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Strengthening Advocacy Capacity in Communities of Color through Coalitions

September 23, 2011 2:00 pm Eastern Time

GIH Public Policy Strategies Audioconference Series  

Friday, September 23, 2011 at 2:00 p.m. Eastern / 1:00 p.m. Central / Noon Mountain / 11:00 a.m. Pacific  


  • Kathy Lim Ko, Asian & Pacific Islander American Health Forum 
  • Alice Warner Mehlhorn, W.K. Kellogg Foundation 
  • Traci Endo Inouye, Social Policy Research Associates 
  • Jocelyn Sargent, W.K. Kellogg Foundation

Coalitions represent an important strategy for accomplishing goals that exceed the reach of individual member organizations. Yet the creation and maintenance of effective coalitions require careful cultivation with purposeful attention to capacity development and relationship building. In this audioconference, the Health through Action (HTA) program—an innovative partnership to close health gaps for Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders—served as a case study for exploring the promise (and potential pitfalls) associated with coalition-based advocacy. From the perspectives of funder, evaluator, and national program office, presenters shared key lessons learned from HTA implementation and discussed the broader implications of these findings for funders seeking to amplify the voice of communities of color in health policy.

Kathy Ko opened the call by describing Health Through Action, an initiative funded by the WK Kellogg Foundation and led by the Asian & Pacific Islander American Health Forum (APIAHF), a national community-based non-profit, as the program office intermediary. At $16.5 million over 5 years, HTA represents the single largest investment in building community capacity in AA and NHPI communities by any funder.

The HTA national network originally started with eight partners in eight states and now involves 18 local partners in 15 states. Each local partner consists of a lead organization (typically a community-based, non-profit service organization) which interfaces with a larger community coalition. The coalitions came together around different health issues identified within each community. HTA has employed a multi-pronged approach, involving both local and national efforts, to:

-Build a national network of communities and organizations that can more effectively organize and advocate for Asian American and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander (AA and NHPI) health.
-Strengthen community capacity through funding and technical assistance.
-Improve data collection and research on AA and NHPI populations and issues.
-Provide training and support for those involved in policy initiatives and advocacy.
-Develop and implement a Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander health agenda.

The program provides these local partnerships with financial support as well as extensive technical assistance related to organizational development and sustainability, coalition building, advocacy, data, local evaluation, and strategic communications. The community partnerships work to strengthen their coalition partners as well as their communities' approaches to improving the health of AA and NHPI residents. They provide direct services to meet local needs, they raise awareness of specific health issues, and they work to increase local resources for health care.

Because of the disparities in health status and access to care and coverage for AA and NHPI populations, HTA focused on investing in local service organizations, rather than advocacy organizations. APIAHF intentionally pursued a “double helix” approach to developing both service and advocacy capacities in local organizations.

Alice Warner-Melhorn discussed WKKF's long standing commitment to the elimination of racial and ethnic health inequities. At the time HTA was initiated, WKKF's health-related investments onsisted of a number of larger initiatives and clusters of grants with many common features – a community focus, development of diverse leaders to address racial equity concerns, and building of community capacity for civic action around health care and health policy. The foundation's Philanthropy and Volunteerism group worked similarly to build multi-issue, diverse leadership in communities and to develop and expand capacities of non-profit groups in community for effective civic engagement.

HTA was designed to specifically address the relative invisibility of the health of APINHA; the lack of data about the health of APIANHA at every level of governance; the fragmentation and relative isolation of the communities and lack of a coherent network to address health issues; and the lack of resources/investment by philanthropy and others in APINHA communities. APINHF, a well established and well respected organization recognized as a national resource, provided an ideal home for HTA's national program office given the organization's extensive community networks and national advocacy presence. Although investment in HTA will draw to a close in 2012, the success of the effort has resulted in sustainable, strong capacity and positioned APIAHF to become, with NCAPA, Racial Equity anchor organizations for the foundation.

Traci Endo Inouye discussed findings of the formal evaluation that was conducted for Health through Action. Important lessons learned included:

-The importance of thinking about an advocacy “ecosystem.” The impact of the Kellogg Foundation's investment was amplified by building advocacy capacity at multiple levels (e.g., hub-organizations, community coalitions, national advocacy organizations, and community members). This capacity building benefited from related investments in research, tools, and technical assistance and fundamentally emphasized community engagement.
-The complexity of advocacy capacity building in coalitions of communities of color. Pan-ethnic coalition building introduces unique challenges not well captured in traditional collaborative development frameworks, including: building a collective consciousness across a wide range of ethnic groups that do not share culture or language, or may even have a history of tension or war in their respective homelands. advancing a collective agenda that balances the diversity of various ethnic groups, without watering down a change agenda to the most common denominator. meeting the challenge of equity of voices when the most vulnerable within the AANHPI umbrella often being the least “ready” to engage in advocacy. leveraging the unique role of service providers by surfacing systemic issues through individual cases and tapping into long-standing, trusting relationships with community members to mobilize a base of support.
-The importance of long-term investment HTA grantees have stressed that true capacity building cannot be achieved solely through advocacy skill trainings, but must focus on the application of those skills in real-world advocacy. Over the past 4 years, multiple opportunities have arisen which continually serve to advance advocacy capacity of HTA partners. Finding an authentic window of policy opportunity is not always possible within short grant windows.

Time is especially needed if efforts are intended to deeply engage communities, particularly within immigrant and refugee communities that might not have a tradition of advocacy. Civic engagement takes time to develop and often must begin with basic orientation before meaningful participation can emerge. Developing the network infrastructure required to link and engage community-based efforts in state and national policy debates also requires a sustained commitment. The inter-organizational relationships necessary to both authentically and nimbly advance a community-based advocacy agenda at the national level depend on trust which is established through on-going collaboration over an extended period of time.

Jocelyn Sargent discussed how WKKF is using the results of the HTA evaluation to more broadly inform the organization's investments in building racial equity. These findings are reflected in the foundation's five major strategies to advance equal opportunity and support racial healing: Build a sustainable and accountable communications and media infrastructure, Develop the capacity of community-based racial healing organizations to strengthen their impact, Support anchor institutions working on racial equity, Support efforts to eliminate racial disparities and inequities through collaborative alliances, and Support the dismantling of structural racism through research, legal strategies, policy, and advocacy.



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