Imagine Housing is the only Eastside-based nonprofit organization dedicated to developing affordable rental homes and providing supportive services for the very lowest income individuals and families in their community. In 2007, Imagine Housing first added advocacy as a key organizational objective in their strategic plan, a priority and objective that still remains. Earlier this year, Imagine Housing received the first-ever Leadership in Board Advocacy Award at the Housing Alliance's annual Bringing Washington Home celebration this past June.
I had the opportunity to sit down with Imagine Housing Board Member and Advocacy Committee Chair Darel Harrison (DH) and Director of Supportive Services Rachel Mathison (RM) to hear more about how their advocacy efforts developed and what they have accomplished as a result. Here are some snippets of that conversation.
Imagine Housing always has been a great partner in advocacy efforts in Washington State, and I've heard a lot of stories about how involved your Board has been in this work. Can you tell me a little bit about how it got started?
DH: It started with something really simple. We began sending out emails with a script or a letter – since a lot of people on boards are working full time and are very busy – that board members could send to their legislators urging them to support affordable housing. This made it easy for them to take action in less than 5 minutes.
RM: A lot of our early work started with making presentations in the community, at Kiwanis Clubs, Rotary Clubs, churches, etc. Supporters remarked that Imagine Housing was the best kept secret on the Eastside, but it was also a “secret” that poverty exists on the Eastside at all. So we saw our first task as getting the message about the need out into the community. The political advocacy, meeting with legislators, came a little after that. By this time, the board had become more comfortable talking to people about the need for housing and our work, so it was a natural time to expand board advocacy more formally.
DH: I really think it’s key that you get the buy-in from somebody on staff – the executive birector for sure – because you kind of need a cheerleader for the effort. A lot of people on the board don't think they have the skills to do advocacy work and it feels a little scary at first. But if you can help them take little steps, they become more comfortable over time.
You mentioned the skills and confidence needed to talk about policy. What other barriers popped up as you started this work?
DH: Time. A lot of our board members are working during the day. Sometimes these people though are able to come out in the evenings to city council meetings to speak on behalf of affordable housing and Imagine Housing.
RM: I think it was really important that we started at the city level, by meeting with city council and the mayor and really identifying with the communities we're each a part of. When we have a request in for funding, we can say, "Who wants to come in and speak on our behalf?" This gives board members a chance to state their support for affordable housing in the city in which they live. That is less scary than going to Olympia and talking to a legislator about an issue you don't really have all the information about.
Did you feel like it was hard transitioning from that place of comfort at the city level to doing state-wide advocacy in Olympia?
RM: I think it's really great that you guys [the Housing Alliance] create talking points for organizations to use. That’s really helpful. What also helps is that [Imagine Housing Executive Director] Ann [Levine] translates those talking points so that they relate to Imagine Housing’s work so that our board members feel more comfortable. She is able to translate concepts into concrete statements, like: "When we built Francis Village, we created 350 jobs." If executive directors can do things like that, they can really support their board members in getting involved.
My last question: Is there anything else we can do to help you? You're already doing an amazing job, but what else can we do?
DH: I love the stuff that you guys put out. You’re instrumental in keeping everybody informed.
RM: I think that as good as it is to have a point person on staff, like Ann, making sure that these messages are getting distributed throughout the whole staff is really important. I'm not on the Advocacy Committee anymore, but I speak at lot of meetings. Because Ann keeps us all briefed – it's part of our staff and board meetings – really any of us can step into advocacy when we need to or want to. It can't just lie on the executive director. So the more you can help keep us all informed, the better!
Thank you both so much for your time!
Darel and Rachel were kind enough to share the strategic plan Imagine Housing used to successfully engage their board and volunteers in advocacy. You can read it here.
(l to r) Imagine Housing Executive Director Ann Levine with board members Karen
Tennyson, Darel Harrison, Judy Growdy and Housing Alliance Executive Director
Rachael Myers. Imagine Housing received the first-ever 2013 Award for Leadership
in Board Advocacy.
Photo Credit: kapchur.us photography