Hundreds of groups working on behalf of children’s issues in California are coming together for the first time to pool their collective influence to shape child-friendly policies in the state.
Titled the Children’s Movement of California, the effort is being spearheaded by Children Now, an Oakland-based advocacy organization.
In an effort to counter what he calls a “silo-ed” approach to children’s advocacy, Children Now president Ted Lempert, launched the Children’s Movement a year ago in an effort to “aggregate the support for kids we all know is out there.”
The Children’s Movement now includes more than 200 organizations and advocacy groups. They range from faith-based organizations to businesses and healthcare associations, education groups and mental health advocates.
“When there is a proposal to slash early education, the response should not just come from early education groups,” said Lempert. “It should be done in the context of ‘this is best for kids.’“
Lempert and other members of the still incipient Children’s Movement believe advocating for children — whether lobbying for increased access to healthcare, more funds for early childhood education or expanded after-school programs — comes down to one key question: “Are you for kids or against them?”
Lempert said there are thousands of groups in California focusing on kids’ issues, but the vast number of groups sometimes impedes advocating on behalf of children, since the groups speak with disparate voices.
From business and the environment to gun rights, other interests often speak with a far more unified voice, he said.
That’s not the case when it comes to children. As the Children’s Movement website explains:
It boils down to this: there are really only two levers driving policy adoption: money (lobbying dollars and/or campaign contributions) or popular pressure. Children don’t have enough of either one of these things behind them now. Relative to pharmaceuticals, financial services, tobacco, beverages, labor, the gaming industry, trial lawyers, prisons, seniors, and others, interest group representation for children’s causes is sorely outmatched. That’s why they’re in such bad shape. That’s why we need The Children’s Movement of California.
What makes the Children’s Movement’s model of advocacy unusual is that each member is contacted before its name is listed in support or opposition to a bill or policy, and can opt in or out depending on its views. Typically, a coalition representing an interest group or policy position lists its name in support or opposition of a particular policy proposal, but doesn’t list each member group.
“Each individual campaign is an opt-in,” said Lempert, who served in the State Assembly for eight years. “Groups are listed when they affirmatively support that particular issue. Each list of supporters (for different issues) will be different.”
He said the Children’s Movement is essentially a start-up within Children Now, rather than a separate organization. Children Now is funded with grants from foundations such as Atlantic Philanthropies, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the East Bay Community Foundation and individual donations. All the staff time and other costs for the Children’s Movement are underwritten by Children Now.
The movement’s agenda is broad, but is distilled into 10 talking points on its website. The agenda ranges from lobbying for a “comprehensive P to 12 education revenue and reform package” to providing California children with affordable healthcare. The agenda also seeks to reduce the state’s child obesity rates and to help children in the foster care system find a legal permanent home through adoption or legal guardianship.
Lempert acknowledges that directing and focusing an organization with multiple members, agendas, and geographic locations will not be easy. However, with email and web-based campaigns, Children’s Movement staff are able to poll member organizations to determine if they will support a specific policy position. Two Children Now staff members work primarily on Children’s Movement matters, and others do so on an as-needed basis.
Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, (D-Sacramento), says he supports the idea of such a broad-based movement on behalf of children. He said children’s advocacy groups often don’t have a lot of money for advocacy work, and therefore the groups’ political reach can be limited. “Trying to build that broader, deeper level of support across the state is a good idea,” he said.
Dickinson introduced a bill last year (AB 823) to create a California “Children’s Cabinet,” one of the items on the Children’s Movement agenda. The cabinet would include the state’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, and various department and agency heads. The purpose, says Dickinson, would be to develop a “more comprehensive and coordinated policy approach to issues that affect children and families.”
Lorne Needle, chief community investment officer for United Way of the Bay Area, says his agency was one of the first to join the Children’s Movement.
“For the most part we lose more than we win when it comes to kids’ issues in Sacramento,” explains Needle. He believes the Children’s Movement, with its broad spectrum of backers, could grow to be an intimidating force on behalf of kids.
“If (Lempert) can really assemble a list of thousands of corporations—public private, large and small—religious groups and others … he will be fielding a constituent base that is really powerful,” said Needle.
“When business is there lobbying a member on legislation, they can say ‘If you vote for this, you are for business. If you vote against this, you are against business,’“ Needle added.
“I want to be there when we sit with legislators and say—‘If you can’t support this, then you aren’t for kids.’ If enough of us can get on one page and have that exact conversation, that will be unique in children’s advocacy in California,” he said