try to make shifts towards more deeply engaging clients and constituents — such as limited staff capacity, insufficient funding, hostile political climate – we welcomed Andrea and Mauricio back to the stage for a second discussion about how they addressed these and other barriers to integrating constituent engagement. Andrea began by stressing the importance of making space to openly discuss current events and policy regarding immigration, to both build a common understanding of, and alignment on, the issues. “When there’s not a common understanding, fear is that much more impactful.” She also gave a programmatic example of working around the fear and anxiety rampant during these hostile political times, which, at Encuentro, comes in the form of a community journalism project called Tu Voz Digital. Through Tu Voz Digital, students have the chance to blog and share photos and videos about issues that they’re witnessing in their community. “It’s a safe way for people to engage but to share their voices and to inspire others,” says Andrea.

Mauricio addressed the challenges that Board members and funders can pose when organizations work to integrate civic action into their service delivery. He was hopeful, reassuring participants that “For every funder that is extremely worried and conservative, there are people out there who want to help us.” He encouraged his fellow Affiliate leaders to stay strong in their commitment to advocacy and client engagement. He acknowledged that there were those funders or supporters who have backed away from how “unapologetically” Latino Memphis shows up, but he also said that the organization has gained more friends by being authentic.

Before wrapping up the session, participants filled out an “Organizational Action Plan” to begin thinking through the steps they might have to take to turn one of their goals for doing more client-initiated activities into a reality. We’re grateful to UnidosUS for inviting us to participate in this year’s Leaders in Action Summit, and left feeling invigorated by the Affilitate leaders’ fierce commitment to integrating constituent engagement and paving the way for the next generation of Latino leaders.

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