Develop coalition around an issue

The interactive 'Advocacy Workshop' organized by the National Indo-American Association for Senior Citizens (NIAASC) on April 26, 2003 at the Kerala Center in Elmont was attended by 18 community leaders from eight different Indian organizations in New York area. The lead speaker for this two and a half hour workshop, Bobbie Sackman MSW, director of Public Policy at the Council for Senior Centers and Services (CSCS) was introduced by Dr Ashwin Pandya, NIAASC vice president. The CSCS, a nonprofit membership entity, with over 325 senior centers and organizations in New York City, has been vigorously fighting for restoration of budget cuts affecting seniors. Sackman who had experience of advocacy at the local, state and federal levels focused on the process of advocacy.

Partcipating Organizations
Besides CSCS and NIAASC, the organizations represented at this workshop included Association of Indians in America (AIA), India Association of Long Island (IALI), The Hindu Temple Society of North America, Senior Citizens Program of New York at the Vaishnav Temple, Indian American Kerala Cultural and Civic Center, and Nav Nirmaan.

Opening Remarks
In his opening remarks Rajeshwar Prasad, NIAASC president, stated that NIAASC, an information, referral and advocacy group, has initiated almost nothing so far in the area of advocacy. He underscored the fact that many of us lack talents, skills and know-how of advocacy. He enumerated its ongoing successful efforts in the other two areas of NIAASC: information and referral. Recognizing the fact that each organization plays a pivotal role in advocacy efforts and that interaction under a lead speaker will benefit all, NIAASC undertook the leading role in organizing the workshop. Prasad emphasized that NIAASC does not believe in reinventing wheels and focused on the importance of utilizing resources and services provided by different Indian and non-Indian organizations and institutions: both governmental and non-governmental. He emphasized the focus of NIAASC on collaboration, coordination and cooperation.

Presentation by Sackman
The presentation and discussion at the workshop were moderated by Dr. Ashok Satkalmi, NIAASC Vice President and Nav Nirmaan president. In her elaborate and eloquent presentation Sackman forewarned that advocacy or lobbying for legitimate causes of seniors, like any other cause, requires patience, perseverance, hard work and persistent follow-up. She clarified the notion which many community leaders carry that the role of nonprofit agencies in political arena is very limited. For a just cause nonprofits should not hesitate to meet elected political officials and their staff. She outlined the following crucial points in the process of advocacy and supported each point with an example based on her many years of practical experience in the field.

(a) Crucial Points in the Advocacy Process
Always go as a group -a Coalition - with a clear-cut message or issue in hand to present to appropriate person or agency.

Study the issue thoroughly beforehand so that you can present it effectively.

A close contact with educational institutions is an asset for any community organization as these institutions have physical and manpower resources and have capability to identify and utilize financial resources.

Never leave behind the seniors you are working for. A grassroots approach is the most appropriate means and the political system moves when an issue or message presented has a human face, viz a 75-year old man with disability appearing with the group leaves a lasting impression on a politician.

Presenting an issue with solid data, supported by a human face, and identified as a priority, goes a long way in the advocacy process.
Always follow up on your meetings. An ongoing contact in a respectful and credible way with a staff member of an elected official is very essential.

Invite the elected officials to your functions. However, more helpful results can be accomplished if you visit the office of elected officials and meet them and their staff in their offices.

Be on the mailing list of your local politicians and attend town meetings and local events. It will help your organization considerably as the elected officials can recognize your concerns with a broader perspective.

The issue presented by you should be in a broader context. Politicians and decision makers are more responsive when a specific issue is projected in a much broader context.

Because of the acculturation issues due to your social, cultural and religious values it is all the more important to develop a coalition around an issue. Problems and concerns of seniors, for example, is an issue where multitude of agencies can come together as a coalition for advocacy purposes. Always focus on an issue rather than on a specific organization.

In order to convey your message in the most effective way it is important if you have a regular staff for constant follow-up. It should be understood that as a 'coalition' you have more resources and it is easier to have a paid staff.

(b) Community perspective in Advocacy:
After this interactive discussion, participants agreed that the presentation by Ms. Sackman was like an eye opener for the Indian community in New York. 'Let us focus on unity in our diverse community' and work together for a cause was the substance of their feelings and expression. During the discussion phase, Dr Urmilesh Arya, AIA-NY president, Satpal Malhotra, IALI president, M K Ramasubramaian and Mani Subramanian from the Hindu Temple, Chandubhai Patel and others from the Senior Citizens Program at the Vaishnav Temple, E M Stephen, Kerala Center president, provided a glimpse of their efforts in programs for seniors and their intentions to proceed with advocacy on issues affecting their membership. In a communiqué on the occasion of workshop, CHHAYA Community Development Corporation, an affiliate of Asian Americans for Equality, offered NIAASC and other agencies an account of their services for housing, and problems of tenants, and urged them for joint workshops and seminars on these issues.

In conclusion, the workshop provided a framework for advocacy process. The NIAASC in collaboration with other organizations will identify specific areas of concern to seniors of Indian origin for future workshops on advocacy. Some of the areas identified during the discussion were Medicaid, Assisted Living, Nursing Homes and Senior Housing. A number of specific issues were highlighted for example, why can't we have a separate unit in a nursing home where people of Indian origin can have food and environment conducive to their social, cultural and religious values; how can we proceed with development of housing for seniors where people in their senior years can feel more comfortable? Though these are major issues but today's workshop provided us with a road map and an incentive to go from this point on to endeavor on specific issues .