New York City’s cyclical fights over funding for afterschool programs in the last few years were hard-fought and painful, but there was a least a silver lining. A coalition of afterschool providers called Campaign for Children and a new generation of afterschool advocates emerged, drawn into the fight by necessity.
Each year, the New York City “budget dance” became increasingly familiar to all of us in the afterschool community. Then-Mayor Bloomberg would propose a budget that underfunded Out-of-School Time (OST) programs. We’d work to rally the community, and at the 11th hour, the city council and the mayor would usually work out a deal to preserve funding for programs so crucial to so many kids.
When I reduce it to a couple sentences like the above, it makes it sound as if the labors were slight and the outcomes pre-ordained. Far from it. In fact, it took a massive organizing and media relations effort to generate the support needed to get funding restored. When deals were finally struck to end the fight, it was often difficult and too late to find staff to start programs on schedule.
Still, having made it out the other side, it’s clear that our students learned valuable lessons about how our democracy works, New York City-style, as did many of us who’ve made afterschool a career.
My own journey and first taste of advocacy work began several years ago participating in initiatives like the Campaign for Summer Jobs. I had the opportunity to grow and strengthen my knowledge of advocacy through my role as an Afterschool Ambassador for New York City, participating in an ongoing program of the Afterschool Alliance that begins with an intense training session in Washington, D.C. I carried the inspiration and lessons from that experience home with me to the Youth Council at my Beacon’s afterschool program at Queens Community House and to trainings for other youth councils throughout New York City.
The Afterschool world has had youth councils since the 1990s, their principal role to help shape the program, keeping adults in touch with what youth need and want in the program. When faced with the prospect of funding cutbacks, youth councils rose to the challenge, becoming a united group of effective advocates under the banner of Campaign for Children NYC.
During the budget fights, our youth council members took the lead in organizing their fellow students. They used Twitter and other social media tools with the hashtag #Campaign4Children, to get their classmates, parents and others to rallies, town hall meetings, city council hearings and more.
Many of these young people became spokespersons for the cause, testifying at council hearings, talking with the media, and speaking publicly at rallies and other events.
They got thousands of signatures on petitions and letters, helped plan community events for classmates and parents. The youth from the councils used talent shows, activity demonstrations and other events as platforms for the message, then followed up by inviting audience members to fill out pro-afterschool postcards and letters to city hall.
In the end, our kids accomplished remarkable things. They helped save their afterschool programs. They did it with equal doses of energy, creativity, commitment and determination. They learned how to be resilient in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, turning adversity into a driving force for success. They learned how to take part in democracy, developing a sense of empowerment that I hope will serve as a touchstone as they face other public policy issues affecting their lives in the years to come.
Advocacy doesn’t come easily to any of us. City hall can be intimidating, and the process by which policy decisions get made often feels mysterious. Maybe that’s why so many of us just take a pass on it, even when issues affect us directly. As much as I wish we hadn’t had to fight the afterschool funding battles over the past few years, I’m grateful that our kids were able to find an important life lesson, and develop skills that they’ll be able to put to good use for the rest of their lives.
The Afterschool Alliance’s Afterschool Ambassadors program was funded, in part, by the Robert Bowne Foundation.
Patrick Pinchinat is the Beacon Director at the Queens Community House and Afterschool Ambassador Emeritus in New York City.