January 10, 2020

The Importance of Building Coalitions in the School Choice Movement

There is an old African proverb that says, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” History is full of examples of working together through the building of alliances and coalitions in order to achieve meaningful and lasting success, and in many cases is the key to overcoming great challenges. To find examples of these, one may look to any field of human endeavor including politics, warfare, exploration, science, commerce, sport, and of course social advancement. While we are all created as distinct individuals, we are meant to live and work together in community in order to prosper. 

School choice advocacy is no exception when it comes to the need for coalition building to achieve long term success, and during my twenty-five years of legislative and advocacy experience, I have learned some key lessons.  

The Whole is Greater than the Sum of Its Parts

Coalitions instantly enlarge one’s support base, networks, connections, and resources, and focus each member on a common cause for public policy campaigns and legislative success. Every organization, regardless of size or resources, has limited influence with the public and in the legislature. However, five or six organizations together, in a coalition, magnifies their influence on one common issue by bringing together a diverse range of people and organizations all focused on one goal. Diversity can also strengthen a campaign by the broadening perspective and understanding of the issue and can assist with outreach by appealing to a wider population base with differing priorities and interests. Diverse coalition also have the advantage of message coordination and discipline; in other words, pushing the right messages at the right times as one voice.

Coalitions also allow limited financial and human resources to be better spent by pooling them together and by delegating work to others in the coalition. For instance, “Organization B” may not have a great graphic designer, but “Organization C” just might. 

Strength in Numbers

Coalitions provide safety for advocacy efforts and protection for member organizations who may not be able to take action alone, particularly when operating in a hostile or difficult environment.  They also have the ability to enhance the credibility and influence of an advocacy campaign, as well as that of individual coalition members through association.

I was reminded of this principle several times during my lobbying career at the Minnesota legislature. There were many occasions when I was able to gain access to a crucial legislator by visiting them with an allied organization that they had rapport with and vice versa. This gave me, or my coalition partner organization, instant credibility with the official because of an existing and trusted relationship and therefor critical access on the issue. As Mother Teresa once said, “None of us, including me, ever do great things. But we can all do small things, with great love, and together we can do something wonderful.”

It’s a Marathon, Not a Sprint

School choice advocacy is a long-term proposition, and there must be mission commitment from each organization for the long-haul before proceeding. Organizational priorities can change, and sometimes that is dependent on decisions of individuals at moments in time. Success is more easily achieved through formal relationships with committed member organizations, rather than groups choosing to work separately on issues as the mood strikes them. For example, if “Organization A” gets a new executive director who isn’t a school choice warrior but the organization has a formal relationship with the coalition, then the executive director will be more likely to stay the course of the coalition.

It’s Never Over

It is said that upon exiting the Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin was approached by a group of citizens asking what sort of government the delegates had created. His answer was: “A republic, if you can keep it.”  Opponents of school choice will never cease their efforts to eliminate choice programs. Legislative success is often a hard-fought battle, but keeping programs from harm is the war, and coalitions are vital for this long-term effort.

This article was originally published on wvoices4choices.org.

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Shawn Peterson
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