Jun 06, 2011

RCLA Advocacy Lab Combines Essential Training and Community Impact

At a time when one in 100 adult Americans are in prison, a new NYU Wagner course is giving students the practical skills to advocate for criminal justice reform. The course, Advocacy Lab, is an intensive training in advocacy and organizing in which students work on a campaign designed to make material changes in the lives of people caught up in the criminal justice system.

Working with existing criminal justice organizations, the students brought attention to fundamental flaws in the criminal justice system in New York State and advocated for statewide legal changes such as eyewitness ID reform and requiring the taping of interrogations.  These and other reforms would reduce the potential for innocent people to be convicted of crimes they did not commit as well as speed resources to the exonerated. 

However, Advocacy Lab offers potential as an exciting approach to public service education that goes beyond a single campaign.

"Advocacy Lab offers a new model for incorporating advocacy and organizing training into graduate schools of public affairs," said NYU Wagner Professor Erica Foldy, who co-designed the course. "The hands-on nature of the campaign and coursework allows students to develop experience they can apply over the course of their careers while making a real contribution to a critical social justice issue in the US."

Throughout the semester-long course, students learn about researching and framing issues in ways that resonate with diverse audiences; creating networks of individuals, institutions, communities, and civic and religious groups in order to form coalition partnerships; and bringing issues to the public's attention through media such as radio shows, Op-Eds and articles.

In many ways, the combination of research and practice in Advocacy Lab are similar to the legal clinics associated with top law schools.

"We at Wagner have been inspired by the NYU School of Law's extraordinary law clinics, which have raised the standards for justice throughout the city and state," said NYU Wagner Professor David Elcott, who co-designed and teaches the course. He continued, "We also recognized that with advocacy and lobbying being taken over by huge corporate interests and funding, the need for public advocacy campaigns that reflect public social justice issues has become even more critical."

The course was piloted in Spring 2011 by Professor Elcott and RCLA Senior Fellow Joan Minieri, an NYU Wagner adjunct faculty member, long-time community organizer and co-author of the book Tools for Radical Democracy: How to Organize for Power in Your Community.

Smart, resourceful and determined, the students achieved the equivalent of what one full-time staff member would accomplish over the same few months, engaging in an array of activities, including:

  • Appearing on a radio show reaching the Greek community across downstate New York
  • Making a presentation to staff at the Catholic Charities Center in Queens, which led to an invitation for further presentations around Queens this fall
  • Showing the film "After Innocence" at a freshman dorm, with 31 attendees, 14 of whom said they would like to participate in future activities
  • Meeting with one state senator and the staff of a second state senator
  • Creating materials such as event flyers, fact sheets, sample letters to legislators and sample sermons, and eight striking visuals that could be used as posters, advertisements or educational materials
  • Identifying and reaching out to key contacts, including those with the Conference of Catholic Bishops and the American Jewish Committee

"Through Advocacy Lab, we learned how to apply the essentials of community organizing to a critical issue," said NYU Wagner student Caitlin Murphy. "Our greatest challenge and the greatest benefit of the course was that we were creating something from nothing - the goals, framing, contacts, marketing, and so on. It was different from other courses because the application was so tangible - we experienced wins and frustrations in real time and got to practice in a real, but ultimately non-threatening, environment."

The course was made possible in part through an NYU Curriculum Challenge Grant and draws on the Research Center for Leadership in Action's work with more than 300 community-based organizations across the nation through the Social Change Leadership Network and other initiatives.

Advocacy Lab will be offered in Spring 2012 and students will carry forward the work of the first class, while also establishing new campaign strategies and partnerships.

"Advocacy Lab is a powerful innovation because it works at multiple levels simultaneously," noted Dr. Foldy.  "It is designed to result in material benefits for those ensnared in the criminal justice system.  At the same time, it identifies a new way of thinking about resources for cash-strapped social change initiatives, through a university-based campaign that draws on students' skills, talent and labor.  And, it creates new cohorts of public service leaders who understand the vital importance of advocacy for social justice."

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