Working with the Community in Policy Advocacy

Establishing a good relationship with the community is important for a policy advocate because it helps ensure policy advocacy goals will positively impact the lives of refugees. This basic guide helps you consider the ways in which is most important and most appropriate to interact with the community. Specifically, it considers the role of the community when planning a campaign, to ensure accountability to the community, and finally, to bolster the legitimacy of your advocacy activities through partnerships with community groups.

Role of community in policy advocacy

The voice of the community should inform policy advocacy issues. However, this does not necessarily mean they should be included in your policy advocacy approaches. In other words, community participation in policy advocacy initiatives can be desirable, but it should not be imposed on community members.

  • Working with the Community:
  •  Helps inform your policy advocacy goals
  •  Helps the advocate be accountable to the refugee community
  •  Bolsters legitimacy with policy makers

When planning a policy advocacy campaign

A policy advocacy campaign should be informed by the needs of the community. Here we lay out two ways of identifying the needs of a community. The first is that information collection can happen through a formal needs assessment. Through analyzing the needs of the refugee clientele, legal aid work is another platform for information collection. A formal needs assessment process will unveil the needs of the broader refugee community (for example, the need for economic opportunity, or alternatives to detention). The needs of your clientele will unveil the needs of only your current and future clients (for example, a routine denial of a particular nationality may translate well to a specific advocacy goal). Both options are viable and often differently inform policy advocacy campaign goals.

It is important to note that needs identified by broader community may not translate well to specific advocacy goals. For example, a formal needs assessment may show that refugees are interested in accessing micro-finance. As a policy advocacy goal, this community need may be best supported by advocating for a refugee’s right to self-employment in national law, or by advocating for a refugee’s right to access asylum through the RSD process (if the country respects a refugee’s right to self-employment once recognized).

Furthermore, it is possible that a need expressed by the community may be better addressed by other approaches. For example, if the community is concerned about access to schools, and national and international law protects a refugee’s access to education, the issue may be better addressed through strategic litigation, community action plans, or another community legal empowerment activity.

To be accountable to the community

A policy advocate may wish to communicate to the community their approach to the problem. This allows the community to share concerns with the advocate’s approach, and to the extent a community member wishes, participate in systemic change.

It is worth noting that the role of legal reform is not always easy to communicate to community members. For example, if a community is primarily concerned with access to housing, and the advocacy strategy is focused on advocacy for improvements to the RSD process, it can be difficult to explain why a legalistic approach serves community needs. In this situation, you want to communicate the cause of the housing dilemma (i.e. lack of housing options for immigrants without RSD) and explain the impact that an advocacy strategy focused on RSD can have on increasing access to housing. This approach is called a participatory problem tree analysis. You can use the basic template attached at the bottom of the page to guide your accountability to the community.

Collaboration with community groups

Refugees communities may already be organized. Policy advocates should ensure that partnerships with community groups (whether or not they are formally registered) are prioritized. As organized community groups best understands community needs and the community’s desired path toward change, your advocacy activities can be bolstered by this kind of collaboration. For example, the United States Dream Activist movement is a grassroots movement of undocumented young people who have organized to advocate for law and policy change that would allow undocumented migrants to access legal status and educational opportunities. Larger, more established agencies often seek collaboration with the Dream Activists because of their status as an advocacy group.

Of course, collaborating with refugee community groups can also be dangerous. Policy advocates should acknowledge the risks to the community groups when they choose to collaborate. For example, although most community members are acutely aware of the risks they experience when they engage in advocacy, the policy advocate should be careful not to encourage activities that put refugees at risk of arrest, detention or deportation.

Furthermore, community advocacy groups can sometimes decide to participate in activities that your refugee rights organization may decide is too politically risky, or detrimental to the overall refugee rights movement. For example, if an organized sit-in equates to civil disobedience in the eyes of the government, there is a risk of potential backlash against pending RSD applications. In such a case, policy advocates should carefully consider their level of participation in potentially politically charged community initiatives. In the face of political risk, consider fulfilling the role of a capacity or skills-builder for community groups rather than a public supporter.

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