Byline: Rodrigo Lehtinen
In a time of budget cuts that threaten basic services, leadership development programs like Liberty Hill’s Wally Marks Leadership Institute might sound quaint―a lovely idea, but not a high priority. But based on my experiences at Gender Justice L.A., a local transgender community organizing group, I'd like to argue that training is not a luxury―it's a necessity.
Training is a powerful, indispensable tool for individuals and organizations in survival mode.
Training programs allow us move from survival to sustainability. They empower us to raise our voices and give us the strategies to win the changes we have been wanting for so long. Without intentional coaching, without someone making that kind of investment in us and sharing knowledge―one of the only resources we have―people and organizations fighting for social justice remain exactly where they are. And usually that means at the bottom.
People and organizations existing on the margins don't need training after their basic needs have been met, they need it in order to get their basic needs met.
When you're on the margins, that's when you need to advocate for yourself the most. Think of someone being harassed by a landlord who’s intent on getting someone richer and whiter in the building. Think of someone being denied her food stamps because she's transgender and her ID still says she's male. Think of someone being bullied at school for wearing the same clothes all the time. These are daily realities for folks in survival mode. Challenges like this require quick maneuvering and confidence to get around. They require a level of tenacity and strategy that must be cultivated. It's hard to win these kinds of chess games without a tutor.
Training programs can be that tutor. Gender Justice L.A. benefitted tremendously from being trained in the Wally Marks Leadership Institute. Using the tools we got in last year's fundraising track, we tripled the amount of money we raised through individual donors, decreasing our reliance on a handful of foundation grants. We got help writing and implementing a long-term plan, resulting in a a stronger culture of fundraising within the organization and the ability to tap into fundraising networks we didn't even know we had. Now we have the resources to expand our programming and make a bigger impact on the lives of transgender people in LA.
Recently, Gender Justice LA teamed up with the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force to create the Transgender Leadership Academy. This six-month skills-building and community-building program was exclusively for trans folks. In our follow-up evaluation, we consistently hear how much better participants are now at telling their own story and at explaining the discrimination our community faces. This is a rich foundation from which to take political action: Our graduates are taking on projects including protesting school budget cuts, organizing an HIV drive at the gym where they work, and yes, writing a “Transgender 101” training curriculum.
Young organizations gain empowerment from training in the same way, by developing values, practices, and habits that will sustain the group’s work over time. Without mentorship, lots of organizations never scale up to the point of making an impact. Both individuals and organizations get trapped in trying to preserve what little we have, unable to gain more because just holding on is so hard.
But that place on the margins is also the one where leaning how to advocate makes the most extraordinary difference. Training programs allow us to harness the potential of those daily, urgent opportunities to make change. Because whether your campaign is about your organization or your daily life, you need to be a strategist to win.
Guest blogger Rodrigo Lehtinen is Membership Director of Gender Justice LA.
Middle photo: Gender Justice LA training participants Kyle and Retro. Bottom photo: Gender Justice LA participant Chris speaking to the group.