Advocacy 101: Create meaningful, personal connections.

Growing support for your district means nurturing relationships within your community.

Your district’s story is made up of powerful, unique moments that impact your students, families, and staff. But not every moment results in an advocate, just as not every seed in a field grows into a plant. However, by purposefully initiating those authentic, meaningful moments, you can create a space where the soil is primed for advocates to grow.

To make this happen, plant your own advocacy farm: a system that helps you and your brand representatives intentionally create the personal connections that drive people to advocate for your schools.

Think about the people who already speak up for your schools. What stories do they normally tell? Usually, they’ll point back to a meaningful moment that somehow said to them: “I know you. I hear you. I’m thinking of you.” Those personal connections, more than anything else, plant the seeds that grow into advocates.

Advocacy in action

Sometimes, personal connections turn an entire school around. In the spring of 2011, the staff of Washington, D.C.’s Stanton Elementary School were at their wits’ end. Facing ever-rising suspension and truancy rates, the school had tried everything: new teachers and administrators, new curriculum, even a campus remodel. Nothing helped until the Flamboyan Foundation, an organization focused on family engagement, stepped in.

A short assessment showed representatives from Flamboyan the root of the problem: there was a disconnect between parents and the school. Teachers thought parents were disengaged and didn’t value education; parents thought teachers didn’t really care about their kids. It was an all-too-familiar case of mutual mistrust.

Flamboyan’s solution? Home visits. Over the summer, teachers would visit families in their homes to chat about their kids. They wouldn’t bring any papers to sign or procedures to go through. The only goal was honest conversation. Teachers were given a prescribed set of questions, like “What has your child’s experience with school been like so far?” and “How can I help your child learn better?”

To the awe of teachers, the home visits turned Stanton around—almost miraculously. The following school year, overall performance on standardized tests climbed, too, and suspensions practically disappeared. Truancy rates dropped by 17%.

But more than that, the conversation surrounding Stanton shifted. Everyone in town was talking about the home visits, sharing their great experiences. Parents even began getting in touch with the school, wondering when they’d receive their own visits. At the district’s Back-to-School Night, 200 parents showed up—more than eight times the previous year’s turnout.

The personal connections that turned Stanton around began with something incredibly simple: listening. “Knowing students personally means taking the time to truly see each individual,” writes child development specialist Chip Wood in his book, Yardsticks. “And a good first step is to simply observe and listen to them.” Stanton’s home visits made that crucial first step.

Making it work for your schools

The connection deepens when you show your parents and families you’ve been listening. Wood suggests an exercise devised by educator Donald Graves: for each student in your class, write down one fact—something not related to school—that you’ve learned about them. (For example, you may know that Ally is taking ballet classes, or that Manoj scored a goal in his soccer game last week.) Finally, “look for moments when you can comment on or ask questions about things you know are important to [those students],” Wood says.

You could easily extend this principle to families in your district. When you have conversations with parents and community members, listen. Make a list of facts you know about that family, and when you sit down to write them a note or make a phone call, mention those details. Make sure the people in your community feel known.

Another way to show your audience you’ve been listening? Take their concerns and suggestions into account. One can assume that Stanton’s home visits revealed problems that staff hadn’t even considered, but that parents were acutely aware of. Addressing those previously neglected problems not only improved the school itself, but bridged the divide of mistrust between teachers and families. It deepened the connection by making families feel heard.

That feeling of being seen, understood, and cared for is the sunlight that makes an everyday moment bloom into a story your audience can’t wait to share.