This is a re-post of an article that was first posted on Solid Ground’s Groundviews blog, by Communications Intern Carter Forinash. To view the original post, click here.

The Statewide Poverty Action Network (Solid Ground’s advocacy partner) is in the midst of hosting Listening Sessions to inform their 2020 Legislative Agenda – the first step on the annual path from grassroots community input to meaningful change at the Washington State Capitol in Olympia.

Hosted across the state each summer and fall, the sessions give Poverty Action staff and Board members a chance to hear directly from Washingtonians most impacted by poverty across the state – key to their mission to support grassroots leaders, mobilize voters, and advance equitable policy to end poverty in our state.

Participants of the 2018 Tacoma Listening Session. Photo by Gary Pope.

This is one way Poverty Action advocates alongside communities rather than on their behalf. While the distinction may seem small, it’s vitally important. People most impacted by poverty are experts on their own lives and experiences, and Poverty Action’s power to advocate for lasting change comes directly from that expertise.

This approach helps shift power from lawmakers and advocates to community members, who best understand what changes need to be made.

To appear on Poverty Action’s 2020 Policy Agenda, a policy priority must meet several criteria, including: 1) promote racial equity, 2) address institutional poverty, and 3) be supported by people with lived experiences on low incomes. Importantly, it must also be developed with input and help from community members across the state – which is where the Listening Sessions come in, kicking off a cycle of community engagement and legislative activity that lasts throughout the year.

Timeline of Poverty Action listening sessions

SPRING: Identifying Listening Session locations

The planning process starts in the spring, when the Poverty Action team pulls together an initial list of potential locations. This list is made up of Washington state communities most impacted by Poverty Action’s policy priorities:

  • meeting basic needs
  • building a fair state tax code
  • strengthening consumer protections/debt
  • removing barriers for people exiting the criminal justice system

Poverty Action tries to maximize the breadth of communities they hear from to develop a policy agenda that addresses the needs of the greatest number of people. The selection process considers demographics – especially poverty and other economic factors – and local civic engagement. This initial list is often about 30 cities long.

EARLY SUMMER: Honing the list

By late spring or early summer, Poverty Action narrows the list down to six to eight locations. The Poverty Action Board – whose members themselves bring extensive lived experience to the planning process – approves the final list, ensuring it strikes a balance between communities with expertise in geographically diverse parts of the state.

Once finalized, Poverty Action reaches out to local groups and stakeholders, who can help mobilize community members to participate in the Listening Sessions. While these groups are important partners in the process, the primary goal is to bring together community members who are directly embedded in communities, rather than others who already have experience in activism and advocacy.

SUMMER/FALL: Listening sessions in action

Listening Sessions typically have five to 20 participants, and discussion is facilitated by the Poverty Action Board. Everyone who participates gets a full meal and compensation for attending. Occasionally – and the participants are told ahead of time – lawmakers are also invited in at the end of the discussion to hear the concerns of community members face-to-face. Unlike traditional town hall settings, the Listening Sessions put the community members in the position of power.

Along with giving Poverty Action a chance to hear from community members, the sessions include a short training in advocacy and storytelling, helping to empower communities to tell their own stories and advocate on their own behalf.

FALL: Listening Session analysis 

Once all of the Listening Sessions are done, the Poverty Action team comes back together to figure out how to weave what they’ve heard into their policy agenda. The team looks at the input to find consistent themes and concerns to help them identify issues where their advocacy can make a difference.

The lessons from this analysis help to inform Poverty Action’s legislative policy strategy, bridging the gap between community expertise and the specifics of statewide law. This is the most challenging step of the process, given the complexity of many of the interconnected issues at the root of poverty. According to the Poverty Action team, finding these connections and translating community experience into advocacy is more an art than a science.

While the Listening Sessions take place over just a few months, Poverty Action staff emphasize that they never stop listening to community members – who are the beating hearts of their organization’s mission to advance meaningful change.