Case Study: Advocating for the Nevada Humanities Council

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Christina Barr

Christina Barr has served as executive director for the Nevada Humanities Council since 2009. She has advocated on behalf of folklore and the humanities at the local, state, and federal level. In this case study, she describes responding to a drastic reduction in funding and the need for relationship building and information sharing ahead of crisis situations.

When I first came here [to the Nevada Humanities Council], the first day on the job, all our funding was zeroed out on our budget by the governor. We went from $100,000 to $0 in funding.

That set the bar for us needing to build an advocacy program. We needed to reinstate that funding and make sure we had the support we needed at the state level. It was trial by fire-I had never done advocacy of that sort before. Some people took me under their wing, and we created a strong and effective advocacy group around our organization.

One of the things I quickly learned is that it’s about relationship-building and information-sharing. You need to be able to talk effectively about what you do and why it matters­ why public funds should support it. What we do as arts administrators is critical to our nation’s health and our community health. I spend a lot of time refining those arguments so we can present legislators with very clear talking points. When they go to committee meetings, they have one sheet of paper they can take with our points clearly outlined. We have to provide them with the tools to make our case without us being in the room.

Our lobbyist is amazing, and she does a lot of relationship building. She can walk into the office of someone new and introduce me. She’ll tell them that I need to talk with them for about five minutes. Then she looks at me, and it’s up to me to make the case. That point of entry is pretty critical.

People who don’t have an advocate at their disposal can also do that work, though. You don’t need that. especially at a federal level. It’s the duty of our elected officials to welcome us into their office, and they know that.

Keep in mind that the staff are equally important. and you need to build relationships with the people in those offices. Even if it changes, it’s critical to get to know them while they’re there.

They control access and take notes for the agenda. Be as gracious as you would be with the elected officials and they will appreciate that.

We are always writing and coordinating and communicating our message to organizations about how they can support state humanities councils, and us in Nevada.

We track data in our organization so we can share with elected officials. We can tell them how many people we’ve served, how many in that person’s district. and so on. Sometimes we’ll tailor our conversation with elected officials to specific parts of the state. If we need to talk about what happens at a district level instead of a state one, we can narrow it down.

When you get in the business of tracking and creating a competitive evaluation structure, and you’re talking with people in a position to make decisions about public policy, it really helps to say how you’re serving their constituents.

We can go to them and say we can track the dollar-per-dollar ration of the investment of federal dollars in our community. For every dollar of funding, we’ve leveraged two dollars or six dollars of local money towards this program. The match that we’re able to bring in for federal funds, that ratio is very valuable. That’s when they raise their eyebrows. It’s not that we’re using federal money, but using local resources too. It shows that we’re able to garner local support and engage people in what we are doing.

You’re sitting in somebody’s office, and the question is “Why should I support you instead of school lunches for kids and public health?” I hope we’ve all come to understand that what we do contributes the same kind of urgent value to our communities as healthy school lunches. I think they’re on par;to provide educational opportunities for our kids and provide full lives.

A great resource would be the website of Amy Kitchner, who is the Executive Director of Alliance for California Traditional Arts. She has a briefing on traditional arts and community health. She’s really smart and that would be a great place to get ideas for how to talk about the value of traditional arts on many levels. It’s not frivolous, it’s something that’s vital to maintaining the critical and physical health of our nations and communities.

Just do it and do it often. Become familiar with the process. There’s a structure you need to know about, and if you actually want to have a conversation with elected officials in their office, you have to follow that structure to get there.

Familiarize yourself. Go with someone who is used to this process the first time and see how they do it. I remember the first time they told me “fifteen minutes, fifteen minutes max.”* I thought,” how can I do that? “But now I’ve got it down to a five-minute meeting, which everyone is grateful for. It’s about respecting somebody’s time and getting the message across in a cheerful and passionate way.

*Sue Eleuterio notes, this is often called an “elevator speech.” Imagine you are in an elevator with the person you are advocating with and you only have from the 1st floor to the 10th floor to talk to them. What can you say in that time to engage their interest in your program?

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