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Affirmative Advocacy

About This Issue

By Ilze Sprudzs Hirsh

Anniversary commemorations of the declaration of the War on Poverty by Pres. Lyndon B. Johnson and the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 inspire and energize advocates. However, commemorations of these life-changing, historical events may cause advocates to feel ill-equipped to take on “big problems” such as racial injustice or poverty, and they hesitate to act. In fact, advocates and their legal aid organizations are well suited to step beyond suggestions that they are unable or not permitted to take on “big problems”: they might follow in the footsteps of Martin Luther King Jr. and Sargent Shriver, pioneers in the fight against poverty and racial injustice, and engage in affirmative advocacy for racial justice and opportunity. What appear to be small steps may lead to the root causes of and broad-based solutions to problems.

“Small steps” were what local NAACP president Eula Johnson and Von D. Mizell, a black doctor, took when they waded in the ocean at a “whites-only” beach on July 14, 1961, thereby beginning a nationally publicized “wade-in” of Fort Lauderdale beaches. Johnson, Mizell, a third black adult, and four black college students participated in the first wade-in. As many as 200 African American residents took part in civil rights wade-ins throughout that summer. When Fort Lauderdale haled the protesters to court, the court denied the city’s request to stop the wade-ins. What began as small steps into the ocean brought about the desegregation of Ft. Lauderdale beaches and gave African Americans the same access as everyone else to the respite from homes without air-conditioning, recreation, relaxation, and natural beauty the beaches offered. Fifty years later a historical marker in the sand honors the protesters.

More recently, the thousands of e-mail messages, phone calls, meetings, crowdsourced platforms, and other interaction with the federal government may be viewed as many small steps taken to communicate the problems in using Healthcare.gov, the federal health insurance site developed pursuant to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. When the next open enrollment period to purchase health insurance begins on November 15, consumers will be using an overhauled and improved Healthcare.gov. The upgraded site comes largely in response to “many small steps”—the numerous user and advocate complaints about the original problem-ridden application process.

Finding solutions to problems that cause or exacerbate poverty encompasses myriad factors and approaches. Individual representation by legal aid groups brings justice to many, it is true. Yet, as the authors of this theme issue on affirmative advocacy teach us, finding and implementing answers to problems affecting more than one client or community will have a much greater impact than even a high-volume, direct-service legal aid organization can generate.

Affirmative advocacy brings about broad-impact solutions that benefit more than one client with the same or similar problem. Nonlegal strategies and tactics are often the best practice. Creating partnerships or alliances; collaborating; educating policymakers; negotiating and lobbying for policy changes; and representing community groups and leaders—these are among the possible creative strategies. Key, too, are developing a media strategy as well as a unifying message and, when possible, exerting economic pressure. When all else fails, affirmative litigation is most often the chosen route.

The lead article in this issue instructs legal aid programs on the steps to integrating high-impact affirmative advocacy into a program’s operation. Another article shows how Martin Luther King Jr.’s fight for racial justice offers a blueprint for social change. The other articles describe how to create advocacy narratives that resonate with the public; how to obtain a public education for homeless, immigrant, and limited-English-proficient children; and how a crowdsourced website serves as a model for affirmative advocacy in implementing the Affordable Care Act. The last article describes ongoing barriers to full implementation of the Act.

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